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AT THE OUTBREAK OF THE CIVIL WAR in 1860, Washington, D.C. was a sleepy city of about 62,000 residents. Located south of the Mason-Dixon Line, entirely surrounded by the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, the Union capital was nearly unprotected with its only defensive fortification, Fort Washington, 12 miles south. Washington was perilously vulnerable and realizing the potential danger the city faced, the Union army constructed additional fortifications for the city.
BY 1865 THE DEFENSES OF WASHINGTON included 68 forts, supported by 93 detached batteries for field guns, 20 miles of rifle pits, and covered ways, wooden blockhouses at three key points, 32 miles of military roads, several stockaded bridgeheads, and four picket stations. Along the circumference of the 37-mile circle of fortifications were emplacements for a total of 1,501 field and siege guns of which 807 guns and 98 mortars were in place. The defenseless city of 1860 had become one of the most heavily fortified cities of the world.
TODAY, REMNANTS OF THIS COMPLEX SYSTEM of Civil War fortifications serve as windows into our nation's history. Not only did the Defenses serve their purpose well, deterring all but one Confederate attack on the capital which they repulsed, but they also impacted the city culturally, socially, and politically. That impact is still noticeable today. During the war, many enslaved people came to the fort system for safety and protection. They settled nearby, finding work at the forts and in Washington. Those settlements forever changed the cultural landscape of the city and became many of the neighborhoods that compose today's Washington.
TUCKED AWAY IN PARKS SCATTERED AROUND THE DISTRICT of Columbia and in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia, these former Defenses provide green landscapes, some with magnificent views of the city, to enhance the quality of life for both residents and visitors. The idea to connect these "Fort Circle" parks first appeared in 1902 as a part of the McMillan Commission plan for the District. Most recently, the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the District of Columbia propose to strengthen the connection between these parks in order to provide a network of green infrastructure in the urban landscape. Connecting these sites will also offer increased opportunities for educational pursuits and healthy outdoor recreation experiences as well as add a much needed element to the city's heritage tourism.
THE ALLIANCE BELIEVES THAT THE DEFENSES of Washington have an important story to tell its current and future citizens and visitors. We believe that the Defenses are worth preserving, restoring, enhancing, and interpreting and we are dedicated to that mission. Please explore our website for more information about the Alliance and the Forts.