The story of Fort Wash­ing­ton and ‘fortress Wash­ing­ton’

Part one of a two-part se­ries

Maryland Independent - - News - By BRENT WUCHER

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.

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