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It’s hard to imagine Confederate forces marching down what’s now Georgia Avenue to attack Washington, but that’s exactly what happened 150 years this summer. Gen. Jubal Early’s troops were halted by Union soldiers at Washington’s Fort Stevens, where a two-day skirmish convinced Early not to continue on to attack the capital. On the sesquicentennial of the only Civil War battle in D.C., we’ll explore why a free black woman gave up her land to build the fort, and how President Lincoln came under enemy fire when he showed up to watch the battle.
- Loretta Neumann Vice President, Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington
- Kym Elder Program Manager for Civil War Defenses of Washington, National Park Service
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, poetry's impact on our lives. We'll talk with the editor of the Washington based collection Poet Lore. But first, it's hard to imagine today Confederate troops marching down what's now Georgia Avenue on their way to attack the Capitol. Engaging with Union troops at Fort Stevens in Northwest Washington. Even firing at President Abraham Lincoln who was standing atop the ramparts to watch the fight.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut this month marks the 150th anniversary of that fight. The only Civil War skirmish that took place inside Washington. Union troops stood their ground and turned back the southern soldiers, defending the capital and the president. Now, local historians are trying to do better to preserve the remnants of more than a dozen local Civil War forts by putting them all under the management of the National Parks Service. Joining me to look at the local significance of this Civil War Sesquicentennial is Loretta Neumann, vice president of the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Loretta, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again.
MS. LORETTA NEUMANNThank you.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Kym Elder, Program Manager for Civil War Defenses of Washington with the National Parks Service. Kym Elder, thank you for joining us.
MS. KYM ELDERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about this momentous event, or about any of the other forts around Washington, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What's your favorite, your favorite Civil War fort in the Washington area? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Kym, how did the Confederate troops, under the command of General Jubal Early, come to be marching down Georgia Avenue, then called Seventh Street Pike, on July 11, 1864?
ELDERJubal Early had his troops headed down from the Fredrick, Md area. Had just leaving Monocacy National Battlefield on July 7, 8 and 9. They had a battle up there, as well. And they actually were very victorious there in Monocacy National Battlefield, and their goal was to, of course, capture the nation's capitol. Their goal was the White House.
NNAMDISo, they were on their way here, Loretta Neumann. What did General Early and his troops encounter when they got to Fort Stevens?
NEUMANNWell, I would like to start back a ways, if you -- because it is part of a larger campaign.
NEUMANNIt actually starts with General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union General was holding forth, he was holding siege to Petersburg. And against General Lee from the Confederates. And Lee was concerned because he wasn't doing so well. And he's a very bold man and he had a bold idea and that was to send one of his Generals, General Jubal Early, up north and then enter Washington. Attack Washington, if possible, take it. But even the attack itself would be worth the political value with the north. They were trying very hard to get the north to want to let them stay seceded and create a separate country.
NEUMANNAt any rate, Early started down in Lynchburg, went through the Shenandoah Valley, went all the way to Harper's Ferry, then to Frederick, and then as Kym said, to Monocacy, where he engaged with General Lew Wallace. And then headed down, and by that time, it was July 11, 10?
NEUMANNYeah, July 10. He started down to Gaithersburg, then to Rockville. Had originally -- down the Rockville Pike. Had intended, originally, to continue coming down towards Fort Reno, but saw how well -- big Fort Reno was, how fortified it was, and decided to head to the east, over what is now Veersno (sp?) Road. Then down Georgia Avenue, what's now Georgia Avenue, was Seventh Street Road, and then ended up in front of Fort Stevens. So that's -- excuse me.
NNAMDIAnd when he got to Fort Stevens, what did he encounter there?
NEUMANNWhat he encountered was -- what he would have encountered was practically nothing, because they were invalids there, and most of the troops had been stripped of Washington, and sent down to help Grant in Petersburg. And one of Lee's goals was to have him send his troops back up to Washington from Petersburg, which he did. He sent them by steamboat, and they arrived as the other troops, as the Confederates were arriving. So fortunately, they were able to get there in time to save us on the 11. But it was very close. The Battle of Monocacy did delay them for a day that was critical.
NNAMDIKym Elder, I'll tell you what I found surprising. That President Lincoln came out to Fort Stevens to watch both days of fighting. And apparently was almost hit by enemy fire. Why was he there and tell us what happened?
ELDERWell, President Lincoln and his First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln actually visited on the July 11 date. They came out to offer moral support to the soldiers. Again, we had never thought that the city would have come this close to an actual battle. And so, our Commander In Chief thought, let me go out and offer some support to the soldiers and to see for myself what was going on out at Fort Stevens. So again, he and Mary Todd Lincoln came out on both the 11, and then the President returned on the 12.
