Everyone’s probably heard of famous Fort McHenry in Baltimore, which tells the story of the War of 1812 and is immortalized in Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner.”
But seven other fabulous forts are worth exploring in the mid-Atlantic region: three in Maryland, and two each in Delaware and Pennsylvania. Each fort has a unique history and offers a unique experience, making each worthy of being a daytrip destination! Follow the trail from the Delaware River to western PA… a journey of a scant 6 hours that leads you through three centuries of American history, through most of our country’s major wars, from World War II to the French and Indian War.
Atlantic Sentinel Fort Miles
Throughout WW II, Fort Miles kept watch on our Atlantic Coast and the mouth of the Delaware River in Delaware, a vital defense for the Delaware Bay and the oil refineries and factories on its shores, as well as the city of Philadelphia further up the Delaware River. One of the largest and most heavily armed coastal fortifications ever built in the United States, the remnants are now incorporated into Cape Henlopen State Park. Along the beach are the old concrete look-outs, several of which you can still climb up.
Today you can check out the Fort Miles Museum, which includes Battery 519, six barracks buildings, a fire control tower, an orientation building, and the Fort Miles Artillery Park. The museum tells the story of Fort Miles, a key piece of our nation’s coastal defense, from World War II through the early 1970s.
Getting there: 15099 Cape Henlopen Drive, Lewes, DE
To get to Fort Delaware, you must start in Delaware City, DE, where you pick up the ferry to Pea Patch Island, to visit Fort Delaware State Park, in the mouth of the Delaware River. The fort served as defense for Philadelphia since the early 1800s. Its walls are surrounded by a moat and is an imposing and awesome structure; its guns once looked out over the river.
It served from before the Civil War through the World War II, but primarily as a prisoner of war camp during all three major conflicts (most of the Confederates taken prisoner during Gettysburg were confined on Pea Patch Island). During World War II, it guarded the Delaware River from incursions by enemy submarines.
Getting there: 45 Clinton Street, Delaware City, DE
Fascinating Fort Washington
Fort Washington, a War of 1812-era fort which has stood sentinel on the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland, guarded Washington DC through most of this nation’s history.
Briefly during the Civil War, Fort Washington was the only defense for the national capital, and was vitally important, for it controlled movement on the river. Fort Washington served in each subsequent war, through World War II. In 1946 it became a national park, and since then, it has commemorated the long history of coastal fortifications and served as a recreational area for history buffs, naturalists, and other park visitors. It is one of the most complete forts of that era to survive, making it a fascinating place to explore for kids of all ages.
Getting there: 13551 Fort Washington Rd, Fort Washington, MD 20744
Just 15 minutes and just under 7 miles away is Fort Foote, making these two forts a natural pair for a daytrip into the past!
Forgotten Fort Foote
If you enjoy ruins, then you need to head to Fort Foote, a wood and earthwork fort minutes away from Fort Washington (and also in Maryland), was constructed in 1863 on top of Rozier’s Bluff, above the Potomac River, to strengthen the fortifications that encircled Washington, D.C. Two of the massive guns that protected Washington are still there.
Fort Foote remained in service well after the Civil War, and concrete and brick improvements were made to the fort, the ruins of which are all that remain. Vines and weeds grow among the ruins and fallen trees mar the earthworks. Nature is slowly reclaiming 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 vary) Civil War forts built to protect DC from Confederate forces and is a part of our national history.
Getting there: Fort Foote Rd, Fort Washington, MD 20744
Frontier Fort Frederick
Built in 1756-57 to serve as a frontier fortification during the French and Indian War, Fort Frederick in western Maryland provided an ideal place to protect against incursions by both the native peoples and the French. The stone fort served as refuge for area settlers and a prison for British soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
After the Civil War, it was abandoned until the State of Maryland acquired it and made it the state’s first state park in 1922. Now fully reconstructed, there are frequently living history exhibits about musketry and what it was like to live during the colonial era that make it the perfect destination for kids and adults.
Getting there: 11100 Fort Frederick Rd, Big Pool, MD 21711
Washington Needed Fort Necessity
In southwestern Pennsylvania, there’s “A charming field for an encounter,” — supposedly what George Washington, a lieutenant colonel already at age 22, said of the marshy meadow surrounded by dense forest in western Pennsylvania. In 1754, he threw a few logs up, called it a fort, and settled down to await an attack by French troops in what essentially was the beginning of the French and Indian War. The wait wasn’t long — just 30 days.
A few months earlier, young Washington had set off with his Virginia militia through western Maryland to carve out what is now U.S. 40. Along the way he engaged with a French patrol. The French called it an ambush, which is why Washington found himself needing Fort Necessity.
The French eventually attacked and forced Washington to surrender on 4 July — the only time he ever surrendered. The present day reconstruction at the Fort Necessity National Battlefield is close to what Washington had built, and provides insight into the start of the French and Indian War, as well as colonial history.
Getting there: 1 Washington Parkway, Farmington PA 15437
Just down the road is Fort Ligonier — and the two forts make a great pairing for a fun and educational daytrip!
Fort Ligonier Is a Fabulous Daytrip!
Fort Ligonier is a French and Indian War-era British fortification that served as a staging area and a post of passage for fortifications further west, such as Fort Pitt. Native American and French forces attacked the fort just once during the French and Indian War. In the Battle of Fort Ligonier, also known as the Battle of Loyalhanna, on October 12, 1758, the British successfully repulsed an attack on the fort, which was still under construction at the time.
The fort was subsequently attacked twice by Native American forces during Pontiac’s War, which was launched in 1763 by a loose confederation of Native American tribes who were dissatisfied with British postwar policies after the British victory in the French and Indian War. It was abandoned a few years later.
Fort Ligonier has been lovingly reconstructed, and you can spend a couple of hours exploring the buildings and sections. Today you can see the reconstructed fort and adjacent museum, which has exhibits about and artifacts from the French and Indian War, putting it into the perspective of the entire British/French conflict in Europe; about life in the fort; and about the hardships of living on what was then the western frontier.
Getting there: 200 S Market St, Ligonier, PA 15658