The story of Fort Washington and ‘fortress Washington’
Part one of a two-part series
Gen. George Patton said, “Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man.”
For a period of time during the early years of the United States, fortress building responded to a need to protect. Fort Washington was built after the British fleet successfully navigated the Potomac during the War of 1812 and burned Washington. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the era of fortress building had all but died out.
Fort Washington was built to defend from a water route invasion and was not created to defend from a land invasion.
“In the 1840s, we were built up enough and armed up enough that anything on the water was going under. HMS Victoria could come up the Potomac and we could turn it into a pile of burning matchsticks in a matter of an hour,” said Adam Gresek, chief of visitor services Fort Washington and Oxon Hill Parks. “If it was powered by sails and made out of wood, it was not getting past us.”
When the Civil War began, one fort stood vigilant over the Potomac River, it was Fort Washington. Washington Arsenal (Fort McNair) was only equipped with a few artillery pieces when the Civil War started.
“The U.S. Army never planned for defending itself from the southern half of the country,” Gresek said. “Fort Washington, the lone fortress defending Washington, it only had one soldier stationed here.”
At the time, Maryland was a heavily divided state and the area around the fort was occupied by slave owning tobacco farmers that were pro-Confederate.
A need to secure the massive fort was paramount. In 1861, the only defenders of the nation’s capital were several hundred Marines stationed at the Washington Navy Yard, and 40 Marines were dispatched to secure Fort Washington.
“While we were the only permanent defense at the beginning of the war our role wasn’t that necessary during the Civil War. The big concern to Washington was that of a land invasion. They ended building a series of forts around D.C. for that purpose,” Gresek said.
The fort schedules a number of period and Civil War interpretation events throughout the summer.
“You can experience things using a number of senses: you can see and hear the cannons going off, see the color of the men in their uniforms, and the smoke and flames and smell the sulphur,” Gresek.
Upcoming events include artillery demonstrations on Aug. 20. The event will also include a home front ladies aid society to tell the story of women during the American Civil War who were dedicated to providing supplies to soldiers on the battlefield and caring for sick and wounded soldiers.
The fort has also been the popular location for military sponsored events to include staff rides, retirements and reenlistment ceremonies. Visitors can tour the fort, visitor center and many trails and picnic areas.
Today all that remains of fortress Washington is Fort Washington, Fort McNair and a few earthen memories of forts that once outlined the perimeter of the capital, many long forgotten. The sounds of soldiers charging their cannons has been replaced by park visitors, and occasionally you can experience the sounds of cannon fire, echoing a period of our nation’s history.
Part II of the Series on fortress Washington will take a look at Fort Circle National Recreational Trail and the role fortress Washington played in the defense of the capital during the Civil War.
Adam Gresek explains the strategic importance of Fort Washington to visitors attending a live-fire cannon demonstration July 1. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge can be seen in the distance, showing the proximity to Washington, D.C.
Adam Gresek explains the operations of the cannon to a young visitor to Fort Washington July 1.
Reenactors fire off a cannon during demonstrations to the public at Fort Washington July 1.