FORT BUNKER HILL
Fort Bunker Hill is a 6-acre park (within the Civil War Defenses of Washington system) located in northeast Washington, DC, approximately 3.35 miles northeast of the United States Capitol and approximately 2.67 miles west of Bladensburg, Maryland. Fort Bunker Hill is bordered on the west by 14th Street NE, on the south by Otis Street NE, on the east by 13th Street NE, and on the north by Perry Street NE.
Fort Bunker Hill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the 1974 Civil War Fort Sites nomination and the 1977 Defenses of Washington revision of the 1974 nomination. The National Register lists Fort Bunker Hill’s period of significance as 1861-1865, and the fort is listed on the National Register for its military significance. This Cultural Landscape Inventory recommended that the period of significance be expanded to include the years 1902-1937 to recognize Fort Bunker Hill’s role in the development of parks and recreation in Washington, DC, as well as the Civilian Conservation Corps’ involvement in landscape beautification and restoration projects at the site from 1935-1937.
After evaluating the landscape features and characteristics within the context of the seven aspects of integrity established by the National Register, this CLI finds that the Civil War-era cultural landscape is only partially extant, but Fort Bunker Hill retains its integrity from the later period of significance (1902-1937). While there have been some changes to the landscape and the loss of several features, the overall historic integrity of the property is high.
Fort Bunker Hill was one of the 68 forts built as a defensive ring around Washington at the start of the Civil War. It was among the first of the fort sites to be surveyed and acquired, with construction underway by the fall of 1861. It was constructed by General Joseph Hooker’s Brigade (including the First and Eleventh Massachusetts, Second New Hampshire, and Twenty-Sixth Pennsylvania volunteer regiments), which was part of the restructuring of General Irvin McDowell’s army into General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. The hilltop earthwork, erected on the acquisitioned property of Jehiel Brooks, received its official designation as Fort Bunker Hill on September 30, 1861, by order of McClellan. It was part of the northern arc of the Defenses of Washington, which were selected and constructed in anticipation of a possible attack from the north, as Washington, DC had faced during the War of 1812.
As was the case with several of the fortifications, Fort Bunker Hill continued to be modified and altered over the course of the war, as the army’s engineers addressed structural and visibility issues with the fort’s design. By December 1862, Chief Engineer J. G. Barnard called for two additional batteries to be constructed to support Fort Bunker Hill. One of the batteries occupied an advanced position on the northeastern slope of the hill with Fort Bunker Hill, while the other flanked Fort Bunker Hill on the low hill southeast of the fort. These batteries with covered ways were likely completed in early 1863, but they still deemed weak by late June 1863, so a third battery was constructed on a rise northwest of Fort Bunker Hill. The third battery was likely complete by late 1863.
On the southwestern slope of Fort Bunker Hill, numerous wood-framed buildings were erected to house and provide services for the garrison of Fort Bunker Hill and its supporting batteries. Because space within the earthwork was limited, the support structures were erected outside of the fort’s parapet walls. By war’s end, there were 32 framed structures on the Queen/Brooks property (outside the confines of the earthworks). They included sixteen quarters for commissions and non-commissioned officers, three barracks for enlisted artillerymen, two guardhouses, five stables, a horse shed, a blacksmith shop, a post office, and a prison.
Despite—or perhaps because of—these alterations, Fort Bunker Hill and the other defenses were never subject to a Confederate attack. Their usefulness as a deterrent was clear, however, as General Early attested after the war. Fort Bunker Hill, together with the other forts in the northern arc, was therefore critical as a buttress in the city’s defense.
As the war came to an end and the structures were sold at auction, the Queen/Brooks family retook possession of the fort and its surrounding land. Although they resumed farming the larger estate after the war, the hilltop fort site was difficult to plow and thus remained intact and largely untouched. Bellair, the Brooks mansion, remained standing southwest of the earthworks, and by 1884, the former Bladensburg Road west of the fort was newly renamed as Bunker Hill Road.
Even more significantly for the fort’s larger landscape and context, the Metropolitan Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad was introduced in 1873, running north-south to the west of the earthworks, and the Brookland subdivision was created around Fort Bunker Hill in 1887 as one of Washington, DC’s first streetcar suburbs. Soon after, the area around the fort site was platted with a street grid and narrow lots, but the fort itself remained largely intact within the perimeter streets of Fort Street to the south, 13th Street NE to the west, Omaha Street to the north, and 14th Street NE to the east. Within just a few years of Brookland’s creation as a subdivision, newspaper accounts indicate that the Brookland Citizens’ Association had formed, and that the association supported the creation of a public park on the site of Fort Bunker Hill.
