Sunday, February 23, 2020

Hometown tourist - with history.

If I ever had a yen to write historical fiction, I'd never need to leave Alexandria. This city is steeped in history.

It starts well before the colonial period, with Native Americans who lived here as long as 13,200 years ago. Someone even found a Clovis spear point on a riverside bluff near the southern edge of the city -- during an archaeological dig for a different purpose: to find and mark the locations of the graves of free African-Americans who were buried at the site around the time of the Civil War.

Anyway, the city of Alexandria was founded in 1749. It's named for John Alexander, a Scotsman who owned much of the land on which the oldest part of the city was built. George Washington had a townhouse in what's now Old Town. He took his meals at Gadsby's Tavern around the corner, and had a pew at Christ Church. His townhouse is gone, but there's a marker where it used to be.

Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army in the Civil War, grew up in Alexandria. His boyhood home in Old Town was on the market for quite some time, but it's not for sale now.

And speaking of the Civil War, the city has preserved one of the forts built in the mid 1800s as a defensive perimeter for Washington, DC. Fort Ward now houses a museum, an outdoor amphitheater, and picnic areas. My kids attended Girl Scout day camp there. I've driven through it lots of times, but I'd never gone off the road until today.

The park preserves a lot of the fort's military fortifications. A majority of the defensive earthworks are still visible. Here's one of the ditches.

Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020
And the Northwest Bastion has been restored to its original condition. The outer walls are impressive.

Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020

The white stuff you see on top of the bank are cannon emplacements. Here's what it looks like from inside.

Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020

Note the "NO SLEDDING" signs. The city tries to keep people off the embankments to keep them from eroding, but of course it's a losing battle. I saw kids climbing all over them when I was there today.

Those embankments reminded me of the other earthworks I've seen, paticularly the ones built by  Hopewell culture in Ohio. The ones at Fort Ward weren't meant to be ceremonial, of course, and they were never used as burial mounds. It just struck me how humans have been heaping up earth for various purposes for millennia.
Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020

After the war, and for the next 100 years, the land Fort Ward was built on became an African-American neighborhood known as The Fort. A lot of the folks who lived there worked at the Episcopal seminary and school nearby. They had their own schoolhouse and Baptist church. The church cemetery is still at Fort Ward, as well as the remnants of a family cemetery, but other physical reminders of that time are gone. The community was torn down and all who lived there were displaced when the city turned the land into a park in the 1960s -- a troubling history of a different sort of war.

These moments of historical blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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