When Washington, D.C. Came Close to Being Conquered by the Confederacy

The year was 1864, and the South was all but beaten, yet Jubal Early’s ragged army had D.C. within its grasp

Night Attack at Fort Stevens.jpg
Night attack at Fort Stevens on July 11, 1864 © Corbis

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

It is not hard to be reminded here of lost causes and wasted lives; of how events often reel crazily away from the people who set them in motion, battering down winners and thrusting losers toward greatness. So what is left of Fort Stevens may be precisely the right memorial for the curious confrontation that occurred here, and for the weary men who led it.

To Lieut. Gen. Jubal Early of the Confederate States Army, at least for a little while that 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 II Corps of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia sat his horse on a rise of ground in Maryland and saw, shimmering in the heat waves just six miles to the south, the luminous dome of the United States Capitol. Immediately in front of him were the frowning works of Washington's formidable ring of defensive entrenchments. A glance told him, he wrote later, that they were "but feebly manned."

It was a year and a week after the fateful Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, four months after the advent of Ulysses S. Grant as the Federal General in Chief, and a month since Grant's armies had begun hammering at Petersburg, south of Richmond. For some time, in other words, there had been for the South precious little glory in this war and even less fun. The proud young men strutting to the music of the bands were no more; now sad-eyed, leather-skinned, worn-out infantrymen stumbled barefoot through the heat and dust until they dropped. The caped and ostrich-feathered officers, happily risking all for home and country, were dead, replaced by bitter shells of men playing out a losing hand.
And yet, by God, here at midday on a Monday 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 take Washington City—its Treasury, its arsenals, its Capitol building, maybe even its President.

Even better, he was going to lift some of the crushing burden from the shoulders of his chief, Robert E. Lee. Beleaguered, almost surrounded, his sources of food and reinforcement slowly being choked off, his great heart failing under the agonizing pressure, Lee had asked Jubal Early to attempt two things, each of them a tremendous challenge.

First, reclaim the Shenandoah Valley from the Federal army that had managed, for the first time in the war, to occupy the granary of the Confederacy.

Then, if he could, invade the North again, as 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 army to protect Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington City; or attack Lee in his fortifications and risk suffering more of the slaughter that had stunned his army at Cold Harbor.

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

Battleground National Cemetery located on Georgia Avenue Public Domain
Cannon at Monocacy River battlegrounds that was used by soldiers under command of Major General Lew Wallace © Mark Reinstein/Corbis
Monument at Grace Episcopal Church in remembrance of the 17 Confederate soldiers that died attacking Washington, D.C. SA 3.0
Fort Stevens after an attack led by Jubal Early © Medford Historical Society Collection/Corbis
Plaque in remembrance of the night Abraham Lincoln was at Fort Stevens during an attack SA 3.0
Union Soldiers at Fort Stevens SA 3.0
Fort Stevens Park, a recreation built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937 SA 3.0
Jubal Early © Library of Congress
Fort Stevens Park, a recreation built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937 SA 3.0
Francis Preston Blair (seated in the center) photographed with his staff © Medford Historical Society Collection/Corbis

The role of savior did not fit snugly on the tall form of the man they called "Old Jube." Thin and fierce, stooped by what he said was rheumatism, a confirmed bachelor at 48, he had a tongue that (when it was not caressing a plug of tobacco) rasped like a steel file on most sensibilities and a sense of humor that enraged as often as it amused. His adjutant general, Maj. Henry Kyd Douglas, admired Early's fighting abilities but 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 politician 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. Army in 1838, just one year after graduation from West Point, and went back only briefly in 1846 to do his duty in the Mexican War. He had argued caustically against secession and for the Union until his state seceded, whereupon he became an equally caustic supporter of the Confederacy and a colonel in its army.

It soon became clear that he was that rare commodity, a forceful and courageous leader of men in battle. This had been so at First and Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. As his commands increased in size, however, his touch became less sure and his luck more spotty. Yet such was General Lee's confidence that in 1864 Early had been given command of one of the three corps in the Army of Northern Virginia.

And now here he was, on the brink of history, about to quench the boundless thirst for recognition that glittered ceaselessly from his black eyes. Pursuant to Lee's instruction, he had chased one Federal army away from Lynchburg, Virginia, and clear into the West Virginia mountains where it disappeared. He met another near Frederick, Maryland, on the Monocacy River, and swept it aside. On fire with the glory of it all, forgetting his limited objective, Early now rasped out his orders to Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes, commander of the leading division: throw out a skirmish line; move forward into the enemy works; attack the capital of the United States.

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 like a care worn farmer in time of peril from drouth and famine." Far away to the south, the relentless Grant had refused to be distracted from his slow strangulation of Lee's army. On the whole, Lincoln approved; he had, after all, tried for three long years to find a general who would devote himself to destroying the enemy armies instead of striking attitudes and defending Washington. But it must have occurred to the President, that afternoon, that maybe Grant had gone too far.

