This Called for a Three Part Assault on the Confederacy

This Called for a Three Part Assault on the Confederacy.

Night set on at Fort Stevens on July xi, 1864
© Corbis

It may be altogether fitting and proper that the battlefield has come to this. A ragged one-half-block of grass surrounded by brick rowhouses, it lies between the primary business commune of Washington, D.C. and the suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. I was greeted by a couple of hundred anxiety of eroding breastworks and concrete replicas of a half-dozen gun platforms.

It is non hard to be reminded hither of lost causes and wasted lives; of how events often reel crazily away from the people who set them in move, battering downward winners and thrusting losers toward greatness. And so what is left of Fort Stevens may exist precisely the right memorial for the curious confrontation that occurred hither, and for the weary men who led it.

To Lieut. Gen. Jubal Early of the Confederate States Army, at least for a lilliputian while that solar day, it must have seemed that the war was young again. In the noonday heat of July 11, 1864, the commander of the battle-hardened 2 Corps of Robert Due east. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia sat his horse on a ascension of ground in Maryland and saw, shimmering in the heat waves just 6 miles to the south, the luminous dome of the United States Capitol. Immediately in forepart of him were the frowning works of Washington’s formidable ring of defensive entrenchments. A glance told him, he wrote afterwards, that they were “but feebly manned.”

Information technology was a twelvemonth and a week after the fateful Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, four months afterwards the advent of Ulysses S. Grant as the Federal General in Chief, and a month since Grant’due south armies had begun hammering at Petersburg, south of Richmond. For some time, in other words, in that location had been for the South precious little celebrity in this war and fifty-fifty less fun. The proud young men strutting to the music of the bands were no more; now lamentable-eyed, leather-skinned, worn-out infantrymen stumbled barefoot through the heat and grit until they dropped. The caped and ostrich-feathered officers, happily risking all for domicile and country, were dead, replaced by bitter shells of men playing out a losing hand.

And yet, by God, here at midday on a Mon in July was the balding, foulmouthed, tobacco-chewing, prophet-bearded Jubal Early, at the gates of the Federal capital. He had taken command of the men who had earned immortality as Stonewall Jackson’s “foot cavalry,” had marched them far enough and fought them hard enough to rival the memory of their dead commander, and now he stood on the brink of legend himself. He was going to accept Washington City—its Treasury, its arsenals, its Capitol edifice, perchance even its President.

Even better, he was going to lift some of the shelling burden from the shoulders of his chief, Robert E. Lee. Beleaguered, almost surrounded, his sources of nutrient and reinforcement slowly being choked off, his neat eye failing nether the disturbing pressure level, Lee had asked Jubal Early to attempt two things, each of them a tremendous claiming.

Get-go, reclaim the Shenandoah Valley from the Federal regular army that had managed, for the first fourth dimension in the state of war, to occupy the granary of the Confederacy.

So, if he could, invade the North again, every bit Lee had done in the campaigns of Antietam and Gettysburg, and raise such an uproar that Grant would be forced to detach part of his ground forces to protect Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington City; or attack Lee in his fortifications and risk suffering more of the slaughter that had stunned his ground forces at Cold Harbor.

There were political as well as armed services benefits to be gained. The Union, heartily tired of war, would be electing its President in Nov. The probable Democratic candidate, George McClellan, was promising a negotiated peace while Abraham Lincoln was promising to finish the war no thing how long it took. If Early could embarrass Lincoln, deepen the state of war-weariness and brighten McClellan’south prospects, he might assure the survival of the Confederacy.


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Battleground National Cemetery located on Georgia Avenue
Public Domain


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Cannon at Monocacy River battlegrounds that was used by soldiers under command of Major General Lew Wallace
© Mark Reinstein/Corbis


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Monument at Grace Episcopal Church in remembrance of the 17 Confederate soldiers that died attacking Washington, D.C.
SA 3.0


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Fort Stevens after an set on led by Jubal Early
© Medford Historical Lodge Collection/Corbis


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Plaque in remembrance of the night Abraham Lincoln was at Fort Stevens during an attack
SA 3.0


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Union Soldiers at Fort Stevens
SA 3.0


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Fort Stevens Park, a recreation congenital by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937
SA 3.0


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Jubal Early
© Library of Congress


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Fort Stevens Park, a recreation built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937
SA 3.0


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Francis Preston Blair (seated in the center) photographed with his staff
© Medford Historical Order Collection/Corbis

The role of savior did non fit snugly on the tall form of the man they called “Old Jube.” Sparse and fierce, stooped by what he said was rheumatism, a confirmed bachelor at 48, he had a natural language that (when it was not caressing a plug of tobacco) rasped like a steel file on well-nigh sensibilities and a sense of humor that enraged equally often as information technology amused. His adjutant general, Maj. Henry Kyd Douglas, admired Early on’s fighting abilities only saw him with clear eyes: “Arbitrary, cynical, with strong prejudices, he was personally disagreeable.” It is remarkable. then, that before the war he had been a moderately successful politico and lawyer in his native Franklin County, in southwestern Virginia.

