An Underappreciated Story
Bull Run. Vicksburg. Antietam. The names of these famous American Civil War battles ring out through history, but did you know that one of the most critical battles of the war took place right here in Washington, DC? In fact, if you are reading this from your home in Shepherd Park or Takoma, it is possible that the Confederate “Army of the Valley” encamped right in your backyard! On Saturday, July 8th, the National Park Service commemorated the 153rd Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens. American Civil War history buffs and local residents enjoyed a beautiful, breezy day as they took in demonstrations, period music and a visit to the Battleground National Cemetery.
A Day of New Experiences
From the start, the grounds of Fort Stevens buzzed with activity. Under the big tent, Park Service Program Manager Kym Elder opened the program with a hearty welcome. Musical presentations, and comments from Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, portrayed by Ken Serfas and Frank Orlando, followed. The keynote speech, given by Civil War scholar Dr. Edna Greene Medford, was entitled, “Arc to Equality – Civil War to Civil Rights”. Dr. Greene Medford is the current chair of Howard University’s Department of History and the author of several books on 19th century African-American life.
After the lectures, the action moved to the battlefield, or rather the parade ground. Fully garbed reenactors led an expert demonstration of rifle handing and firing. Witnessing the precision and coordination required to turn these early firearms into a shower of deadly flying lead was quite impressive.
Among the many living demonstrations that were present, Dr. Jon Willen displayed artifacts from his antique Civil War era medical device collection. Mr. Kevin Knapp shared the adventures of Thaddeus Lowe, Balloon Corp Aeronaut. Can you imagine doing reconnaissance work over a live battlefield while flying in this basket?
A Walk Through History
Later, a large group of attendees walked about a half mile from the Fort to the current site of the Walter Reed campus. An amazing fact about this multi-block stroll is that it represented the distance that Confederate sharpshooters were firing at Fort Stevens – 1,000 yards! In fact, we visited the exact spot where those snipers climbed in a tree and nearly shot President Abraham Lincoln as he watched the battle. The fort surgeon was hit instead. That is a shot that certainly would have changed the course of history. Ranger Steve from the Park Service did a marvelous job storytelling and recounting the reasons why General Lee sent Jubal Early and his army to attack Washington in the first place. The actions of individual commanders and soldiers made all the difference during that two day battle.
The day’s journey ended at the Battleground National Cemetery on Georgia Avenue, where 41 Union soldiers are buried. Neighbor and local historian Gordon Berg gave a touching tribute to the men who were laid to rest in America’s third smallest National Cemetery. Their stories, and those of their Confederate contemporaries, are heart-touching. Proceedings concluded with the laying of flags at the grave markers. A bugler played “Taps” as we recessed.
In summary, I certainly learned a lot of new information from this visit to this important local historical resource. This day has sparked an interest in learning more about the Civil War period and visiting other nearby battlefields. I am looking forward to next year’s event!