NNAMDINow apparently, at one point, his support got a little too enthusiastic, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice was then a young officer, and apparently, he -- what did he say to the President?
ELDERWell, we believe that it may have been Wendell Holmes Oliver. It may have been others. We're not sure. That myth goes on and on and there are a number of folks who say they were there and told the President to get down, you darn fool.
NNAMDI(laugh) I love that. Repeat it. Get down, you damn fool. Of course, Holmes would eventually serve, if it was he, as a Justice on the Supreme Court between 1902 and 1932. What was the result of the battle at Fort Stevens? How did the Union troops turn back the Confederate forces?
ELDERWell, as Loretta noted, on the July 11, the fort was not at all prepared for the General Jubal Early's troops. In fact, as she sort of eluded to, there were -- it was almost a call for any and everyone who could hold a weapon to come up and show up on the 11 out there at Fort Stevens. So, soldiers from the Soldiers Home were called out. Veterans were called out. Just about anyone, again, as I noted, that could hold a weapon.
NNAMDIWell, I live in that neighborhood now. You're suggesting that if I lived in that neighborhood then, I would probably have been called up.
ELDERYou probably would have been called out. Yes, in fact, Brightwood residents were on hand to assist in any way possible. So, until the evening of July 11, when the troops came up from Petersburg, as was just mentioned, there was really not a lot of support. And so again, on the 12, fortunately, we had enough reinforcement from the Unions to actually have Jubal Early retreat back down the Seventh Street Pike.
NNAMDII was 150 some years too young. Go ahead.
NEUMANNWell, I just wanted to add that the fact that Jubal Early's troops had just marched two days, 40 miles in the hottest summer weather and muggy weather that they'd had, in these wool uniforms. They were really tired, and many of them fell by the wayside because of, you know, exhaustion. And heat stroke. And so, he had -- he could have entered, he could have had an attack on the 11.
NEUMANNAnd we, again, didn't have many soldiers up there at Fort Stevens, but had he done it, he probably would have had a hard time because his soldiers were not fit for attack. And he realized that, and he did not attack. He decided not to, he wanted to wait until the 12. And then, by the 12, he looked up and saw that the soldiers had come and he could see the uniformed soldiers at Fort Stevens and said he couldn't attack. So, that's what happened.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What's your favorite Civil War fort in the Washington area? Have you ever participated in or gone to watch a Civil War reenactment? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's hear what John in Chevy Chase, Md., has on his mind. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNKojo, as I told the person who took my call, I find it amazing how, sort of, this attitude toward secession has not really changed all that much in 150 years. Would have been a very (unintelligible) . I saw a striking demonstration of it at the ceremonies on Saturday when a Confederate Color Guard, that were arrayed on a little horizon hidden in the forts, strung out. When the people in the big tent, when the entertainer there got everybody to sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," these guys just turned their back to the whole business.
NNAMDIWas that a part of the performance, by any chance?
ELDERNo, that was not a part -- they were, in fact, invited, by the National Parks Service, and then that was their choice when they arrived. But they were, in fact, invited. We did, in fact, make a great effort to have both Union and Confederate re-enactors there. That's again a part of the history.
NNAMDIAnd as John is saying, they were reflecting the sentiments that they hold, until today?
ELDERThat is correct.
NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Kym, at the height of the Civil War, Washington was ringed by, it is my understanding, some 68 forts. Not only did they successfully deter any more attacks on the capital, they provided a safe haven to slaves who escaped and came to Washington. How did the existence of the forts here change the culture and change the population of Washington?
ELDERIt changed it quite a bit, in that just the actual building of these forts provided employment for what you sort of alluded to, the contrabands that were here in the District of Columbia. They not only afforded employment, but just a safe haven for those who were, in fact, runaway slaves, who were still enslaved persons. So, it did, in fact, change the culture here in the Washington D.C. area, because again, it provided a lot of opportunities. Just at Fort Stevens alone, the soldiers there founded a school -- the Military Road School for African-American students on the grounds of Fort Stevens.
ELDERSo, yes, it had a great impact on the entire culture of D.C.
NNAMDILoretta Neumann, tell us about some of the other forts around Washington. What's their significance, 150 years later?
NEUMANNWell, what they are, are beautiful parks, as well as historic sites. At the turn of the century, of the 20th century, there was a Senate commission that reported, in 1902, on parks and proposals for parks in D.C. And they proposed a Fort Circle Drive that would connect all of these forts that were in D.C. And they're on high places. They knew they were beautiful. They knew you could have beautiful views from them and views of them. And by connecting them, they would create this Fort Drive.