Professional soldiering seems not to have appealed to Jubal Early; he resigned from the U.S. Regular army in 1838, just one twelvemonth later graduation from West Point, and went back merely briefly in 1846 to do his duty in the Mexican War. He had argued caustically against secession and for the Matrimony until his land seceded, whereupon he became an equally caustic supporter of the Confederacy and a colonel in its army.

Information technology soon became clear that he was that rare commodity, a forceful and mettlesome leader of men in battle. This had been and then at Starting time and 2d Balderdash Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Equally his commands increased in size, notwithstanding, his touch on became less sure and his luck more than spotty. Nevertheless such was General Lee’s confidence that in 1864 Early on had been given command of one of the 3 corps in the Ground forces of Northern Virginia.

And now here he was, on the brink of history, virtually to quench the dizzying thirst for recognition that glittered ceaselessly from his blackness eyes. Pursuant to Lee’s teaching, he had chased one Federal army away from Lynchburg, Virginia, and clear into the West Virginia mountains where it disappeared. He met another well-nigh Frederick, Maryland, on the Monocacy River, and swept it aside. On fire with the glory of it all, forgetting his limited objective, Early at present rasped out his orders to Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes, commander of the leading division: throw out a skirmish line; move forwards into the enemy works; attack the uppercase of the United states.

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Abraham Lincoln himself visited the fort and watched the sinuous dust clouds raised by enemy columns approaching from the northwest. “In his long, yellowish linen coat and unbrushed high hat,” an Ohio soldier who had seen him at the fort wrote, “he looked similar a intendance worn farmer in time of peril from drouth and dearth.” Far away to the south, the relentless Grant had refused to be distracted from his slow strangulation of Lee’southward army. On the whole, Lincoln approved; he had, after all, tried for three long years to find a full general who would devote himself to destroying the enemy armies instead of striking attitudes and defending Washington. Only it must have occurred to the President, that afternoon, that maybe Grant had gone likewise far.

A few months earlier, there had been 18,000 trained artillerymen manning the 900 guns and guarding the 37 miles of fortifications that ringed Washington. Grant had taken those men for harsher duty in the trenches in front of Petersburg, and at present, on the threatened northward side of the barrier Potomac, at that place were on the line no more four,000 frightened dwelling house guardsmen and militiamen.

Paroxysms of hysteria in the city

Reinforcements were on the way, to be certain. As soon as he realized what Early was upwardly to, Grant dispatched two veteran Vi Corps divisions—xi,000 stiff and diverted to Washington 6,000 men of XIX Corps. The transports were not far downstream from the city, Lincoln knew, but Jubal Early had arrived. His 4,000 cavalry and artillerymen were harassing the Federal line for miles in either direction; he had 10,000 infantrymen and 40 cannon, and his skirmishers were already chasing the Federal pickets dorsum into the fortifications.

Confronted by what they had so long feared—actual danger—the civilians of Washington went into paroxysms of hysteria, telling each other that a Amalgamated army “50,000 potent” was laying waste to Maryland and Pennsylvania. War machine and political functionaries, meanwhile, went berserk.

Everyone took charge of everything. The war machine section was commanded by Maj. Gen. Christopher Augur; just the Army Principal of Staff, Henry Halleck, ordered Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore to take accuse in the emergency; but the Secretary of State of war, Edwin Stanton, had called in Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook to handle the crisis; but General in Chief Grant had sent Maj. Gen. E.O.C. Ord to save the situation.

When yet another general, who for some reason was relaxing in a New York City hotel, sent give-and-take that he would exist bachelor for duties commensurate with his rank, Main of Staff Halleck blew up. “We have five times equally many generals here as we desire,” he responded, “but are greatly in need of privates. Anyone volunteering in that chapters volition exist thankfully received.”

Everyone thought of something. Halleck had the hospitals checked for potentially useful walking wounded, and then they could be formed up and marched toward the fortifications. On the way they probably stumbled into a ragged formation of clerks from the offices of the Quartermaster General, Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who had decided that at present was the time for them to exchange their pencils for rifles. Someone else made preparations for destroying the bridges over the Potomac River. A steamboat was fired up and held ready to go the President away.

