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History ForAmerica: Fort Ward, Alexandria, Virginia

There are over 2,600 National Historic Landmarks in the United States and it

would be nearly impossible for any one person to travel them all.

So, allow us to bring a piece of history alive, one historic site at a time.

Fort Ward in Alexandria, Virginia is a former Union Army installation that was built to defend Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. It was the fifth largest for built to defend the American Capitol from attack and today is well-preserved with 90-95 percent of its earthen walls intact.



Alexandria County was a predominantly rural area before the Civil War, but it was the closest in Virginia to Washington, D.C. After the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina in April 1861, new American president Abraham Lincoln declared that "an insurrection existed," and called for 75,000 troops to be called up to quash the rebellion.


Over the seven weeks that followed the occupation of northern Virginia, forts were constructed along the banks of the Potomac River and at the approaches to each of the three major bridges connecting Virginia to Washington and Georgetown.


While the Potomac River forts were being built, planning and surveying was ordered for an enormous new ring of forts to protect the city. Unlike the fortifications under construction, the new forts would defend the city in all directions, not just the most direct route through Arlington.


On July 26, 1861, five days after the battle, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was named commander of the military district of Washington and the subsequently renamed Army of the Potomac.


Upon arriving in Washington, McClellan was appalled by the condition of the city's defenses.


This would be the beginning of Fort Ward.



In no quarter were the dispositions for defense such as to offer a vigorous resistance to a respectable body of the enemy, either in the position and numbers of the troops or the number and character of the defensive works... not a single defensive work had been commenced on the Maryland side.


There was nothing to prevent the enemy shelling the city from heights within easy range, which could be occupied by a hostile column almost without resistance.


To remedy the situation, one of McClellan's first orders upon taking command was to greatly expand the defenses of Washington. At all points of the compass, forts and entrenchments would be constructed in sufficient strength to defeat any attack.


Alexandria, which contained the southern terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and one of the largest ports in the Chesapeake Bay, was an object of "anxious study."


The fort was named for James Harmon Ward, killed at Mathias Point. It was designed with a perimeter of 540 yards and platforms for 24 guns. Later, a 100-pound Parrott gun was added. The larger guns made the fort vulnerable if besieged. In 1863, the perimeter was expanded to 818 yards with room for 36 guns.


Liberated slaves, also known as "contrabands", helped build the defenses to protect Washington from invasion by Confederate forces during the Civil War. The Fort was named for the first Union naval officer to die in the war. Fort Ward never saw any attacks, and was dismantled in November 1865, though many African- Americans continued to live there into the 1900s.


Today, the fort is a part of the City of Alexandria's 45 acres Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site adjacent to Braddock Road. The museum offers rotating exhibits on American Civil War subjects and a Civil War library, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and hosts Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactments. The historic area now includes a museum, an Officer's Hut, Ceremonial Gate, and reconstructed northwest bastion. The site can be found at 4301 West Braddock Road in Alexandria, Virginia.


"We are not makers of history. We are made by history."

-- Dr. Martin Luther King


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