NEUMANNWell, Congress appropriated the money. They bought all the land but about a mile of it. But never built, except a small segment, of that drive. The land still is there, so we have both these segments of the forts that are left, and we have this beautiful land that connects them. And especially over on the -- east of the Anacostia. Some of these places are some of the most beautiful parks you could ever see.
NNAMDIIndeed they are. Kym, another interesting fact about Fort Stevens is that it was built on land owned by a free black woman, Elizabeth Thomas. At the time, it was unusual for women to own land, let alone black women. What was her story?
ELDERElizabeth Thomas was a free black woman, who had heralded from southern Maryland. So, she was a part of that Procter family that was down in southern Maryland.
NNAMDIThat we all know of. Yes.
ELDERThat is correct. So Elizabeth Thomas came here to Washington, D.C., along with many members of her family, and they all had several acres of land. In fact, at one point, it was accounted that Elizabeth Thomas had over 11 acres of land. So, what we know as Fort Stevens today and stretching all the way across to Georgia Avenue side of the street. And so, she was in fact, an African-American woman, very rare at that time, of course, to own this land. But it was in fact she that was the original property owner of what we now know as Fort Stevens.
NNAMDIAnd she apparently, at some point, received a visit from someone she identified as a tall, dignified man that some people assume was the President himself. And was promised compensation.
ELDERShe was indeed promised.
NNAMDIDid she ever get it?
ELDERShe was, in fact, promised compensation. However, we know that very tall gentleman that she described, that we believe may have been the President, was also assassinated just one year later in April of 1865. And no, we do not have any evidence that Mrs. Thomas was compensated for her property.
NNAMDIWe move on now to David in Leesburg, Va., who would like to, in a way, correct the record. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDYes. Kojo, I love your show and it's a very interesting topic. The one thing I would like to just add is that just because a confederate re-enactor turned his back during the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner" doesn't necessarily mean that that reflects his view. It means that he was -- if he is worth his salt as an re-enactor, he was reenacting the sentiment of the time. So I think ascribing the viewpoint that while current day that's what they feel may or may not accurate.
NNAMDIThank you very much for clearing that up or suggesting that to us. I choose to go with your interpretation of it. Thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on Washington civil war sesquicentennial with Loretta Neumann and Kym Elder, and you if you've called 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about Washington civil war sesquicentennial. We're talking with Kym Elder, program manager for Civil War Defenses of Washington with the National Park Service. And Loretta Neumann, vice president of the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Once the Civil War ended, veterans organized efforts to preserve the forts. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps got involved in making repairs. Talk about upkeep of the forts over the last century and a half.
ELDERI would just note that Fort Stevens is the only fort managed by the National Park Service today that has been completely reconstructed to look like it looked in 1864. The other forts range in conditions, some in very good condition. We can go over to Fort Totten and Fort De Russy and you can actually see some of the remaining Earthworks from 150 years ago. Where we have some forts like Fort Slocum, where there are no remains at all.
ELDERSo, again, they've ranged in conditions. They range in what you can see from them. And they are managed, from the National Park Service standpoint, in terms of just preservation. It is our goal to preserve them as best we can without a whole lot of disturbances to it.
NNAMDILoretta, your group is backing legislation that would designate the Civil War Defenses of Washington as a unit of the National Park Service. How would a consolidation of the sites help to preserve them and play out their importance?
NEUMANNWell, right now, they are all managed by the Park Service, but they come under different jurisdictions. Kym is the program manager for them and she's doing a fabulous job. We have no complains about Kym. But the problem is, unless you have a real superintendent -- named superintendent and staff, it's really hard to get different jurisdictions of the Park Service to give to these units what they need in terms of attention and maintenance and the support and interpretation. So we want that improved, and the bill would do that.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
ELDERI do want to add that we do have the support of all of our superintendents. And as you find with these many federal resources, the financial or the fiscal resources aren't as adequate as we would like them to be across the board. So, I would say in defense of the agency that I'm employed with that we are doing the best we can with the resources that we have. And I believe that, you know, in terms of maintenance primarily we are doing a really good job with that.
NNAMDINoel in Arlington, Va., might provide another defense of the agency. Noel, you're on the air, go ahead please.
NOELOh, thank you for pointing that out. I'm actually, I guess I need to say first, I'm a fellow with the National Park Service. But one of the things that we've often discussed when at work has been that -- here the war is usually framed in economic, social or human cause.
NOELThere was also an environmental impact of the forts and its effect on the local rivers, specifically the clear cutting of the site lines and all the trees to build these forts and the building up of the earth and mounds, raise the amount of silt in the local rivers and contribute to the polluting that we still see to this day. So the war had an impact that goes sometimes beyond just the economic that we -- or the social impact of...
