Forgotten Fort Foote

I happened upon Fort Foote accidentally. I was on my way to Fort Washington, which I’d visited with my two sons years ago. I saw signs for Fort Foote and since I had all afternoon at my disposal, I turned and followed the signs to the fort.

Fort Foote was constructed in 1863 on top of Rozier’s Bluff, 100 feet above the Potomac River below, to strengthen the ring of fortifications that encircled Washington, D.C. Two of the guns that protected Washington are still there, along with the remains of the fort’s earthworks.

Fort Foote was a Civil War-era wood and earthwork fort that composed a portion of the wartime defenses of Washington, D.C., by helping defend the Potomac River approach to the city. It remained in service well after the Civil War, and concrete and brick improvements were made to the fort, the ruins of which still remain.

In the opening days of the Civil War, the defenses of Washington D.C. were primarily concerned with an overland attack on the capital city of the United States. In 1861, the Arlington Line was constructed to help defend the city from attack via the direct, Virginia approach. Additional forts were constructed on the city’s northern approaches to defend against any attacks from Maryland. But most of these forts were earth and log forts — temporary for the period of the war. 

At sea, or rather, by river, however, only Fort Washington, a fort originally built to defend the city in the War of 1812, blocked the approach along the Potomac River, but at 16 miles from Washington, it was considered too far away to adequately protect the Capitol. Rozier’s Bluff, just 6 miles away from Washington, was considered ideal, and so Fort Foote was built.
Construction began in the winter of 1862–1863, but progressed slowly. By fall 1863, the fort was complete, and was ready for action. Due to its location along the coast, the use of iron in the fortifications was limited, and most of the fort was constructed of earth and locally cut lumber.
It was named after Union Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote, who distinguished himself in actions against Confederate forts along the Mississippi River but died of his wounds on June 23, 1863.

The portion of the fort that faced the Potomac was over 500 feet long with earth walls approximately 20 feet thick. A central traverse ran the length of the fort and contained bombproof magazines and storage areas for the eight 200-pounder Parrott rifles and two 15-inch Rodman guns contained in the fort.

The guns themselves came in dribs and drabs, due to delays in casting and the demands of guns needed for combat in Virginia. The first 15-inch Rodman gun arrived in late 1863, and others arrived at various points over the next two years. The fort was not completely armed until April 1865, just before the final surrender of Confederate forces in Virginia,

Fort Foote never fired a shot against any opponent, Confederate or otherwise. With the end of the war, the Federal government began turning over Washington’s forts and the land on which they rested to their pre-war owners. In a few cases, the Federal government chose to retain possession; Fort Foote was one of those exceptions. New construction of concrete and brickworks was required to fulfill its role as a federal prison, which it performed between 1868 and 1869.

During the First World War, the fort was used for gas service training, and during the Second World War, the site was used by officer candidates from Fort Washington. 

Today, what’s left of the fort is operated as Fort Foote Park, which is maintained by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) as part of the National Capital Parks-East system. It is not a popular tourist site. The park has the look and feel of a poorly maintained regional park rather than an NPS park; other than a few signs posted near the parking lot (which I freely cribbed from for this post), there is little explanation of what you are seeing. After researching the park, I’m guessing that the concrete ruins are from the post-Civil War period, when it served briefly as a prison. It seems a shame that at least the area around the ruins aren’t being maintained. It’s almost as if the NPS doesn’t expect anyone to actually go there.
Fishing and picnicking along the Potomac River are the draw for all those I encountered that mid-April Sunday afternoon — everyone but me at cooler chests and fishing poles. I toured the abandoned earthworks and concrete ruins near the two Rodman guns completely alone. Vines and weeds grew among the ruins and fallen trees marred the earthworks. Nature is slowly reclaiming its own on this historic site.
So why go see it? The views of the Potomac River from the bluff are amazing. But also go to explore the history and to understand the times in which it was built. This was one of 60-odd (numbers I’ve seen vary) Civil War forts built to protect DC from Confederate forces and is a part of our national history.

Know before you go: Wear proper shoes, and because of the condition of the ruins and overgrowth, be alert for snakes amidst the ruins. Entering the ruins, although theoretically possible, is not advised — these ruins are crumbling.

Getting there: Fort Foote Rd, Fort Washington, MD 20744

Dogs: Yes

Hours: Dawn to dusk.