One-hundred-and-fifty years ago today, Washington was under attack. A force of about 11,000 Confederate troops under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early was marching down the Seventh Street Pike, now known as Georgia Avenue. Ahead stood Fort Stevens, one of 68 earthen forts and artillery batteries that surrounded the city. The defenses there were manned by a ragtag bunch — green recruits, civilian volunteers and disabled veterans — as most of the Union’s strongest troops had been sent to bolster Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces outside of Petersburg, Va. Early gave the order to advance.
The Battle of Fort Stevens began on the afternoon of July 11, 1864, and ended at dark the next day, after the arrival of almost 11,000 Union reinforcements dissuaded Early from launching a direct assault on the capital city. The fighting never really advanced beyond skirmishing and cannon fire, and only 59 Union troops were killed. (The number of Confederate killed and wounded is estimated around 500, according to the National Park Service.) Overnight, Early and his men withdrew to the Shenandoah Valley, via Poolesville, not far from where the Gen. Jubal A. Early Ferry now crosses the Potomac River.
The battle at Fort Stevens would be the only one fought in Washington. This weekend marks its sesquicentennial, and it will be commemorated with two days of living-history events at Fort Stevens and Alexandria’s Fort Ward, where the highlight will be a reenactment of the clash. There will be appearances by an actor dressed as President Abraham Lincoln, who, during the battle, watched from the ramparts at Fort Stevens and came under enemy fire. A roundtable of historians will discuss the war and its impact on the region, and a ceremony will honor the fallen soldiers.
This may seem like a lot of fuss over a minor incident. Even if you grew up in Washington, you probably didn’t learn about the Battle of Fort Stevens in history class. The story lacks the “high-water mark” narrative of Gettysburg or the terrible bloodshed of Antietam. But it could be argued that the events at Fort Stevens changed the trajectory of the war and America itself.
In 1864, Lincoln’s reelection was anything but assured. Mounting Union deaths and Confederate victories had turned the public against the war, and Lincoln’s opponent was former Gen. George B. McClellan, who promised to make peace with the South. If Early had managed to capture the capital of the United States — even briefly — it would have been disastrous for Lincoln’s reelection chances. And if Confederate sharpshooters had succeeded in killing the president while he stood on the parapet at Fort Stevens, American history might look very, very different.
That’s the point that National Park Service rangers, interpreters and historians will be making over the next few days: The story of the Battle of Fort Stevens and the defenders of Washington is a fascinating piece of history right under our noses.
On Saturday at 2 p.m., Fort Ward in Alexandria (not Fort Stevens; see sidebar below) will play host to a reenactment of the battle, with more than 100 troops and cannons on both sides. The Union troops, led by the Third U.S. Regular Infantry, Company K, will be stationed at the fort’s restored Northwest Bastion, which the Confederates will assault. Civil War historian Kim B. Holien will narrate the events over a loudspeaker so everyone can understand what’s going on, says Fort Ward director Susan G. Cumbey. “We’re compressing a two-day skirmish into an hour,” she says.
The troops will reenact all of the major events, Cumbey says — including the moment Lincoln mounted the parapet and was almost hit by a Confederate sharpshooter — with the hopes that “the public will come away with an understanding of the key moments of the battle.”
If you’ve never been to a Civil War reenactment, be warned: It can get loud. Stribling’s Battery, a group of reenactors portraying a Confederate artillery unit, will fire cannons. The booms can upset small children, Cumbey says, but most aren’t affected — it’s the dogs that really freak out. Cumbey recommends leaving your furry companions at home.
Choreographed skirmishes are a big draw at Civil War reenactments, but this weekend, the fighting will comprise only a small part of the activities; Fort Ward’s battle is just one hour of programming out of a dozen over two days. The schedule at both forts leans heavily toward living history, allowing visitors to wander through Civil War encampments and talk with soldiers, civilians and other characters about 19th-century life (expected to be a big draw at both events: President Lincoln).
