- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

The big map on the wall at the Fort Ward Museum shows exactly where the forts were in the Defenses of Washington. Sixty-eight major forts circled Maryland, Virginia and the District during the Civil War, similar to a 19th-century Beltway.

Most of the forts are gone, but Alexandria’s Fort Ward has been restored to a level that can convey its history all these years later.

“What is kind of special about our site is that we are the only place in the D.C. area where you can see an actual restoration of a Civil War fort,” says Susan Cumbey, director of the Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site. “When you visit here, you can see about 90 percent of the original fort walls.”

The Defenses of Washington were built starting at the outbreak of the war, when it was realized that the District was almost defenseless against an attack from the Confederate Army. On May 24, 1861, the day Virginia’s vote of secession took place, Union troops occupied Arlington and Alexandria and began building several forts to act as supply bases for the Union troops, Ms. Cumbey says.

Eventually, the forts stretched more than 37 miles, making an unbroken line of protection for the nation’s capital. At the time, Washington was the most heavily fortified city in the Western Hemisphere, with 800 mounted cannons and 1,120 gun emplacements.

Fort Ward, named for Cmdr. James Harmon Ward, the first Union naval officer to be killed in the war, was the fifth-largest fort in the network.

As part of the fort’s centennial celebration in 1961, the city of Alexandria began a preservation project, restoring the fort’s northwest bastion and reconstructing the ceremonial gate and officer’s hut.

A visit to Fort Ward should start in the museum, which opened in 1964. There, visitors can see the map of the fort system and read about how forts were constructed and how Fort Ward was restored.

The museum houses many Civil War artifacts, including artillery and uniforms. Display cases feature music and the military during the Civil War and also the tough conditions for wartime doctors and surgeons. The latter case contains several surgical tools and an explanation of military hospitals and their locations in Alexandria.

A new exhibit, “Off the Pages of Godey’s: A Guide to the Domestic Sciences,” features pages and drawings from the Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular women’s magazine from the era. The fashions on display, as well as recipes and household items, give a glimpse into domestic life during the mid-1800s.

The outdoor portion of Fort Ward is lovely this time of year, with lots of grassy areas, paved paths and mature trees. On a spring afternoon, many visitors can be found on in-line skates, jogging or pushing strollers. There are several picnic areas and a large playground. The playground features the typical equipment — and a cannon.

Markers at strategic points around the area explain the role that area played when Fort Ward was an active fort. The markers point visitors on a self-guided tour in the proper direction to get the most out of the historical visit.

The restored northwest bastion features six cannons and marked doors to the underground filling rooms where the ammunition was kept. Another marker explains how dangerous a job it was for the soldier stationed down below.

Grade school children studying the Civil War will appreciate the information at Fort Ward. The outdoor markers and the placards in the museum are full of the kind of “by the numbers” fun facts children enjoy. They’ll learn that the walls of the fort were 20 feet high and 12 to 14 feet thick and that a dry moat surrounded the fort.

They also will learn that the fort was dismantled in December 1865. It was never used for the defense of Washington. In fact, there was only one battle in the Defenses of Washington, when Confederate soldiers attacked Fort Stevens, seven miles north of the White House.

Clark C. Griffith IIWhen you go

Location: Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site is located at 4301 W. Braddock Road in Alexandria.

Directions: Take Interstate 395 to the Seminary Road exit. Turn left at North Howard Street, then right on West Braddock.

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Admission: Free

Parking: Plenty of parking in lots.

More information: 703/838-4848 or www.fortward.org

Upcoming events: Several living-history special events are planned at Fort Ward, including 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery Re-enactors doing cannon and camp-life activities from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 20, and Civil War Camp Day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. June 17.

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