Washington’s Last Line Of Defense; The Battle of Fort Stevens

lincoln_monument_Two hundred years ago, on August 24, 1814, the battle of Bladensburg erupted as British troops under the command of Major General Robert Ross engaged the American forces. Once he drove off the American army led by Brigadier General William Winder, the road to Washington was open. That same day, Maj. Gen. Ross and the British army occupied the American capital, and began to set fire to the city. By August 26, the British army moved out of Washington. For the first time in American history, an enemy force had taken Washington. Fast forward to July of 1864, almost fifty years to the day, it looked as if another enemy force would do the same.

After a temporary delay along the banks of Monocacy River the day before, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early led his army down the Georgetown Pike early in the morning on July 10. As Brigadier General John McCausland cleared the way for the Confederate army, he ran into resistance at Rockville, skirmishing with Union cavalry. The Confederate army had marched within four miles of Rockville in the unbearable summer heat. By the time the men laid down for the night, the temperature was still holding in the 80’s.

Meanwhile near Fort Stevens, Company K, 150th Ohio National Guard was on picket duty during the night. They watched as civilians fled for safety in the advance of the Confederate army. By dawn of July 11, the landscape became silent and empty. Washington was not prepared for what was coming, similar to the situation in 1814. Most of the Union troops that were there defending the city were sent to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia. By 9:00 a.m. civilians and quartermaster officers, along with militia were reporting for duty. The Veteran Corps was enacted and reported for duty. Soon thousands of men began preparing to meet the Confederate army. Lieutenant General Grant also sent reinforcements to Washington, which consisted of the VI Corps and a portion of the XIX Corps. They boarded steamers and headed for the capital city.

Brigadier General John Imboden’s brigade moved in the advance of the Confederate army with Major General Robert Rodes’ division taking 7th Street Road from Rockville. Major General John C. Breckenridge brought up the rear of the Confederate army. Brigadier General McCausland continued his movement down the Georgetown Pike, headed toward Fort Reno and Fort De Russy. Brigadier General William Jackson’s cavalry brigade was positioned between the 7th Street Road and Rockville Road.

04232v By noon, the main body of the Confederate army was in Silver Spring. Between the forced marches of the campaign and the summer heat, the Confederate ranks were fatigued. Lieutenant General Early sat upon his horse urging his men forward without delay. To make matters worse, the Union cavalry had formed another skirmish line across the Rockville Pike, and skirmishing continued throughout the day.

Upon seeing the first Confederate soldier in the distance, the Ohioans quickly moved to the safety of Fort Stevens, firing at the Confederates. Skirmishing quickly broke out along the rifle pits, as the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry was fully in view. The Confederate sharpshooters quickly went to work, engaging the picket line. By 1:00 p.m., portions of the 2nd District of Columbia Volunteers and the 25th New York Cavalry formed the skirmish line in front of Fort Stevens. Artillery from nearby Fort De Russy opened on the Confederate line, in support of the skirmish in front of Fort Stevens. Soon, Union reinforcements from nearby Camp Stoneman arrived and deployed in a line of battle. After a half an hour, the Confederate line began falling back. Lieutenant General Early delayed a major attack until he could see if the defenses were fully operational with Union reinforcements.

04143vBy 3:00 p.m., Maj. Gen. Rodes was ordered to take his division and advance on Fort Stevens, probing the defenses. Confederate artillery came up on his right and deployed in support of the attack. Confederate sharpshooters took up position in several of the buildings in front of Fort Stevens and Fort De Russy. The 9th Veteran Corp was ordered to relieve the dismounted skirmishers of the 25th New York Cavalry. The Union XXII Corps and the Department of Washington were among the front line of defenders during the attack. Heavy and siege artillery began to fire from the nearby ring of forts that were in range of the Confederate army.

