Why the Forts Were Built

After the Confederate bombardment and the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Washington, DC was in a state of near panic. It found itself full of Southern sympathizers and surrounded by slave states. There was bold talk in Dixie of taking Maryland and making Washington the capital of the Confederacy. Federal troops were assaulted by a violent mob in Baltimore on their way to defend Washington. Pro-Confederate Marylanders severed the rail and telegraph connections to the North. Capture of the Federal capital by forces of the fledgling Confederacy would have been a severe, if not fatal, blow to the Union cause. Even worse, Washington was practically undefended.


Union officials began to fortify the capital and its treasury against the feared invasion. By the end of the Civil War, the city was the most heavily fortified city in the world, bristling with 68 forts and artillery emplacements, more than 1,000 guns and mortars, and 20 miles of connecting roads, trench lines, and rifle pits. Constructing the Defenses of Washington was the greatest engineering project of the war.


Under the direction of the army's chief engineer, Colonel John G. Barnard, thousands of soldiers and civilian workers labored throughout the war to turn rural farm fields, orchards, and woodlands into an imposing system of connected defensive fortifications. After hostilities ceased in 1865, these installations were quickly dismantled and most of the land returned to civilian ownership. Little thought was given to memorializing the ground on which they stood.

Over the years, most of the fortifications that did remain disappeared, victims of rapid urban development, expanding suburbs, and governmental neglect.


Beginning in the 1890's, however, some individuals and veterans organizations began to advocate preserving parts of some of the forts in the Defenses of Washington. In 1901, a congressional commission issued a report on improving the park system of the District of Columbia that included a scenic drive connecting what was left of the forts that defended the city. Other reports and feasibility studies have appeared periodically. Heroic efforts of the National Park Service, local governments, preservation organizations, and concerned individuals have managed to preserve traces of this once-mighty ring of fortifications.


Within the present boundaries of the District of Columbia, including east of the Anacostia, there were 28 forts and 21 batteries. Forever lost, except to memory, are 17 of those forts and 11 batteries. Fortunately, all are not lost and there are remnants of 10 forts and 10 gun battery emplacements still visible today.


You can find them, provided you know where to look and what to look for.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington

Maintained by the National Park Service and Located within the Boundaries of the District of Columbia

Fort Bayard

There are no remains of this fort, located near today’s River Rd. and Western Ave. NW. It guarded the main route near the Potomac River into Tennallytown and Washington City. Built on land owned by Philip Buckey, the small earthen fort was named for Brigadier General George D. Bayard of the First Pennsylvania Cavalry, mortally wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.


When the Confederates attacked Washington in July 1864, 100-day men from two regiments of the Ohio National Guard, serving as the fort’s garrison troops, skirmished with rebel cavalry under Brigadier General John McCausland. After observing the defenses at Forts Bayard and Reno, McCausland reported to General Early that the River Road route was too strongly held to be breached successfully. Early decided to shift his attack to the Seventh Street Pike farther east.


Today, the National Park Service maintains a park and playground on the site.

Fort Bunker Hill

Little evidence remains of Fort Bunker, a brick and earthen fortification originally built by men of the 11th Massachusetts Infantry and named for the famous Revolutionary War site located in Boston, MA. Originally located atop a hill bounded by today’s Otis, Perry, 13th, and 14th Sts. N.E., the fort’s 13 guns and mortars helped defend the northeast approaches to the city.

Single family homes began appearing in the Fort Bunker Hill area around 1910. Between 1935 and 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps laid walkways, planted trees and constructed an amphitheater. A large flat area, the park’s highest point, probably contained picnic tables. During World War II, the site became a community Victory Garden site. A local civic association is working to clean up the park for community use.

The location is now a park.

Battery Carroll

Built on the estate of George W. Young the battery protected a large Union cavalry depot. Its guns and those of its adjacent fort also swept the Potomac River opposite Alexandria, ready to prevent an attack on the Washington Arsenal and Navy Yard. In addition to the fortifications, the area became an administrative center that included drill grounds, hospitals, and tents for Provost Guards. In 1866, the nearby fort was turned over to the Signal Corps.

There are no remains of the fort but poorly preserved earthwork remnants of the battery can be found on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd just north of South Capital St. SE. The installation was named for Major General Samuel Sprigg Carroll, a native Washingtonian and graduate of West Point.


Battleground National Cemetery

Battleground National Cemetery, located one-half mile north of Fort Stevens, is one acre in size, and one of our Nation's smallest national cemeteries. The cemetery was established shortly after the Battle of Fort Stevens, in the summer of 1864. The battle, which lasted two days (July 11-12, 1864) marked the defeat of General Jubal A. Early's Confederate campaign to launch an offensive action against the poorly defended nation's capital.


