Six Civil War reproduction cannons stand as silent sentinels over the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site, an open and inviting space in Alexandria, Virginia, Washington, DC’s neighbor to the south. The site, located in Alexandria’s Seminary Hill neighborhood, was originally conceived as a Civil War era preservation project. Today, Fort Ward is embracing over 150 years of history, from the Civil War through the Civil Rights era, for this prominent and storied Virginia city.
Fort Ward’s origins are found in the days following the rebel victory at Manassas in July of 1861. U.S. Government leaders quickly realized the Federal capital was in a precarious situation. Bordered on one side by Virginia, now enemy territory, and the other by Maryland, a slave holding state, Washington, D.C had almost no physical defenses to rely on.
The Army appointed one of its leading engineers and an expert on coast artillery, John Barnard, to design a robust defensive system along the high grounds surrounding Washington to guard strategic waterways, roads, railways and bridges. By the end of the war, Barnard’s extensive efforts lead to the construction of 68 forts and 93 gun batteries bristling with over 800 cannons and connected by various roads and trenches. Fort Ward is one of the best preserved examples of Washington’s Civil War defenses.
Construction of Fort Ward began in July 1861 and was completed about two months later to protect the main approaches into Alexandria. The fort was named for U.S. Navy Commander James H. Ward, the first U.S. Navy officer killed in action during the Civil War.
Fort Ward was built as a bastion fort, meaning the walls were designed at angles to provide interlocking fields of fire from inside the fort. Like most of the other fortifications, Fort Ward was constructed primarily of readily available dirt which was much better at withstanding artillery and rifle fire than brick, stone or wooden logs. The earthen walls were approximately 20 feet high and 12 feet thick. The fort was expanded several times during the war. Ultimately, Fort Ward had five bastions with emplacements for 36 guns and a final perimeter almost half a mile long.
A trench ran along that perimeter, a final obstacle for any attackers who might make it through the cannon fire. Units from Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio garrisoned the fort, usually numbering between three to four hundred men at a time.
The trench or dry moat surrounding the earthen bastion walls presented one more obstacle for any attacking forces.
Just after Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the Union Army moved quickly to occupy Alexandria. The city soon became a hotbed of Federal activity. Given its port and railroad connections, Alexandria became a logistical center. Troops and supplies would flow through the city. Wounded were transported to Alexandria for treatment and recovery. The city was filled with Army camps, warehouses, supply depots, hospitals and other official activities. This substantial U.S. Government presence attracted African Americans from around Virginia and beyond. Referred to at the time as “contraband,” these men and women came seeking freedom from slavery. They found paid employment at these Federal facilities, including Fort Ward. Many men enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops regiments and went to fight.
At war’s end, when the Army left Fort Ward, several African American families remained. They purchased property and began building homes, churches and a school. Over four generations, the African American community continued to grow in its own neighborhood known as “The Fort”. The nearby Virginia Theological Seminary (which gives the current neighborhood its name) and Episcopal High School employed many of The Fort’s residents.
In the 1950s, the City of Alexandria began planning for the restoration of the original Fort Ward and the creation of today’s park space. Unfortunately, this work would lead to the resettlement of The Fort neighborhood. The city bought or appropriated the land compelling the families living there to move on. Archeological excavations of the original Fort Ward began in 1961. Renovations of several portions of the fort followed as part of the Civil War centennial. The park was formally opened to the public in May of 1964.
For a chronological view of Fort Ward, a visit today is best begun in the museum, housed in a reproduction two-story building modeled after a period Army headquarters building. Museum curators have assembled an impressive collection of weapons, uniforms, documents, photographs, medical instruments, folk art, and other implements of military life to tell the stories behind the Civil War defenses of Washington, the history of Fort Ward, conditions in Alexandria at the time and the lives and duties of Union Army officers and soldiers. A scale model of the original Fort Ward orients the visitor to its Civil War era layout and appearance.
The museum’s upper floor houses a research library containing a trove of historic materials as well as more contemporary documents and publications on the Union forts defending Washington, DC and other Civil War topics. The museum periodically organizes living history events, hosting Civil War reenactors at Fort Ward to enhance visitors’ understanding of the way soldiers and civilians lived their wartime lives.
Adjacent to the museum is a reproduction officer’s hut. Huts such as these were built to provide housing for Fort Ward’s commissioned officers. Peer through the windows and see the furnishings and accoutrements illustrative of how these officers lived at the time.
The museum and officers’ hut buildings are located on grounds outside of the original fortifications in what was a support area where troop barracks and living quarters were located, and administrative and logistical functions performed.
Pass through the reproduction entrance gate to the fort’s original grounds and follow the trail to see what the reconstructed northwest bastion would have looked like in 1864. One of the more heavily armed strongholds of the original Fort Ward as it overlooked the busy Leesburg Pike (today’s State Route 7), the restored northwest bastion includes six gun emplacements along with the magazine and a filling room for ammunition.
After visiting the reconstructed fort area, a path circles through the larger park with open green space, picnic areas, and an amphitheater. Along the way, descriptive signage explains aspects of The Fort neighborhood and the people who lived there. Existing features of the old neighborhood are emphasized, including several surviving grave sites.
Clara Adams, a longtime leader in The Fort neighborhood, is buried on the grounds of the historic site. Among her many contributions, she donated land for the community’s African American School.
The City of Alexandria continues to expand the interpretation of Fort Ward’s history for today’s Alexandria residents and visitors alike. A series of interviews with former Fort residents provide compelling first-person accounts of life in and around The Fort. These interviews started in the early 1990’s and continue today. An archeological dig concluding around 2014 used ground radars to clarify the boundaries of known grave sites, identify previously unknown grave sites and unearth additional artifacts. The city also has plans and designs for new interpretive signage and markers, a Fort neighborhood exhibit to the museum, historic home floor plan displays from The Fort neighborhood, and other interpretive tools and techniques to more completely convey the multi-layered story of Fort Ward.
Fort Ward is unique among Washington, DC area historic landmarks and a worthy addition to any DC itinerary. It preserves an essential element of Civil War history, namely the defenses of Washington, while also examining the complex social and cultural impacts of that period on life in Alexandria over the century that followed. As important, its 45 acres of leafy parkland are a pleasant place for locals and visitors alike to spend a sunny afternoon.
The Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site is located at:
4301 West Braddock Road
Alexandria, Virginia 22304
Fort Ward is approximately six miles south of Washington, D.C. Free parking is available for cars and buses.
From Washington, DC: Follow signs to Interstate 395 (I-395) south to Richmond. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.
From Old Town Alexandria: Follow King Street west to Alexandria City High School, turn right on Kenwood Avenue. Turn left on West Braddock Road, and proceed about a mile. The Museum entrance is on the right.
From I-95/I-495 (Capital Beltway): Follow road signs to I-395 North. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.
From Dulles Airport: Take Dulles Access Road East to I-495 North (Capital Beltway). Follow road signs to I-395 North. Take the Seminary Road East exit. At the fifth traffic light (at Alexandria Hospital) turn left onto North Howard Street. Follow North Howard to its intersection with West Braddock Road and turn right. The Museum entrance is on the left.
By Metro Rail, then Bus: Take the Yellow or Blue Line to King Street Station. The AT5 DASH Bus www.dashbus.com to Landmark stops in front of Fort Ward. Call (703) 370-DASH for bus schedules and information.
By Amtrak or Virginia Railway Express: Walk across the street from the Alexandria Union Station to the King Street Metro Station to take the AT5 DASH Bus.