Fort Ward: Bastion Against the South

By Daniel J. Ursu
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved

Fort Ward is one of the 68 forts eventually built by the North during the Civil War that ringed Washington, D.C. as protection against southern invasion and raids.

James Harmon Ward

As with many of the forts constructed for this purpose, Fort Ward was strategically located astride highways leading towards the Union Capital. Built near Alexandria Virginia, it protected the potential southern invasion routes of the Leesburg and Alexandria Turnpike (modern route 7) and overlooked to the northwest Bailey’s and Balls Cross Roads. It was named after Commander James Harmon Ward, who was the first Union naval officer killed during the Civil War.

Today the site is a 45-acre municipal park operated by the city of Alexandria. I visited Fort Ward on the way to our annual field trip on September 22, 2016. There is a modest sized visitor center and museum. A walking tour of the perimeter of the site takes about 45 minutes and is well worth the visit. The fortification is entered through the reconstructed Fort Ward gate.

The reconstructed entrance gate to Fort Ward

The highlight of the current site consists of the fort’s rebuilt Northwest Bastion which is loaded with cannons and howitzers similar to what were present during the Civil War. In position are reproductions of three impressive 4.5-inch Ordnance Rifles noted by contemporary writers for their accuracy and range, two large 24-pounder Howitzers which would generally have been used to protect against infantry attack on the fort, and a 6-pounder artillery piece. By late 1864 the five-bastion fort had 36 guns of various calibers and had grown to become the fifth largest fort protecting the Capital.

Importantly, Fort Ward included a 100-pounder Parrot whose great range and hitting power when combined with similar Parrots at nearby Forts Worth, Ellsworth, and Richardson, strategically covered a line below Alexandria from Munson’s Hill across the range of heights south of Hunting Creek, thus making an integrated defense controlling the previously mentioned roads, the Little River Turnpike (modern Duke Street), and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.

Construction of the fort began in September 1861 and was improved extensively until the end of the war. The angular bastion works were protected by moats and rifle pits which were manned by the fort’s garrison. The garrison size varied during the war, but to give an idea of what might have been desired as an optimal number, bombproofs were constructed to protect up to 500 troops. The final perimeter length of 818 yards made Ward one of the largest forts built near D.C. and is twice the size of the more famous Fort Stevens which has also been preserved.

Fort Ward’s Northwest Bastion

Unlike Fort Stevens which protected two highways approaching the Capital from the north, Fort Ward had no similar challenge to that withstood by Fort Stevens. This occurred when Jubal Early’s Confederate Corps invaded Maryland in September 1864. After the Battle of Monocacy on July 9th, 1864, Early’s troops advanced southeastwards to the Capital, but were stopped by Fort Stevens and troops hastily transported from General Grant’s army then located at Petersburg, Virginia. Perhaps making Fort Stevens even more famous was Abraham Lincoln’s visit when the fort was under fire.

Although never tested in battle nor visited by the President, Fort Ward in conjunction with other forts south of the Potomac were arguably completely successful as an excellent deterrent to any potential plans the South might have had to attack D.C. from that direction.

The Fort Ward site is located at 4301 W. Braddock Road, Alexandria, Virginia and is easily reached by taking I-395 for about five miles north from its intersection with the I-495 Washington D.C. Beltway, just south of D.C. The fort is only a few minutes from Exit Number 5 along I-395.

Related links:
Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site
“The Rebels Are Upon Us”: The 1864 Confederate Invasion of Maryland, the Battle of Monocacy, and Jubal Early’s Move on Washingtn, D.C.

Sources (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Mr. Lincoln’s Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington; 1988; by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton J. Owen II; White Mane Publishing Company, Inc.

“68 Forts: Why Confederates never could have taken Washington,” by Marc Leepson; America’s Civil War Magazine; May 2009.

Mr. Lincoln’s City: an Illustrated Guide to the Civil War Sites of Washington; 1981; by Richard M. Lee; EPM Publications, Inc.

Last Chance for Victory: Jubal Early’s 1864 Maryland Invasion; 2010; by Brett W. Spaulding; Thomas Publications.

“The Art of the Artilleryman,” Fort Ward Museum Brochure; Alexandria, Virginia.

American Civil War Artillery 1861-1865 (2): Heavy Artillery; 2001; by Philip Katcher; Osprey Publishing.

Cannons: An Introduction to Civil War Artillery; 1985; by Dean S. Thomas; Thomas Publications.