The entrance to the Cemetery is flanked by two Civil War vintage 6-pounder, smoothbore guns. Also near the entrance are monuments commemorating those units which fought at Fort Stevens:

  • 25th New York Volunteer Cavalry Monument

  • 98th Pennsylvania Volunteer Monument

  • 122nd New York Volunteer Monument

  • 150th Ohio National Guard Monument


The center of the cemetery is marked by a central flagpole, surrounded by 41 regulation marble headstones, marking the remains of the honored dead of Fort Stevens. Behind these headstones and to the east, stands a marble rostrum used to conduct yearly Memorial Day services. The four granite pillars are in memory of the four volunteer companies who fought at Fort Stevens.

Fort Chaplin

Through the woods and up the hill in Fort Chaplin Park on Texas Ave. SE lie the well preserved remains of a fort that was never garrisoned and contained only one piece of ordnance. Completed in 1864, it was built on land owned by Selby B. Scaggs and named for Colonel Daniel Chaplin of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery who was killed at Deep Bottom, VA.

Colonel Barton S. Alexander, the second Chief of Defenses, believed that Fort Chaplin occupied an important position "which must be held when the city is threatened by a land attack." The land was returned to its original owner in 1865. 

Fort Davis

The well-preserved but unrestored and completely overgrown remains of Fort Davis can be found in a park at Pennsylvania and Alabama Aves. SE. Built to protect the Navy Yard and the Navy Yard Bridge, the small fort was named for Colonel Benjamin Franklin “Grimes” Davis of the 8th New York Cavalry.


Davis led the daring escape of 1,600 Union horsemen from Harpers Ferry, VA, besieged by Confederate forces under Stonewall Jackson in September 1862, just prior to the Battle of Antietam. Davis was killed on June 9, 1862 at Beverly Ford, VA during the opening engagement of the Battle of Brandy Station, the war’s largest cavalry action.

The small fort was one of the first to be abandoned at the end of the war. The land was turned over to Daniel F. Lee who purchased the site from its original owner in 1864. He claimed $1,500 in damages and wanted the installation’s buildings as compensation. The government opposed his claim and the buildings were sold at auction. Mr. Lee did buy the fort’s abatis for $33.75.

Fort DeRussy

Along a trail in Rock Creek Park near Military Rd and Oregon Ave NW lie the well preserved but unrestored earthworks of Fort DeRussy. A parapet of high earth mounds with openings where guns were mounted and a deep ditch are easily identified. Rifle pits also extend out in both directions. There is evidence of where the powder magazines were located. Built by men of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery on the farm of Bernard S. Swat, it is probably named for Brigadier General Rene Edward DeRussy, a former superintendent of West Point and well-known engineering officer.


Because of its proximity to the waters of Rock Creek and nearby farms, Fort DeRussy was considered a good posting and the garrison’s troops often entertained visitors from Washington City. Men of the 31st New Jersey worked on improving Military Road near the fort in the fall of 1862, prompting Major Robert R. Honeyman to remark “This is the wildest and most romantic country you were ever in…The woods are full of game and the streams stocked with fish.”


During the Battle of Fort Stevens, the fort’s 100-pound Parrott rifle rained 32 shells on the advancing Confederate troops and their supply train at a distance of more than 4,200 yards. Smaller caliber cannons peppered Early’s troops advancing on Fort Stevens. Soon after the war, the land reverted to civilian ownership. Later, its inclusion in Rock Creek Park, maintained by the National Park Service, helped to preserve the fort‘s remains.

Fort Dupont

The greatly eroded parapets of Fort Dupont can be found on Alabama Ave. SE within the confines of one of the largest public parks in the District of Columbia. The fort, named for Rear Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont, was built in 1861-62 on land belonging to Michael Canton and his family.


Military engineers advised abandoning this small hexagonal fort and improving larger forts in the area. It remained in operation, however, serving as a beacon of safety for countless runaway slaves intent on joining the many contraband camps growing up around many of the garrisons defending Washington City.


In 1865, the land reverted to its original owner who received one dollar and five quartermaster structures and some of the fort’s wood on the site as payment. In the 1930s, the National Capital Planning Commission acquired the old fort and surrounding land for an 18-hole golf course. Later, golf gave way to a sports complex that now includes tennis and basketball courts, athletic fields, and a softball diamond. An indoor ice rink offers skating all winter and outdoor concerts can be heard in the park during the summer.