A few months before, 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 now, on the threatened north side of the barrier Potomac, there were on the line no more than 4,000 frightened home guardsmen and militiamen.

Paroxysms of hysteria in the city

Reinforcements were on the way, to be sure. As soon as he realized what Early was up to, Grant dispatched two veteran VI Corps divisions—11,000 strong 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 back 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 Confederate army "50,000 strong" was laying waste to Maryland and Pennsylvania. Military and political functionaries, meanwhile, went berserk.

Everyone took charge of everything. The military department was commanded by Maj. Gen. Christopher Augur; but the Army Chief of Staff, Henry Halleck, ordered Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore to take charge in the emergency; but the Secretary 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 word that he would be available for duties commensurate with his rank, Chief of Staff Halleck blew up. "We have five times as many generals here as we want," he responded, "but are greatly in need of privates. Anyone volunteering in that capacity will be thankfully received."

Everyone thought of something. Halleck had the hospitals checked for potentially useful walking wounded, so 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 now 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 get the President away.

A restless tattoo of musketry

But 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." Yet on that sultry afternoon, with the earth trembling to the bark of the big 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 easy.

Both the Federal defenses and the Confederate threat looked stronger than they were. "Undoubtedly we could have marched into Washington," wrote one of Early's division commanders, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. "I myself rode to a point on those breastworks at which there was no force whatsoever. The unprotected space was broad enough for the easy passage of Early's 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 burn; the United States 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, military equipment, ammunition-all scarce and desperately needed in the Confederacy. In short, a rich city, virgin to war, awaiting plunder.

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

But for the moment, at least, the enormous prize was out of reach. The problem was not a lack of will or courage or even firepower; the problem was something that civilians and historians rarely think of as part of war-simple fatigue. Early's 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 three weeks. They had fought hard at the Monocacy on July 9, then after burying their dead had marched again at dawn, struggling 30 miles in the searing heat to bivouac near Rockville, Maryland. The night of the 10th brought so little relief from the heat that the exhausted men were unable to sleep. On the l lth, with the sun burning more fiercely than ever, they had begun to give out.

General Early rode along the loosening formations, telling staggering, sweating, dust-begrimed men that he would take them into Washington that day. They tried to raise the old Rebel Yell to show him they were willing, but it came out cracked and thin. The mounted officers reluctantly slowed their pace, but before midday the road behind the army was littered with prostrate men who could go no farther.

Thus when Early ordered 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 get 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 battle was beyond them. The afternoon wore on, and to Early every hour was the equivalent of a thousand casualties.

It was not the fault of his men. General Gordon later 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 West Point training but had shown a remarkable ability to lead men in combat. Breckinridge was a former Vice President of the United States and a candidate for President in 1860, who came in second to Lincoln in the electoral vote; now he was second in command of an army advancing on the US. capital. 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 war than John Breckinridge. A passionate and lifelong champion of the Union and the Constitution, he had been convinced for years that slavery could not and should not survive; but he also believed that it was unconstitutional for the national government to prohibit slave states from participating in the country’s booming Western expansion—the settlement of the territories.

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

Such were the men who stood at Jubal Early’s side that afternoon. Before he could form his gasping troops and launch his attack, Early saw “a cloud 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.” Artillery fire opened from a number of batteries.

The Confederates had managed to take a few prisoners, who freely admitted that their lines were being held by “counter jumpers, hospital rats and stragglers.” But the men just arriving were veterans, perhaps reinforcements from Grant. Jubal Early was bold, but he was not foolhardy; however tempting the prize, he would not commit to battle without knowing what he was facing. As he wrote later, “It became necessary to reconnoiter.”

The Federal regiment that had impressed Early was from Grant’s Army of the Potomac, but it was alone. Meanwhile, however, Abraham Lincoln had spotted something really interesting in his spyglass, and driven eagerly south to the Sixth Street wharves.

Marching off in the wrong direction

He arrived in midafternoon, and stood quietly gnawing on a chunk of hardtack while Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright assembled the first 650 arrivals from VI Corps and marched them off—in the wrong direction—toward Georgetown. With great 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 VI Corps that day. He thought it 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 ice-water, for the morning was sultry; newspapers and eatables were handed into the column, 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 hold his men in reserve, even though the raw troops at Fort Stevens were being severely pummeled by Early’s guns and skirmishers, and were already showing signs of caving in. In the end, the only thing the soldiers did that night (and this only because Wright insisted on it) was to move out in front of the fortifications to restore a picket line and push back 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.”

Apparently the Federal high command did little that night but further confuse each other. Charles Dana, an Assistant Secretary of War and an old friend of Grant’s, sent a despairing wire to the commanding general Tuesday morning: “General Halleck will not give orders except as he receives them; the President will give none, and until you direct positively and explicitly what is to be done, everything will go on in the deplorable and fatal way in which it has gone on for the past week.”

