Civil War Defenses of Washington | PARK AT A GLANCE

Cannon on display at Fort Stevens

Cannon on display at Fort Stevens


When the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, Washington, D. C., the capital of the Union, found itself in a precarious location. Just across the Potomac River to the west was Virginia, a Confederate state, and to the east lie Maryland, a slave state that remained in the Union, but which had its share of southern sympathizers. The only fort that protected the city from attack was Fort Washington far to the south, and this was designed to prevent foreign invaders from sailing up the Potomac, not land invaders from the surrounding states. Thus, the first order of business was to hastily build a ring of earth and timber forts completely around Washington on land that was temporarily appropriated from private land owners. Most of the forts were constructed between 1861 and 1863, and nearly all were abandoned after the war, with the land being returned to the proper owners. The forts were then either plowed under to recapture farmland or left to nature to erode away.

During the first few years of the 1900s, the U. S. Congress began talks of building a scenic parkway that would connect some of the best preserved forts, and between 1930 and 1965 the government began buying up the land on which the forts were situated. While the parkway never became a reality, the forts did become part of the National Park system. Other forts have been preserved by local governments and are tourist attractions to this day. In addition to the fort, much of the land now serves as public park land, though amenities vary per location.

The federal lands came under the management of the National Park Service and are called the Civil War Defenses of Washington. The park unit consists of eighteen Civil War forts and one National Cemetery. Exhibits range from nothing more than a sign marking the former fort site to a partial reconstruction of Fort Stevens and cannon exhibits at Fort Foote and Fort Marcy. The rest are mainly overgrown plots of land where you might spot a small hill or gully—former walls and dry moats of a fort. Because of this, a visit to the park is only for the most ardent of Civil War buffs. In fact, being a “buff” isn’t good enough. You must be a Civil War fanatic.

For those who want to undertake the task of visiting all nineteen sites, finding remnants of the walls and moats is the main goal. Most sites are covered in heavy vegetation in the spring, summer, and fall, and may contain poison ivy and ticks. Be sure to wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt and apply insect repellent. Without such attire your explorations will be limited, unless you simply don’t care about poison ivy and ticks.

Check out the individual fort web pages for more information on what there is to see and do at each fort site. The interactive park map shows the locations of all forts.


The forts that comprise the Civil War Defenses of Washington are on public land and are accessible from dawn to dusk year-round.


There are no fees to visit any of the fort sites.


Most forts have nothing to see other than remnants of earthen walls and ditches covered with heavy vegetation, so it doesn’t take more than fifteen minutes to visit a site. Only Fort Stevens and Fort Foote have actual exhibits. You can explore Foot Foote in about an hour and Fort Stevens in thirty minutes. If you plan to visit all of the forts, driving from one site to the next will take up most of your time. Plan to spend two days on the adventure.

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Last updated on April 26, 2020
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