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The Guns of November

Fort Ward remembers Union soldiers on Veterans Day.

Veterans Day wasn’t created until the end of World War I, when an armistice ended the War to End All Wars on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — Nov. 11, 1918. Yet the valor and sacrifice of veterans is a universal source of pride that long precedes 1918. This was the message of Fort Ward’s special Veteran’s Day tour of the Civil War Union encampment.

“Because this is Veterans’ Day, we are going to emphasize the life of the soldiers,” said Kevin Moriarty, who led a special Veterans’ Day tour of the Alexandria fort. “The men who were stationed here began their military careers as being part of an infantry unit, although they were later converted to a heavy artillery unit.”

Moriarty began the tour in the fort’s museum, where he showed participants examples of the kind of things soldiers might carry around with them on a daily basis. Inside of the glass-enclosed display case, viewers could see rifles, knapsacks, mess kits and even a chess set. Moriarty explained that the uniforms worn by the Union soldiers had a color-coded system: blue for infantry, yellow for cavalry and red for artillery.

“The most important thing you were issued was your coffee cup,” Moriarty explained. “And the biggest killer was disease. So the worst thing wasn’t going up against your enemy, it was being in close quarters with your friends.”

DRESSED IN A UNION artillery soldier’s uniform, Moriarty then moved the tour outside to show participants the officer’s hut. He explained that President Abraham Lincoln was extremely concerned about the homeland security of the nation’s capital, which was just across the river from Confederate Virginia. On May 24, 1861, federal troops invaded Northern Virginia to begin construction on a series of forts to serve as supply bases south of the Potomac River. Fort Ward was one of many encampments that circled the capital city, cutting off any approach that enemy troops might have tried to use.

“They worked as advertised, and the only attempt at invasion came when Jubal Early tried — unsuccessfully — to get through Fort Stevens,” Moriarty said. “Many people think that the presence of Fort Ward prevented the Confederates from plotting an invasion through Alexandria.”

Construction of Fort Ward began in July 1861, immediately after the Union Army’s defeat at the Battle of First Manassas. The fort was completed in September 1861, and it was named for Commander James Ward — the first Union naval officer to die in the Civil War. The initial earthwork fort had a perimeter of 540 yards and emplacements for 24 guns. By the time the war ended in April 1865, the fort had a perimeter of 818 yards and emplacements for 36 guns. It was abandoned in December 1865, and federal officials auctioned salvageable materials.

“They guys here at Fort Ward weren’t really happy about being changed to a heavy artillery unit because artillery soldiers were seen as grunts,” Moriarty said. “But as the war dragged on, they developed a certain pride in their craft. And they began to look at themselves as technicians.”

AFTER THE TOUR was over, participants lingered to ask questions or enjoy the crisp autumn day. Moriarty went into greater detail about the process of loading the cannons as children played along the edge of the bastion. As a helicopter flew overhead, Moriarty made a joke that it could be Confederates invading. A gentle breeze brought leaves to the ground as Barbara Barry reflected on the experience.

“This was such a surprise to find out about this,” Barry said. “I just found out about this tour this morning.”

Barry said that her daughter had just recently moved to Alexandria. While visiting on the holiday weekend, she and her husband were looking for something interesting to do outside of Washington, D.C. They came to Fort Ward to learn about history, participate in Veterans Day and see something new.

“For a small museum, this is very nice,” Barry said. “This is probably one of the nicest little museums I’ve ever come across.”

For one of the participants, the Veterans Day tour of Fort Ward had a special meaning. Eric Stiller is an artillery officer with the modern-day Army. While touring the fort, he was amazed at how much continuity exists over the 150 years. As the tour drew to a close, he said that much of the nomenclature is the same and that many of the concepts are similar.

“A lot of the artillery principals are virtually the same,” Stiller said, examining a 24-pound Howitzer. “Only today we use a 155-millimeter gun.”