A restless tattoo of musketry

Merely the President was singularly serene. “Let us be vigilant,” he telegraphed to an overwrought Baltimore committee, “but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore nor Washington will be sacked.” Still on that sultry afternoon, with the earth trembling to the bark of the large guns, with the acrid smell of black powder hanging in the stifling air and a restless tattoo of musketry sounding along the lines, keeping cool could not have been piece of cake.

Both the Federal defenses and the Confederate threat looked stronger than they were. “Undoubtedly we could have marched into Washington,” wrote i of Early’s division commanders, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. “I myself rode to a point on those breastworks at which in that location was no force whatsoever. The unprotected space was broad enough for the easy passage of Early on’south regular army without resistance.”

Just beyond this inviting gap lay the legislative and administrative heart of the enemy government. What is more, there was the Federal Navy yard, with its ships to fire; the U.s.a. Treasury with its millions of dollars in bonds and currency, the seizure of which would have had catastrophic effects on the Northern economy; warehouse after warehouse of medical supplies, food, armed services equipment, armament-all scarce and badly needed in the Confederacy. In brusk, a rich city, virgin to war, awaiting plunder.

Not to mention the incalculable humiliation to the Matrimony if such a rape of its capital letter occurred. Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace (later the author of
Ben Hur) had been stiffened to brand his desperate stand against Early on the Monocacy, he wrote subsequently, by a vision of “President Lincoln, cloaked and hooded, stealing from the back door of the White House just as some gray-garbed Amalgamated brigadier flare-up in the front door.”

Simply for the moment, at least, the enormous prize was out of attain. The trouble was non a lack of will or courage or even firepower; the trouble was something that civilians and historians rarely remember of as office of state of war-uncomplicated fatigue. Early’south foot soldiers were just too tired to walk that far.

During the hottest and driest summer anyone could remember they had marched about 250 miles from Lynchburg in iii weeks. They had fought hard at the Monocacy on July 9, then after burying their dead had marched over again at dawn, struggling xxx miles in the searing heat to bivouac near Rockville, Maryland. The night of the tenth brought and then little relief from the heat that the exhausted men were unable to sleep. On the 50 lth, with the dominicus burning more fiercely than ever, they had begun to requite out.

General Early on rode along the loosening formations, telling staggering, sweating, grit-begrimed men that he would accept them into Washington that twenty-four hour period. They tried to raise the old Rebel Yell to bear witness him they were willing, but it came out cracked and thin. The mounted officers reluctantly slowed their pace, simply before midday the road backside the army was littered with prostrate men who could go no further.

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Thus when Early on ordered Full general Rodes to attack, both men—on horseback—were far ahead of the plodding columns. While Early fumed and spat tobacco juice, his officers struggled to become men and guns in position. They managed to mount a skirmish line to chase in the Federal pickets, but putting together a massed line of boxing was beyond them. The afternoon wore on, and to Early on every 60 minutes was the equivalent of a grand casualties.

Information technology was non the mistake of his men. General Gordon after wrote of them that they possessed, “a spirit which nothing could break.”

Nor was it a failure of the officers; Jubal Early had for subordinate commanders some of the best generals in the Confederacy. John Gordon and John Breckinridge were, like Early, lawyers and politicians who lacked his Westward Point training but had shown a remarkable power to pb men in gainsay. Breckinridge was a erstwhile Vice President of the United States and a candidate for President in 1860, who came in second to Lincoln in the balloter vote; now he was second in command of an army advancing on the US. capital letter. Stephen Dodson Ramseur, a major general at 27, possessed a ferocity in battle that usually got results.

No one embodied more of the paradoxes of this state of war than John Breckinridge. A passionate and lifelong champion of the Union and the Constitution, he had been convinced for years that slavery could non and should not survive; but he also believed that it was unconstitutional for the national regime to prohibit slave states from participating in the land’southward booming Western expansion—the settlement of the territories.

For his ramble arguments he was ostracized in the Senate and described as a traitor to the United States; back in Kentucky he pleaded with his country to stay out of the spreading civil state of war. Spousal relationship military government ordered his arrest. Thus John Breckinridge had been left with nowhere to go just into the armies marching against the Union, on behalf of slavery.

Such were the men who stood at Jubal Early’due south side that afternoon. Earlier he could course his gasping troops and launch his attack, Early saw “a deject of dust in the rear of the works toward Washington, and soon a column of the enemy filed into them on the right and left, and skirmishers were thrown out in front.” Arms fire opened from a number of batteries.

