5 Fabulous Forts to Bring Your Kids to this Summer!

Everyone’s probably heard of famous Fort McHenry in Baltimore — well worth a visit! This is the fort that was being shelled by the British during the War of 1812, immortalized in Francis Scott Key’s Star-Spangled Banner.

But there are five other fabulous forts worth exploring: three in Maryland, and one each in Delaware and Pennsylvania. This post takes you to nearby forts Washington and Foote, and further afield to Fort Frederick, along the C&O Canal, Fort Delaware on the Delaware River, and Fort Necessity near Farmingham, PA. Each of these forts have very different personalities, making each worthy of being a daytrip destination!

Fascinating Fort Washington

Our first stop is Fort Washington, a War of 1812-era fort which has stood sentinel on the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland, guarding Washington DC through most of this nation’s history, although it didn’t always look like it does now. The original fort, overlooking the Potomac River, was completed in 1809, and was originally called Fort Warburton, but was later renamed.

On August 27, 1812, a British fleet of 10 ships approached the fort, expecting resistance. Alexandrians, living just a few miles up river, expected the fort to defend and protect them. However, Captain Dyson, the commander of the fort, decided his meager troops were no match for the British, and proceeded to abandon the fort, blowing it up as he left. The Brits paused in their journey up the Potomac to finish destroying the fort, and then headed toward Alexandria, VA. (Captain Dyson was subsequently court martialed. He was dismissed from the service, but received no other punishment.)

From this ignominious defeat, though, Fort Washington rose. In 1815, the fort’s rebuilding started, although it would be another nine years before the new fort, now named Fort Washington, was completed.

For a time during the Civil War, Fort Washington was the only defense for the national capital, and it was vitally important, for it controlled movement on the river. Quickly, however, Maj. Gen. John G. Barnard of the Corps of Engineers directed the building of a string of 68 enclosed earthen and wooden forts and batteries to protect all approaches to Washington, including nearby Fort Foote, which I’ll talk about shortly. By the end of the war, 20 miles of rifle pits and more than 30 miles of military roads encircled the city. Ultimately, the fort did not see any action during the war, as it was not a factor in any land campaign and the Confederate Navy never attempted to raid DC from the Potomac River.

Fort Washington served, of one way or another, in each subsequent war, through the end of World War II. In 1946 it was given to the Department of the Interior and became a national park, and many of the newer buildings were torn down, Since that time it has been a public park commemorating the long history of coastal fortifications and serving as a recreational area for history buffs, naturalists, and other park visitors.

Getting there: 13551 Fort Washington Rd, Fort Washington, MD 20744
Website: https://www.nps.gov/fowa/index.htm

Forgotten Fort Foote

Fort Foote, minutes away from Fort Washington by car (and also in Maryland), 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.

Fort Foote was a Civil War-era wood and earthwork fort that was part of the wartime defenses of Washington, D.C., 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.

By river, only Fort Washington blocked the approach along the Potomac River, but at 16 miles from Washington, it was considered too far away to adequately protect DC. 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 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. After the Civil War, new construction of concrete and brickworks transformed it into a federal prison.

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 is operated as Fort Foote Park, 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. 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 not stabilized.

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

Website: https://www.nps.gov/fofo/index.htm

Further Afield to Fort Frederick

North of Frederick and Hagerstown in western Maryland, lies Fort Frederick. Fort Frederick was built in 1756-57 by the colony of Maryland to serve as a frontier fortification during the French and Indian War. Although many period forts were built of wood (George Washington’s Fort Necessity comes to mind), the colonial governor correctly noted that wooden forts burned easily. A fort as far forward on the frontier as Fort Frederick would have to be made of stone to be secure. Its location was carefully chosen for the bend in the Potomac River, which provided an ideal place to protect against incursions by both the native peoples and the French.

It was designed primarily as a place of refuge for area settlers. Between 1757 and 1758, small raids by local Native Americans caused settlers in the surrounding countryside to flee eastward. At the same time, men of the 60th Regiment of Foot and local militia soldiers garrisoned the fort. Ranging parties were sent from the fort to patrol the area and to deter if not prevent raids from hostile Native Americans.

Fort Frederick — not built to withstand artillery — had limited usefulness both during either the  Revolutionary War or the Civil War a hundred years later. During the Revolutionary War, from 1777 to 1783, Fort Frederick was used as a prisoner of war camp. As many as a thousand captured British and German soldiers were incarcerated there after the battles of Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781).

Sold at auction in 1791 and abandoned until the Civil War, it again was briefly garrisoned as a gun emplacement to protect the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which paralleled the canal. The 1st Maryland Infantry (US) occupied the area in December 1861 and Company H fought in a skirmish at the fort against Confederate raiders on Christmas Day, 1861. The regiment left in February 1862. Although in October 1862, a picket from the 12th Illinois Cavalry briefly occupied the area, the military usefulness of the fort had ended as 1862 drew to a close.

Abandoned again, although the surrounding land was farmed, the fort slowly crumbled, until it was acquired in 1922 by the State of Maryland as Maryland’s first state park. The walls had deteriorated but were standing up to 8 feet in places. Archaeological investigations and the discovery of the original plans allowed a complete reconstruction. The Civilian Conservation Corps, instrumental in so many other state parks, completed much of the restoration work in the 1930s.

Getting there: 11100 Fort Frederick Rd, Big Pool, MD 21711
Website: http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/western/fortfrederick.aspx

Fort Necessity

In southwestern Pennsylvania, there’s “A charming field for an encounter,” — supposedly what George Washington said of the marshy, natural meadow surrounded by dense forest. He threw a few logs up, called it a fort, and settled down to await an attack by French troops in the area in what essentially was the beginning of the French and Indian War. The wait wasn’t long — just 30 days, during which time Washington and his men lengthened the new national road by some 14 back-breaking miles.

In 1754, George Washington, a lieutenant colonel already at age 22, set off with his Virginia militia through western Maryland to carve out what became the first federally funded and maintained highway — now U.S. 40. Along the way he engaged with a French patrol. The French called it an ambush, which is how Washington found himself needing Fort Necessity.

A large French reprisal force attacked Fort Necessity and forced Washington to surrender on 4 July — the only time Washington ever surrendered. Washington and his men left, and the French burned the fort. The present day reconstruction is close proximity to what Washington had built.
Getting there: 1 Washington Parkway, Farmington PA 15437
Website: www.nps.gov

Fort Delaware Captivates Our Imaginations

Fort Delaware, now a Delaware state park, is located on Pea Patch Island, in the mouth of the Delaware River. It served as defense for Philadelphia since the early 1800s. The walls stand surrounded by a moat of brackish-looking water, but the fort is an imposing and awesome structure to behold.

Its working life spanned from before the Civil War through the Second World War, but mostly served as a prisoner of war camp during all three major conflicts (most of the Confederates taken prisoner during Gettysburg were confined at Fort Delaware).

The fort offers cannon and musketry demonstrations, although a variety of programs are held throughout most weekend days, including “Feeding Fort Delaware,” a “Living History Tour,” and a “Behind the Scenes Tour.”

Getting there: 45 Clinton Street, Delaware City, DE
Website: destateparks.com

For other day trip destinations, go to the Blog’s Find a Great Place to Day Trip!

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