On Monday night, Early and his division commanders gathered at their captured headquarters, “Silver Spring,” the imposing mansion of the prominent Washington publisher and politician Francis Preston Blair (and a former 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. But the Federal works were still not manned in strength, and Early ordered an assault at first light.

A sound of revelry by night

His officers raided Francis Blair’s wine cellar and talked about what they would do next day. They joked about escorting John Breckinridge back to his former place as presiding officer of the Senate. Outside, soldiers speculated about how they would divide up the contents of the Treasury. According to General Gordon, one private was asked what they would do when they took the city, and said the situation reminded him of a family slave whose dog chased every train that came by. The old man wasn’t worried about losing his dog, said the soldier, he was worried about what the dog was going to do with a train when he caught one.

It was all good fun, but soon daylight was coming.

General Early was up before dawn, surveying the Federal fortifications with his field glasses. The trenches and the parapets teemed with blue uniforms—not the dark, new blue of fresh, untested cloth, but the faded sky-blue of well-used material. Everywhere he saw fluttering battle flags bearing the Greek Cross of VI Corps. The door to Jubal Early’s niche in history had just slammed shut.

“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 any sign of flinching with that many soldiers ready to pour after them. They would stay in place, look as dangerous as they knew how, and as soon as darkness covered them head back to Virginia. The Federals, meanwhile, made ready to fight a climactic battle for the city. They did it in the time-honored Washington way—with endless meetings, The day wore on, the baking heat returned, the sharpshooters let fly at anything that stirred, the cannon boomed from time to time—and nobody moved.

The citizens of Washington regained their courage. Ladies and gentlemen of society and rank declared a holiday and swarmed out to picnic and cheer the intrepid defenders. Some perhaps had been among the picnickers who, three years before, had gone to cheer the boys going into battle at Bull Run, but if they remembered the bloody stampede that had engulfed the tourists on that day, they gave no sign.

At midafternoon they were joined by the President and Mrs. Lincoln, who arrived at Fort Stevens in a carriage. General Wright went out to greet the Commander in Chief and casually asked if he would like to see the fight; the various Chieftains had at last agreed to try a reconnaissance in force, to press the Confederates back and see just how strong they were. General Wright intended his question to be purely rhetorical, but as he wrote later, “A moment after, I would have given much to have recalled my words.”

Delighted at the prospect of seeing actual combat for the first time, Lincoln bounded up 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 cover, a trooper in Lincoln’s cavalry escort saw bullets “sending little spurts and puffs of dust as they thudded into the embankment on which he stood.” Thus for the first and only time in history a President of the United States came under fire in combat.

Behind the breastworks, a busy young captain from Massachusetts named Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. glanced up, saw a tall, awkward civilian standing in the spray of bullets and snapped, “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot.” Only then did the future Supreme Court justice realize that he was berating the President.

Meanwhile a VI 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, just behind the line of Federal skirmishers and out of sight of the enemy. Their orders were to make a surprise charge at the Confederate positions on the wooded ridge less than a mile from Fort Stevens.

Lincoln watched these maneuvers intently, standing fully exposed on top of the parapet, oblivious to the leaden hail. General Wright stood at the President’s side, along with C.C.V. Crawford, the surgeon of one of the attacking regiments. Suddenly, a round 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 idea of sending off the President under guard seemed to amuse him,” Wright recalled, and more to put an end to the fuss than anything else, Lincoln finally agreed to sit behind the parapet and thus place most 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 about 6 p.m., was the signal for the picket line to plunge forward. 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. But these were men familiar with death, 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 found to be much stronger than had been supposed.”

There was cheering from the spectators and joking in the rear echelons, but this was no game; Aldace Walker remembered it as a “bitter little contest.” Every regimental commander in the leading Federal brigade was shot down; a hundred Confederate dead were later found lying on the field between Fort Stevens and the Blair house. Heavy fighting continued until 10 P.M., even though General Wright ordered his men to hold their ground but not to storm the Confederate lines.

Major Douglas found Jubal Early in Francis Blair’s mansion after dark, getting ready to pull out. “He seemed in a droll humor, perhaps one of relief,” Douglas recalled, “for he said to me in his falsetto drawl, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”’ And so with hollow laughs they began a long retreat, away from legend and glory, into Virginia, where Appomattox waited.

A half-mile north of the crumbling remains of Fort Stevens, the asphalt and concrete environs of Georgia Avenue are interrupted by another unremarkable, postage-stamp square of green. Hardly larger than a townhouse lot, it is a National Cemetery, wherein are buried a few of the men for whom this “bitter little contest” was the last. Some earnest monuments to the men of New York and Ohio are crowded together here, but the most imposing thing one sees on entering is a bronze plaque. It memorializes not the dead, but an 1875 order prohibiting picnicking on, and otherwise defacing, their graves. Forgetfulness came quickly.

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

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