At Fort Stevens, an actor playing Dr. Edward Stonestreet will use his “tools of torture” on a mannequin to demonstrate how wounds and injuries were treated during the war, and nurses will explain their roles. Others will interpret the story of Elizabeth Thomas, a free black woman who owned the land on which Fort Stevens was built, and Anne Maria Weems, a slave who escaped a Rockville plantation through the Underground Railroad. Union and Confederate soldiers will drill, and camp cooks will talk about what the soldiers ate and how it was prepared.
“We wanted to make this weekend come to life and not just have speakers,” says Loretta Neumann, the vice president of the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington, which worked with the Park Service to organize the events at Fort Stevens.
At Fort Ward, visitors can talk to soldiers as well as the people who accompanied them from camp to camp, such as laundresses. Infantry and artillery units will participate in drills, and each hour will feature a talk or demonstration by interpreters. A discussion about Civil War cannons might be followed by a chance to hear from members of Greene’s Battalion, the government clerks and convalescing veterans who were pressed into action to man the defenses of Washington until reinforcements could arrive. President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, will attend both days, with the president expected to address the crowd before the battle Saturday and the concert Sunday.
Troops marched into battle to the strains of “John Brown’s Body” or “Maryland, My Maryland” being played by regimental bands, which flourished in the war’s early years. Music also will be a big part of this weekend’s activities. Throughout Saturday’s events at Fort Stevens, the Roustabout String Band and the Washington Revels Heritage Voices will be performing a variety of period tunes: patriotic, work and battlefield songs that were popular in camp and sentimental “parlor songs” that were sung at home. At Sunday’s memorial program at Battleground National Cemetery (more information about that below), the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices will perform period spirituals.
On Sunday at 2 p.m., Fort Ward will play host to the Federal City Brass Band, a local institution that performs traditional Civil War songs on authentic mid-19th-century instruments while wearing Union uniforms. The group has recorded three CDs, the most recent of which, “Hurrah for the Union,” is a collection of President Lincoln’s favorite songs, including “Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Twenty Years Ago.” Fort Ward says Lincoln is expected to attend the concert.
Fort Stevens was only one piece of Washington’s Civil War ring of defenses, some of which have given their names to Metro stations and popular parks, including Fort Reno, Fort Totten and Fort Dupont.
On Saturday at 9 a.m, the American Hiking Society will lead a free five-mile Hike Through History from Battery Kemble Park to Fort Stevens, visiting several key forts and batteries along the way. Most of the hike will be shaded and on dirt paths with few inclines, but as John Michels of the Hiking Society warns, “five miles is a pretty sizeable distance for someone who doesn’t hike regularly.” Be sure to bring water and bug repellant.
Another free tour on Saturday, led by park rangers, will focus solely on the geography of the Fort Stevens battlefield. Standing on its partially restored parapet, it can be hard to envision the scope of the fighting, which extended nearly a mile north to the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus, where Confederate riflemen climbed what was known as “the Sharpshooter’s Tree” to take aim at President Lincoln. Walking tours will start at Fort Stevens at 1 and 2 p.m. and continue onto the grounds of Walter Reed, which are not usually open to the public. Registration for the tours, which can accommodate 48 people and are expected to fill up quickly, will start at 10 a.m. (Another guided walk from Fort Stevens to Walter Reed will take place Sunday afternoon but will not include entry to the grounds, so there’s no need to sign up in advance.)
If your children like history, this weekend could turn their interest into a full-blown love affair. It’s one thing to read books about the Civil War or look at uniforms in glass cases at the Smithsonian. It’s another thing entirely to walk among uniformed soldiers, get a close-up look at their campsites and hear the crack of rifles and the echo of booming cannons. Living history can bring books to life.
At Fort Ward, Union and Confederate troops will have erected their own campsites that visitors also can stroll through, talking to soldiers about equipment, meeting the camp laundress and watching drills. Some units will even let children try out wooden rifles during drills. “The reenactors really engage the public in the scenario that they’re presenting,” Cumbey says.
