The Washington Civil War Defenses
Washington, D.C. was an armed camp during the Civil War Years. The Washington Civil War Defenses transformed the city into one of the world’s most fortified capitols. During the war Washington became the staging area for the war activities in Virginia.
A little geography lesson is needed to understand the position of Washington relative to the so-called enemy territory of the Confederacy. The city is sandwiched between Virginia and Maryland. Virginia was enemy territory, Maryland was a border state. Washington and Richmond, the Southern capitol are a mere 100 miles apart. Just across the Potomac River bridges was the enemy.
At the start of the War the only fort that existed was the appropriately named Fort Washington, located 12 miles downriver in Prince Georges County, Maryland. This defensive fortification was completed in 1809. Fort Washington was part of the outer defenses of the city. The First and Fourth Artillery as well as numerous state artillery units passed through the post during the Civil War. Fort Washington’s primary purpose was the prevenbtion of naval incursions up the Potomac River.
In May 1861 the Federal army marched into northern Virginia and occupied a buffer zone across from Washington. Cities like Alexandria remained under Federal control throughout the war. Forts were constructed at the bridge crossings to protect the city from attack. These fortifications were earthworks, built with a combination of dirt and logs. The walls of these forts were 12 to 18 feet thick.
After the First Battle of Bull Run work began on the Washington Civil War defenses to protect the city from a feared Confederate invasion. According to official reports Washington’s defenses boasted 68 enclosed forts with 807 mounted cannon and 93 mortars, 93 unarmed batteries with 401 emplacements for field guns and 20 miles of rifle trenches plus three blockhouses.
Brigadier General John Gross Barnardwas the chief engineer military district of Washington and was responsible for the city’s Civil War Defenses . In Barnard’s A Plan for the Defenses of Washington he described the project in this manner:
From a few isolated works covering bridges or commanding a few especially important points, was developed a connected system of fortification by which every prominent point, at intervals of 800 to 1,000 yards, was occupied by an inclosed field-fort every important approach or depression of ground, unseen from the forts, swept by a battery for field-guns, and the whole connected by rifle-trenches which were in fact lines of infantry parapet, furnishing emplacement for two ranks of men and affording covered communication along the line, while roads were opened wherever necessary, so that troops and artillery could be moved rapidly from one point of the immense periphery to another, or under cover, from point to point along the line.
The Washington Civil War defenses were an ongoing project throughout the war. There was a constant tug-of-war between the civilian leadership and the generals over the resources that were needed to protect the city. The generals were loathe to spend precious resources on fixed defenses and preferred to use their resources in units like the Army of the Potomac who were able to maneuver against possible Confederate attacks on the city.
Over the first two years the engineers built up the defenses of the city using both military and civilian labor, white and black. Cannon were emplaced and special heavy artillery units were trained in siege defense. Fields of fire were surveyed and mapped in order to cover any and all possible lines of attack.
Washington had several times of the extreme anxiety of possible Confederate attack. After Second Bull Run (Manassas) there was some interest by Robert E. Lee to make an attempt on the city but a combination of circumstances deterred him. Lee’s 1862 invasion of Maryland frightened the government into thinking that Lee would swoop down and attack the city from the north. The following year the city panicked once again when Lee invaded Pennsylvania and the fear was that he would try to attack Washington from the north. Confederate partisan ranger John Singleton Mosby incited fear and panic in Washington with his periodic raids across northern Virginia.
By the middle of the war Washington was sufficiently defended by both fortifications and manpower. A commission calculated that the city required a force of infantry garrisons numbering 25,000 men, plus 9,000 trained artillerists, a cavalry force and an additional 25,000-man maneuver force. This entire force was to be separate from the campaigning Army of the Potomac. Of course, these figures were totally unrealistic given the continual manpower needs of the armies in the field. The reality was that a garrison of some 23,000 troops were guarding Washington.
In the spring and summer of 1864 the increasing casualties from the Overland Campaign forced General Grant to continually subtract troops from the Washington defenses. They were replaced by a mix of semi-invalid Veteran Reserves, trainees, 100-day levies and a small cadre of experienced troops who escaped the dragnet. Lee, realizing that he had opportunity to take the city, dispatched Lt. General Jubal Early on a sweeping advance across central Virginia, up the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and to the gates of Washington from the north. Early met the Federals in seven battles and skirmishes culminating in the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 11-12, 1864.
The Battle of Fort Stevens was fought in northwest Washington over two days. The Federal forces were commanded by Maj. Gen. Alexander McD. McCook whose forces were reinforced by Maj. General Horatio Wright’s who commanded the VI and XIX Corps. Early had met Federal forces at Monocacy who fought a delaying action under the command of Maj. General Lew Wallace (who later wrote Ben Hur). By then reinforcements had arrived by steamers from the Federal forces surrounding Richmond.
Unsure of the strength of the defending force Early delayed his attack. This gave the Federals the opportunity to further reinforce the area’s defenses. The battle did not begin until about 3:00 PM with heavy skirmishing that lasted for several hours. The President and his wife made an appearance to observe the battle. One of the Confederate commanders was General John C. Breckinridge, former Vice President of the United and one of Lincoln’s opponents in the 1860 election. He was also Mary Todd Lincoln’s cousin.
The skirmishing continued through the following day. Early realizing that the enemy’s force was too large for him to overcome without suffering heavy losses, withdrew through Maryland and across the Potomac River.
Follow up campaigns by General Phil Sheridan in the Valley in September and October 1864 all but eliminated any future attacks from that avenue of approach.
With the end of the war the landowners reclaimed their properties and demolished the temporary forts and fortifications. Over the years a variety of organization in the District and in Virginia have been able to preserve and use the old forts for future generations. The Fort Circle Park National Recreation Trail is one such endeavor. Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site in Alexandria, Virginia is another. The remains of Fort Stevens are under the care of the National Park Service.
The Washington Civil War defenses are a little-studied chapter in the history of the American Civil War. Without the stout defenses around the capitol all of our history could very well been different.