A Writer/Veteran Looks at History: Fort Ward, Virginia
I’ve been disturbed at the attempts I’m seeing to destroy history. In Baltimore, there’s talk of removing statues. Remove history and you take away who we are. Since Virginia has a whole lot of historical sites, I thought I would visit them and talk about them.
First up is Fort Ward, which is in Alexandria, Virginia. I like places where I can walk the area and try to picture what it was like for the people who were there. Plus I get some good walking in. The weather was nice and sunny, so it was pretty fun checking everything out.
This was a Union fort during the Civil War. Today, it’s a park where you can walk around with your dog or even have a picnic. The buzz of cicadas do battle with the sounds of cars racing by just outside the park. It’s like an island in the middle of busy.
Fort Ward was an earthen fort built to defend Washington DC during the Civil War, though it never actually saw an action. Construction was completed in September 1861.
This is a picture of the original design.
Time’s now worn down the earthen walls, and it’s hard to picture. But this design was so that on the star’s points, soldiers could catching approaching enemy in the crossfire. Very old military technology.
Starting at the entrance to the fort. You can see what a nice day it was out–that sky is a pretty blue and clear. Warm, but not muggy.
This gate was the only entrance to the fort. The fort was surrounded by a dry moat. I can imagine this being a guard post with two Union soldiers on duty, watching for arriving visitors.
This is where I start imaging what the soldiers did. This is the dry moat. The picture doesn’t show the height really well, but it’s actually pretty steep.
Imagine running up to this berm and dropping down against it, your muzzle loader rifle at the ready and the enemy coming on the other side. The berm would stop any bullets headed your way (hopefully), but you would still have to stick part of your body up over the berm to fire back, making yourself a target.
I wander on and come up to the fort itself. This is from the rear view, from inside, so it’s what the Union soldiers themselves would have seen. That white wall has a shelf in front of it for guard duty.
I get up and walk along it and this is what I see:
And I stop here and think about being a soldier on guard duty. It’s cold out, because whenever I was on guard duty, it was always cold!
And I’m scared because I don’t know what’s coming, except that I know that my enemy might be coming over that next hill to kill me.
War is both very personal and very impersonal.
Back down the stairs to check out what we in the military calls the “defensive position.” This position was set up to defend Little River Turnpike (which turns into Duke Street) and Leesburg Pike (which turns into King Street, Obviously named after General Lee). All those streets are still here, but it’s hard picturing how it must have looked in 1861.
Time to get closer.
This is one of the bigger cannons. War then was definitely not for short people! I can barely see over the cannon to where the enemy is coming.
So I try a smaller cannon.
Cannon fire is very loud. I was on Fort Lewis, walking on the sidewalk across the street from the parade field. Someone was test-firing the cannon.
I jumped and was going, “What the heck?”
I’d been in front of the cannon, so it was much noisier. If you ever go to a cannon demonstration, make sure you are on the side you see in the photos above.
This was where the ammunition was packed with black powder. It was very hazardous duty. Then the military didn’t have the safeguards to protect the soldiers, so people often got killed.
And this is where the ammunition is stored. Also not a particularly safe place to be.
Then I walk around to the front of Fort Ward. If this fort had seen action, this is the view the approaching Confederates would have had.
More of the fort is visible at winter when the plants die off, so I can’t see much now. But there’s that trench I’d have to cross if I were on the Confederate side, with cannons pointed down on me and probably soldiers with muzzle loaders. Look on the left for a cannon poking out.
The last part of my trip I don’t have any pictures for, because there’s nothing left other than the story. After the war ended, the African Americans who had been freed established what became known as “The Fort” around the remains of Fort Ward. It was their home and a place where they raised their families. They emphasized faith, education and moral codes.
As the Civil Rights Era kicked off, they were displaced by time. All that’s left is a sign and a graveyard of a church in the area. But some of the new generations still live in the area, and the street names mark the location (Seminary Road).
Here’s the link to the Fort Ward site.
I’m thinking of hitting Leesylvania Park next (you guessed it–named after General Lee, who lived in Virginia). It’s a pretty area, a bit of challenging walk, and some interesting history that involves–of all things–gambling!
What do you think? Is there anything you want me to wander off and check out (safety permitting)?