Fort Stevens also will have encampments, as well as more hands-on activities, including playing 19th-century games and making clothespin dolls, which were popular with children in the Civil War era.
Many of the weekend’s events are aimed at introducing the Battle of Fort Stevens and its role in the war to new audiences. But for history buffs who want to know more about Early’s raid on Washington, there’s the Civil War Historians’ Roundtable on Friday at Fort Stevens, beginning at 7 p.m.
The two-hour discussion, held under a large tent, will focus on the Battle of Fort Stevens and the Civil War’s effects on Washington and its African American residents. Participants include Robert Sutton, the chief historian of the National Park Service; Frank Smith, the executive director of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum; and Benjamin Franklin Cooling III, a professor at the National Defense University whose books include “The Day Lincoln Was Almost Shot” and the upcoming “Jubal Early: Robert E. Lee’s Bad Old Man.”
Amid all the focus on “living history” at Fort Stevens and Fort Ward, it’s important to remember the soldiers who died during the battle. Of the 59 Union soldiers killed in action, 40 are buried at the Battleground National Cemetery, which is just north of Fort Stevens on Georgia Avenue NW. The one-acre cemetery, which was created in the days just after the clash, is one of the smallest in the country.
On Sunday afternoon, a memorial program will be held at the cemetery as part of the weekend commemorations and will include a reading of the names of the dead, Civil War-era spirituals performed by the Jubilee Voices, period music and the placing of American flags on graves. The cemetery is a quiet and fascinating place, with monuments representing four units that fought at Fort Stevens — I particularly like the life-size statue of an officer representing the 25th New York Volunteer Cavalry — and a marble rostrum. A recent restoration has the grounds and buildings looking better than they have in years.
The reason is bureaucratic, but understandable.
Official National Park Service policy states that battlefields such as Fort Stevens are hallowed “memorial sites,” and, thus, reenactments are deemed disrespectful to the memory of those who fought and died on them. The Park Service also wants to prevent further damage to battlefield grounds.
Fort Ward, on the other hand, is run by the city of Alexandria, which has no qualms about hosting a reenactment. (Fort Ward’s guns never saw action during the Civil War.)
Fort Ward, surrounded by a museum and park, also is far larger than what’s left of Fort Stevens, providing plenty of room for the more than 100 reenactors to set up camp and for the troops to fight. At Fort Stevens, soldiers would be marching between parked cars and charging through back yards.
Commemorations for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens begin Friday night with a roundtable of Civil War historians and continue through Sunday afternoon.
The main commemorative events at Fort Stevens take place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Friday night from 7 to 9 p.m., Civil War historians, including Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, will discuss the Civil War and the Battle of Fort Stevens. (There will be seating under a tent.) Admission is free to all events, and street parking is available. Fort Stevens, 13th Street and Georgia Avenue NW. 202-895-6070. www.nps.gov/cwdw.
Events at Fort Ward take place Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Suggested donation is $2 per adult and $5 per family. Parking is not available in the lots at Fort Ward Park, but there is street parking on West Braddock Road and in lots at T.C. Williams High School’s Minnie Howard Campus at 3801 W. Braddock Rd. Fort Ward, 4301 West Braddock Rd., Alexandria. 703-746-4848. www.fortward.org.
A ceremony to honor the soldiers killed at Fort Stevens will be held Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at Battleground National Cemetery near the fort. Admission is free. Battleground National Cemetery, 6625 Georgia Ave. NW. 202-895-6070. www.nps.gov/cwdw .
This free five-mile Saturday morning jaunt with the American Hiking Society begins at Battery Kemble Park, on Chain Bridge Road just south of Nebraska Avenue NW, at 9 a.m. and ends about three hours later at Fort Stevens. There are two parking options: Park at Fort Stevens by 8 a.m. and take a free shuttle to Battery Kemble or park at Battery Kemble and take a free shuttle back from Fort Stevens at 2 p.m. Battery Kemble Park, Chain Bridge Road NW. 301-565-6704. www.americanhiking.org.