The opening of the Civil War found Washington virtually defenseless. Only Fort Washington, on the Maryland side of the Potomac, an obsolete stone and brick fort built between 1814 and 1824, defended the city.
After the Union defeat at Manassas in 1861, more than 60 earthwork fortifications were built to protect the Union capital, located 100 miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond.
The entire circuit, from Fort Willard in Virginia to Fort Foote in Maryland was 37 miles. The forts were built on the most strategic heights on the hills encircling Washington.
Fort Stevens, located on upper 13th Street NW, was the site of the only direct attack on Washington. Reinforcements arrived in time to force Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early's retreat while he was just outside the fort determining its strength. President Lincoln came under fire at Fort Stevens on July 12, 1864.
In 1931, Congress appropriated $16 million to acquire the fort properties and to construct a 23-mile "Fort Circle Drive" to link the more important fort sites. The forts were to have been reconstructed and preserved as neighborhood parks, but the project was never completed.
Fifteen of the forts, noted in bold type on the above map, remain and are used as parks.
Fort Ward, which has been reconstructed, is the best example of an earthwork fort. A museum there is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Information is available by calling 838-4848. Fort Stevens also has been reconstructed and is maintained by the National Park Service, which offers occasional historic tours and demonstrations. For information, call 426-6829.
Fort Whipple in Arlington was renamed Fort Myer in 1884, after Gen. Albert Myer. No part of the original fort remains. Fort Ellsworth in Alexandria is the current site of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Temple.