Tag Archives: Washington

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: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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: BlogSpot.com

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 176; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 266; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20420-29; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 434-36; 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 9455-76, 9487-97, 9508-610; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 467-69; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 640-44; 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. 536-38; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 756; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 312; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 233-34, 279, 504, 677-79

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The Maryland Campaign Begins

September 4, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland to take the war to the North for the first time.

Following the Second Bull Run campaign, Lee’s army was within 25 miles of Washington. This gave Lee four options:

  • He could attack heavily defended Washington, which would probably end in failure.
  • He could remain in the area outside Washington, which had been stripped of foodstuffs.
  • He could fall back to the Rappahannock River and await an attack, allowing the Federal army to become even more powerful.
  • He could withdraw into the Shenandoah Valley, leaving Richmond vulnerable to capture.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee then came upon a fifth option, which he explained in a long letter to President Jefferson Davis from his Chantilly headquarters:

“The present seems to be the most propitious time since the commencement of the war for the Confederate Army to enter Maryland… We cannot afford to be idle, and though weaker than our opponents in men and military equipments, must endeavor to harass, if we cannot destroy them.”

Lee acknowledged:

“The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy’s territory. It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and the men are poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes… What occasions me the most concern is the fear of getting out of ammunition.”

However, invading Maryland outweighed the alternatives, and Lee noted there was strong pro-Confederate sentiment there, which could offer “an opportunity of throwing off the oppression to which she is now subject.” A Confederate invasion of the North would reduce the burden of war on Virginia’s resources and allow Lee’s troops to resupply in the rich northern farmlands. A Confederate military victory on northern soil could earn foreign recognition for the Confederacy and influence the upcoming Federal midterm elections by prompting northerners to elect anti-war politicians.

In Washington, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck expressed confidence that Lee would not attack the capital, and even if he did, he could never penetrate such strong fortifications. But Halleck also knew that Lee would not sit outside Washington for long. He notified Major General George B. McClellan, who had recently been restored to command all Federals around the capital:

“There is every probability that the enemy, baffled in his intended capture of Washington, will cross the Potomac, and make a raid into Maryland or Pennsylvania. A movable army must be immediately organized to meet him again in the field.”

Halleck expected quick, decisive action, something McClellan had never done before. As McClellan set about merging the two armies around Washington into one, Lee informed Davis:

“I am more fully persuaded of the benefit that will result from an expedition into Maryland, and I shall proceed to make the movement at once, unless you should signify your disapprobation. Should the results of the expedition justify it, I propose to enter Pennsylvania.”

Lee’s army was reinforced by three divisions from Richmond. However, this did not make up for the 9,000 Confederates lost during the Second Bull Run campaign. Worse, straggling became an epidemic, as thousands of soldiers fell out due to exhaustion, malnutrition, or their refusal to enter Maryland. Many others moved deliberately slow to show they were “morally opposed to invasion.” Lee wrote Davis, “Our great embarrassment is the reduction of our ranks by straggling, which it seems impossible to prevent… Our ranks are very much diminished–I fear from a third to one-half of our original numbers.”

Lee assigned General Lewis Armistead to be a provost guard who would “follow in rear of the army, arrest stragglers, and punish summarily all depredators, and keep the men with their commands. Stragglers are usually those who desert their comrades in peril. Such characters are better absent from the army on such momentous occasions as those about to be entered upon.”

Those caught straggling would “come under the special attention of the provost-marshal, and be considered as unworthy members of an army which has immortalized itself in the recent glorious and successful engagements against the enemy, and will be brought before a military commission to receive the punishment due to their misconduct.” Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson ordered the immediate execution of anyone caught deserting.

Without waiting for Davis’s response, Lee moved his army out of Chantilly and toward the shallow Potomac River fords west of Washington near Leesburg, Virginia. Federal forces at Winchester abandoned the town in the face of the oncoming Confederates, leaving a large amount of ammunition which the Confederates picked up the next day. As they continued toward Leesburg, the Confederates skirmished with Federals at Harpers Ferry, Falls Church, Bunker Hill, and Fairfax Court House.

