At the beginning of the Civil War, Washington had only a single fort protecting it, and the capital of the Confederacy was in Virginia just across the Potomac River. To feel more secure, the federal government quickly built 60 or so forts in the District and surrounding counties, one of which was Fort Foote. Named for Andrew Foote, an admiral who was mortally wounded in 1862 during the Union’s successful actions against Fort Donelson in Tennessee, Fort Foote is now part of the National Park Service and open for visitors.
Finding Fort Foote Park is not so easy. It is off Fort Foote Road in Prince Georges County, Md., on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River. There is a single dirt road leading to a small parking area, and this is the only access to the park. Once there, there is no visitor’s center and little to point you toward the fort’s remains.
I parked and decided to walk on a trail beyond a closed metal gate. It wasn’t long before there was a sign giving the history of the park and I could see the remains of a cannon emplacement. Beyond that were two massive cannons (called Rodman cannons after the pre-Civil War general who developed them) that were part of the firepower that prevented Confederate ships from floating up the river to Washington.
Although the old fort is on what should be a pretty spectacular bluff overlooking the Potomac, it is so overgrown that you can’t tell the river is just beyond the trees. There are some concrete structural ruins but none of Fort Foote’s buildings remain standing. If there were no cannons in the woods, it would be impossible to tell that these are the remains of a fort that was active 145 years ago.
Fort Foote Park has a nice meadow with a few scattered trash cans and barbecue grills, but no picnic tables. Picnic tables and simple toilet facilities are next to the small parking lot near the entrance. However, if you walk through the meadow, there is a path that leads down to the Potomac for an excellent view of the Woodrow Wilson bridge. Unfortunately, a lot of trash has collected at the foot of this path.
I did see some wildlife at the park, including two interesting butterflies and a spectacular dragonfly. As overgrown as Fort Foote Park is, there must be lots of other wildlife to see if you are patient.
What I didn’t see were any park rangers or much in the way of any recent maintenance activity in the park. What signs there were are worn and damaged, and finding my way around was strictly hit-and-miss. (The path down to the Potomac was unlabeled, for example.) Two or three more signs would go a long way to make Fort Foote Park a living reminder of its historical significance. Good thing that entrance is free.
If you are interested in Civil War-era forts and the defense of Washington, Fort Foote Park is worth a visit. Otherwise, it is just a surprisingly overgrown and forgotten corner of the national park system. It’s a little sad, actually.