Fighting the Assaults of Time

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

O. James Lighthizer stood behind the Fort Stevens parapet holding his unlit cigar and wondering: What if the Confederates had won? What if their grimy, hungry little army had blasted through the Union line here and poured down Georgia Avenue deep into the city?

They might have burned the White House and the Capitol, altered the course of the Civil War and changed history. They didn't, in part, because the fort was a piece of a giant ring of defenses that made Washington the most fortified city in the world and in July 1864 did its part to preserve the Union.

But now, said Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust, Washington's famed beltway of fortresses is falling to the assault of time. Yesterday, the trust placed the capital's forgotten ring of forts on its list of most-endangered Civil War battlefields.

It's "hallowed ground," Lighthizer said yesterday, "important land, historically significant land that should be saved and is in danger of being destroyed. . . . What is left of it is dying because of neglect and lack of coordination for maintenance and interpretation."

In addition, he said, the forts have been largely forgotten by the public. "The average Washingtonian or suburbanite . . . I bet 70 percent don't even know they're here," he said.

The trust hopes the placement of the forts on the endangered list will boost public support and government funding.

The far-flung system of forts was constructed during the Civil War to protect the vulnerable Union capital, which was within range of the rebellious Confederacy.

A ring of 68 forts, some heavily armed and formidable, was built across Maryland, the District and Virginia to protect the city. The fortifications stretched from Fort Stevens, near Georgia Avenue and Quackenbos Street, to Fort Foote on the Potomac River, south of the District. Fort Reno, in Tenleytown, guarded the city's northwest approaches, and Forts Totten and Lincoln, the northeast approaches.

During the sweltering summer of 1864, the Confederates, seeking to break a Union Army stranglehold south of Richmond, sent Gen. Jubal A. Early and 15,000 rebels on a long, roundabout raid that brushed aside resistance and arrived at about half-strength in Silver Spring in mid-July.

Washington was thrown into a panic because the ring forts were manned by inexperienced rear-echelon troops. But reinforcements, in the form of combat-hardened, frontline veterans, were hurried north. And on July 11 and 12, as Early probed Fort Stevens for a weakness, his weary men were bloodied by its defenders.

One of those present in the fort for what has become known as the Battle of Fort Stevens was a curious President Lincoln, who had come to see the action. Confederate snipers, on the grounds of what is now Walter Reed Army Medical Center, fired on the fort's occupants, including Lincoln, and killed a regimental surgeon, C.V.A. Crawford, who was standing near the president. There are accounts of bystanders yelling at Lincoln to get down or get shot.

Yesterday, standing in a chilly wind by a historical plaque marking where Lincoln stood, Lighthizer and other preservationists talked about the importance of Fort Stevens and the rest of the ring forts. As they spoke, a tattered American flag snapped from a tall flagpole, and empty beer, liquor and soda bottles could be seen scattered around the fort's interior.

Historian Benjamin Franklin Cooling, who grew up a few blocks away and has written a book about Early's raid, noted that the Fort Sevens attack made Lincoln the only sitting U.S. president to come under enemy fire. Most of the surviving 22 fort sites are administered by the National Park Service, where a spokesman, Bill Line, said yesterday that the service appreciates the trust's concern and input. Line said the park service has a new management plan calling for improvements such as better historic interpretation, but they have not been implemented. "That would be a goal of ours," he said. "We recognize that we have not done that yet."

The forts are open to the public, but most contain little or no interpretation, the trust said.

Jim Campi, director of policy and communications for the trust, said Fort Stevens, with its cannons and parapets, is among the best preserved and explained.

"Three-quarters of [the forts] have been destroyed," he said. "The handful of them that are still left are not interpreted at all, not maintained very well."

As trust officials spoke yesterday, Lighthizer pondered the upshot of a Confederate victory there. "The psychological impact would have been terrific," he said. "The headlines: 'Confederates Invade Capital.' Just worldwide. It would have been devastating."

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