He Set out to Show His Son the D.C. Area’s 68 Civil War Forts. Protests Made it More than a Diversion.Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, military history, monuments, teaching history, COVID-19
Six weeks into quarantine, I was flailing. My wife was pregnant and in the midst of terrible morning sickness, our 4-year-old son was sick of all the activities I’d devised outside our D.C. apartment building, and I was sick of our 900-square-foot apartment. He and I set out one day to hike in Rock Creek Park, 1,700 acres of wilderness that run up the spine of the northwest quadrant of the city. Walking up a hill — slowly, because he’s 4 — we stumbled upon the old Civil War earthworks at Fort DeRussy, and it hit me. We now had a quarantine mission. We would visit all the Civil War defenses of the Washington region.
I had no idea how relevant our mission would soon become.
After the Union lost the first major battle of the war at Bull Run in 1861, George McClellan took command of the Union army and beefed up the capital’s system of defenses, until they numbered 68 forts and 93 batteries. They ringed the city, concentrated around the expected routes of a Confederate attack. They defended key junctions and bridges — such as Chain Bridge, a vital link for Union operations in northern Virginia — and protected the capital from a naval attack up the Potomac. Most have been reduced to historical markers, but a handful are preserved by the National Park Service and by the city of Alexandria and Arlington County. You can find a list on Alexandria’s and Arlington’s parks department websites.So, we set off, checking off a couple of forts per week. We came with a Frisbee in tow in the event that, as is the case in several spots, there was no evidence of a fort at all, nor replica cannons, nor anything to go “find.” I am a historian — although I study North Africa — so our new project held natural appeal. But the 4-year-old, as children are wont to do, had questions. Who was fighting? Were they using guns or “blasters”? Were these piles of dirt really “forts”?
When I was a kid myself, I fell hard for the Civil War. I pored over books and battle maps, I implored my parents to take me to battlefields, I re-created Little Round Top in my sandbox. As my son and I toured the forts, I was struck about how little our official memory and collective processing of the war has changed in 30 years. We’re still drawn to battlefields and monuments for the drama and bravery, but those sites tend to remove ideology and social conditions from the war. They teach us about generals, and about Minié balls and Parrott guns, but less about the motivations of the people actually fighting or the communities around them.
I recognize it now as a bizarre sort of privilege, to focus so much on the battles themselves but so little on what came before and after — especially how the reunified nation failed to address the fundamental racism at the heart of the Confederacy. As Black Lives Matter-related protests gathered momentum in June, they brought Civil War memory back into the spotlight. Our fort tours changed, too, from a pandemic diversion to a way to help my son (and myself) put the war into context, to connect it to the ongoing struggle for justice we were witnessing in our own city.
comments powered by Disqus
- Merrittocracy with Keri Leigh Merritt: Kevin Kruse on the 2020 Election
- Radical Protests Propelled the Suffrage Movement. Here’s How a New Museum Captures That History
- Not Every U.S. Presidential Race Has Been Decided on Election Day. Here’s What to Know About America’s History of Contested Elections
- Control, Alter, Delete:Hong Kong Activists and Academics are Hurrying to Digitize Historical Records
- Voter Fraud, Suppression and Partisanship: A Look at the 1876 Election