Publication Date

December 1, 2003

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

When Pierre L’Enfant designed the layout for Washington, D.C., his plan called for public spaces and parks in a grand formal and urban setting. The numerous circles, triangles and squares that dotted the landscape provided pleasant respites for early residents. Today, these parks are still wonderful open spaces.

As the city grew beyond the original plan, Congress and the city’s residents designated more park land to provide for the enjoyment of future generations. In 1890, Congress set aside Rock Creek Park as a natural preserve “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” Then, in 1902, Congress presented a bold new plan for the future of the city. Senator James McMillan of Michigan earlier had designated a Senate Park Commission to build and expand upon L’Enfant’s original plan. Although the commission, made up of the leading architects and artists of the day, was directed to plan for future open space, McMillan clearly intended the commission to establish the direction of all future building in the city as well. The overall scale, design, and monumental appearance of the city is based on the McMillan Plan.

Most of the circles, squares, and triangles of L’Enfant’s plan, as well as the monumental open space of the McMillan Plan, are managed by the National Park Service. In fact, the park service manages more than 8,500 acres within the District of Columbia.

The park service maintains the remains of Washington’s Civil War fortifications, collectively known as the Fort Circle Parks. By the battle of Manassas in 1861, it became clear that the capital city was vulnerable to attack by the Confederacy. At the start of the war, the only fortification in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., was Fort Washington, 12 miles to the south on the Potomac River. The fort was built after the War of 1812 to protect the capital from a naval attack. The newly appointed commander, Major General George B. McClellan, also directed Major John C. Barnard to design a system of fortifications for defending the city. Barnard, a gifted engineer, designed a ring of earthworks on the high ground around the capital to protect its roads, railroads, and waterways.

By 1865, the fort circle consisted of 68 forts and 93 gun batteries, armed with 807 cannons and 98 mortars. Rifle pits connected each fort and battery. A 30-mile-long road system linked the fortifications. The protective defenses proved effective, when in the summer of 1864 General Jubal Early led a Confederate force into the outskirts of Washington, he was repulsed at Fort Stevens on the north edge of the city.

President Abraham Lincoln and his wife came out to watch the fighting at Fort Stevens. Standing on the ramparts, the president barely escaped death when a Confederate sharp shooter, probably aiming at him, hit the man standing next to him. Future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was a Union officer involved in the fighting, reportedly said to the president, “get down you damned fool.” Whether or not Holmes made this statement, the president took cover, and later watched his army drive the rebels out of the capital.

Following the Civil War, the army dismantled the forts, sold all of the building materials at auction, and returned the land to its owners. But the legacy of the fort circle remains in Washington, D.C. Military Road in the District and Arlington, Virginia, runs along essentially the same route as the military fort roads. Nineteen of the forts are owned and managed by the National Park Service as the Fort Circle Parks. Fort Ward in Alexandria, Virginia, is restored to near its original appearance, and managed as a city park. Portions of other forts are still clearly visible in and around the city.

If you have the time during your visit to Washington, visit Fort Ward, Fort Stevens, and nearby Fort DeRussy in Rock Creek Park, or Fort Dupont in Fort Dupont Park. Better yet, take a drive to the best preserved of all of the forts, Fort Foote, overlooking the Potomac on the Maryland side in Fort Foote Park, just a few miles south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

There are several other national parks in the D.C. area. Within a mile of the convention hotels you can explore Rock Creek Park, which you can access by walking through the National Zoo. There are miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, as well as a number of historic structures, such as Peirce Mill, a 19th-century gristmill. About a mile to the southwest of the hotel, you can also visit Dumbarton Oaks Park. The park is managed by the National Park Service, but the mansion and gardens are owned and managed by Harvard University.

If you are a bit more adventuresome, you can also walk along the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which is about two miles to the south as the crow flies. You may not want to walk the entire 184.5-mile length of the canal, but you can enjoy the historic buildings along the canal in Georgetown, and the open space a mile or so up the canal.

About two miles to the west, you can explore Glover-Archbold Park. When you walk the trails in this wooded area, you might feel like you are anywhere but in the nation’s capital. Many local residents are not even aware of this park’s existence.

Robert K. Sutton is superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, Manassas, Virginia.