With Major General D.H. Hill’s division leading, the Confederates began crossing the Potomac at White’s Ford, about 35 miles above Washington, on the 4th. Regimental bands played “Maryland, My Maryland” as the troops entered the state. The small Federal force stationed a few miles north at Frederick, Maryland, quickly evacuated.

News of the Confederate advance reached Washington a few hours later, causing even greater panic than there had been after Second Bull Run. Gunboats prepared to defend Washington, government employees took up arms, and rumors circulated that the steamer U.S.S. Wachusett was ready to transport President Abraham Lincoln and other top officials to New York if necessary.

Contrary to Lee’s hopes, most Marylanders did not welcome the incoming Confederates, and few volunteered to join the army. In addition, Lee expected the Maryland incursion to scatter Federals stationed at Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry in western Virginia, thus opening a supply line into the Shenandoah Valley. But this did not happen, so Lee had to change his plans by detaching a portion of his army to force the Federals out of those locales.

McClellan began moving the revised Army of the Potomac out of Washington on the 5th. McClellan led six handpicked corps totaling 84,000 men as they moved north and west into Maryland. Two corps stayed behind to defend the capital. President Lincoln served water to Federal troops on the White House lawn as they moved out. McClellan boasted, “I will save the country.”

Residents of Baltimore and other northern cities began panicking as Jackson’s Confederates arrived in Frederick unopposed on the 6th. The Confederate command prohibited any looting or vandalism, but instead of being welcomed as liberators, businesses closed and residents shut their doors and windows. A witness noted that “everything partook of a churchyard appearance.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 323; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 84-85; Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 8-10, 13-15; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17275-82, 17300; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 209; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 662; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 202-04, 207; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 480-81; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 261-62; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 534; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 151-64, 267-68; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 19-20; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362

Dubious Victory at Munson’s Hill

September 28, 1861 – Federals advanced on Munson’s Hill, a few miles southwest of Washington, and discovered that it was not as heavily defended as presumed.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Since the Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had combined the Armies of the Potomac and the Shenandoah into one force consisting of two corps. The former army had become the First Corps of about 24,000 men under General P.G.T. Beauregard. The latter had become the Second Corps of about 16,000 men under General Gustavus W. Smith.

The Confederates mainly held positions in the Centreville area of northern Virginia, with Beauregard’s corps at Fairfax Court House and advance elements within 10 miles of Washington at Munson’s Hill. These elements overlooked Arlington Heights and threatened to disrupt Federal traffic on the Potomac River. By late September, Johnston feared that the forward positions had become vulnerable to attack by the ever-growing Federal Army of the Potomac.

Johnston had reason to fear an attack. Federals had recently conducted a reconnaissance in force around Munson’s Hill and nearby Upton’s Hill, south of Falls Church. Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, sought to clear these points and use them for his planned ring of forts and defensive works around the capital. The two sides engaged in a heavy skirmish, after which the Federals reported that Confederates had constructed strong defenses on Munson’s Hill that included rifle pits and artillery.

The Federals were unaware that these “strong” defenses were mostly a bluff on Johnston’s part. On September 26, he wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin and President Jefferson Davis asking that one of them inspect the army’s positions and help “to decide definitely whether we are to advance or fall back to a more defensible line.” Then, without waiting for either to respond, Johnston ordered the withdrawal from Munson’s Hill and other forward points.

By dawn on the 28th, Beauregard had evacuated both Munson’s and Upton’s hills, falling back to Fairfax Court House and Centreville. McClellan, who had been reluctant to attack such “strong” positions, resolved to seize the hills upon learning that the Confederates had retreated. Heeding false warnings from local residents that Confederates were waiting in ambush, the Federals advanced toward the hills with extreme caution.

A Confederate "quaker gun" | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

A Confederate “quaker gun” | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Federals climbed the slopes and discovered that the rifle pits had been abandoned. And to their dismay (and their commanders’ embarrassment), they found that the mighty cannon pointed in their direction for nearly two months consisted only of logs and stovepipes painted black. A correspondent who had hoped to witness a battle resentfully called these “Quaker guns.”

Making matters worse for the Federals, on the night of the 28th, troops of the 69th and 71st Pennsylvania accidentally fired into each other while clearing the woods around Munson’s Hill, resulting in several killed and wounded. This tragic mishap, combined with the ruse on the hills, diminished the Federals’ successful occupation of the supposedly threatening positions.

