“We’re on the eve of an impending civil war,” Michael Rierson told the audience of about 30 people on Sept. 20. “Living in Fairfax County would be very stressful.” If the Confederate Army had marched into Fairfax and Alexandria at the outset of the Civil War, it could have occupied an extraordinarily strategic position from which to attack Washington.
Rierson, a director for the Fairfax County Park Authority, was speaking at a public information session about Fort Willard Circle in Belle View. He said that in 1861, 10,000 U.S. troops crossed the river into Fairfax and, faced with “the prospect of the Confederate army marching down the turnpikes,” set about urgently fortifying the “gateway into the federal capitol.” They built a series of 63 forts, layered concentrically around D.C. Some were large firebases, bristling with cannon, bunkers and troops, others were the simplest of redoubts: a mound of earth, a few felled trees, a handful of infantrymen sheltered in lean-to’s.
Fort Willard was somewhere in-between. It was built in 1862 and named after Col. George Willard, killed at Gettysburg. At just over one acre, it was considered “small,” Rierson said. Its troops periodically dragged freshly downed trees onto its walls, their limbs facing outwards to entangle charging troops. But the fort’s armament reflected its strategic location. Placed on the high ground a mile east of the Potomac and about the same distance south of Alexandria, soldiers in Fort Willard would see anything that passing down the Accotink Turnpike or King’s Highway. Soldiers in the fort “could reach out and touch somebody at a far distance trying to come up the turnpikes,” Rierson said, using 24-pound siege guns, 12-pound howitzers and 10-inch siege mortars. “It was a fort of substantial armament and firepower.”
Its might was never tested. By 1862, there were 80,000 union troops and 50,000 Confederates camped in Fairfax. The county was almost entirely denuded, its forests transformed into fortifications, buildings, and smoke. But the Confederate Army never made a strong push in the southern part of the county. For soldiers in regiments from Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin, life at Fort Willard was one of “absolute, total, tedious boredom and work,” according to Rierson. Much of their time was spent maintaining the walls, which always washed out after storms. “This was not a high excitement assignment.”
In the century and a half since the war ended, the trees grew back, only to be cut down again to become subdivisions and shopping complexes. Of the 63 forts, 59 fell prey to development, relic hunters, roads and erosion. The high ground around Fort Willard became the Belle View neighborhood. But the fort survived. It became a traffic circle owned by Gene Olmi, who built much of the neighborhood. He eventually donated it to the County Park Authority, and in 1978, it was dedicated as a park.
28 YEARS LATER, the Park Authority is beginning the process of considering what it wants Fort Willard Circle to become. And 144 years after Fort Willard was built, it may finally be in the midst of a battle.
District Supervisor Gerry Hyland opened the meeting and declared himself “thrilled at the turn-out. I think its indicative of the strength of your community.” As the meeting went on, it became clear that although there were many community members with a vision for the park, there was no consensus on what that vision was.
Olmi has been one of key voices advocating for the renewal of the fort. “Its not a park, it’s a historic site,” he said, objecting to Park Authority terminology.
But many of the park’s neighbors disagree. Will Elwood said he feared that the park’s plans to excavate the fort would entail the destruction of the neighborhood’s small patch of the natural world. “Right now this park is a little oasis of green in the middle of our community.”
Rierson said The Park Authority hopes to clean up some of the dense tree-cover and vegetation that covers most of the one-acre circle. Rierson said it hoped to clear about 20 percent of the earthworks and install several model cannon. It would also begin an ongoing archaeology project, while still leaving much of the park in its wild state, though cleared of its dead trees.
Sarah Moore, said that if all the dead trees were removed, there would be no habitat for pileated woodpeckers. Lucy Lamb saw things differently. “Its an overgrown, bee-infested, poison-ivy infested circle,” she said. “At a minimum, fix it up. Make it a nice place.”
Anne Diamond took another tack, one that drew approval from other audience members. She said that she and her husband had lived beside the circle for 30 years. Before the Park Authority took it over, Fort Willard attracted people from outside the neighborhood who zoomed around on their bikes, allowed their dogs to use neighboring lawns as a toilet and disregarding the safety of young children, including hers. She worried that if the Park Service restored the park too thoroughly, by installing a playground or picnic tables for instance, the park would again draw disrespectful people to the neighborhood. “It’s a historical site,” she said. “Leave it like it is. It’s quiet. It’s nice. That’s what we want.”
“This is really an area for local residents,” said park planning manager Sandy Stallman, after hearing several more comments in the same vein. “That’s important for us to hear.”
Carol Ambrose said she wished for a community park “where we can take our three-, five- and nine-year-olds.” She agreed that she did not want the park to become a “magnet,” but said she had a “strong interest in some benches, some minimal kind of playground equipment that would be available for the children to use.”
Carolyn Gernand said she walks by the park frequently, and is curious about its history. “I’m struck with the desire to know what did it look like, a sense of scale.” She said a simple walking path along the fort’s edge would help her “visualize that incredible little spot.”
A plan for the park’s refurbishment has already been commissioned by the Belle View Citizens Association. Architectural drawings show a winding path around the perimeter, set with benches, a new sign and neatly trimmed vegetation.
But at this stage of the planning process, no plan has been firmly set. And nothing will happen without money. The Park Authority has agreed to pay the costs of a master plan, but the remaining funds must come from outside sources. $35,000 have already been donated to the project. The remainder must come from federal or state government, independent organizations, civil war groups and private donations. Rierson said there is no possibility of budgeting money from the county until 2008. Depending on the final plans, Rierson estimated the park project will require $400,000 to $700,000.