Civil War Defenses of Washington | FORT MARCY

Cannon at Fort Marcy

Cannon at Fort Marcy


See the Park Map web page for an interactive fort location map.


LOCATION

Fort Marcy is located in Fort Marcy Park, which can only be accessed from the west-bound lane of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The fort is actually in Virginia on the western shore of the Potomac River. It is one of two forts not in Washington, D. C., yet still part of the Civil War Defenses of Washington. There is a road that leads into the park and a parking lot at the end of the road.


WHAT TO SEE

A loop trail encircles Fort Marcy. From the parking lot, begin by hiking on the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail towards Turkey Run Park. Blue blazes mark the trail and a sign points the way. You will be hiking around the fort in a clockwise direction, so the fort will be on your right. Along the way you will see one Civil War-era cannon, the earthen walls and dry moat of the fort, and two information panels. Though heavily wooded today, this was all cleared farm land during the Civil War.

Start of the loop trail around Fort Marcy

Start of the loop trail around Fort Marcy

The trick to the hike is knowing when to get off of the Potomac Heritage Trail, otherwise you’ll end up hiking to Pennsylvania. The trail forks about a quarter mile down, and it is here that you want to stay to the right in order to loop around the fort to the north. Taking a left keeps you on the Potomac Heritage Trail. If you end up walking along the Parkway, you missed the turn. You also know you missed the turn if you cross over a large gully.

At this point the trail gets very hilly—some hills are quite steep. The trail skirts along a residential neighborhood on your left, so you’ll see houses and a tennis court. The walls of the fort are on your right, though to the untrained eye they all look like natural hills. The trail eventually crosses the dry moat of the fort, a deep ditch that was dug around the outside of the fort walls. You can climb up onto the wall and walk along the top on a clearly visible trail. The depression on the other side is the fort’s interior, which is now covered with forest.

Notch in the fort wall

Notch in the fort wall

The actual trail continues along the base of the wall, but I opted to walk along the top, which is still quite high off the ground despite over 150 years of erosion. If you do this, you must eventually climb back down from the top and rejoin the loop trail.

Trail along the top of the fort wall

Trail along the top of the fort wall

Example of the height of a fort wall

Example of the height of a fort wall

When you get around to the north side of the fort, the trail begins to deteriorate. Trees are down everywhere and it becomes confusing as to which way to go. You cannot simply rely on following the circular fort wall back to where you began because other walls exist that connected Fort Marcy with Fort Ethan Allen to the south and with the Potomac River to the north. Men were stationed along these “rifle trenches” to prevent Confederate soldiers from sneaking between the forts. If you have a GPS, you can use that to work your way back to the parking lot, otherwise just use your sense of direction. The park is not that big, and as long as you got off of the Potomac Heritage Trail and looped around to the north, you will eventually find your way back. I took a path that cut through a gap in an earthen wall, which must have been the correct way to go because on the other side was a cannon exhibit and an information panel about the rifle trenches.

Cannon exhibit and picnic tables

Cannon exhibit and picnic tables

It turns out that there are a number of trails leading in and out of the fort, all of which have been cut by people venturing off on their own. The trail system is geared more for self-exploration than for creating one set route around the fort. If you made it to the cannon and are facing in the direction that it is pointing, walk to the left and follow the tree line until you find another notch in the wall. This leads back to the parking lot. The loop is only a half-mile long, and it shouldn’t take you more than a half hour to explore the area.


HISTORY

Fort Marcy was built to protect the Chain Bridge and Leesburg Pike. Construction began in 1861 and finished in the fall of 1862, though Union troops manned the area from the start. The fort had a circumference of 388 feet and was armed with 18 cannon, a 10-inch mortar, and two 24-pound mortars.

Like nearly all forts surrounding Washington, Fort Marcy was a temporary, quickly constructed earth and log fort. Shortly after the war it was abandoned and the land was returned back to the owners, the Vanderwerken family. Many farmers plowed the old forts to create level farm land once again, but in this case much of the fort was left standing.

Fort Marcy was named for Randolph Marcy, Chief of Staff to General George McClellan.

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Last updated on April 26, 2020
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