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Thirty Years of Accomplishment: A Project from the Past – Fort Stevens

Only one sitting U.S. President has been exposed to enemy gunfire during wartime. That occurred in July 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln traveled on horseback to Fort Stevens in Northwest Washington D.C. Fort Stevens was the northernmost in a ring of 68 forts encircling the capital city to protect it during the Civil War. When General Jubal Early and his corps of 20,000 Confederates snuck across the Potomac River upstream from the capital and circled through Maryland, Fort Stevens became the only one of the forts to come under attack during the war. At that time, Washington, D.C. was being defended by only about 9,000 poorly trained reserves scattered among the forts. Fortunately, the Confederates were detected and the Union Army rushed in veteran reinforcements the night before the Confederate attack. Lincoln was present to spur on the Union troops, and at one point in the battle the 6’4” president was commanded to get down so as not to be shot by the Confederate sharpshooters. Faced with a superior Union force, including supporting cannon fire from Fort DeRussy to the west and Fort Slocum to the east, General Early decided to retreat and return to Virginia.

In 2001 when the direct viewshed of the fort was threatened by a developer planning to build 13 townhouses, NPT sprang into action. NPT negotiated with the developer to purchase the 3-acre parcel for $185,000, less than its assessed value by $40,000. NPT acquired the land on the last day of 2001. However, it was not until September 2003 that the legal transfer of the property to the National Park Service (NPS) was completed. NPS incorporated this land into Rock Creek Park, the nation’s largest urban unit of the NPS, which already included Fort Stevens itself. The neighbors and the board of NPT all gathered at the property for a celebration.

One of NPT’s strongest neighborhood supporters during this entire process were alumni of the Military Road School. This historic school would have been very adversely impacted by the construction of townhouses on the 3-acre parcel which is contiguous to the school. Built in 1911 for educating freed African Americans, the school attracted African American children in the upper northwest section of the District of Columbia as well as the surrounding towns in Maryland. The Military Road School remained in use through 1954 when school segregation ended. It has recently been fully renovated and serves today as a very popular D.C. public charter school.

Fort Stevens now serves as an educational center for interpretation of the battle, while the Military Road School conveys its own rich African American history. As the battle that took place in 1864 prepares to mark it's 150th anniversary in 2014, NPT is proud to have been involved in the preservation of this national treasure.