Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fort Ward: One of the Best, but Little-Known, Civil War Sites in the D.C. Area

Back in 2006, when I began dating my wife, she introduced me to Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site, not far from her condominium on the outskirts of Old Town Alexandria.  When I went to check out Fort Ward one morning, I was amazed at what I found.  Despite living in the D.C. area on and off for around seventeen years, I had never heard of, let alone visited, the place.  Now, it is one of my favorite Civil War sites around.  In a region where governments and the private sector have done a relatively inadequate job of preserving and interpreting the Civil War defenses around the nation's capital, Fort Ward -- run by the City of Alexandria -- stands out as a gem. (See here, here, and here for a description of the woeful state of preservation of the D.C. forts.)

Fort Ward was part of the ring of defensive works around Washington that totaled 161 forts and batteries by war's end.  The Union Army began construction of Fort Ward in July 1861 and completed work by September 1861.  The initial earthwork fort was 540 yards in perimeter and had 24 gun emplacements.  The fort was named after Commander James H. Ward, the first Union Naval officer to be mortally wounded in the Civil War.  Scheduled for rebuilding in 1863, Fort Ward was expanded to a perimeter of 818 yards and 36 gun emplacements by April 1865.  During the war, the fort was garrisoned by soldiers from many different units, including regiments of heavy artillery from Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.  Fort Ward, which stood guard over the approaches to Alexandria via the Leesburg Turnpike and the Little River Turnpike, never came under attack.  The Army closed the fort permanently in December 1865 and sold any salvageable materials at auction.

Map of Fort Ward (Courtesy of Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site)

In 1961, the City of Alexandria began restoration of Fort Ward as part of the Civil War Centennial.  The project focused on restoring the Northwest Bastion of the fort to its 1864 appearance.  Alexandria even had reproduction cannon manufactured and installed based on Fort Ward's table of armaments.  Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site opened in 1964.  Today, due to commendable preservation efforts, 90-95% of Fort Ward's earthen walls survive.  A few years ago, I noticed in horror that picnickers were climbing the preserved walls of the fort.  The City has since placed markers warning visitors to keep off.  Unfortunately, far too many people who visit for recreational reasons aren't there for the history, and have no idea what they are doing when they walk on fragile earthworks and rifle trenches.

Reconstruction of entrance gate to Fort Ward, originally completed in 1865.  The arch is topped by a castle, the insignia of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which designed and constructed Fort Ward.

Interior of the Northwest Bastion, which guarded the approach to Alexandria along the Leesburg Turnpike.  The restored bastion is armed with six reproduction weapons.  Note also the filling room in the foreground.  Artillery shells were armed and sometimes stored there.

6-pounder James rifle (foreground) and 24-pounder howitzer (background) in the Northwest Bastion

24-pounder howitzer (foreground) and two 4.5-inch rifled cannon (background) in the Northwest Bastion

Exterior view of emplacement for 24-pounder howitzer in the Northwest Bastion

Exterior view of Northwest Bastion and ditch.  Note gun emplacements.  Fort Ward's walls were 18-22 feet high, 12-14 feet thick, and slanted at 45 degrees.

Remains of a rifle trench which extended from the North Bastion to a battery located beyond the Leesburg Turnpike.  This ditch and wall were designed to protect infantry from enemy fire in the event of an attack.

Reconstruction of officers' hut, in typical board-and-batten style.  At Fort Ward, the officers' huts, soldiers barracks, and mess hall were located outside the walls of the fort, near the present-day site of the Museum.

Fort Ward Museum, patterned after a Union Army headquarters building.  There is no indication that such a building stood at Fort Ward, although structures like this were constructed at other forts around Washington.
While touring the historic site, visitors should also check out the Fort Ward Museum, which houses a small but worthwhile collection of objects related to the Civil War defenses of Washington and the Union occupation of Alexandria.  In fact, the museum is the closest thing the D.C. area has to a visitors center for the defenses of Washington. One of my favorite artifacts is a wooden letter which was part of the sign on the Marshall House, site of the death of Union Col. Elmer Ellsworth, who became a martyr to the Northern cause early in the Civil War.  The Confederate flag that Ellsworth removed from the Marshall House is also on display.  The Museum contains a research library of around 2,000 volumes, and throughout the year, hosts a variety of events, including living history demonstrations and a Civil War-era Christmas celebration.  I also encourage readers to join the Friends of Fort Ward, whose "primary goal is to work to support the City of Alexandria’s stewardship of the Fort, provide supplemental funding for the Fort Ward Museum, and advocate for the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site’s best interests."

Note on Sources:
The Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site website, linked to above, has a wealth of material on the history of Fort Ward.  In addition, the Historical Marker Database provides information on all of the markers at the site.  The photos are from the author's personal collection.


John Cummings said...

Nicely presented. Your selection of photographs is well done, giving an educational overview of what remains intact. Having had an ancestor at one of the "long gone" forts around the District, I am, like you, very appreciative of the extent to which the City of Alexandria has maintained this site.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, John. I am glad you liked the photos. I went to Fort Ward one day back in the spring to get some shots. I hadn't yet started the blog, but the pictures have finally come in handy.

Which fort? That is great to have such family history.

I will be posting about other forts around D.C., but like I said, Fort Ward is the best-preserved and really stands out about the rest.

John Cummings said...

My great-great grandfather, Frederick Unger, served in the 7th New York Heavy Artillery at Fort Reno, which was located in the Tenleytown neighborhood of the District. They left there on May 15, 1864 and headed down to Spotsylvania where they saw the elephant during the fighting of May 19 on the Harris Farm. He was wounded in the arm that day, but remained enlisted through the end of the war.

Ron said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing. I used to hang out in the Tenleytown area when I was an undergrad at AU. As you know, there are unfortunately no remains of Fort Reno left today, but at least a marker commemorates the spot.