The Battle of Fort Stevens

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

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit:

The day after their victory on the Monocacy River, Early’s Confederates continued moving southeast through Maryland toward Washington. Early hoped that his raid would divert Federal forces from laying siege to Petersburg south of Richmond. Slowed by heat and fatigue, the Confederates stopped for the night near Rockville, less than 10 miles from Washington on the Georgetown Pike.

Meanwhile, panic spread throughout both Baltimore and Washington. Northerners eager for the fall of Richmond were now suddenly terrified that their own capital might fall. A group of Baltimore civic leaders wired President Abraham Lincoln accusing him of leaving their city vulnerable to Early’s Confederates. Lincoln replied, “They can not fly to either place. Let us be vigilant but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore or Washington will be sacked.”

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sent VI and XIX corps from Virginia to reinforce the Washington defenses. Grant telegraphed Lincoln offering to come in person to command the forces, and then advised, “All other force, it looks to me, should be collected in rear of enemy about Edwards Ferry and follow him (Early) and cut off retreat if possible.” Lincoln replied:

“Gen. Halleck says we have absolutely no force here fit to go to the field. He thinks that with the hundred day-men, and invalids we have here, we can defend Washington, and scarcely Baltimore. Now what I think is that you should provide to retain your hold where you are certainly, and bring the rest with you personally, and make a vigorous effort to destroy the enemie’s force in this vicinity. I think there is really a fair chance to do this if the movement is prompt.”

Lincoln concluded, “This is what I think, upon your suggestion, and is not an order.” Halleck agreed with Grant’s plan to get into Early’s rear, but, he wrote, “we have no forces here for the field” except “militia, invalids, convalescents from the hospitals, a few dismounted batteries, and the dismounted and disorganized cavalry sent up from James River.” Grant assured Washington that reinforcements would soon arrive, writing, “They will probably reach Washington tomorrow night. I have great faith that the enemy will never be able to get back with much of his force.”

Early’s army continued its advance on the 11th, moving southward down both the Georgetown Pike and the Seventh Street Pike. The troops destroyed bridges, railroad tracks, warehouses, factories, and homes along the way. Early recalled:

“This day was an exceedingly hot one, and there was no air stirring. While marching, the men were enveloped in a suffocating cloud of dust, and many of them fell by the way from exhaustion. Our progress was therefore very much impeded, but I pushed on as rapidly as possible, hoping to get to the fortifications around Washington before they could be manned.”

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. Federals 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.

Fort Stevens outside Washington | Image Credit:

The Confederates drove the Federal pickets back into the fort, but Early hesitated to launch an all-out attack due to Federal artillery, stifling summer heat, and exhaustion from marching all day. Early also noted the Federal fortifications:

“They were found to be exceedingly strong, and consisted of what appeared to be enclosed forts for heavy artillery, with a tier of lower works in front of each pierced for an immense number of guns, the whole being connected by curtains with ditches in front, and strengthened by palisades and abattis. The timber had been felled within cannon range all around and left on the ground, making a formidable obstacle, and every possible approach was raked by artillery.”

President and Mrs. Lincoln visited Fort Stevens as the Confederates approached, with one witness later writing, “While at Fort Stevens on Monday, both were imprudently exposed,–rifle-balls coming, in several instances, alarmingly near!” Lincoln watched the action 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.

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.”

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.

That evening, Early and his four division commanders took up headquarters in the mansion owned by the politically prominent Blair family. Early wrote, “I determined to make an assault on the enemy’s works at daylight next morning, unless some information should be received before that time showing its impracticability.” That information came when Early learned that VI Corps had arrived and XIX Corps would be there by morning. However, Early did not want to withdraw without at least trying to fight, so he ordered a probe the next day to look for an exploitable weakness in Fort Stevens.

Meanwhile, a Confederate cavalry detachment under Brigadier General Bradley Johnson wreaked havoc throughout Maryland. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“The Rebels captured a train of cars on the Philadelphia and Baltimore Road, and have burnt bridges over Gunpowder and Bush Rivers… General demoralization seems to have taken place among the troops, and there is as little intelligence among them as at the War Office in regard to the Rebels… no mails, and the telegraph lines have been cut; so that we are without news or information from the outer world.”

The Confederates advanced again on the 12th, but the panic had subsided among the Washington residents now that 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. The visit ended at Fort Stevens, where Lincoln watched the action with Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps.

Wright unwisely invited Lincoln to watch from the parapet, where he was exposed to enemy fire from the waist up. According to legend, 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…”

The Federals drove the Confederates off by 10 p.m., ending the last threat to Washington. Early’s troops withdrew, and as they moved through Silver Spring, Maryland, they burned the home of Francis P. Blair, Sr., a political icon since the days of Andrew Jackson. Early wrote, “The fact is that I had nothing to do with it, and do not yet know how the burning occurred.” Early stated that it was unwise “to set the house on fire when we were retiring, as it amounted to notice of our movement.” Some claimed that it was Confederate retaliation for the Federals burning the home of Virginia Governor John Letcher.

Nevertheless, as his soldiers formed columns to begin marching back to Virginia, Early told an aide, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”



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