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At Civil War's Fort Ward, A Tale Of Two Histories

With its rolling lawns and secluded glens, Fort Ward looks like a lovely place to take a walk. Turns out, it's far more than a park in Alexandria -- it's one history sacrificed to make way for another, a Civil War military installation that has become a contemporary battleground over whose story gets told.

Officially, Fort Ward is, as the city of Alexandria puts it, "the best preserved of the system of Union forts and batteries built to protect Washington, D.C., during the American Civil War." That's fascinating enough: a Union fort in Confederate Virginia.

But Fort Ward is also Adrienne Washington's ancestral home. Her great-grandmother lies buried there, the headstone standing crooked and forlorn in the middle of a scruffy city maintenance yard along one edge of the park -- a painful symbol of a community of black families that was forced off the hillside in the early 1960s when the city bought the land to stop a housing development.

Fort Ward is also Tom Fulton's back yard, literally. Fulton, a retired Interior Department deputy assistant secretary who has delved into the history that lies behind his house, and his next-door neighbor, a National Park Service retiree named Glenn Eugster, are part of a group of residents trying to do what the city never did -- learn about those who lost out when Alexandria took these 44 acres across Braddock Road from Episcopal High School, reconstructed the old fort and made a park out of someone else's neighborhood.

Now the city of Alexandria is trying to figure out Fort Ward's future: Should the park be used more intensively -- already, it's a site for big corporate picnics -- or protected as a site for reflection? And which story should the park and its museum tell -- that of the Civil War fort, or the black community that called this home?

The debate has brought together two sets of residents who previously barely knew each other existed: The immediate neighbors, who want to curb the loud parties that have been held in the park since alcoholic drinks were allowed in its picnic groves, and the families who want to recover their relatives' buried stories of life "on the fort." The two groups have united in support of a park that tells a different history -- quietly.

"It's just a shame when you have to go through two locked gates to see one of the graves of your ancestors," then find them surrounded by trucks, tools and piles of mulch, says Washington, a columnist at the Washington Times who is researching the history of the Fort Ward settlement where her family lived through much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

For a long time, the city operated a trash transfer station right where Washington's great-grandmother, Clara Adams (1865-1952), was laid to rest. Her headstone -- and, historians say, the unmarked grave of her husband -- now sit smack in the center of the maintenance yard, an offense to history that the city could solve easily, Washington says.


Neighbors who want the park to tell the full story of Alexandria's past have been gearing up for a fight. "Our park services have always had a discomfort with the tension between African American history and Civil War history," Eugster says. "But what started for us as a literally not-in-my-backyard battle because the city had put dumpsters behind our houses led us to explore what really is one story of both the Civil War and the black community that was here afterwards."

During the Civil War, you could stand atop Fort Ward and see Confederate soldiers at Baileys Crossroads three miles away, and those black flecks in your spyglass certainly looked like cannon (though you'd later learn that they were really tree trunks painted black to fool Union spies into thinking that the enemy was armed and dangerous).

After the war, freed slaves settled on abandoned land around the fort. Those workers who built and maintained the Virginia Theological Seminary (of Seminary Road fame) are the people whose graves are now believed to be scattered throughout Fort Ward Park. Just last week, says Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, city historians used old maps to discover an area where still-visible depressions in the ground indicate some of the old residents are buried.

Thanks to pressure from people such as Eugster, Fulton and Washington, the city says it is looking at Fort Ward much as the neighbors do. After a community meeting Wednesday, the city will move to stop the issuing of alcohol permits, reduce the size of picnic groups and number of picnic areas, and look for ways to tell the black community's history, says Kirk Kincannon, Alexandria's recreation and parks director.

The broken headstones are a reminder that the city rebuilt Fort Ward when "there was probably not much thought about more contemporary history," Mallamo says. But since the '60s, "the history of ordinary people has become as important as the history of the heroic."

No one expects to find the money anytime soon to conduct the archaeological digs needed to flesh out Fort Ward's full story. But it should be possible to protect the graves and the row of cedar trees that once led to the long-gone houses, and to use the park's tours and museum to tell a history of the fort that you can still see and the community that you can't.

By Marc Fisher |  March 15, 2009; 5:58 PM ET
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