In 1902, the publication of the McMillan Plan bolstered the Citizens’ Association’s cause and spurred efforts to preserve Fort Bunker Hill as part of a circle of green spaces around the city. This ring of parks would be established on the former sites of the Civil War Defenses of Washington, as part of the City Beautiful movement’s re-envisioning of the District of Columbia. Fort Bunker Hill was, by this time, surrounded by suburban development, and the site itself featured a limited number of houses around its periphery.
The District’s efforts to acquire the land stalled until the late 1920s, when the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) was authorized to purchase land related to the Civil War Defenses of Washington. A year later, on April 30, 1926, Congress replaced NCPC with the larger and more empowered National Capital Park and Planning Commission (NCPPC), and in 1927, the NCPPC purchased the site of Fort Bunker Hill.
The creation of the park at Fort Bunker Hill corresponded with the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. By the end of 1935, CCC members from Camp NP-8-VA began work at Fort Bunker Hill, where the CCC’s projects included not only the planting of trees and the construction of walkways, but also the development of the site as a recreational area—most significantly with the construction of an amphitheater on the site’s eastern slope. It included a stage, circumscribed by a wall 65 feet long and three feet high, with fixed log seats for 250 people set into the hillside. An additional 150 audience members could be accommodated on the ground or in portable chairs.
Historic Maps and Images
Boschke map of the District of Columbia, with future hilltop site of Fort Bunker Hill highlighted. (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Modified 1865 map of the Defenses of Washington, distinguished by their current ownership and management status. (National Park Service)
Comparison of the site of Fort Bunker Hill, as depicted on the 1861 Boschke map (left) and the 1861 Lines of Defense map (right), developed by Major General John G. Barnard. Barnard’s map of the fortifications around Washington used Boschke’s survey as a base map, superimposing the location of the hastily-built forts on the existing map. (Boschke map, Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division; Lines of Defense map, Historic Map Works Rare Historic Maps Collection)
Early map of Fort Bunker Hill environs (date unknown). (National Archives, as printed in: Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010])
Engineer drawings of Fort Bunker Hill’s magazine (top), sections and elevations (center left, center right, bottom), and plan (center). (National Archives, as printed in: Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010])
Plan from Fort Bunker Hill’s early period of significance (1861-1865) illustrating the position of the site’s auxiliary buildings, including the guard house, officers’ quarters, and barracks associated with the fort. (National Archives, as printed in: Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010])
Soldier sketch of Fort Bunker Hill (top), including the fort’s auxiliary buildings in the foreground and earthworks at the crest of the hill in the background. Bottom: engineer drawing of Fort Bunker Hill’s gate. (National Archives, as printed in: Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010])
1887 Hopkins map (left), indicating traces of the fort’s earthworks on the hilltop in the midst of scattered houses and generally undeveloped land. In contrast, the 1900 topographical map of the area (right) emphasizes the new street grid in the Brookland subdivision. The Fort Bunker Hill site is denoted with a green star. (Baist 1887, Washingtoniana Map Collection, DC Public Library; United States Geological Survey 1900, NOAA Historical Map and Chart Collection)
By 1907, the site was fully surrounded by the Brookland subdivision, confined to a city block bound by 14th (formerly Argyle) Street NE, Perry (formerly Omaha) Street, 13th (formerly Burns) Street NE, and Otis (formerly Fort) Street. (Baist 1907, Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Analysis and Evaluation
Today, Fort Bunker Hill is situated in the midst of a largely residential area of northeast Washington, DC, near the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America (northeast of the site) and Catholic University of America (west of the site). Its Civil War earthworks are largely demolished or deteriorated, although some remnants are visible. The landscape retains most of the vegetation pattern and features from its 20th century conversion to a park, including the amphitheater on its eastern slope, its circulation pattern around the cleared hilltop, its overgrown hillsides, and the grassy periphery along the encompassing streets.
Fort Bunker Hill exhibits the following landscape characteristics: topography, spatial organization, land use, buildings and structures, circulation, vegetation, views and vistas, and small-scale features.
Topography: The site for Fort Bunker Hill was selected for its topography. Its position at 230 feet above sea level provided an elevated vantage of the surrounding landscape, including several strategic sites that Fort Bunker Hill was designed to protect. The topography remains the same as it was throughout the historic period, and retains a high degree of integrity.
Spatial Organization: The spatial organization of Fort Bunker Hill dates to the later part of the historic period, when the site was converted to a park and the CCC implemented various recreation improvement and beautification projects on the site. There have been minor additions to the landscape in the form of wayfinding and interpretive signs since the later period of significance, but the site retains its historic spatial organization and has a high degree of integrity.
