Defending the Capital

Fort Stevens

Civil War Defenses of WashingtonDuring the Civil War, the U.S. government built 68 forts around Washington to protect the capital from Confederate invasion. Although little-known today, remains from these forts can be found throughout the city.

Here’s a short history of the “fort circle,” from the National Park Service:

When the Civil War began, only one fortification existed for the capital’s defense: Outmoded Fort Washington, nearly 12 miles down the Potomac, built to guard against enemy ships following the War of 1812. It took the rout of federal forces at Manassas in July 1861 to reveal how truly vulnerable the city was. Taking command of and reorganizing the Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan appointed Major (later brevet major general) John G. Barnard of the Corps of Engineers to build many new forts.

Selecting sites a few miles outside the city limits, Barnard’s engineers picked high points that overlooked major turnpikes, railroads, and shipping lanes. Natural fords upriver from the city, allowing the enemy to cross the Potomac during low water, spurred the building of more forts and batteries. Rifle pits filled the gaps. By spring 1865, the defense system totaled 68 forts and 93 batteries with 807 cannons and 98 mortars in place. Twenty miles of rifle trenches flanked the bristling strongholds, joined by more than 30 miles of military roads over which companies of solders and guns could move as reinforcements. Washington had become the most heavily fortified city in the world.

One of these forts — Fort Stevens — would be the place where the only time a sitting president had come under enemy fire. During the Battle of Fort Stevens in July 1864, Lincoln and his wife took a carriage to the fort to observe the battle. According to a popular legend, the president was told “Get down, you fool!” when coming under fire standing on the parapet. Today, the spot is marked with a commemorative memorial and the restored site contains several cannon and an interpretive sign.

Today, the forts have had mixed fates. The best-preserved is Alexandria’s Fort Ward Museum, where you can learn about life in “occupied” Alexandria during the Civil War and tour the fort. In D.C., the National Park Service owns several, while many others are in private hands.

Noting some of the many businesses, parks, churches, and even bus routes that have taken the names of these facilities, an online history of the forts concludes that “although many of the fortifications in the Civil War Defenses of Washington are gone or in a terrible state of preservation, they live on, even today, in billboards, marquee and street signs.” Below are a few photos of one site familiar to anyone who has ridden the Metro – Fort Totten.

Fort Totten

Fort Totten

Fort Totten


> [Online Book] A Historic Resources Study: The Civil War Defenses of Washington
> National Park Service: Civil War Defenses of Washington, D.C. and Civil War Defenses Historical Images
> Fort Circle Park National Recreational Trail
> Book: “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington

The images are courtesy the Library of Congress. For complete provenance, click on the images.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Your comments are timely. My son in law , Justing Miller, and myself were discussing the defensive fortifications of DC on my last trip into Washington. I will discuss a day trip with Justin to see if we can find all, of the remaing, forts this summer.

  2. Finding all 68 in one day would truly by an accomplishment! Good luck in your explorations, and feel free to drop me a line should you encounter any surprises.

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