By Kris Gilbertson
While Alexandria was a bustling medical center during the Civil War, with more than 30 large and small Union hospitals, the city also was heavily fortified to repel an attack on Washington.
When the firing on Fort Sumter started the war in spring 1861, Fort Washington, 12 miles down the Potomac River from Alexandria on the Maryland shore, was the lone defense of the Capital at DC. The fort was a vitally important defense against a river attack, but when it became clear that the war would not be over in months (as had been widely believed), Maj. Gen. John Barnard of the Corps of Engineers was directed to build the Defenses of Washington.
Basing his design on an 1836 textbook title “A Treatise on Field Fortifications,” Barnard planned to encircle the National Capital with earthen forts and batteries. By 1865, the corps had constructed 68 enclosed forts, 93 batteries for field guns, and 7 block houses, plus 20 miles of rifle pits and 30 miles of military roads. At least 5 installations were built within Alexandria City. Washington was the most heavily guarded city in the Western Hemisphere at the time.
When the war ended, these forts and batteries were dismantled, some by the army, others by local residents scavenging materials to build homes and businesses. African American communities formed on and near the grounds of the former forts, including Fort Ward on Braddock Road.
The National Park Service, with American University, has begun a project to document the local history of African American communities formed during or after the Civil War and associated with eight Civil War Defense site in the District. To learn more, go to www.nps.gov/cwdw/learn/historyculture/aacwd_study.htm
Organized efforts to document and preserve the sites didn’t begin until the 1960s and 70s, by which time there was little or nothing left of most of them.
Fort Ward, on Braddock Road, was an exception. Fort Ward was the fifth largest of all the defenses and, although extensive rehabilitation was needed, there was much to work with. Today, Fort Ward Park is a dynamic center for Civil War education and exhibits, welcoming scores of students, tourists, and reenactors.
It turned out that the Confederate Army never attempted a river assault and Fort Washington never fired a shot. Neither did most of the new installations. The only Confederate attack to penetrate the Capital took place at Fort Stevens in NW Washington, DC. When President Lincoln later visited the fort, he narrowly missed being shot by a Confederate sniper.