Thematic exhibitions explore different facets of Civil War military and civilian life, especially those related to the Defenses of Washington, the life of the Union soldier and local history focusing on wartime Alexandria. A mural depicting the location of the forts around Washington and an overview exhibit on Fort Ward's history and restoration, which includes a model of the stronghold as it once looked, introduce visitors to the site. A 12-minute video entitled Fort Ward and the Defenses of Washington: Silent Guardians of the Capital City may be viewed on the main exhibit floor. The video features period photographs and illustrations, footage of the historic fort and commentary by the authors of Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington.
The Museum building is patterned after a Union army headquarters building and houses a research library and a broad collection of Civil War artifacts including objects related to Alexandria's Civil War history. The building's architecture is that of a typical 19th-century board and batten style designed for a military headquarters. No documentation has been found to indicate that such a building stood at Fort Ward; however, structures of this type were commonly used at other forts in the Defenses of Washington.
- The Common Soldier: The typical Union foot-soldier carried with him all of the equipment necessary to fight and survive. In this exhibit, objects from the Museum’s permanent collection illustrate the daily life of the typical Union soldier. Among the equipment displayed are examples of Springfield and Enfield rifle-muskets, cartridge and cap boxes, a knapsack, mess utensils, and a variety of personal objects used for leisure-time activities. Of special interest is a protective vest called body armor.
- The Art of the Artilleryman: Many artillery regiments were stationed in the Defenses of Washington. A well-drilled artillery crew could fire a typical Civil War cannon two to three times a minute. In this exhibit, discover the tools and equipment used by artillerymen to aim, load and fire a cannon. Brochure available.
- Medical Care for the Civil War Soldier: At the beginning of the Civil War, neither side was prepared to care for the vast numbers of sick and wounded. Three out of four Civil War soldiers died of disease rather than from battle wounds. A broad selection of medical tools, equipment and images is featured illustrating treatment practices of the time, the importance of the ambulance corps, the vital efforts of women such as Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton in nursing the troops, and the role of Alexandria as a major hospital center for the Union Army. Brochure available.
- Tools of the Soldiers’ Trade: This display of firearms and related equipment used by the Civil War artilleryman traces the evolution of nineteenth-century firearms technology. From the obsolete smoothbore musket and the standard Springfield rifled musket, to Sharps Rifles and repeating carbines, Civil War soldiers were progressively equipped with more accurate, longer-range and more lethal guns. Improvements in firearm technology also meant that more specialized uses – such as firing while on horseback – could adapt small weapons to soldiers’ needs. Gun tools from the Fort Ward collection complement the firearms and show the everyday items Civil War soldiers used to clean and repair their weapons.
The reconstructed Officers' Hut is based on a period photograph of a living quarters at Fort Ward. It is located adjacent to the Museum, on a site behind the fort where barracks and other support buildings were built. Visitors view the interior display through the small building's windows. Interpretive signage near the hut provides information on the building and its purpose. The hut is largely furnished with reproduction military and personal objects which illustrate an officer's lifestyle in the Defenses of Washington. Among the objects used to create this period setting are an officer's cot, articles of clothing, grooming accessories, food and mess equipment, and an officer's folding table, chair and field desk displayed with replica military documents. The hut interior is changed periodically to reflect different aspects of camp life such as playing cards, writing letters and military reports or receiving a Christmas box from home.
Designed in the same board and batten style as the Museum building, the Officers' Hut can be documented as having stood at Fort Ward. In 1863, a quarters of this kind was assigned to Captain Rockwood of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery. Typically, two huts were constructed side by side to share a common chimney.
The historic fort provides visitors with an excellent understanding of Civil War-era military engineering. About 90% of the fort's earthwork walls are preserved and the Northwest Bastion has been restored and reconstructed to its original condition.
Self-guided tours begin at the reconstructed Fort Ward entrance gate. This structure, based on a period engineer plan, stands on its original site. To the right and left of the gate, the fort's extant earthen walls are visible. Visitors proceed through the gate into the fort. Among the fort's preserved elements are two long earthen mounds that represent the remains of the underground bombproof shelters, several preserved bastions, the defensive ditch which surrounded the fort and the reconstructed Northwest Bastion.
The Northwest Bastion is the focal point of the historic site. A viewing platform allows visitors to see the Bastion's restored exterior walls, which rise to a height of almost 20 feet. The interior of the Bastion features wooden pole revetment, six gun platforms with ordnance pertaining to this section of the fort, banquette ledges where infantry troops would perform guard duty and station themselves for battle, and entrances to the magazine and filling room. Informative signage describes the Bastion's guns and the practice of firing a cannon.