Document Deep Dive: The Day the Confederates Attacked Washington

This map painstakingly created by a Union cartographer presents a snapshot of the nation’s capital during the war

(Photo courtesy of the Sneden Collection at the Virginia Historical Society.)

When the Confederate attack on Washington, D.C. in July, 1864 electrified the nation, Robert Knox Sneden was languishing in Andersonville prison. Sneden—a mapmaker for the Union Army—had been captured while in the field with III Corps in Virginia. That he survived the notorious Confederate camp (and lived until 1918), was impressive in itself. But no more so than the magnificent map he later drew of General Jubal Early’s daring assault on the Union capital. The map, which shows in rich detail not only the engagement, but the layout of Civil War-era Washington, is part of one of the more remarkable compilations of Civil War maps and artwork in existence: the Sneden Collection at the Virginia Historical Society.

“It’s an incredible body of visual information about the Civil War,” says the Society’s head of program development, Andrew Talkov. The collection includes his wartime diary, and the so-called “Sneden Scrapbook,” a loosely organized compendium of maps and drawings that he compiled after the war, documenting not only his own experience, but other battles as well. Often known as “Jubal’s Raid” because it bore the stamp of one of Robert E. Lee’s boldest and ablest generals, the attack on Washington was part of an effort to relieve pressure on Lee’s army in Petersburg, Virginia. What better way than to invade the Yankee capital? In his classic study on the raid, originally written in 1960 (and republished in 1992), the historian Frank Vandiver called Early’s campaign a sterling example of “what a small mobile force under energetic leadership can accomplish.” 

Primarily remembered today as the battle in which a curious President Abraham Lincoln managed to get closer to the fighting than at any other point during the war, the raid achieved its objective of pulling troops off the Petersburg line. It also sent an enormous shock wave through the Union. “The extent to which (Early) frightened the United States is generally underappreciated,” wrote Vandiver. Sneden certainly appreciated it; as he rendered a meticulously researched map of Jubal’s Raid along with those of many other, more famous engagements of the Civil War—a number of which, unlike the Raid, he had observed personally.

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