by Andy Turner
When the First Battle of Manassas was over and everyone realized the war wasn’t going to be a quick affair that was concluded by one major battle, people’s thinking had to change. Even more emphasis had to be placed on things like supply routes and transportation. The area along the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia that separated Union and Confederate territory also contained other vital pieces of transportation: the National Road, the B&O Railroad, and the C&O Canal. In an attempt to guard these means of transportation, as well as the border, the Union army looked to an old, dilapidated fort: Fort Frederick.
Contrary to what many believe, Fort Frederick is not is Frederick, Maryland, but forty miles northwest. When the fort was originally built, the area was wilderness. Constructed in 1756, the purpose of the fort was to defend and protect the western frontier of the colony of Maryland during the French and Indian War. It served its purpose well. A sizable fort, it was unique for the time as it was constructed with thick stone walls rather than a wooden stockade. This made it a formidable military post, especially considering the numbers of men and types of weapons that could be brought to bear against it. For that reason, it was never attacked. The French and Indians would have been able to tell by looking at the fort that it was something they would not have been able to capture.
The fort was abandoned after just a few years when war and threat of Indian attack subsided. When war broke out once again, this time against the mother-country of England, the fort was put back into service to hold British prisoners. Peace again greatly reduced the need for the fort and it was sold at public auction in 1791. The land became a farm and at one time included an orchard in the fort’s parade ground.
By the time Fort Sumter was fired on in Charleston harbor, Fort Frederick was a wreck. The barracks inside were gone and the fort’s stone wall, through time and people scavenging rocks for other purposes, was greatly reduced. The area, however, was once again militarily significant. The C&O Canal was just a quarter mile south of the fort with the Potomac River not far beyond that. A short distance to the north ran the National Road and the B&O Railroad wasn’t far to the south. It was an area the North wanted to protect.
Thus it was that the 1st Maryland Infantry (US) arrived in December 1861, charged with the duty of protecting the transportation routes as well as the river crossings. Several skirmishes were fought in the area, including one at the fort on Christmas day. That was the most action the fort was to see.
While it didn’t play a major role in the war, Fort Frederick was important to the Union as a means of securing an important area along the border with the Confederacy. Fortunately, this military installation with a rich history dating back to before our county was born, didn’t completely disappear. After the Civil War there would be no further military need for a fort in that location. In 1922 the state bought the fort. In the 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) team was assigned to the fort. They conducted research, performed an archaelogical dig, and rebuilt the fort’s stone wall. Visitors today can see what part of the wall was rebuilt by the different mortar. Looking at the wall, one can’t help but be impressed with the amount of work that was done to get the wall back to its full height.
For travelers today, Fort Frederick State Park is worth a stop. While it is in a rural, relatively isolated area, it is just minutes off Interstate 70. The park has a nice visitor center that is a short walk or drive from the fort. Inside the fort’s walls are two reconstructed barracks buildings that house the museum, offering interpretation of all periods of the fort’s history. Behind one of the buildings is a platform that takes you to the top of the wall. From there you can see the thickness of the fort’s wall and get an idea of what a soldier posted there would have seen while surveying the surrounding countryside for the enemy.
In addition to the fort, outside the walls is a CCC museum and a short walk down the hill will take you to the remnants of the C&O Canal. Just beyond that is Big Pool, a small lake that was filled with water when the canal was built. A boat ramp provides access for canoes and rowboats and fishing is allowed. From there its another short walk to the Potomac River. The state park also has a campground and access to the Western Maryland Rail Trail. In all, this state park has a lot to offer and is well worth a visit.