The Battle of Fort Stevens

July 11, 1864 – General Jubal Early’s makeshift Confederate Army of the Valley spread panic throughout Washington, DC by reaching the capital’s suburbs and attacking a portion of the city’s defenses.

General Robert E. Lee had detached a portion of his Army of Northern Virginia from the siege lines of Petersburg, Virginia to protect the Shenandoah Valley from Federal destruction and divert Federal attention from the Petersburg campaign. Led by Jubal Early, this new army moved through the Valley and entered Maryland, routing a Federal force at the Monocacy River before threatening Washington.[1]

Confederates moved down the Seventh Street Pike and entered Silver Springs, Maryland on July 11. There they burned the home of Francis P. Blair, Sr., a political advisor to every president since Andrew Jackson. In Washington, officials frantically organized militia, invalids, government clerks, and anyone else they could muster to man the capital defenses in preparation for an invasion. Two divisions from the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps began arriving as the Confederates approached Fort Stevens, Washington’s northernmost defensive work, around 1 p.m.[2]

Fort Stevens outside Washington | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Fort Stevens outside Washington | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

The Confederates drove the Federal pickets back into the fort, but the attack stalled due to Federal artillery, stifling summer heat, and exhaustion from marching all day. President and Mrs. Lincoln visited Fort Stevens during the attack, and Lincoln watched from a parapet, where his tall figure made a prime target. When a man near Lincoln was shot, a soldier called for the president to get down before he had his head knocked off.[3]

Private Elisha H. Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island recorded in his diary:

“On the parapet I saw President Lincoln… Mrs. Lincoln and other ladies were sitting in a carriage behind the earthworks. For a short time it was warm work, but as the President and many ladies were looking on, every man tried to do his best… I never saw the 2nd Rhode Island do better. The rebels, supposing us to be Pennsylvania militia, stood their ground, but prisoners later told me that when they saw our lines advance without a break they knew we were veterans. The Rebels broke and fled… Early should have attacked early in the morning (before we got there). Early was late.”[4]

Lincoln finally left the parapet, and he and the first lady went to the Sixth Street wharves where they watched troops from the Army of the Potomac debarking from their ship transports. Lincoln mingled “familiarly with the veterans, and now and then, as if in compliment to them, biting at a piece of hard tack which he held in his hand.” The Federals marched up Seventh Street to help defend Fort Stevens. After the Federal artillery drove the Confederates back, Early ordered his men to rest.[5]

That evening, Early and his four division commanders took up headquarters in Blair’s house. Early decided to attack again at dawn, “unless some information should be received before that time showing its impracticability.” That information came when Early learned that Army of the Potomac troops had arrived, and he called off the general attack. Instead, Early ordered a probe against Fort Stevens to try finding an exploitable weak point in the defenses.[6]

The Confederates advanced again on the 12th, but the panic had subsided among the Washington residents now that the Federal veterans arrived. Many curious onlookers came to see the action, including Lincoln once again. Despite warnings from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton about possible assassination attempts, Lincoln adjourned a cabinet meeting and visited several forts around Washington with Secretary of State William H. Seward. Lincoln ended at Fort Stevens, where he observed the fighting with General Horatio Wright, commanding VI Corps.[7]

Wright unwisely invited Lincoln to watch from the parapet, where he faced enemy fire from the waist up. Amidst the combat, young officer (and future Supreme Court justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. shouted to him, “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” Lincoln sat down but repeatedly jumped up to see the action. As he watched the Federals charge, a nearby surgeon was shot and Wright insisted that Lincoln leave or else be forcibly removed. Wright later recalled, “The absurdity of the idea of sending off the President under guard seemed to amuse him…”[8]

The Federals drove the Confederates off by 10 p.m., ending the last threat to Washington in the war. As his soldiers formed columns to begin marching back to Virginia, Early said to an aide, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”[9]

Early’s Confederates ultimately escaped back to Virginia, as (to Lincoln’s dismay) no Federal commander took the lead in preventing his escape. Early’s raid did little to change the complexion of the war from the Confederate perspective, and it did not relieve Federal pressure from Petersburg as Robert E. Lee had hoped. Once Washington was secured, the Federals resumed prosecuting the war like business as usual.[10]

—–

[1] Coffey, Walter, The Civil War Months: A Month-by-Month Compendium of the War Between the States (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, Inc., 2012), p. 299-300; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-86; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)

[2] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11033-44; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9455-9476, 9508-9548; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 537

[3] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11033-44; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9455-9476, 9508-9548; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-86; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 537

[4] Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 312

[5] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11033-44; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9455-9476, 9508-9548; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-86

[6] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9455-9476, 9508-9548; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-86

[7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9548-9610; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 537-38

[8] Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11044; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9548-9610; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 537-38

[9] Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 266; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9548-9610

[10] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9548-9610; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 537

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One thought on “The Battle of Fort Stevens

  1. […] their raid on Washington, Early’s Army of the Valley returned to the Shenandoah, reaching Leesburg on July 14. President […]

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