Skirmishing was kept up during the evening and into the night. As darkness fell upon the battlefield, the fighting got intense. Flashes of musketry illuminated the ground for a second or two. While, the Confederates kept on through the night, Lt. Gen. Early decided to hold a council of war with his commanders to decide their next move, and what options they had. The Confederate army was tired, as the summer heat took a toll on the men. The decision was tabled until daylight the next morning. During the night, Lt. Gen. Early received word from Brigadier General Bradley T. Johnson, who was outside of Baltimore, about two Union corps coming to reinforce the defenses of Washington.

During the night, Fort Stevens was reinforced by civilian contractors and other troops arrived, ready to go work the next day in the defense of the city. Veteran troops who were sent up from Virginia also began taking their positions. The Confederate high command would be faced with a major decision come daylight, as to whether they should attack Fort Stevens.

As dawn lightens the battlefield on July 12, hopes of taking Washington quickly faded. For Lt. Gen. Early, realized that his army was at the high water mark of the campaign. With additional reinforcements of Union soldiers, came the realization that if the Confederate army got into a situation that turned for the worse, Lt. Gen. Early had no reinforcements of his own to come to his aid. Lieutenant General Early decided not to launch an all out assault. Instead he would maintain a defensive position and wait till nightfall to begin withdrawing from Fort Stevens. Lieutenant General Early would keep the pressure on the Union defenders with skirmishers and sharpshooters.

Major General Rodes and Major General John Gordon would deploy their divisions to cover the retreat that would later come. During the morning, the artillery at Fort Stevens and Fort De Russy opened on the Confederate skirmishers but no Confederate attack came. The morning was spent with sharpshooters and artillery.

By noon, President Lincoln, his wife, and Secretary of War Edwin Staunton took a carriage ride to Fort Stevens for observation purposes. As President Lincoln watched, a minie ball hit the parapet, and then struck surgeon Crawford standing next him. Major General Horatio Wright, commander of the Department of Washington was there and quickly ordered Lincoln off the parapet. Other men were also telling Lincoln to get to safety. Later in life, Captain Oliver Holmes claimed to have yelled “Get down you fool!” to Lincoln.

At 5:00 p.m., the Confederate left gave way when a cannonade was launched from the nearby forts in range of the Confederate army. After the thirty-sixth shot, Colonel Daniel Bidwell’s brigade of the VI Corps advanced on the Confederate line. The Confederates reinforced their line, but never regained the lost ground. By 10:00 p.m., the fighting at Fort Stevens was over.

By 7:00 p.m., those Confederates not engaged were already marching to Rockville. Major General John C. Breckinridge and his division were first, followed by the wagon train. By midnight, Maj. Gen. Rodes’ division was on the move and Major General Stephen D. Ramseur brought up the rear of the infantry. As the Confederate army retreated, Major Henry Kyd Douglas recalled Lt. Gen. Early telling him, “We hadn’t taken Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell!” Lieutenant General Early began moving toward the Potomac River, fording at midnight on July 14. The Confederate army would continue fording the Potomac River during the morning, and camp near Leesburg that night.

During the aftermath, one Union soldier recalled seeing a dead Confederate soldier, “There, behind the log, he lay on his back…The rifle and cartridge box were of English make, and the only thing about him which did not indicate extreme destitution. His feet, were wrapped in rags, had course shoes upon them, so worn and full of holes they were only held together by many pieces of thick twine. Ragged trousers, a jacket and a shirt of what used to be called “two-cloth”, a straw hat, which had lost a large portion of both crown and rim, completed his attire. His hair was a mat of dust and grime. A haversack hung from his shoulder. Its contents were a jackknife, a plug of twisted tobacco, a tin cup and two quarts of cracked corn… with perhaps an ounce of salt tied in a rag.”

Unlike, the American army on August 24, 1814 which was unable to hold the British back at the battle of Bladensburg, the Union forces in July of 1864 held back their enemy under many similar conditions. The battle of Monocacy is considered the battle that saved Washington, where the outnumbered Union forces held their ground until the very last moment, which bought the defenses of Washington the time they needed in order to prepare and meet the Confederate army. Almost fifty years to the day, history would not repeat itself.

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