Just as it takes acts of war to make war, it takes acts of peace to make peace
Picture me here at Fort Washington - Built to Defend a nation.
One of my friends Carleen, recently rang me to share an exciting story of how she has been moved by my words and decided to make a quotation of my statement in her academic discussions to justify her point of view. She is not alone in quoting me: "Just as it takes acts of war to make war, it takes acts of peace to make peace".
Every time scholars do, they bring a refreshing reminder of the importance of its meaning of taking actions to maintain peace.
I have developed these words during the years of war in Sierra Leone in my inquiry to find peaceful ways to end violence and in my rigorous search for peace among stakeholders and to question the erroneous actions of having to draft children in to conflict.
Carleen's excitement in quoting me during her recent scholarly discussions reminded me of how important these words were to me and still are to me and many, and how they resonate till date in a world that still dawdles in taking action to maintain the much needed peace.
Like Carleen, I have used these words in many places to justify actions that must lead to peace especially in my numerous outreach endeavors just like I did during that year at the Sauve Scholars Program at McGill to define the path I took in my research-
My very words "Just as it takes acts of war to make war, it takes acts of peace to make peace" became glaring to me when some time ago, I had the opportunity of visiting the historic fort known as 'Fort Washington' in Maryland, which was ideally 'built to defend a nation'. Thanks to one of my friends Elaine who made the trip happen, I realized first-hand that the actions taken to build Fort Washington to defend Cheasapeake was historic and heroic. This place was not only a major route of commerce and the center for a seemingly inexhaustible fishery, but was also key to the nation’s defense.
By the close of the Civil War, Washington, D.C. was the most heavily fortified city in North America, perhaps even in the world. Fort Washington, located near the community of Fort Washington, Maryland, was for many decades the only defensive fort protecting Washington D.C. The original fort, overlooking the Potomac River,
This place where I sat was destroyed by its own garrison during a British overpowering advance.
was completed in 1809, and was begun as Fort Warburton, but renamed in 1808. During the War of 1812, the fort was destroyed by its own garrison during a British advance. The current historic fort — maintained by the National Park Service — was initially constructed in 1824. It is a stone structure with a good cannon shot down the Potomac River. The fort was extensively remodeled in the 1840s and 1890s. The Fort was turned over to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1946 after its last military personnel departed.
The year was 1814, and 49 troops with a half-dozen cannon manned a fort along the Potomac River
The year was 1814, and 49 troops with a half-dozen cannon manned a fort along the Potomac River, just 9 miles downstream of the young nation’s capital.
Fort Warburton was supposed to be the main line of defense for any invasion coming up the river. But the capital was already in flames, the British having sailed up the Patuxent River and marched overland.
And now, six British ships rounded Marshall Hall Point just south of the fort. The soldiers looked at the ships, and their own cannon, only a few of which could be pointed toward the impending source of peril.
Their commanding officer, Capt. Samuel Dyson, gave the order to destroy the guns, blow up more than a ton of gunpowder—and then run away. The next day, the British saw the smoking ruins of the fort as they sailed by and seized Alexandria on the Virginia side of the river.
Today, the legacy of Fort Washington as a military base lives on and is still revered and named as one of several National Parks Service.
Cheasapeake area was so strategically placed that urgent actions was needed to defend it from being taken over and to prevent its seizure and possible defeat in the hands of the British.
The site’s history, and name, reaches back to George Washington himself, who picked the location for the fort. He recognized that any ship coming upriver would have to round a point just below the site, then follow the deep channel of the river to within 50 yards of the shore.
“Any ship coming around the point would have to face the guns, and they would have to come close to the fort,” said Bill Clark,park manager of Fort Washington Park.
The strategy failed for Fort Warburton not because of its location, but because the fort’s design was already antiquated when it was built, and because it was never given the garrison, or the number of guns, envisioned.
The guns it did have were poorly sited: Only two could fire on approaching ships. Also, they took five minutes each to reload. In all likelihood, Clark noted, the fort’s 1814 defenders would never have had a chance to fire a second shot against the approaching fleet of ships.
The new, larger Fort Washington was completed in 1824. It was built higher on the bluff, with walls 40–60 feet high, and 20-feet thick in places. In the 1842, it had 30 guns that could fire 24-pound shells 1,901 yards, effectively blocking passage on the river.
Years later, an army engineer, Robert E. Lee, made the walls even higher, and improved the overall fortification. He later may have regretted that, as Fort Washington became the anchor for a series of more than 60 forts that ringed the District of Columbia during the Civil War.