Fort Foote

Today, the area that once held the fort is largely forested, though some of the original bastions have been preserved. Two 15-inch (381 mm) guns sit on carriages overlooking the Potomac. Only one was originally used at Fort Foote. The other is from Battery Rodgers, which lay on the opposite side of the river during the Civil War.


At the time of the Civil War, only Fort Washington, a fort originally built to defend the city in the War of 1812 blocked the approach along the Potomac River. Fort Washington's vulnerability was highlighted in the 1862 clash of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, two wholly ironclad ships. Although the Virginia never attacked Union ships again, Washingtonians were concerned that an ironclad similar to the Virginia might be able to slip past the isolated guns of Fort Washington and begin a bombardment of the city. They were also concerned with the potential intervention of European nations on the side of the Confederacy, possibly adding a major naval threat to the city. Although sufficient defensive works had been constructed to defend the city from land attack, it was determined that the city was still vulnerable to attack from the water.


Rosiers Bluff, a 100-foot high Maryland cliff six miles south of Washington was found to be an excellent site for the new fort. In 1863, the first unit of the fort's garrison arrived in Maryland. The four companies of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery Regiment were immediately pressed into service as laborers on the construction project. On August 20, 1863, Secretary of State William Seward, President Abraham Lincoln, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton visited the new construction. One month after the Presidential visit, the as-yet-unnamed fort was officially christened in honor of Admiral Andrew H. Foote.


Fort Foote operated from 1863 to 1878, when the post was abandoned. After the war, new construction was required to fulfill its role as a federal prison, which it performed between 1868 and 1869. The the fort was also used as a testing ground for a recoil gun carriage. In 1872, plans to strengthen the fort were submitted by the War Department and the federal government purchased the fort's land outright from its previous owner in 1873 rather than continuing the wartime lease. Work began on new improvements but, when the appropriation was abruptly withdrawn, construction halted. With continued post-war military cutbacks, the garrison was removed in 1878 and the fort was abandoned.


Between 1902 and 1917, it was used as a training area for a local engineering school. During this time, the fort's now-obsolete guns were removed, with the exception of the two 15-inch cannons. During the First World War, the fort was used for gas service training, and during the Second World War, the site was used by officer candidates from Fort Washington. After that war, the fort was transferred to the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service for inclusion in the Service's system of DC-area national parks.

Fort Foote never fired a shot in anger against any opponent, Confederate or otherwise. 

Fort Greble

Fort Greble’s commanding view of the Potomac River led Thomas A. Bayley of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery to write “We do not stay in the fort but are encamped alongside the beautiful river of the Potomac…running quietly half a mile below us.”


Located behind an apartment complex on Elmira St. near South Capitol St. SE, the fort was named for Lt. John T. Greble, killed at the Battle of Big Bethel, VA in June 1861. He was the first West Point graduate to die in the war. Even though the fort was built on a hill, the surrounding swampy bottomland bred mosquitoes that plagued the garrison troops during the summer. Construction began in 1861 but was not completed until 1864.


In 1866, the fort reverted to the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps and later became a signal communications training school. After the training school moved to Virginia in 1869, the land was sold back to private ownership. Today it is a park with a community recreation center.

Battery Kemble

Constructed in the autumn of 1861 as part of a cluster of fortifications built to protect the Chain and Aqueduct Bridges across the Potomac River, the battery’s well preserved but unrestored remnants can be found in a park on Chain Bridge Road near Loughboro Road NW. According to chief engineer, Colonel John C. Barnard “The possession of the Chain Bridge communication with the opposite shore of the Potomac…was essential to the operations of our forces in Virginia and to the prestige of our arms.”


The battery was built on land owned by Captain William A.T. Maddox, a career U.S. Marine officer, and named for Gouveneur Kemble, the prewar superintendent of the West Point Foundry where many of the guns of the Defenses of Washington were forged. It contained two 100-pound Parrott rifles, the largest of the many calibers of artillery protecting Washington City.


The land for Battery Kemble Park was bought by the federal government sometime between 1916 and 1923 when much of the land for the proposed, but never created, Fort Circle Drive was acquired. The park now contains a shaded picnic area with a small stream running through it.

Fort Mahan

The fort, built on an isolated hill belonging to Dr. William Manning, guarded the approaches to Washington City from southern Maryland to Benning's Bridge which crossed the Anacostia River. Some earthworks remain on 42nd St. N.E.


