Sunday, July 13, 2014

Civil War Sunday - The Fort Circle

An urban greenbelt.  The United States Civil War.  Wildflowers.  Hiking. Dog parks.  Sites full of trash.  Even a community garden.

Could anyone in 1864 have foreseen what all of these would have in common?

Let's step back in time a minute.

The Union's capital had been in danger since the Civil War began in 1861.  Quoting from the National Park Service website:

"In 1860, the Union capital, Washington, D.C., was a sleepy city of approximately 62,000 residents. The city sat almost completely unprotected, with Fort Washington, the lone fortification, being 12 miles south. Virginia, a Confederate state, lay on one side of the city, and Maryland, a slave-owning state, was on the other, leaving Washington dangerously vulnerable. Realizing the potential danger the city faced, the Union army constructed additional fortifications for the city."
Meanwhile, the capital of the Confederate States of America was only about 110 miles away.  Today, on Interstate highways, you can cover the distance (not including traffic delays) in about two hours.

It's hard for me, a citizen of 2014, to fully understand what it must have felt like to be a resident of Washington, DC. during the Civil War, and be under the threat of invasion.
A ring of forts was built around the capital to defend it. Some of the names live on today in neighborhood names: Fort Totten, Fort Dupont, among others. Apparently, portions of other forts still exist.

It's been years since I've been to Washington, DC but I was amazed at what I was able to find in a quick Internet check.  Fort DeRussy is part of Rock Creek Park, a lovely park heavily used today for recreation.  The site of Fort Reno is used today for outdoor concerts. I'm sure my readers who are familiar with the DC area can tell me a lot more about what appears to be called "The Fort Circle".

But back to the Civil War...

On July 12, 1864, the dreaded attack came. The Confederates had seen a chance of success as General Grant had withdrawn many of the defenses and moved them south to Petersburg, in Virginia.  The rebels attacked from Maryland, to the North of the Union capital.

Confederate General Jubal Early had, earlier in the week, been held back at what is now known as the Battle of Monocacy, near Frederick, Maryland - held back long enough for the Union Army to send reinforcements to the now-undermanned Washington DC forts.  In the meantime the call went out for anyone - anyone - to volunteer to man the forts.

President Abraham Lincoln, on July 12, 1864, stood on the parapet of Fort Stevens (one of the northernmost forts, now near the site of the former world famous Walter Reed Hospital)  as Confederate forces attacked. He wanted to see the battle, and, amazingly (from our modern point of view) he got his wish.

Lincoln went down into history as the only serving United States president to come under unfriendly fire, as Confederate sharpshooters saw him and opened fire.

A young Oliver Wendell Holmes, a man who served in the Civil War, was seriously injured on three separate occasions, and later served on the United States Supreme Court, claimed he yelled at the President, "Get down, you damned fool!", but various sources I investigated online say this may never have happened.  

A Union soldier standing next to Lincoln, however, was shot, by a Confederate sharpshooter standing on the grounds of what became Walter Reed Hospital.  Someone else won a Medal of Honor.

The Confederates, finally repelled, turned back, and retreated into Virginia on July 13, 1864.

Here's some more information on what has become of these former fortifications that guarded our nation's capital.

One, Fort Dupont, is now used for recreation, and a portion has been converted into community gardens.  

Other sites remain endangered. 

I wouldn't mind visiting some of these former forts one day.  If you've been to any of these, or are familiar with the areas they are in, please feel free to comment below.

This, incidentally, is my 1700th published post.  What a day to celebrate it on - a day that helped to preserve our nation's history.


  1. Hi.
    I have come here through Ultimate Blog Challenge. My knowlege about the American Civil War is limited to what I have read in the World History textbooks and what I have seen in a few movies including 'Gone with the Wind,' so I am interested to read your post.
    And congratulations on your 1700th post! It is amazing.

    Romi @ Letters from the Land of Cherry Blossoms

    1. Thank you, Romi. I've been blogging daily since late April of 2011. It's good writing practice.

  2. Replies
    1. It's a great way to learn about history. More so than reading a dry textbook.

  3. Some really interesting history again, thanks for sharing.

  4. I always enjoy reading your historical posts& I agree!
    I'd much rather read your sensible sized posts than have to trudge through history books!

  5. I grew up in Alexandria and wrote a school term paper on Fort Ward. My mom drove me there and I met with the archaeologist who was excavating there. (This was the first official excavation in that city and predated the city's current archaeology program by many years.) At that time the northwest bastion of the fort was being restored. You can still see it today; a great place to visit.

    Since then I've been to several other forts surrounding Washington. During the war the system was the most extensive military fortification complex in the world!


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