A Veteran/Writer Looks at History: Fort C.F. Smith


I went to Fort C.F. Smith the same day I did Fort Ward.  It was such a nice day, and it was near the library, so I stopped over.  I really wanted to get some more of the sunshine.

First up, this Civil War fort is hard to find.  For some reason, the state or county inexplicably has a sign that points to a right turn, and then no signs indicating where to turn again unless you coming from the opposite direction.

The fort is smack in the middle of a suburban area, so it’s on a shady little street.  Without the sign, I wouldn’t know this had once been a Civil War fort.  It’s a basic park.  Green grass, trees.

Map of Fort C.F. Smith

So here’s the handy dandy map of what it used to look like.  Farmland was used to build the fort in 1863.  This was one of three forts that protected the Aqueduct bridge of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Fort C.F. Smith was named after General Charles Ferguson Smith.  He was commandant of the the U.S. Military Academy while Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman were there.

It was a lunette fort, which was apparently pretty unusual.  I had to look the word up to see what it meant.  It’s a fort that that has two faces.  This fort’s two faces are on the southern and western side.

The fort came with:

  • Barracks (got to have some places for the soldiers to stay)
  • Mess hall (that’s the place the soldiers eat)
  • Officer’s quarters (that would have been a little fancier than the barracks)
  • Barn (probably for horses)
  • Headquarters building (where the officers did their planning)

Two stone pillars mark the entrance to Fort C.F. Smith Park

This was one of the entrances to the park.  It’s not the entrance to the fort.

Off for a bit of walking.

Park area marking the original entrance of Fort C.F. Smith

This is the original entrance to the fort.  Can’t really tell much looking at it.  in the upper left third of the photo, there’s a post sticking out of the ground.  That marks the entrance.  It’s just a numbered post–if you visit this park, download the brochure before you go or you will have no context whatsoever.

Meadow of flowers and butterflies

There was a bench here so I sat down and looked at the flowers.  This is a meadow as it might have looked to the farmers of the time.  You can’t see it in the photo, but there were little yellow butterflies bouncing above the flowers.

As I sat here, I could hear the freeway on the other side of the meadow.  The roar of jets drowned out the thrilling of the birds.  The park was under the flight path of Ronald Reagan Airport.

Cannon

This was one of the cannons.  There were supposed to be eight, but it looked like the others had been removed.  The hill was a ramp to help move the equipment around.  Artillery is heavy!  During Desert Storm, we hauled shells for artillery to the front line and the trucks were always running on fumes because of the loads.

Stone well

The land was turned back over to the original owners after the fort was decommissioned and they used this well for their water.  I’m from Southern California, so I’ve never seen a well in person.  How I would picture it is those illustrated drawings that make them look rickety.  This was about 30 inches high (measuring by where it hit me on my legs), and the top was sealed up.

Can you imagine lowering a bucket with it’s own weight into that well, then getting filled with water, and hauling it back up?  Takes some serious muscle!

As you can see, there’s not a lot left here.  Why wasn’t more preserved?

The answer is the military.  The buildings were removed when the fort was decommissioned in 1865.   We’re lucky to have this much preservation because it could have disappeared as the world changed.

More of the story about this fort is on the park website.

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)?