Colonel John G. Barnard, supervising engineer of the Defenses of Washington, contended that the fort was “a powerful influence in preventing an enemy, coming from the direction of Bladensburg, from reaching the margins of the Anacostia opposite Washington.” The fort was named for legendary West Point Professor Dennis Hart Mahan who taught many of the military officers that served in Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. It was completed and ready for a garrison in December 1861. Nevertheless, the fort and its armament underwent extensive modification throughout the war.


Fort Mahan was one of the last forts to be abandoned at the end of the war, being one of 11 works that occupied commanding positions around Washington. However, it later reverted back to the Manning family. Today, Fort Mahan is a recreational park.

Fort Marcy

Fort Marcy is approximately 1/2 mile south of the Potomac River on the south side of the Chain Bridge Road leading from Chain Bridge to Langley and McLean, Virginia.

The hill on which the fort is located was known as Prospect Hill. Originally the fort was called Fort Baldy Smith, after General William Farrar Smith, the troops of whose division began construction of the work. His division crossed Chain Bridge on the night of September 24, 1861, and immediately commenced construction of Fort Marcy and Fort Ethan Allen. The 79th New York Highlanders, the 141st Pennsylvania and the Iron Brigade also helped complete the work in the fall of 1862. A force of about 500 contrabands were also employed and the 152nd New York worked on the entrenchments, which are still in a very good state of preservation. 


The fort was not completed until the fall of 1862. It was named in honor of a native of MassachusettsRandolph B. Marcy, a distinguished soldier, father-in-law, and chief of staff to General George B. McClellan. Detachments of the 4th New York and 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery and the 130th Pennsylvania Infantry were among the troops that performed garrison duty here during the war. An interesting incident of history is that the body of troops which afterwards became famous as the "Iron Brigade" was originated at this fort in the summer of 1861, and was composed of the 19th Indiana, the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin Regiments. The 24th Michigan was added to the brigade soon after the Battle of South Mountain. These units remained together until the close of the war.

Fort Reno

There are no remains of the fort that was located near today’s 40th and Chesapeake Sts. NW on the highest point of land within the District of Columbia. It was originally called Fort Pennsylvania because reserve contingents from that state built it. It was later renamed in honor of Major General Jesse L. Reno who was killed on Sept. 14, 1862 at the battle of South Mountain, MD.

The fort and its connecting battery were built in the summer of 1861 on prime farmland formerly owned by brothers Giles and Miles Dyer. In a letter to his brother, Private Adam S. Bray of the Third Pennsylvania Reserves lamented that “we cut down orchards with fine app and peach trees with fine peaches and also some large corn fields we have destroyed too houses that were in our way to build the battery.” In 1863, Mrs. James Dwyer submitted a claim to the government for its use of her land. As a result, she received $50 per month for her land until the army abandoned it.


Commanding three roads converging on the village of Tennallytown made the location ideal for a military campground and signal station. President Lincoln visited the installation on at least three occasions. In July 1864, Confederate cavalry alerted General Early that the fort’s defenses were too strong to attack. But Private Alfred Bellard of the Veteran Reserve Corps thought “nothing could have saved it as there was no troops round the city but our brigade and were supposed to be unfit for duty.” Nevertheless, Early shifted his army from the River Road to the Seventh Street Pike and Fort Stevens. Men from the signals station observed clouds of dust and alerted garrisons to the east that the enemy was approaching.


At the end of the war, the land was sold to developers and subdivided. Many newly freed African Americans migrated to the vicinity of the fort; some bought parcels of land; others built shanties and shelters and squatted. All remains of Fort Reno were destroyed when an underground reservoir and pumping station were built in the early 1900s.

Fort Ricketts

Fort Ricketts - In a park across from the intersection of Bruce and Erie Place SE lies the heavily overgrown earthwork of Fort Ricketts, most likely named for Captain James B. Ricketts, a Mexican War veteran who commanded a battery at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 where he was wounded four times and taken prisoner by the Confederates.


The small fort was one of the first installations constructed after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. Built on land owned by J.H. Smith and George Washington Talburtt, it protected the Washington Navy Yard and Arsenal. In September 1865, the fort’s four buildings were sold at public auction.

Fort Slocum

A badly eroded field gun battery site and line of rifle pits are all that remain of Fort Slocum, located in a wooded area at Kansas Ave. and Nicholson St. NW. Built in August 1861 by men of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry on land previously owned by John F. Callan, a city clerk, it was named for the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel John Slocum, killed at the First Battle of Bull Run.


