Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Unfinished DC Business - Ft. Stevens

In July of 1864, the Army of the Potomac was applying considerable pressure on the defenses around Richmond.  Confederate General Robert E. Lee detached his Second Corps, under the command of General Jubal Early, to reclaim the Shenandoah Valley, a vital food source for the Confederates, and, if possible, invade Maryland from there.  All of this would be done in the hope that the mere presence of the Second Corps in the area would pose a threat to Washington, DC, and force Union commander Ulysses S. Grant to recall some of the troops around Richmond in order to protect his own capitol.

Early won an engagement at Lynchburg, Virginia, and then another at Monocacy, Maryland.  At noon on July 11, his troops arrived just outside of Silver Spring, Maryland, and began scouting the Union positions.

They ran into the northern portion of the ring of forts that protected Washington, DC.  More specifically, they ran into Ft. Stevens.  (A complete account of the battle can be found HERE).

 I mention all of this because, one day, as I drove down Georgia Avenue - the most direct way into the city from where I lived - I saw a sign: Ft. Stevens.  I turned left and drove up the hill.

(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

As it turns out, Ft. Stevens is important for three reasons.  1)  A portion of it still exists.  2) The battle there was really the only significant time that the ring of defenses around Washington, DC was tested (Early decided the defenses were too strong for his force, and withdrew, but he had accomplished his chief aim.  To bolster the Union defenses, Grant had sent his VI Corps and XIX Corps from the outskirts of Richmond).  And 3), President Lincoln himself rode out to watch the battle develop, since it was just a few miles north of the White House.  As he stood on the earthen ramparts, a Union surgeon nearby was hit by sniper fire.  Officers scurried to get the President under cover, but it was one of only two times that a U.S. president has come under enemy fire while in office (the other being President Madison's brief escapade during the Battle of Bladensburg (Maryland) during the War of 1812).

The restored part of the fort now looks like this:

The rock monument that is somewhat visible behind the far cannon in the picture below allegedly marks the spot where Lincoln stood as he observed Confederate forces maneuvering for position.

The fort was a terrific way to start a Sunday drive into the city, and it was my introduction to the the Civil War Defenses of Washington

In Washington, DC, it doesn't take long to realize that, throughout the capitol's relatively short history, there have always been planners and thinkers who wanted the city to be a grand symbol of the world's greatest democratic experiment. 

After the Civil War, the city's defenses were abandoned and fell into disrepair.  But, in 1902, instead of selling off the many strips of land for private development, a special congressional committee, with unusual foresight, recommended keeping the derelict earthworks and half-buried trenches and converting them into lands reserved for public use.

Thus was born the substantial ring of green space around the city that is sometimes known as the Fort Circle Parks.

From the National Park Service website:

On forested hills surrounding the nation’s capital are the remnants of a complex system of Civil War fortifications. Built by Union forces, these strategic buttresses transformed the young capital into one of the world's most fortified cities. These forts remain as windows into the past in the midst of D.C.’s urban green space, offering recreational, cultural, and natural experiences.
From the original circle of fortifications, nineteen parks remain (in red on the map below) and are administered by the National Park Service.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Sea...

Once it was apparent that I would have to leave DC and head back to Florida, I became impatient. I missed the people and places that had been familiar to me for so many years, and I felt that staying for the remaining days on my lease would be time and money wasted. As much as I liked the DC area, and had explored it and gotten familiar with it, I sometimes felt like a guest who had lingered a bit too long.

During the last full weekend in August, I decided to do some preliminary organizing in the hope of making an orderly departure. I cleaned. I threw things away. I packed. Before I knew it, the only task remaining was to load up the Raft (my car) and go. On Sunday, August 23, I was done. I decided not to wait. At 4:15 in the afternoon I drove down Layhill Road to Georgia Ave, and, from there, turned on to the ramp for the Beltway (I-495) which would take me to I-95. I thought I would drive as far as I could go. If I got tired, I'd stop. If not, I'd continue on.

As it turned out, I stayed as alert as could be expected on a thirteen hour, eight hundred mile drive, and, somewhere along the way, had a great idea; I would continue past the turn-off that would take me to Gainesville, stay on I-95 until I reached St. Augustine, and arrive in time to watch the sun rise on St. Augustine Beach.

There was one thing I hadn't counted on when I settled in DC for the summer - I missed the beach.

In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised. Many of my favorite childhood memories come from the considerable amount of time I spent at my grandparents' summer home on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Life revolved around the beach, the marina, the town pier and the harbor (pronounced hah-buh). Even after moving away from there, I lived in a coastal town in South Florida before shipping off to Gainesville for college.

Toward the end of my stay in DC, despite all the fantastic things there are to do, I began to crave the sand and the sea. Ocean City, Maryland was 160 miles away, and I'm told it would disappoint those accustomed to Florida beaches. Virginia Beach was well over 200 miles away; not a distance meant for day trips.

So it was that, at 5:04 on the morning of August 24, I crossed the bridge to St. Augustine Beach, anxious for a cup of coffee, an ocean breeze, and the sound of the rolling surf.

The sea has always felt like home to me, even during the times I've been away from it, and I'm surprised now that I never considered that fact before I decided to make a move. I snapped a picture with my phone camera; it was the only suitable device I could pry out of my packed car. The beauty of the image - even on a lousy camera - tells you how fantastic the sunrise was.

I had breakfast at the Beachcomber, propped my lounge chair on the beach, and fell asleep. I wasn't back in Gainesville yet. But I was home.