In the 1870s, with the advent of steel ships, the fort’s design was again deemed outdated, and plans were begun for a system of large concrete fortifications armed with heavy rifled guns.
These batteries, located behind the bluffs and out of sight of the river, reflected the latest in defense thinking and were made possible through new technology that allowed shelling to be directed by spotters located apart from the batteries and closer to the river.
Construction, stalled for many years due to lack of funds but the activities of reconstruction began in 1890 when the government restored a budget surplus. The Interest in providing support for the fort often waxed and waned in relation with the amount of money Congress had to spend. At one point in the 1850s, its garrison almost diminished to a single soldier.
Eight batteries were ultimately built at Fort Washington in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and mines, which could be fired electronically from the fort, were placed in the river. It was a formidable defense aimed at keeping any enemy vessel from getting close enough to shell the District of Columbia. Until 1921, Fort Washington served as the headquarters for the Potomac River defenses.
The age of airplanes, though, made the new defenses obsolete after World War I, and only a caretaker detachment of artillerymen remained for a few years before they, too, were moved elsewhere.
Various military units moved in and out of the site for years, but the days of Fort Washington’s military importance were over. It was used by troops during World War II, and the Women’s Auxiliary Corps was stationed there starting in 1942—their barracks were dubbed the “WAC shack.” After the war, the site was transferred to the Department of the Interior, and ultimately, it was incorporated into the National Park system.
The concrete shells of the long-abandoned coastal defense batteries, now surrounded by picnic tables, remain as a reminder of what was once considered one of the best coast defenses in the world.
And lately, Fort Washington looks like it received the shelling it never got in combat. Midcentury “improvements” to the fort covered some of its old brick walls with concrete, unwittingly giving the moisture inside no way to escape. The result was something enemy cannon were never able to do. In recent years, huge numbers of bricks have burst from the walls.
“It had a heart-wrenching effect on us,” Clark said. “We watched it fall brick by brick. One day, we found 5,000 bricks on the ground.”
Thanks to an appropriation from Congress, the fallen bricks are being painstakingly collected and cleaned and will be replaced onto the walls.
Today, Fort Washington Park has the feel of a neighborhood recreational area. Toward the end of the day, families from the surrounding neighborhoods stroll or bike along its roads, and anglers line the Potomac.
“I don’t know all their names, but I know their faces,” said Park Ranger Lynwood Jefferson. “When some of them don’t show up for a couple of days, you know something is wrong.”
Neighbors have dug through their attics to find historical photos related to the fort—many are on display in its museum—and children have conducted oral histories with their grandparents to get stories about the site which now fill its archives.
The neighbors logged 11,000 volunteer hours last year, doing everything from guiding tours to planting gardens to firing Civil War-era cannon. “When you talk about trying to preserve something without volunteers, you are just spinning your wheels,” Clark said.
Instead of being part of the nation’s defense system, the fort is part of its recreational system. The Potomac Heritage Trail, a multi-use trail that will eventually run the length of the river, is being completed through the park’s property, thanks to a grant from the Gateways Network, which will allow visitors to stroll near the banks of the river.
It is a hotbed for fisherman; Maryland’s record catfish was caught in the adjacent Swan Creek for the past two years in a row. The Fort Washington marina, operated by a concessionaire, rents canoes and kayaks so people can conduct their own explorations of the Potomac.
The most remarkable aspect of the park, though, may be the peace associated with a site that was once the center of such a major defense installation.
From the river, the skyline of Washington, D.C. can be seen in the distance. And, the fort is in the protected Mount Vernon “viewshed” where development is limited. The view of the of the river from the bluff by the old fort seems remarkably quiet, and undeveloped, for a location only nine miles from downtown. “You are so close to the nation’s capital that you can see the Washington Monument, and yet literally hear the birds flying by,” Clark said. It’s a sensation many neighbors have come to appreciate each evening.
Their are several other events taking place in Fort Washington during the year such as the famous Fort Washington Civil War artillery demonstrations, living history events and Civil War encampments. Another particularly popular event is the annual evening of patriotic music that takes place in summer and many visitors are taking full advantage of the spectacular Potomac vistas from the park to see more than a half dozen fireworks displays being conducted by various communities up and down the river.
Reflecting on the concrete actions taken to build Fort Washington to defend a nation in war, and to preserve its heritage, I have a feeling of how important actions that lead to peaceful solutions of conflict must be taken to prevent and avert the enormous casualties, human tragedies and resources that can make countries even more safer, stable and prevent further escalations of violence and war.
Andrew Benson Greene
Jeanne Sauvé Scholar, McGill University.