Some of the myths about the city seem a little far-fetched, particularly the more historic ones about the layout of the city. Traffic circles meant to confuse invading armies? No J Street because Pierre L’Enfant held a grudge? Come on. Here’s another one I heard– there’s a system of forts on the outskirts of the District designed to protect the city from an invasion. This story, like the other two, has to be a myth, right? The only fort in the city I can think of is Fort Totten, which (as far as I know) is a Metro station and not some Civil War encampment, and I certainly can’t picture an entire ring of forts around the city. So this myth is pretty easily busted, right?
Not quite. It turns out to be true– there was an incredibly extensive network of forts that once surrounded the city, and today, many of these forts are again being linked together to create a greenway trail for recreational uses. The Fort Circle Park system was a surprise to me, and digging through the history of these parks turned up some other interesting facts.
The Civil War Defenses of Washington were a complex system of fortifications built by the Union to protect the District. With a Confederate state to the south and a Union state to the north, DC seemed like a place that needed some enhanced military protection, so the Union army worked to create 68 forts (mostly on high ground) and 32 miles of military roads in the city between 1860 and 1865. As the National Park Service tells it, “The defenseless city of 1860 had become one of the most heavily fortified cities of the world.”
After the Civil War, the city was left with these huge expanses of open space, often with earthworks and other notable characteristics. Unfortunately, these spaces fell into disuse and many of the fortifications were eventually destroyed. Many of the connecting greenways between the forts were also sold off for development. But in 1902, the McMillan Commission recognized their importance and their potential for recreation, and called for their preservation. The road to preservation has been a bumpy one, as ward boundaries have frustrated attempts to unify the system of parks and trails.
As you can see in the above image, some forts remain today (Reno, Dupont, Totten, etc) while others have been lost. Some parts of the greenways remain (check out the northeast boundary of DC between Fort Totten and Anacostia– that’s almost a continuous section there), and some are even used for recreational purposes, like the link between Fort Mahan, Fort Chaplin, and Fort Dupont. The National Park Service is in charge of this land and they’re currently working with the National Capital Planning Commission and the District of Columbia to make these parks more accessible and visible to the public through the CapitalSpace initiative.
Other interesting/fun facts about the Fort Circle Park system:
- Ever wondered why Military Road doesn’t conform to the alphabetical/numerical/state naming system? Well, it was created during this era to connect many of the installations.
- President Lincoln was watching the Battle of Fort Stevens in July 1864 and came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters, but the battle ended when confederate forces realized they couldn’t take the city and retreated to Maryland.
- Hundreds of Confederate troops were killed during the Battle of Fort Stevens, and 59 were killed in the Union side. Battleground National Cemetery was built to bury Union forces after the battle, and today you can visit and listen to this handy podcast to take a tour.
- The Civil War Defenses of Washington were an important site in African American history. The United States Colored Troops were attached to several of the fortifications throughout DC. After the war, some of the forts (like Fort Reno) became a “Freetown” for freed slaves.
- Some of the forts are used today as community centers. Fort Dupont in SE has community gardens, a summer concert series, and the only public indoor ice-skating rink in the city. Fort Reno has a great summer concert series as well.
I’ve got to admit, this was one of the most surprising and interesting Mythbusting features I’ve ever researched. I had no idea that DC was home to such an extensive network of defenses during the Civil War, and I definitely didn’t know that some are still connected by trails. Once it warms up, I can’t wait to head out on my bike and explore some more of the District’s history. Myth confirmed!