The Confederates had managed to take a few prisoners, who freely admitted that their lines were existence held past “counter jumpers, hospital rats and stragglers.” But the men merely arriving were veterans, possibly reinforcements from Grant. Jubal Early on was bold, but he was not foolhardy; even so tempting the prize, he would not commit to battle without knowing what he was facing. As he wrote subsequently, “Information technology became necessary to reconnoiter.”

The Federal regiment that had impressed Early was from Grant’s Ground forces of the Potomac, merely information technology was alone. Meanwhile, nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln had spotted something actually interesting in his spyglass, and driven eagerly s to the Sixth Street wharves.

Marching off in the incorrect direction

He arrived in midafternoon, and stood quietly gnawing on a chunk of hardtack while Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright assembled the start 650 arrivals from Vi Corps and marched them off—in the wrong direction—toward Georgetown. With slap-up shouting and clatter, some staff officers got the men turned around and headed up 11th Street, toward the enemy.

A Vermonter named Aldace Walker marched with Half-dozen Corps that day. He thought information technology was still morning, and had his dates confused, but he remembered how the presence of the capable Old Sixth brought “intense relief to the constitutionally timid Washingtonians. . . .Citizens ran through the lines with buckets of water ice-water, for the morning was sultry; newspapers and eatables were handed into the cavalcade, and our welcome had a heartiness that showed how intense had been the fear.”

The official welcome was less clear-cut. To his disgust, Wright was ordered to agree his men in reserve, fifty-fifty though the raw troops at Fort Stevens were being severely pummeled past Early on’southward guns and skirmishers, and were already showing signs of caving in. In the stop, the simply matter the soldiers did that night (and this only because Wright insisted on it) was to motility out in forepart of the fortifications to restore a sentinel line and push dorsum enemy skirmishers. “The pseudo-soldiers who filled the trenches around the fort were astounded at the temerity displayed by these war-torn veterans in going out before the breastworks,” Walker remembered scornfully, “and benevolently volunteered most earnest words of caution.”

Plain the Federal high command did picayune that night merely further confuse each other. Charles Dana, an Assistant Secretary of State of war and an sometime friend of Grant’due south, sent a despairing wire to the commanding full general Tuesday morning: “General Halleck will non give orders except equally he receives them; the President will give none, and until y’all direct positively and explicitly what is to exist done, everything will continue in the deplorable and fatal way in which information technology has gone on for the past week.”

On Monday night, Early and his division commanders gathered at their captured headquarters, “Argent Spring,” the imposing mansion of the prominent Washington publisher and politico Francis Preston Blair (and a sometime political patron of John Breckinridge). There the Confederate officers had dinner, a council of war and a party. Men were still straggling in from their hellish march, and it seemed a precious opportunity had been lost the previous afternoon. Simply the Federal works were yet non manned in strength, and Early ordered an assault at first light.

A sound of revelry by night

His officers raided Francis Blair’s vino cellar and talked about what they would do next day. They joked well-nigh escorting John Breckinridge back to his former place equally presiding officer of the Senate. Exterior, soldiers speculated about how they would carve up up the contents of the Treasury. According to General Gordon, 1 private was asked what they would practise when they took the city, and said the situation reminded him of a family slave whose dog chased every train that came past. The erstwhile man wasn’t worried about losing his canis familiaris, said the soldier, he was worried almost what the domestic dog was going to do with a train when he caught one.

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Information technology was all adept fun, but before long daylight was coming.

Full general Early was up before dawn, surveying the Federal fortifications with his field glasses. The trenches and the parapets teemed with blue uniforms—non the dark, new blueish of fresh, untested cloth, merely the faded sky-blue of well-used material. Everywhere he saw fluttering boxing flags bearing the Greek Cross of VI Corps. The door to Jubal Early’south niche in history had just slammed close.

“I had, therefore, reluctantly to give up all hopes of capturing Washington, after I had arrived in sight of the dome of the Capitol,” he wrote. But they could not give whatever sign of flinching with that many soldiers prepare to cascade later them. They would stay in identify, wait equally unsafe as they knew how, and as presently equally darkness covered them head back to Virginia. The Federals, meanwhile, made fix to fight a climactic battle for the urban center. They did it in the time-honored Washington style—with endless meetings, The day wore on, the blistering heat returned, the sharpshooters allow fly at annihilation that stirred, the cannon boomed from time to fourth dimension—and nobody moved.

The citizens of Washington regained their courage. Ladies and gentlemen of gild and rank declared a holiday and swarmed out to picnic and cheer the intrepid defenders. Some possibly had been amongst the picnickers who, 3 years before, had gone to cheer the boys going into battle at Bull Run, merely if they remembered the encarmine stampede that had engulfed the tourists on that mean solar day, they gave no sign.

