When the Civil War broke out in 1861, President Lincoln, trying to preserve the Union, faced the unfortunate fact that Washington was surrounded by Confederate sympathizers and defended by only one fort. So when Virginia seceded on May 24, the President's troops silently crossed the Potomac and occupied Alexandria and northern Virginia. After a Confederate victory just 30 miles away at the Battle of First Bull Run (Manassas), Union troops began to ring Washington with an extensive earthen fort system, built like soil sandcastles complete with moats, which by war's end would make the capital one of the most heavily fortified cities in the Western hemisphere. Fort Ward, the fifth largest of 162 earthwork forts and batteries known as the Defenses of Washington, is the only remaining fort with a permanent museum and interpretative program.
Named for Commander James Harmon Ward, the first naval officer killed in the war, Fort Ward was a model of 19th-century engineering, its 36 guns perched over 818 yards of 22- to 25-foot-high walls surrounded by wide dry moats dug over four years by soldiers itching to fight battles instead of dig ditches. The fort never did see action: As the war progressed, Fort Ward's original crack artillerymen were sent to the front, replaced by freed slaves and soldiers too sick or wounded for active duty. In November 1865, Fort Ward was dismantled, leaving a deep earthen depression like a bootprint in the mud. In 1961, the city of Alexandria renovated the fort as a Civil War Centennial Project, restoring the northwest bastion down to its reproduction 1864 cannons. Working from photographs of Fort Ward and other area forts, the city reconstructed the fort's tall ceremonial gate on its original site, built a replica officer's hut and constructed Fort Ward Museum, a friendly two-story yellow wooden building with a green standing-seam metal roof patterned after a typical Union headquarters building.
The museum offers lectures, tours, and other living history activities; it also houses a research library. But the exhibits of Civil War artifacts, from surgeon's kits to enlisted men's sketch diaries to a set of jackstraws carved by a captured Rebel imprisoned at Baltimore's Fort McHenry, make the average soldier's day-to-day life seem as real as your own. Outside, in the 45 acres of park and picnic grounds surrounding the museum, a 45-minute self-guided interpretive trail leads around the earthwork fort itself -- its walls 95 percent visible although eroded and covered with grass and trees. Here in the quiet woods, overlooking the northwest bastion or scouting the rifle trenches that stretch out like arms from the fort, you might imagine the Civil War was still going on today.
--- Elizabeth Hightower