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Civil War Reenactment To Commemorate 150th Anniversary Of D.C.'s Ft. Stevens

Fort Stevens today.
Armando Trull/WAMU
Fort Stevens today.

This weekend a portion of the District between Georgia Avenue and 13th Street NW will step back in time — and if you're a Civil War buff, you'll want to be there.

Fort Stevens is the one of the remaining fortifications that defended Washington during the Civil War. There are wooden palisades, grassy ramparts, a moat, an underground munitions depot, even a couple of 30-pound guns. "It's the only Fort in the District where a battle during the Civil War took place," explains Jennifer Anselmo Zarles of the National Park Service.

That battle, on July 11-12, 1864, was an attempt by Confederate troops to take Washington, D.C. after Union General Ullyses Grant had emptied the city of troops in an attempt to invade the South. Fort Stevens, which extended from the District for several miles, is where Confederate forces were turned back in fighting that ranged from Rock Creek Park all the way to Wheaton, which renamed as such in honor of a Union commander.

An archival image of the camp at Fort Stevens.

At Fort Stevens, a bronze marker on a two-ton boulder marks another historical first: "Abraham Lincoln was here, he is the only sitting President to ever come under direct enemy fire." While Lincoln survived the experience, a surgeon standing next to him was picked off by a Confederate sniper.

This may have generated a bit of of a yarn over what happened next explains Anselmo-Zarles.

"Someone is reported to have yelled, 'Get down you fool" The legend says it may have been 'you damned fool,'" she says. "Some versions of the tale suggest the helpful hint may have come from future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Union officer at the time who hadn't recognized the 'damned fool' was his Commander-In-Chief."

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle, this weekend the the National Park Service will transform Fort Stevens into what it may have looked like during the battle. On Saturday, there will be living history exhibitions, Union and Confederate camps, a surgeon's tent and "the first firing of a cannon in the District in a fort."

Less than half a mile away lies another portion of Fort Stevens, originally between six and seven acres in size, now surrounded by homes and strip malls. It's the Battleground National Cemetery off of Georgia Avenue NW not far from the old Walter Reed Medical Facility.

"This is the second smallest national cemetery in the system," explains Kim Elder, a NPS ranger. "There are 38 soldiers buried here, all buried after the battle of Fort Stevens."

Small marble headstones, weathered by age, mark the burial places of the soldiers as well as three of their relatives and one veteran of the battle who was buried in 1936. This Sunday, a ceremony will honor those who died by reading their names and placing flags on their graves.


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