At midafternoon they were joined by the President and Mrs. Lincoln, who arrived at Fort Stevens in a railroad vehicle. General Wright went out to greet the Commander in Chief and casually asked if he would similar to run into the fight; the diverse Chieftains had at concluding agreed to effort a reconnaissance in force, to press the Confederates back and see just how strong they were. Full general Wright intended his question to exist purely rhetorical, but as he wrote subsequently, “A moment afterwards, I would have given much to take recalled my words.”

Delighted at the prospect of seeing actual combat for the first time, Lincoln divisional upward to the parapet and stood looking over the field, his familiar, top-hatted form an inviting target for Confederate sharpshooters. While Wright begged the President to take encompass, a trooper in Lincoln’s cavalry escort saw bullets “sending little spurts and puffs of dust as they thudded into the beach on which he stood.” Thus for the first and just time in history a President of the United states came under fire in combat.

Backside the breastworks, a busy immature helm from Massachusetts named Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. glanced up, saw a alpine, awkward civilian standing in the spray of bullets and snapped, “Go downwardly, you damn fool, before you lot get shot.” Only then did the hereafter Supreme Court justice realize that he was berating the President.

Meanwhile a Six Corps brigade, about 2,000 strong, was sneaking out of Fort Stevens and taking position in a wooded area 300 yards east of what is now Wisconsin Avenue, merely behind the line of Federal skirmishers and out of sight of the enemy. Their orders were to make a surprise charge at the Amalgamated positions on the wooded ridge less than a mile from Fort Stevens.

Lincoln watched these maneuvers attentively, standing fully exposed on meridian of the parapet, oblivious to the leaden hail. Full general Wright stood at the President’due south side, along with C.C.Five. Crawford, the surgeon of one of the attacking regiments. Suddenly, a circular ricocheted off a nearby soldier’s rifle and into Crawford’s thigh. Gravely wounded, he was carried to the rear.

General Wright, beside himself, ordered everyone off the parapet, and when the President ignored him threatened to have a squad of soldiers forcibly remove Lincoln from danger. “The absurdity of the thought of sending off the President under guard seemed to amuse him,” Wright recalled, and more to put an cease to the fuss than anything else, Lincoln finally agreed to sit behind the parapet and thus identify nigh of his frame behind cover. But he kept leaping to his feet to see what was happening.

When the attacking regiments were in position, the guns of Fort Stevens opened a sustained fire on the enemy positions. The 36th shot, fired at near 6 p.m., was the betoken for the picket line to plunge frontward. Behind it, appearing as if from nowhere, surged thousands of howling Federals.

“I thought we were ‘gone up,’” one of Early’s staff officers remembered. Just these were men familiar with expiry, and they opened a fire so hot that the Federals came to a halt and sent for reserves. The enemy, the Federal division commander reported, “was constitute to be much stronger than had been supposed.”

In that location was cheering from the spectators and joking in the rear echelons, but this was no game; Aldace Walker remembered it equally a “bitter little competition.” Every regimental commander in the leading Federal brigade was shot down; a hundred Confederate expressionless were afterward found lying on the field betwixt Fort Stevens and the Blair business firm. Heavy fighting connected until 10 P.Yard., even though General Wright ordered his men to hold their ground but non to tempest the Confederate lines.

Major Douglas constitute Jubal Early on in Francis Blair’south mansion subsequently dark, getting gear up to pull out. “He seemed in a droll sense of humor, maybe one of relief,” Douglas recalled, “for he said to me in his falsetto drawl, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, just we’ve scared Abe Lincoln similar hell!”’ And so with hollow laughs they began a long retreat, away from legend and glory, into Virginia, where Appomattox waited.

A half-mile northward of the crumbling remains of Fort Stevens, the cobblestone and physical surround of Georgia Avenue are interrupted by some other unremarkable, postage stamp-postage stamp square of green. Inappreciably larger than a townhouse lot, it is a National Cemetery, wherein are cached a few of the men for whom this “bitter little competition” was the last. Some hostage monuments to the men of New York and Ohio are crowded together here, but the most imposing matter ane sees on entering is a bronze plaque. It memorializes not the dead, just an 1875 order prohibiting picnicking on, and otherwise defacing, their graves. Forgetfulness came speedily.

This commodity was originally published in Smithsonian mag in July, 1988. The National Park Service offers a number of upcoming activities in recognition of the 150th anniversary of Jubal Early on’s attack on Washington.

This Called for a Three Part Assault on the Confederacy

Source: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-washington-dc-came-close-to-being-conquered-by-the-confederacy-180951994/

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