Land Use: The Civil War-era military land use aspect of the Fort Bunker Hill cultural landscape ended when the United States government sold the property in 1865. However, the land use at Fort Bunker Hill has not changed since the 20th century period of significance. The site remains a public park, and is used for recreation, education, and interpretation. As it has since the CCC era of involvement at the site, the park serves a public function and is open for general recreational use. Land use at Fort Bunker Hill retains integrity.
Buildings and Structures: The site has some integrity of buildings and structures from each of its two periods of significance. From its Civil War-era period of significance, portions of Fort Bunker Hill’s earthworks remain intact. This includes remnants of the sally port, parapets, rifle pits, outer ditch, and likely evidence of the magazine. The other auxiliary buildings and structures that stood on the site during its 19th century period of significance are no longer present. From the site’s 20th century period of significance, the amphitheater and stage installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps remain partially intact. The site retains integrity of buildings and structures.
Circulation: Fort Bunker Hill’s Civil War era circulation pattern, including its military access road from the former Bladensburg Road (later Bunker Hill Road, now Michigan Avenue) southwest of the earthworks, does not exist on the site today. Some or all of the current social paths, however, likely date to the CCC’s interventions at the site during the later period of significance. These social trails include a path from the lowest area of the site, on the eastern edge along 14th Street NE, through the historic amphitheater and up the hill to the earthworks at the highest point on the site, on the western edge along 13th Street NE. The site therefore retains some integrity of circulation.
Vegetation: There was limited vegetation at Fort Bunker Hill during the Civil War, in keeping with the site’s strategic design and use. The current vegetation pattern is not, therefore, consistent with the 19th century period of significance, but the mature trees and cleared, grassy areas (around the edge of the site and on the hilltop) do likely date to—or predate—the CCC-era period of significance and their projects on the site. Fort Bunker Hill’s vegetation retains integrity from its 20th century period of significance.
Views and Vistas: The views and vistas from Fort Bunker Hill during the Civil War extended to the countryside surrounding the fort—in particular, towards the north and east. These vistas remained intact for several years after the war, but the redevelopment of the site and the surrounding area in the late 19th century—and in particular, the construction of the Brookland subdivision around the site—affected the views from the landscape at Fort Bunker Hill. In addition, during the later periods of significance, vegetation growth within the site has also affected the historic views from the 19th century period of significance. The present day views and vistas therefore retain integrity, consistent only with the 20th century period of significance.
Small-Scale Features: Fort Bunker Hill’s small-scale features have little to no integrity. The site has no surviving features from its 19th century period of significance. Most of the extant features, including signage (regulatory and wayfinding), picnic tables, and a commemorative boulder and plaque, were installed at the site after the 20th century period of significance and are non-contributing. Other non-contributing features include the two concrete drinking fountains, located adjacent to the amphitheater and along the social trail at the center of the site near the remnants of the outer ditch. These fountains are not consistent with the water fountains installed by the CCC, which were constructed using hollow logs. The contributing status cannot be determined for two features at the site. The two tall light standards are located in the amphitheater area and provided stage lighting to performances; it is not known when they were added to the site, but the documentary evidence from the CCC’s work on the site makes no reference to them. In addition, a small concrete pier is located near the amphitheater stage, but further research is necessary to clarify its function and time of construction. The small-scale features of Fort Bunker Hill’s cultural landscape therefore do not retain integrity.
Photo by Molly Lester.
Fort Bunker Hill’s extant social trails are dirt paths. The primary social trail (left) has remnants of the CCC-era steps. In some areas, the paths are overgrown with vegetation. Photos by Molly Lester.
Fort Bunker Hill’s current vegetation is generally densely wooded and overgrown at the perimeter (top), with limited exceptions that include cleared areas at the corners of the block (center) and an area along the eastern side of the site (bottom) that has minimal ground cover. Photos by Molly Lester.
Within the Fort Bunker Hill site, the vegetation pattern generally consists of a thick growth of mature trees and low brush (top, center). At the crest of the hill in the southwest corner of the site (bottom), a cleared area has minimal ground cover and few trees. Photos by Molly Lester.
The historic earthworks are still somewhat legible in the site’s topography, although their condition has deteriorated and they are obscured by vegetation. Parapet remnants are visible in the top and center photographs, while the bottom photograph depicts the traverse within the parapets. Photos by Molly Lester.
Views of the CCC-era amphitheater, including the concrete stage (top) and the deteriorated hillside seating (bottom), which retains traces of the rustic log seating that the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed between 1935 and 1937. Photos by Molly Lester.
The final report is available on the National Park Service website here.