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Rep. Norton introduces bill to create National Historical Park

Fort Stevens became a pivotal point in the Confederate attempt to take Washington.
Fort Stevens became a pivotal point in the Confederate attempt to take Washington.
Library of Congress

Part 24 of a series: What’s the Next National Park?

A ring of 19th-century fortifications surrounding the District of Columbia may have the opportunity to become a national historical park, if a bill referred to the House Natural Resources Committee early this month is referred to the House for a vote.

On Feb. 5, Rep. Eleanor Norton (D-DC) introduced the Civil War Defenses of Washington National Historical Park Act (H.R. 4003), a bill to designate a long list of forts and historic sites as a historical park related to the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.

“The defenses of Washington played a key role in the outcome of the Civil War,” the bill states. “They were constructed at the beginning of the war in 1861 as a ring of fortifications in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and northern Virginia, to protect the Nation’s Capital. By the end of the war, these defenses included 68 forts, 93 unarmed batteries, 807 mounted cannon, 13 miles of rifle trenches, and 32 miles of military roads.”

During the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, these Civil War defenses saw their greatest test. Confederate Lieutenant Jubal Early led his troops from the Confederacy’s capital in Richmond in a plan to break through Union defenses and attack Washington, DC, from the north. Early’s progress was slowed on July 9, 1864, when Union Major General Lew Wallace engaged Early’s army at Monocacy—and again two days later, when the Union army stopped his advance in the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 11 and 12.

The Fort Stevens conflict distinguished itself in an important way: It stands as the only verifiable time in history that a sitting President of the United States came under hostile fire. Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln had come to the fort to observe the battle, and were standing on a parapet during enemy fire. A surgeon standing next to the President was wounded, leading other officers to order the Lincolns to take cover as the fighting continued. After the battle, Early reportedly remarked to one of his officers, “Major, we didn’t take Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell.”

Despite this defeat, the Confederate army extended the Shenandoah campaign into the fall, until Union Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan defeated the southern force at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19. With the substantial losses the Confederate army sustained in this battle, Early abandoned the quest to attack the District of Columbia and headed southward to regroup.

Nineteen of the sites included in the proposed historical park are already owned by the US government and managed by the National Park Service. Local governments in Virginia and Maryland own five additional sites. The sites are managed as part of three other units of the park service: Rock Creek Park, National Capital Parks-East, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

“Most of the remaining Civil War defenses of Washington contain significant natural and recreational resources, and some offer sweeping vistas overlooking the Nation’s Capital,” the bill states. “With the lands acquired for the Fort Drive, they provide a linkage of urban green spaces that contribute to the history, character, and scenic values of the Nation’s Capital and offer educational and recreational opportunities along with their natural and important historical values.”

The properties to become part of this national historical park include:
• Battery Kemble
• Battleground National Cemetery
• Fort Bayard
• Fort Bunker Hill
• Fort Carroll
• Fort Chaplin
• Fort Circle Drive
• Fort Davis
• Fort DeRussy
• Fort Dupont
• Fort Foote
• Fort Greble
• Fort Mahan
• Fort Marcy
• Fort Reno
• Fort Ricketts
• Fort Slocum
• Fort Stanton
• Fort Stevens
• Fort Totten
• Fort Washington
• Oxon Cove Park and Oxon Hill Farm

Currently, the Natural Resources Committee has not scheduled the bill for discussion.

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