It's the night of August 27, 1814, and the rockets' red glare is lighting up the Potomac. Six British warships are attacking the fort that George Washington envisioned as the bastion that would protect the capital from all seaborne invaders. From the ramparts of the fort -- then called Fort Warburton and later known as Fort Washington -- Capt. Samuel Dyson, USA, watches the warships and sees the glow of the burning city of Washington. Deciding he is surrounded and undermanned, Dyson marches his 57 soldiers out of the fort, blows up the magazine and flees, without firing a shot. British sailors burn the barracks. "Dyson was court-martialed and cashiered out, though it's dubious he could have done anything," says Geoffrey Descheemaker, who now commands Fort Washington in the uniform of a National Park Service ranger. "He had too few men and too few guns." That was the only hostile action that Fort Washington -- the oldest and best-preserved of the forts built to defend the capital -- ever saw. And of the other 68 forts in the area, earthenwork fortifications built in a crash program just before the Civil War, only Fort Stevens met the enemy. But it's not the action that really counts, according to Descheemaker. "The real significance of these forts is the fact of what they prevented," says the ranger, standing on the front porch of Fort Washington's red-brick officers' quarters. "Before the word 'deterrent' became fashionable, that's what these places were." Now most of the forts are mere memories, echoed in names of streets, neighborhoods and parks. In a few old fort sites, intrepid history buffs can find remnants of old gun emplacements. But even the less-than-intrepid can get a good idea of what the old forts were like at Fort Washington and Fort Foote in Maryland, Fort Ward in Alexandria and Fort Stevens in the District. After the 1814 d,eb.acle, the powers that be decided to rebuild Fort Washington and hired an architect-engineer of proven ability, Pierre L'Enfant. He was fired from the job a year later for failing to get along with the War Department, and Army engineers completed the present bastion, complete with drawbridge, in 1824. Official interest in the fort dwindled, however, until the Civil War, when the Army stationed 350 officers and men there. "That was in 1861," says Descheemaker, "when the fort stood its biggest chance of possibly being needed." Now, every Sunday afternoon and on once-a-month torchlight tours, volunteers in Civil War garb lead visitors across the drawbridge and into the fort as it was in 1861. First stop is the commanding officer's headquarters and the guard house, complete with jail. Women volunteers demonstrate Civil War laundering (they also serve who only stand and wash) in a room that was built to store ammunition but was used as a laundry. There are only a couple of cannons left on the buttercup-strewn parade ground, and from the now-gunless ramparts you look down not on British men-o'-war but excursion boats plying the river between Mount Vernon and Washington. Even in 1861, Fort Washington, though by no means obsolete, was not as effective a deterrent as it might have been, since new artillery had made brick-and-stone forts vulnerable -- which is why the forts built in the crash program to protect the capital from the Confederates were earthenwork. One of them, Fort Foote, was about three miles upriver from Fort Washington. Hidden in the woods, a short walk from the road in Fort Foote park, are its remains: some mounds of earth and two huge Rodman guns. Across the Potomac at Fo connected Fort Ward to the other forts ringing the capital. The war is relived every summer Sunday at Fort Ward through living-history tableaux, slides, lectures and concerts. And every August -- this year on August 14 -- the only battle fought in Washington, the Battle of the Suburbs, is re-enacted there by 400 or so Civil War buffs. The Battle of the Suburbs actually took place not at Fort Ward but at Fort Stevens, now a few grassy mounds and stone walls where Piney Branch Road, Quackenbos Street and 13th Street come together in the District. It was there that Gen. Jubal Early's Confederate troops, who crossed the Potomac near Leesburg and marched down Georgia Avenue (stopping to raid Montgomery Blair's wine cellar in Silver Spring), surprised a small Union garrison one July day in 1864. General Grant rushed thousands of reinforcements to Fort Stevens, and Early, outnumbered, retreated after two days of skirmishing. For some of the Union soldiers, a lot of them from the farms of upstate New York, the paths of glory led a few hundred yards beyond the fort to a small cemetery on Georgia Avenue just north of Piney Branch Road. ? ACTION AT THE FORTS FORT WASHINGTON -- From Beltway Exit 3A, take Indian Head Highway south four miles to Fort Washington Road. Turn right and follow the road to the park. The fort is open from 7:30 to 8 daily. Costumed soldiers welcome visitors to the fort every Sunday from noon to 4:30. This Sunday the program will feature a lecture and demonstration on arms. On June 25, an evening torchlight tour will be conducted. The tour is free, but reservations are required. Call 292-2112 after June 1. Fort Washington and Fort Foote parks are sponsoring a photo contest of pictures taken in these parks. Black-and- white or color mounted, unframed prints may be submitted until October 15 to: Reflections 83, Fort Washington Park, 1900 Anacostia Drive SE, D.C. Prizes will be awarded in the categories of recreation, nature and history. FORT FOOTE -- From Beltway Exit 3A take Indian Head Highway south to Oxon Hill Drive. Turn left on Fort Foote Drive to the park service sign. FORT WARD -- Take the King Street exit from I-395 east to the intersection with Quaker Lane and West Braddock Road. The museum and park are at 4301 West Braddock Road in Alexandria. On Sunday, June 5, there'll be a living- history presentation on Union camp life and army drilling from 1 to 4. For information about other free programs, held every Sunday through August, call 838-4848. FORT STEVENS -- The fort itself is at the intersection of Piney Branch Road, Quackenbos Street and 13th Street NW, just off Georgia Avenue. The cemetery is on Georgia Avenue just north of Piney Branch Road. THE OTHER FORTS -- Remnants of Fort Lincoln may be found in Fort Lincoln Cemetery at 3401 Bladensburg Road NE, east of the Lincoln statue; there are some traces of Fort Ethan Allen at Glebe and Military Roads in Arlington next to Madison Community Center; the remains of Fort De Russey lie north of Military Road in Rock Creek Park; what's left of Fort Dupont lies at the northeast corner of Massachusetts and Alabama avenues SE; Fort Marcy's remains may be glimpsed in the park of the same name off the George Washington Parkway; Fort Slemmer shows some traces behind Marist College at Harewood Drive and Taylor Street NE; Fort Snyder's remains are on the grounds of St.Elizabeths Hospital; and Fort Stanton -- or what's left of it -- lies behind Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on Morris Road SE.