On the Confederate side, Secretary of War Benjamin responded to Johnston’s invitation to inspect the army a day after the Confederates abandoned their forward positions. Benjamin stated that Davis should visit the army and then admonished Johnston for not submitting “a single return from your army of the quantity of ammunition, artillery, means of transportation, or sick in camp or in hospitals, to enable us to form a judgment of what your necessities may be… (it should be) obvious to you that the Department cannot be administered without a thorough reform in this respect.”

This demonstrated the growing tension between Johnston and his superiors, which would continue into October, after President Davis arrived to inspect the army.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 39; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 79-80; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 103-04; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 122; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 361-62; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 76-80

From Sullivan Ballou, 2nd Rhode Island

Letter from Major Sullivan Ballou, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, to his wife in Smithfield

Camp Clark, Washington

July 14, 1861

Rhode Island Regiment Flag | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rhode Island Regiment Flag | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days–perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more…

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing–perfectly willing–to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt…

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with might cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break, and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me–perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness…

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights… always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again…

—–

Source: Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 82-83

Testing New Federal Technology

June 24, 1861 – Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe ascended in a balloon to demonstrate the usefulness of aerial military reconnaissance, and J.D. Mills demonstrated the “Union Repeating Gun,” forerunner to the modern machine gun.

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, or “Professor” Lowe to most, was a scientist and showman who had experimented with balloons since the 1850s. Earlier this year, a balloon flight from Cincinnati to Washington got caught in a wind current and took him to South Carolina instead. State authorities arrested him on spy charges; locals thought he was a demon from above. He was soon released and sent back north.

Lowe had been summoned to Washington by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and the War Department wanted to see what Lowe’s balloons could do for reconnoitering enemy positions. On June 17, Lowe and a small group demonstrated a tethered balloon named Enterprise to President Lincoln and other officials. The balloon ascended 500 feet above the Washington defenses, with a War Department telegraph line connecting Enterprise to the White House lawn. Lowe wired: “This point of observation commands an area of nearly 50 miles in diameter. The city, with its girdle of encampments, presents a superb scene.”

Lowe’s balloon became practical with his invention of a gas generator that could be transported by horse-drawn wagons to inflate balloons in the field; previously balloons had to be tied to stationary gas mains. A tank filled with water and iron filings produced hydrogen gas when combined with sulfuric acid.

General Irvin McDowell, preparing to invade northern Virginia, requested that Lowe use his balloon to reconnoiter Confederate positions over the Potomac River from Washington. Lowe ascended on June 23, but winds picked up and nothing could be seen except dark clouds of dust from enemy cavalry. Lowe tried again that evening, but he could still see nothing, not even enemy campfires.

Nevertheless, the Washington Sunday Morning Chronicle reported on Professor Lowe’s ascent the next day: “No doubt (Confederate) General Beauregard has looked up on the high position of Professor Lowe with considerable amazement. All his far-reaching guns will fail to reach the messenger, who, from his cloudy seat, spies out the weak points of the traitor’s nest.”

Lowe tried again on the 24th, and this time the weather had much improved. Major Leonard Colburn, a cartographer, accompanied Lowe and sketched various waterways, buildings, and roads in what could have been the first instance of aerial “photography.”

Several Federal officers who had expressed skepticism about balloon reconnaissance, including McDowell, changed their minds when they saw the map sketches. McDowell wrote, “I have not been much of a convert to ballooning in military operations, but the last ascent… convince(s) me that a balloon may at times greatly assist military movements.” The U.S. Balloon Corps was created for battlefield reconnaissance as a result, and rumors quickly spread through the Federal military that the Confederacy was working to develop balloons of their own.

This new technology fascinated President Lincoln, as did a new type of gun demonstrated that same day. Lincoln observed the experimental firing of a rapid-firing weapon developed by J.D. Mills of New York (although Mills later fought Edward Nugent and William Palmer for the patent). Mills demonstrated “the Union Repeating Gun… An Army in six feet square” in the hayloft of Hall’s carriage shop across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Willard Hotel.