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much for your call.
NOELCan I say one more?
NNAMDIPlease go ahead.
NOELSorry, I need to point out that this is --the regional archeologist Steven Potter that this is sort of an argument that he's been making is a study that he wants to do in the future. So I don't want to claim this is my own idea.
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Laura who asks, "As a Silver Spring resident, I would like to ask Loretta and Kym to talk about what civilians in Silver Spring would have experienced during the Battle of Fort Stevens living behind rebel lines."
NEUMANNWell, the city of Silver Spring did not exist at that time. There was a mansion that Preston Blair, who's an editor and a good friend of Lincoln's had a mansion, called Silver Spring. There was just farmland there and a few probably, maybe three or four buildings. But otherwise, you know, I think there was a tavern or something. But there really was no Silver Spring at the time.
NEUMANNBut there were homes, there were farm homes and people living there. Many of those homes got demolished. They got hit by cannonballs or put on fire. Union troops even shot at them because the confederates were using them to hide behind and to hide in as sharp shooters. So they had a hard time, they had a hard time.
NNAMDIPeople have all kinds of questions like the one from Arlene in Springdale, Md. Arlene, you're on the air, go ahead please.
ARLENEHi, thank you, Kojo. Thanks for the program. I grew up going to Fort DuPont and Fort Washington. And those days do a lot of gatherings, family gatherings, picnics and so forth. And this is also a shout out to Loretta. I've heard Loretta's presentation at another venue, where we are both members. And as I said to her then, I wonder what the link is to schools given that I don't think a lot of history, national or local, taught in schools these days, maybe I'm wrong, but I told her that I hope she was linked to the schools and making these presentations and letting the kids know the great history around them.
ARLENEI, too, have a daughter and son-in-law who live right across from Port Steven Park. And I'm wondering if the land that Fort Stevens also incorporated what's now, well, the defunct Walter Reed and that great facility there.
NNAMDIHere's Loretta. Thank you for your call, Arlene.
NEUMANNHi. First of all, I want to assure you that we have been giving presentations going -- for the past two years at schools and libraries and recreation centers. I gave a presentation to a history class at Coolidge High School. One of our best speakers is our treasurer of our organization. He just did one with the Brightwood students, many of whom live right there and many had never even been to Fort Stevens and they loved it.
NEUMANNAnd we have a great picture of them. So, yes, I believe very strongly in the educational side. And as for Walter Reed, that's where the confederates were camped. It was extremely part of the battle site. And several of us have worked hard to make sure that as the Walter Reed site gets transferred to the city, that that area is at least assigned and appropriately protected in those areas that need it, the land that's there.
ELDERAnd I'd like to add that on our website, the www.nps.gov/cwdw, you could find a teacher's guide there. And we have found that in the last 18 months, many more teachers are actually going and using that teacher's guide as a resource because we had designed it as a parks as a classroom. So even that teacher in Montana could come and download that teacher's guide and teach about the Civil War Defenses of Washington.
ELDERSo, again, just the whole sesquicentennial, I mean, our promotion and the commemorations that we've had just in the last couple of months has actually helped spread that word out. And we have found that more teachers are calling and wanted to find out how they can get engaged and bring their schools and classes out to the forts.
NNAMDIAgain, Arlene, thank you for your call. We move on to Vanessa in Washington, D.C. Vanessa, you're on the air, go ahead please.
VANESSAHi, Kojo. Well, I was present at the lecture on Friday evening and I'm a native Washingtonian, so I was never more proud to hear about the substantial contributions of African Americans against -- in the attack against Washington and the Civil War in general. And I was also very pleased that in the audience there were African American members of the audience who live in Brightwood.
VANESSAIn particular one gentleman, Bernard Sylar (sp?) who's a resident of Brightwood, and I was pleased to learn that he was in the movie "Glory." He's a Civil War re-enactor, and quite knowledgeable himself about the role of African Americans in the Civil War. And so, I would love for the -- your guests to talk about the role of African Americans in the Civil War and how maybe that presence persist to this day in terms of the residents there. I understand there's a little background noise here, so I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call.
ELDERI'll be happy to talk about that. Mr. Sylar has been a great advocate for the -- just the promotion of the Civil War Defenses of Washington. And, in fact, just informing people of just important and how involved the residents and particularly the African American residents of Brightwood were during the Civil War. In fact, many don't even know that there was an encampment of U.S. Colored Troops soldiers just down the street from Fort Stevens known as Camp Brightwood.
