Pop Quiz. What was the most fortified city in the world in 1865?
If you answered Washington, DC then go to the head of the class. If you answered any other city but are curious, skeptical or even entertained, then come along for a horse of a different color as we explore the Washington, DC path seldom taken.
During the American Civil War, 76 forts, batteries and outposts guarded the nation's capital as a deterrent to an invasion from the Confederate Army of General Robert E. Lee. These little known and explored areas are sprinkled like old sentry posts that remind us of a time gone by. Urban sprawl and progressive development have camouflaged this once dynamic perimeter. Yet to the scavenger hunter, the curious history seeker and even the traveler who wants to do something other than walk the national mall, a hunt for the "Circle Forts" is a fun excursion. This tour will take you to four separate and distinct places. You might want to find your own as the day progresses and you push your own adventurous spirit.
Our journey begins in the historic and suburban world of Alexandria, Virginia. Just outside the gates of Washington, rests an oasis of history linking visitors to the past. Fort Ward is the start of today's adventure. Located at 4301 West Braddock Road in Alexandria, in a small 45 acre park, the fort is one of only 2 locations with an actual museum. Inside the old officers quarters are numerous artifacts found on the grounds. But my favorite part is the large board map showing all the forts - color coded with those that still exist today and those who have lost to the war on progress. The park opens at 9 AM.
At Fort Ward, take your picture next to the ceremonial gate, the last of its kind, restored by the Army Corps of Engineers (you'll notice the traditional engineering castle - the insignia of the corps - on the gate). In the museum, pick up copies of the various Civil War travel newspapers and brochures of special events and reenactments. If you live in the area, you might want to be a repeat visitor. Who knows, you might just get lucky and time your visit with one of the fort's special programs. But be careful...some of the re-enactors believe it is still 1865.
Outside the gate, take a quick tour of the grounds and picture what a five sided, fully manned and operational defensive structure looked like in 1865. Walk through the four bastions, shuffle through the rifle trenches and don't forget to visit the newly renovated powder magazine and arms room. Plan an hour for this visit and then hit the road again.
Revile Sidebar. OK, so you're up early, ready to start the day and want some coffee, maybe a muffin but are tired of the whole Starbucks scene...I mean it IS the same everywhere right? Begin the morning at the St. Elmo's Coffee Pub at 2300 Mount Vernon Avenue (703.739.9268) in the Del Ray section of Alexandria. This private, cozy hideout has great coffee, fresh muffins and baked goods and fruit to fuel your day. Get some coffee to go since you will have a long but entertaining journey. They are open at 7 AM. Now sound charge and it is on to the forts!
Our next stop takes you to Northeast Washington, DC to Fort Stevens. Now this is a hike up I-395, across the Arlington Memorial Bridge, through Rock Creek Park to 16th street and Military Road. The fort is near the famous, maybe now infamous, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and is located at the intersection of 13th and Quackenbos Streets. This fort is unique because it is the site of the last place an attack was made on the nation's capital until American Airlines Flight 77 hit The Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
There is not much left in this inner city neighborhood fort but you can stand in the exact spot President Abraham Lincoln stood when Confederate General Jubal Early's troops reached the outskirts of the city on July 11, 1864. Lincoln is the only sitting president ever to participate in a battle (the medical officer next to him was shot and killed). It was the south's last failed offensive into the north in hopes of winning and ending the war. Walk the parapets of the only circle fort to see action. The 41 Union Soldiers killed in this fight are buried in Battleground National Cemetery, just a few blocks north of Fort Stevens and if time allows, this is an interesting place to stop.
Flanking Movement. The National Museum of Health and Medicine is located on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, six blocks to the north of Fort Stevens. You will need a picture ID to access this controlled military installation but if medicine is in your area of interest, this place is unique. I personally like the leg bone on display donated by its owner, Civil War Union Major General Daniel E. Sickles and the skull fragments from President Lincoln - how's that for staying on theme!
Mess Call. Now its time for a lunch break. In keeping with the theme, I choose Colonel Brooks Tavern located at 901 Monroe Street in Northeast DC. It is a quaint, inexpensive tavern with traditional bar menu food, where you can mingle with the Catholic University students taking a break from studies. The thick, juicy cheeseburger has always been my weakness here. Enjoy a quick meal, get refreshed then venture the city to Fort Leslie J. McNair, south of the capitol where the Potomac and Anacosta Rivers join.
The only active duty fort on this tour is noted for two unique events. Not a circle fort but occupied continuously since 1791 and difficult to access since 9-11 due to security reasons, you can look through the main gate to the flag pole. You may park on the side of the road. What's so unique about a flag pole, even if it is on the home of the United States Army Military District of Washington and the Soldiers of The Old Guard? The flag pole is broken into two pieces - significant of a United States military garrison captured by enemy forces and then recaptured by the United States Army. This large segmented pole at the end of the road, easily seen from the gate, symbolizes when the British captured the American ammunition plant on this peninsular fort in 1814 only to lose it 6 months later during the War of 1812. Oh and the second event? This is where the conspirators of the Lincoln assassination were hanged, including Mary Surratt... the only women executed by the United States federal government. Note - if you have a picture ID, ask the guard to let you in for a quick picture.
After leaving Fort McNair, the tour takes you to Maryland via I-295 to the south banks of the Potomac River. Our final stop of the day is to the largest and most intact of all the forts. I saved the best for last. Fort Washington, located at 13551 Fort Washington Road is a national park. The majestic structure was built as a coastal fortress guarding the capital from naval attack up the Potomac. The views are spectacular as you can see both south into the countryside and north into the city. The 341 acre park is great for hiking and photography. Visit the officers quarters outside the main gate for a historical parade of photos and artifacts. Walk inside the fort into the old barracks and horse stables, then hike down to the river where an old lighthouse still stands. The peaceful, serene views of both the Maryland and Virginia coastlines is a great way to end a day of sightseeing.
Retreat. Now you have seen forts at the four corners of the greater Washington area. Let's end the day back in Alexandria but this time in Old Town. Have a nice relaxing dinner in historic Gatsby's Tavern located at 138 North Royal Street, a throw back to the days of George Washington and colonial times. The former commander-in-chief traveled the 11 miles to the city from his home in Mount Vernon on numerous occasions. The food is excellent, the mood historic and the entertainment...well - you just have to see for yourself. I can't reveal all the surprises, can I?
It is now 10 PM, the day is ended and the bugler sounds taps. Get a good night sleep and prepare to start the offensive again the next day.
Author's Note: I deliberately left off pinpoint directions as each traveler might want to take their own winding path to see more sights than I describe here. There are markers and sites for all 76 forts. Google the addresses listed here and you can pick your own route of march. But watch out for enemy forces that might conduct a flanking attack. Translation: be safe on the road travelers and enjoy this small part of American Military History.
Richard H. Breen, Jr.