The device, mounted on a two-wheel artillery carriage, had one barrel that was fed by a revolving, square hopper holding .58-caliber paper cartridges in steel jackets. Turning the crank moved the cartridges through the machine and into the gun barrel. Lincoln, who was allowed to fire the weapon, said it reminded him of a coffee mill, and that became the gun’s nickname.

The next day, Mills again demonstrated his “Coffee Mill” gun, this time at the Washington arsenal in front of Lincoln, three cabinet members, five generals, and the governor of Connecticut. Lincoln soon became convinced that the gun could be effective in guarding fortifications and bridges around the capital. Major General Joseph K.F. Mansfield, commanding the Washington defenses, requested several of Mills’s guns, but Brigadier General James W. Ripley, chief of ordnance, would not place the order without more testing. Ripley feared this new technology, which was the forerunner of the modern machine gun.

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Sources

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 147; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 51-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 38-40; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 86-87; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 451-52

The Lincoln Conspiracy Trial

May 1, 1865 – President Andrew Johnson appointed “nine competent military officers” to form a commission and try suspects accused of conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Those seeking retribution for Lincoln’s murder disregarded the questionable constitutionality of Johnson’s order.

Federal authorities had apprehended and imprisoned seven men and one woman for allegedly taking part in the plot to kill the president: David Herold, George Atzerodt, Samuel Arnold, Lewis Paine, Michael O’Laughlin, Edward “Ned” Spangler, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and Mrs. Mary Surratt.[1]

All those accused were civilians, and under the Constitution they could not be tried by a military tribunal where civilian courts functioned, which was the case in the District of Columbia. But Johnson cited the opinion of Attorney General James Speed, who stated that the alleged conspirators may have violated the rules of war if they had worked with the Confederate government to assassinate the U.S. commander-in-chief during wartime. If the defendants had acted as “public enemies,” they “ought to be tried before a military tribunal” rather than in a civilian court.[2]

Many, including Lincoln’s former Attorney General Edward Bates objected to a military trial. Bates said, “If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs for half the world.” But the intense outrage and grief surrounding Lincoln’s death muted those who criticized Johnson’s decision as unconstitutionally depriving the defendants of their right to face a jury of their peers. Rules governing military tribunals often called for less stringent evidence and more severe punishment than in civil courts. Moreover, while civil courts required a unanimous decision to convict, military tribunals needed only a two-thirds majority among the nine commissioners.[3]

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton carried out Johnson’s order by naming acting Adjutant General Edward D. Townsend to select the commission members. On May 6, Townsend selected all Republicans, with Major General David Hunter named commission president. Judge advocate was Stanton’s friend Brigadier General Joseph Holt, who had previously prosecuted civilians suspected of “disloyalty” and had been widely accused of despotism.[4]

Guards placed thick canvas hoods lined with cotton on the prisoners, who could not see or hear anything around them. Only two small slits in the hoods allowed them to breathe and eat. The prisoners also remained shackled throughout their incarceration.[5]

Hoods worn by the Lincoln conspirators | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Hoods worn by the Lincoln conspirators | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The military commission first convened on May 8 in a newly created courtroom on the third floor of the Old Penitentiary in Washington. The tribunal consisted of Generals David Hunter (first officer), August Kautz, Albion Howe, James Ekin, David Clendenin, Lewis Wallace, Robert Foster, T.M. Harris, and Colonel C.H. Tomkins. Judge Advocate Joseph Holt served as both chief prosecutor and legal advisor to the commission. Radical Republican John A. Bingham and H.L. Burnett also served on the prosecution team.[6]

On the evening of May 9, General John Hantranft visited each prisoner’s cell to present the charges against them. The prisoners had not yet been allowed legal counsel. Hantranft later wrote: “I had the hood (of each prisoner) removed, entered the cell alone with a lantern, delivered the copy, and allowed them time to read it, and in several instances, by request read the copy to them, before replacing the hood.”[7]

The next day, the prisoners pleaded “not guilty.” The trial began shortly afterward.[8]

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[1] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 684-85

[2] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140-58

[3] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-40; http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html

[4] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-40; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 686

[5] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140-58; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 21762-21772; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 686

[6] http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html

[7] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140-58; http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/lincolnaccount.html

[8] Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 140-58