Alexandria Civil War Defenses of Washington Bike Trail

On the forested hills surrounding the Nation’s capital are remnants of a complex system of Civil War fortifications. Built by Union forces, these strategic earthworks transformed the young capital into one of the world’s most fortified cities. Explore Alexandria's Civil War sites on a 14.5 bike trail.

Page updated on Feb 19, 2020 at 2:20 PM
Alexandria Civil War Defenses of Washington Bike Trail Map

Alexandria Civil War Defenses of Washington Bike Trail Map

The Civil War Defenses of Washington Bike Trail

The Civil War Defenses of Washington (CWDW) Bike Trail is one way in which Alexandria, surrounding jurisdictions and the National Park Service marked the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The CWDW Trail is a segment of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, a developing network of trails and routes between the mouth of the Potomac River and the Allegheny Highlands.   

The trail is also a loop on the Alexandria Heritage Trail, which has been designated as a part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail. Through five geographic regions, the varied segments of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail are a means to explore the origins and continuing evolution of the Nation. To date, 830 miles of existing and planned trails have been recognized as segments of the Trail network. 

Trail Map and Cue Sheet

The Map and Cue Sheet provide detailed directions for following the Alexandria Civil War Defenses of Washington Bike trail on your own. Note that most of the trail is on-road, so please take care and watch for traffic.

Major stops on the Trail include Fort Ward, Fort Worth, Fort Ellsworth, Alexandria National Cemetery, Alexandria Contrabands and Freemen Cemetery, and Battery Rodgers

Map (34 x 22” PDF)  PDF

Cue Sheet (Alexandria 14.5 mile loop)  PDF

Interpretive Stops PDF

A Note on Trail Safety

The Trails featured in this guide are for experience bikers only. Where possible, the trails use bikeway paths: a street or shared-use path either designed specifically for bicycle travel or with key design elements that support safe bicycle travel. However, many locations share streets with automobiles on high traffic roads and cross high traffic intersections or crossings. Forts by their design and location sit at the top of high topography and many bikers may find the hills associated with the trails a challenge.

The Defenses of Washington

When Virginia’s secession from the Union became effective on May 24, 1861, the capital city of Washington, D.C. was placed in imminent danger. Located directly across the Potomac River from Virginia, the Federal capital was vulnerable to a possible attack by the Confederate army.

On the morning of May 24, 1861, Federal troops moved into Northern Virginia to secure the capital and began building earthen forts to serve as supply bases south of the Potomac River. Construction of additional forts was dramatically accelerated on both sides of the Potomac River after the Confederate victories at the Battle of First Bull Run (July 1861) and the Battle of Second Bull Run (August 1862). By the time the war ended in April 1865, Washington, D.C., guarded by 164 earthwork forts and batteries known as the Defenses of Washington, had become one of the most heavily fortified cities in the Western Hemisphere. The only time Confederate forces attempted to penetrate this line of defenses was in July 1864, when Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early attacked Fort Stevens, the northern-most fort in the system.

In Alexandria, the Defenses of Washington included Fort Ellsworth, Fort Williams, Fort Worth and Fort Ward, now restored as a museum and historic site.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington Bike Trail Virginia Partnership

undefinedIn August 2007, the Friends of Fort Ward submitted a grant application to the National Park Service, National Capital Region, Rivers, Trails, and Conversation Assistance Program for technical assistance to develop a biking/hiking Trail connecting the Civil War Defenses of Washington and selected Civil War sites on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. The partnership consisted of the City of Alexandria, Arlington County, VA, Fairfax County, VA and the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Members of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association also consulted during the project. The grant was awarded in the fall of 2008 and work began in the spring of 2009 working with National Park Service facilitators. During the Civil War there were 33 named fortifications, twenty-five batteries (locations for cannons between forts), and seven block houses South of the Potomac River. Many of these sites no longer exist but have been designated by historic markers. The partnership decided to host the routes on a web-based format to reduce costs and feature the trail segment in their jurisdiction to link historic sites and interpretation. The user will find a cue sheet with directions and interpretive information for trail stops that can be downloaded or printed. The grand opening of the trail was on National Trails Day, June 4, 2011.