The year was 1814, and 49 troops with a half-dozen cannon manned a fort along the Potomac River, just 9 miles downstream of the young nation’s capital.
Fort Warburton was supposed to be the main line of defense for any invasion coming up the river. But the capital was already in flames, the British having sailed up the Patuxent River and marched overland.
And now, six British ships rounded Marshall Hall Point just south of the fort. The soldiers looked at the ships, and their own cannon, only a few of which could be pointed toward the impending source of peril.
Their commanding officer, Capt. Samuel Dyson, gave the order to destroy the guns, blow up more than a ton of gunpowder—and then run away. The next day, the British saw the smoking ruins of the fort as they sailed by and seized Alexandria on the Virginia side of the river.
Dyson was court-martialed and found guilty of abandoning his post and destroying government property. He was dismissed from the service. Secretary of War John Armstrong, who thought the British would never attack Washington and failed to send an adequate force to Fort Warburton, was forced to retire.
The lesson hit home. Only 12 days later, Congress dispatched Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who planned the District of Columbia, to begin designing a state-of-the-art fortification at the site. The new, improved building would become Fort Washington and would be the only permanent fortification protecting the city through 1872. It would never again be challenged in combat, even during the Civil War.
The story of Fort Warburton and Fort Washington is a reminder that historically, the Chesapeake was not only a major route of commerce and the center for a seemingly inexhaustible fishery, but was also key to the nation’s defense.
Today, Fort Washington is a part of the National Park Service, but the Bay’s military legacy lives on: The Department of Defense is the largest single owner of waterfront land along the Chesapeake. The old fort is part of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, a system of more than 120 sites highlighting cultural, historic and natural aspects of the Bay region.
The site’s history, and name, reaches back to George Washington himself, who picked the location for the fort. He recognized that any ship coming upriver would have to round a point just below the site, then follow the deep channel of the river to within 50 yards of the shore.
“Any ship coming around the point would have to face the guns, and they would have to come close to the fort,” said Bill Clark,park manager of Fort Washington Park.
The strategy failed for Fort Warburton not because of its location, but because the fort’s design was already antiquated when it was built, and because it was never given the garrison, or the number of guns, envisioned.
The guns it did have were poorly sited: Only two could fire on approaching ships. Also, they took five minutes each to reload. In all likelihood, Clark noted, the fort’s 1814 defenders would never have had a chance to fire a second shot against the approaching fleet of ships.
The new, larger Fort Washington was completed in 1824. It was built higher on the bluff, with walls 40–60 feet high, and 20-feet thick in places. In the 1842, it had 30 guns that could fire 24-pound shells 1,901 yards, effectively blocking passage on the river.
Years later, an army engineer, Robert E. Lee, made the walls even higher, and improved the overall fortification. He later may have regretted that, as Fort Washington became the anchor for a series of more than 60 forts that ringed the District of Columbia during the Civil War.
In the 1870s, with the advent of steel ships, the fort’s design was again deemed outdated, and plans were begun for a system of large concrete fortifications armed with heavy rifled guns.
These batteries, located behind the bluffs and out of sight of the river, reflected the latest in defense thinking and were made possible through new technology that allowed shelling to be directed by spotters located apart from the batteries and closer to the river.
Construction, stalled for years because of a lack of funding, began in 1890 when the government restored a budget surplus. (Interest in supporting the fort often waxed and waned in relation with the amount of money Congress had to spend. At one point in the 1850s, its garrison consisted of a single soldier.)
Eight batteries were ultimately built at Fort Washington in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and mines, which could be fired electronically from the fort, were placed in the river. It was a formidable defense aimed at keeping any enemy vessel from getting close enough to shell the District of Columbia. Until 1921, Fort Washington served as the headquarters for the Potomac River defenses.
The age of airplanes, though, made the new defenses obsolete after World War I, and only a caretaker detachment of artillerymen remained for a few years before they, too, were moved elsewhere.
Various military units moved in and out of the site for years, but the days of Fort Washington’s military importance were over. It was used by troops during World War II, and the Women’s Auxiliary Corps was stationed there starting in 1942—their barracks were dubbed the “WAC shack.” After the war, the site was transferred to the Department of the Interior, and ultimately, it was incorporated into the National Park system.
The concrete shells of the long-abandoned coastal defense batteries, now surrounded by picnic tables, remain as a reminder of what was once considered one of the best coast defenses in the world.
And lately, Fort Washington looks like it received the shelling it never got in combat. Midcentury “improvements” to the fort covered some of its old brick walls with concrete, unwittingly giving the moisture inside no way to escape. The result was something enemy cannon were never able to d In recent years, huge numbers of bricks have burst from the walls.
“It had a heart-wrenching effect on us,” Clark said. “We watched it fall brick by brick. One day, we found 5,000 bricks on the ground.”
Thanks to an appropriation from Congress, the fallen bricks are being painstakingly collected and cleaned and will be replaced onto the walls.
Today, Fort Washington Park has the feel of a neighborhood recreational area. Toward the end of the day, families from the surrounding neighborhoods stroll or bike along its roads, and anglers line the Potomac.
“I don’t know all their names, but I know their faces,” said Park Ranger Lynwood Jefferson. “When some of them don’t show up for a couple of days, you know something is wrong.”
Neighbors have dug through their attics to find historical photos related to the fort—many are on display in its museum—and children have conducted oral histories with their grandparents to get stories about the site which now fill its archives.
The neighbors logged 11,000 volunteer hours last year, doing everything from guiding tours to planting gardens to firing Civil War-era cannon. “When you talk about trying to preserve something without volunteers, you are just spinning your wheels,” Clark said.
Instead of being part of the nation’s defense system, the fort is part of its recreational system. The Potomac Heritage Trail, a multi-use trail that will eventually run the length of the river, is being completed through the park’s property, thanks to a grant from the Gateways Network, which will allow visitors to stroll near the banks of the river.
It is a hotbed for fisherman; Maryland’s record catfish was caught in the adjacent Swan Creek for the past two years in a row. The Fort Washington marina, operated by a concessionaire, rents canoes and kayaks so people can conduct their own explorations of the Potomac.
The most remarkable aspect of the park, though, may be the peace associated with a site that was once the center of such a major defense installation.
From the river, the skyline of Washington, D.C. can be seen in the distance. And, the fort is in the protected Mount Vernon “viewshed” where development is limited. The view of the of the river from the bluff by the old fort seems remarkably quiet, and undeveloped, for a location only nine miles from downtown. “You are so close to the nation’s capital that you can see the Washington Monument, and yet literally hear the birds flying by,” Clark said. It’s a sensation many neighbors have come to appreciate each evening.
Fort Washington features a number of special events during the year, including Civil War artillery demonstrations, living history events and Civil War encampments. Check its web site for details.
A particularly popular event is the annual evening of patriotic music that takes place on July 5. On July 4, visitors can take advantage of the spectacular Potomac vistas from the park to see more than a half dozen fireworks displays being conducted by various communities up and down the river.
The park is open every day; the fort and visitor center are open daily except Jan. 1 and Dec. 25. A fee is charged from March through November for each vehicle entering the park.
Directions: From I-95 (the Capital Beltway) follow the signs for MD 210 Indian Head Highway. Take exit 3 and go south on Indian Head Highway. Turn right onto Fort Washington Road to the park.
For information, call the park at 301-763-4600 or visit its web site www.nps.gov/fowa
Learn more about Fort Washington and other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit the latter’s web site at www.baygateways.net