An artillerist from the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery stationed at Fort Slocum probably fired the first shot against General Early’s invading army on the morning of July 11, 1864. More than 1,500 employees of the Quartermaster Corps, commanded by Brigadier General Montgomery G. Meigs, the quartermaster general, manned rifle pits near the fort during the two-day battle. Nearby, Colonel Francis Price commanded a brigade of 2,800 convalescing soldiers. When the war ended, the 4th Regiment, United States Colored Troops performed guard duty at Fort Slocum.


After the war, Mrs. Mary Walker and L.E. Chittenden submitted claims for damages and rent of the land occupied by Fort Slocum and other installations. During World War II, some of the land was used for “victory gardens.” Today, it is a neighborhood of residences and small businesses.

Fort Stanton

The overgrown parapets of Fort Stanton on Erie St. SE occupy one of the finest panoramic views of Washington City. Named for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, construction on the fort began immediately after the First Battle of Bull Run.


Problems beset the fort from the beginning. Chief Engineer John G. Barnard reported "the sites of Fort Stanton and others were entirely wooded, which, in conjunction with the broken character of the ground, has made the selection of sites frequently very embarrassing and the labor of preparing them very great." In 1864, Brigadier General Albion P. Howe, Inspector-General of Artillery, reported that Fort Stanton was well-equipped, but its garrison was poorly trained.


After the war, the fort was abandoned and quickly became overgrown. In 1873, journalist George Alfred Townsend wrote "I climbed the high hills one day on the other side, and pushing up by-paths through bramble and laurel, gained the ramparts of old Fort Stanton. How old already seem those fortresses…” In 1926, the National Capital Parks Commission bought most of the site of Fort Stanton for $56,000 for use as a public park. In 1920, however, 11 acres of the land, owned by local Dr. J.C. Norwood, were bought by African American Catholics to build Our Lady of Perpetual Help church which still stands today.

Fort Stevens

Located at 13th and Quackenbos Sts. NW and originally called Fort Massachusetts, Fort Stevens was the scene of the only Civil War battle fought within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. President Lincoln and other Washington dignitaries observed the battle against Confederate General Jubal A. Early’s invading army from the fort’s ramparts on July 11 and 12, 1864. Rebel sharpshooters narrowly missed hitting Lincoln, making him the only sitting president to come under direct enemy fire while in office.


Built just after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 to guard the Seventh Street Turnpike that led into the heart of the city, the fort was located just seven miles from the White House. It was built partly on land known as Vinegar Hill, where free African Americans had lived since the 1820’s. The fort was enlarged in September 1862 and renamed in honor of Brigadier General Isaac I. Stevens, killed at the Battle of Chantilly, VA. 

Early’s army arrived on July 11, exhausted from its long, hot march and fighting a Union delaying force at Monocacy Junction near Frederick, MD on July 9. When his skirmishers advanced, they came under artillery fire from Forts Stevens, DeRussy, and Slocum. Seeing that the fort was lightly defended, Early decided to let his men rest and his stragglers to catch up before attacking the next morning. But by then, the Union defenders had been reinforced by veteran troops sent from Petersburg by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. On July 12, Early’s attack was repulsed by the veteran Union troops from the Sixth Corps. In the afternoon, the Confederates were driven back from their advanced positions in front of Forts Stevens and DeRussy. Recognizing that the Union Capital was now strongly defended, Early abandoned any thought of taking the city and withdrew during the night. “We didn’t take Washington,” Early told his staff officers, “but we scared Abe Lincoln like Hell.”


The fort was partly restored by The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1937 and today contains a memorial stone designating the spot where Lincoln came under fire and a relief map showing the outline of the entire fort. Fort Stevens today is surrounded by a neighborhood of residences and small businesses.

Fort Totten

At the end of a clearly marked path leading into the woods along Fort Totten Dr near Riggs Rd NW are the well-preserved but unrestored and overgrown earthworks and outer trench line of Fort Totten, named for Brigadier General Joseph Totten, the U.S. Army’s chief of engineers.


Built on high ground commanding the road between Washington City and Silver Spring, the medium sized, seven-sided, fort boasted 20 guns and mortars, including a 100-pound Parrott Rifle that provided supporting fire to the battle in front of Fort Stevens. Confederate cavalry returning from an abortive raid to free Southern soldiers imprisoned at Point Lookout, MD skirmished with the fort’s supporting troops on the second day of the battle.


Located less than a mile from the National Military Asylum (later Soldier’s Home and now the National Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home) where President Lincoln and his family went in the summer to escape the worst of the city’s heat and humidity, the president, government officials, and foreign dignitaries frequently visited the fort. It was dismantled in April 1866 and much of the fort’s construction timber was given to George Thomas on whose farm the work had been constructed.

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