Staycation through history: The Civil War in your backyard

A vintage photo of Fort Stevens during the Civil War.During the Civil War, Union soldiers defended Washington, DC, at Fort Stevens.

Watching the Ken Burns series is certainly not the only way to learn about the Civil War.  High-energy children seldom have the patience to sit through such documentaries, and even adults can get restless after too many pans and zooms across historical photographs.  Outings to Gettysburg, Antietam and Harper’s Ferry are fun the first time, but are tourist hot spots and can be quite a trek.  Luckily, there are plenty of local Civil War sites to visit that are fun and active, and keep you close to home — not as close as your living room couch in front of the television, but not quite as far as West Virginia.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so there are plenty of opportunities for organized or individual sesquicentennial celebrations.

Sugarloaf Mountain is about an hour’s drive from Takoma Park, but is the perfect destination for a day trip for a change of scenery and a low-key history lesson.  For the majority of the war, the Union controlled Sugarloaf, using it as a “lookout post watching the Potomac,” said David Webster, executive secretary-treasurer for Stronghold, Inc., which owns Sugarloaf Mountain.

Its high peak made it a valuable position for communication through flag semaphore, he explained. The area is open year-round for scenic hiking and horseback riding and offers perfect picnic spots.

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Nearby in Alexandria, the Fort Ward Museum preserves part of the system of Union forts built to protect Washington, D.C. during the Civil War.  The museum houses exhibits on various aspects of the Civil War, and on August 13, hosts the Fort Ward Civil War Camp Day, teaching families about the war through demonstrations of military drills and daily activities.  Re-enactors demonstrate the artillery and clothing of Civil War soldiers, and also teach children about toys and games of the time period.  For only $5 for adults and $10 for families with children, visitors get to witness both military and civilian life during the Civil War.

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However, life for others of that era meant constantly evading capture, as slaves navigated their way North through the Underground Railroad. Families can retrace part of that dangerous path on guided hikes with the Underground Railroad Experience Trail, which spans two miles to historic Sandy Spring and is open Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to noon. It’s recommended for children at least eight years old.

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A trip to the Potomac River is also a great way to experience our area’s Civil War history. Hiking along the C&O Canal or boating down the river are both active, family-friendly ways to walk on the ground (or paddle the river) so essential to the events of the Civil War.  Both armies used the Potomac for transportation, but also found it to be a significant obstacle to maneuvering their troops.  Rent a couple of kayaks or canoes for a day and experience the river in much greater safety and leisure than did our ancestors.

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Daytrips to Baltimore this summer offer much more than the usual aquarium trip; the Baltimore Riot Walking Tour, which follows six historical markers that trace the path of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment as they traveled through Baltimore on their way to Washington, D.C., during which the Union soldiers were met with hostility from Confederate sympathizers, and the standoff resulted in a two-hour battle which came to be known as the Baltimore Riot.

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Fort Slocum Park is another less well-known site that is worth a visit.  This urban forest preserves the first Civil War fort to retaliate against the Confederates, during an attack on the nearby Fort Stevens. The park has open fields and winding wooded trails to explore, along with picnic tables for relaxing in the shade.  The historic marker established by the National Park Service gives a quick history of Fort Slocum’s role in the war—just enough information to know where you are but not too much to spoil a kid’s day at the park.

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Forts DeRussy and Stevens also defended Washington, D.C. during the Civil War and are preserved to give visitors a glimpse into their historical past.  Both sites are run by the U.S. National Park Service, so the rangers are knowledgeable and eager to discuss the history of the forts.  Fort Stevens, located near Georgia Avenue at 13th Street,  came under Confederate fire in July of 1864 and the soldiers at Fort DeRussy quickly came to its aid.  Fort Stevens now features several Civil War-era cannons, and at Fort DeRussy, the trenches dug by infantrymen are still clearly visible.

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Civil War history in our area is more than the major battles and locations described in history textbooks; it is also comprised of less momentous events that still remain a significant part of our past.  Visiting such sites teaches us how the Civil War touched our community and how that history is still a part of our culture today.

A vintage photo of Fort Stevens during the Civil War.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers defended Washington, DC, at Fort Stevens.


About the Author

Laura Anthony
Laura Anthony was a 2011 summer intern at The Voice, reporting on local trends and culture. She is currently a student at the University of Pennsylvania.