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.

A diagram of the 5 pointed star shape of Fort Ward.

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.

Gated entrance to Fort Ward
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.

Dry moat surrounding Fort Ward.

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.

Rear view of Fort Ward

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:

What I might see on guard duty from Fort Ward. All grass and bushes now.

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.

Defensive position with cannons at Fort Ward.

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.

Cannon

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.

Following a cannon's line of fire.

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.

Boom!

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.

The door to Magazine No3

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.

Door labeled "Filling Room No5"

And this is where the ammunition is stored.  Also not a particularly safe place to be.

The front of Fort Ward, though bushes

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)?

 

 

 

Research when something doesn’t exist


This was an interesting question that came over one of the writing lists I’m on. I write fantasy and science, so some of the elements don’t actually exist, or isn’t possible for me to see it. How to do research then?

What I do is take other similar things and make the connection from that.

For a fantasy that was set in an abandoned town, I used the ghost town of Bodie as a basis. I’d never been there, but I had grown up in California, so I was already familiar with the landscape. I looked at photos of Bodie, which are eerie and scary.

Then, for the place the character lived, I went to Fort Ward. That’s a local historical site. It’s an intact Civil War fort. There’s also a mock up of an officer’s hut. I saw things like how the officers strung rope across corners and then hung clothes from them. I also stood next to a barrel and compared my height to it.

For a science fiction story with a UFO, the problem, of course, is that I’ve never seen a UFO, except in the movies. I don’t want to use movies as a basis for any kind of research, because this is my story, not someone else’s movie.

The connection became jets.

A few weeks ago, the Blue Angels were doing a photo shoot, so we had several flyovers. The first time they flew over, I heard the sounds of the jets roaring in my direction. By the time I realized what it was and got to the window, the sound was moving away. No sign of them!

The second time I heard it, I got to the window just in time to see them flying off. That’s how fast they were, so a UFO would be that fast.

Then there’s Theodore Roosevelt Island. That’s a park in a tributary of the Potomac River. A lot of joggers like to go there because it has a lot of paths, trees, water. Really pretty.

Theodore Roosevelt Island surrounded by the Potomac River
The green stuff on the water looked like it was some kind of algae. We don’t usually get that growing unless there’s been no rain for a while, which has been the case.

It’s also on the flight path at Reagan Airport, about 7 miles away. That’s spitting distance for a plane. So when the planes are overhead, they are low.

So that experience becomes the UFO.

And think about writers like Robert Heinlein, who wrote about space travel before we had actually traveled in space.

Traces of War: Fort Ward, VA


Today was really the first day I was able to get out and walk around. It’s been so cold since about December that going out really wans’t much of an option. Though the snow from Thursday is starting to melt often (51 degrees today), the temperature still drops enough overnight to turn anything wet to ice. My front sidewalk was a sheet of ice, and is still icy in the early afternoon!

So I picked Fort Ward because it has wide asphalt walking paths for joggers.

It’s a Civil War military site, one of the many Union forts used to defend Virginia. The fort is the only one that is intact, though intact is strange word. It makes me think of actual wooden structures like what I might see on TV in an old TV show, hardly anything that would be accurate. The outer area is a lot of rolling hills — rifle trenches.

But the centerpiece is the fort itself.

It’s built up as part of an embankment, almost unnoticable at first because it blends in with the background. During spring, it’s all the grass and plants. During winter, snow.

At least until I spotted the cutouts for the cannons.

Because the grass was still covered by snow, I stayed on the paved walkway. In a way, it made that a difference experience because I looked at the outside of the fort in the way a Confederate soldier approaching would have seen it. Admittedly, it was still hard to picture because just a short distance away, I could hear a steady stream of cars on nearby I395 and see the tall buildings.

I had to imagine that there was probably a meadow, and maybe two dirt roads. This fort was to protect those two roads, though it never saw any battles. The soldiers who were there probably wouldn’t recognize it today.

Time moves on, but war stays with us.