For a few hours on May 20, the military occupation of Alexandria will recommence. Confederate sympathies will be banished, and an invading force of Connecticut Yankees will once again occupy Fort Ward.
Re-enactors will have a blast portraying the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery as they interpret the defense of Washington, occupying the high ground on Braddock Road — protecting the area between Duke Street and King Street.
“The forts were part of a system that was designed to overlap,” said Wally Owen, assistant director of Fort Ward. “In order to protect Washington, you needed to protect the Virginia heights.”
Fort Ward was one of 68 forts that were designed to protect the entrance and exit to the Union capital. The position on Braddock Road fortified Fort Worth to the south and Fort Reynolds to the north — an overlapping defense that protected the political center of the Union from invasion. From 1862 to 1864, the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery occupied the fort in an effort to prevent a Confederate attack on Washington, D.C.
“It was kind of a generalization of the period that the North was known for its artillery and the South was known for its cavalry,” said Owen. “The idea was that the farm boys from the North were more mechanically inclined. It was a kind of Yankee ingenuity.”
THE OCCUPATION OF ALEXANDRIA was critical to the defense of the capital. In “Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War,” historian Ernest Ferguson explained the day-to-day significance of Alexandria’s occupation. From the perspective of Washington, Ferguson wrote, the invasion of Alexandria was one of the harsh realities of war.
“Across the Potomac around Alexandria, troops were blocking every road with brush and barriers, and now and then residents hear of a civilian accidentally killed by gunners drilling,” Ferguson wrote.
His 2004 book examined the Washington area during the Civil War, which split the loyalties of the region. In northern Virginia, where Confederate sympathy ran high, the Union forces did everything in their power to crush the spirit of the rebel forces.
“In the week after Union forces took Arlington and Alexandria, they not only dug forts but sent scouts out every roadway, seeking and finding Confederate pickets, provoking brief skirmishes,” Ferguson wrote. “The Confederate cavalrymen caught in Alexandria were moved from the slave pen there to the brig at the Navy Yard and then into Washington’s city jail, known as the ‘blue jug,’ on Fourth Street near G, north of Judiciary Square.”
MEANWHILE, THE DEFENSE of Washington was a top priority for the Connecticut soldiers stationed at Fort Ward. The garrison included three companies, including one major, 12 commissioned officers, one ordnance sergeant and 401 men. According to one contemporaneous report in the Civil War archive at the Library of Congress, the discipline of the company was “fair,” and the garrison was “sufficient for the work.”
Objects on display at Fort Ward on May 20 include a rare replica Confederate cannon manufactured at Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Visitors can expect to see a replication of what life was like for the artillery soldiers who spent two years in Alexandria.
“The re-enactors are going to set up tents and talk about how the soldiers lived,” Owen said. “They’ll have a mail call and show people what the day-to-day experience was like.”
The highlight of the Fort Ward event will be the artillery demonstrations, when a replica cannon will be firing blanks toward the south. A team of specialists will carefully load the 3-inch ordnance rifle and fire the $20,000 reproduction.
“It’s quite an elaborate ordeal to see all the steps that are involved,” Owen said. “This is a very good unit of re-enactors, and they do a great job of explaining the projectiles to the public.”
This is the fourth year that the 1st Connecticut has interpreted the occupation of Fort Ward, and Owen has one bit of wisdom to impart to all visitors.
“Please turn your car alarms off,” he said. “Inevitably, people are scrambling to the parking lot after the first shot is fired.”