ELDERAnd so, we have this rich history of not just these forts that were built to protect. And although many of them did not all have U.S. Colored Troops stationed at these forts, the Colored Troops were very much so important in the success of the union. In fact, they trained over in Mason's Island, which we now know as Theodore Roosevelt Island over in Virginia. And they would come over and offer support.
ELDERThe first shots in protection of the Battle of Fort Stevens came on July 11th from Fort Slocum, an integrated -- I would say integrated fort there. We had found that there were a number of forts that weren't as integrated. But Fort Slocum actually had United States Colored Troops stationed there.
NNAMDIUnbeknownst to many Washingtonians, Civil War military officers have lent their names to streets and locations around the city. The Shaw neighborhood, DuPont Circle, Reno Road. What are the everyday reminders of the Civil War in Washington, Loretta?
NEUMANNThey are everywhere. Military Road, for example, was Military Road that's why it was named that. I'll give an anecdote. I've been photographing this Civil War Defenses for 15 years, and I'll never forget trying to go over and find Fort Stanton over on the east side, beautiful Fort Stanton. It's a wonderful fort. But I couldn't find the entrance. So I was driving by this apartment house and it said, Apartment Fort Stanton -- Stanton Apartments.
NEUMANNSo a lady was coming out the door and I went up to her and I said, how do I get into Fort Stanton? And she said, what's that? And I said, well, your apartments are named after it. So there's a lot there, it's just that a lot of people don't know it.
NNAMDIOn to Bert in Bethesda, MD. Bert, you are now on the air, go ahead please.
BERTHi, Kojo. I'm calling because I grew up in the Brightwood neighborhood. I went to the white public school. And when I would walk to my school, I would pass a Military Road School. So one time, I asked my mother why am I passing this school to get to my school? And she said, don't go over there, that's for colored people. So I'm wondering our schools reintegrated in 1955, I'm wondering how long the Military Road School remained a school and what's become of it now?
NEUMANNWell, if -- either of us could answer it. I have been involved with the Military Road School.
NEUMANNAnd an honorary member of their organization. But when they schools were de-segregated, and actually it was 1954 that the decision was made, it was closed. And it always made me sad that that was a fine school. Everybody I know -- Pat Tyson and Theresa Saxton graduates from that who are behind the Military Road School Preservation Trust. In its 150th anniversary is this year. And this fall, there will be some major events for that.
NEUMANNIt's now a charter school, though. And so, it's still serving a school function, even if it's not African-American. It's a very integrated school. I've given a presentation on...
NNAMDII have a friend who went to school there.
NNAMDIYou both attended a lot of festivities over the weekend to mark the Fort Stevens sesquicentennial. What comes next in this period of commemorating the Civil War in the Washington region?
ELDERWell, that's out -- have been associated with folks that the war is not quite over yet. 1865, that means we've got all of next year to also commemorate the Civil War. We'll be working in collaboration with my other colleagues of all the National Park Service, specifically with Ford's Theater where Abraham Lincoln was unfortunately assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865. And so, no, the war is not quite over for us.
ELDERWe'd also like to look at the process in which many of these forts were decommissioned and how that process went after the war. So we are going to continue our efforts to promote the Civil War Defenses of Washington. I often share with people that this city was considered one of the most fortified cities in the world by 1864, 1865. And we need to continue to share that significance of these wonderful sites.
NNAMDIAnd here's Pete in Sterling, Va. Pete, you're on the air, go ahead please.
PETEHi, Kojo. Thanks for allowing me on. I grew up in the Brightwood neighborhood on (word?) Street. I attended Nativity Grammar School, which was on 6000 George Avenue. And our play yard was basically asphalt. It was a parking lot, so most of the kids went -- the older kids went over to Fort Stevens. That was our bright and greenery, the trees and the shade. And I remember the earthen block house that they had there. The cannons, of course, had been removed but their placements in the battery...
PETELogs and things that protected the soldiers...
NNAMDIWere still there.
PETEI think in the meantime they've put the cannons back. Is that correct?
NEUMANNThat is correct. We have cannons there. We're looking to actually bring in two more.
PETEExcellent. Oh, okay. That's great. That's a nice addition. But that's just my share.
NNAMDIThanks. Thank you, Pete, for that memory.
NEUMANNThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call. We're going to take a short break. But when we come -- and when we come back, we will be talking about poetry's impact on our lives. We'll talk with the editor of Poet Lore. Loretta Neumann is vice president of the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Kym Elder is program manager for Civil War Defenses of Washington with the National Park Service. Thank you for joining us.
ELDERThank you for having us.
NNAMDIOf course, if you'd like to continue the conversation when we're talking about poetry, the number is 800-433-8850. The role of poetry in our lives. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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