Early’s Raid on Washington: Monocacy, Fort Stevens and Retaliation at Chambersburg

In support of Grant’s Overland Campaign, the Yankees dispatched General Hunter to menace central Virginia.  Hunter chiefly occupies himself with burning houses and terrorizing Southern women and children.  An article from 1903 recalls that Hunter was explicit that his intent was to punish the women of Virginia for their treason, promising to humble them before he left our commonwealth.

Lee in turn detached General Jubal Early to deal with Hunter.   On June 18th,  Early easily defeats the Federals at Lynchburg, driving Hunter off into West Virginia where he can do no more harm.  In an effort to take pressure off Lee’s army and tie down as many Yankees as possible, Early takes the offensive, sweeping down the Shenandoah Valley and entering Maryland near the old battlefield of Sharpsburg on July 3rd.  By July 7th, Early has cleared Union cavalry out of Frederick and is preparing to advance on Washington itself – but not before he exacts a $200,000 ransom from the citizens of Frederick to compensate Virginians whose homes have been destroyed by Hunter.

This presents a very serious problem for the Federal government, as Hunter has been routed, the bulk of the Federal forces are facing off against Lee before Petersburg, and Washington itself is garrisoned chiefly by the home guard and convalescents. In short, there is not much to stop Early from marching straight to Washington and not much to oppose him once he gets there.

General Lew Wallace is at Baltimore and moves to block Early’s 14,000 Confederates with a scant force of 6,300 fresh recruits.  Grant appreciates the danger and detaches an additional 5,000 from Petersburg to reinforce Wallace.  Wallace moves to a blocking position near the bridges and fords on the Monocacy River, about three miles from Frederick, and engages Early on July 9th.  The odds are against Wallace – he has only 5,800 men for the battle – and he is driven back to Baltimore after a day of hard fighting which costs the Federals about 1,300 casualties and Early roughly 800.  Grant relieves Wallace, not appreciating that this defeat buys the Federals time to save their capital.

Early resumes his advance on Washington and by July 10thth is at Rockville, ten miles from the capital.  By noon the next day, he reaches the outskirts near Silver Spring, within sight of Fort Stevens.  His scouts are mystified to find the forts and trenches protecting the northern approach to the city largely unoccupied.  This cannot be – it must be a trap.  A commander like Forrest would likely have surged forward with violence of action to neutralize the fortifications.  The more cautious Early decides to wait a day until he can determine the strength of the opposing force.  In Early’s defense, his troops are exhausted and the forts and trenches before him are formidable even if thinly manned – all of his commanders counsel against attempting to enter the city that day.  It probably does not help that Early’s troops have discovered generous stores of whiskey in the cellar of the Blair mansion.

In fact, Early’s opposition is not especially formidable.  Chief quartermaster Montgomery Meigs is arming the Federal clerks and pulling convalescents out of hospitals to man the trenches. Early has already defeated the nearest Federal army at Monocacy.  Early finally achieves Lee’s objective to draw off Federal troops from Petersburg when Grant detaches two corps on July 9th – they rush north to begin arriving on the evening of July 11th, being sent straight from the wharves up the 7th Street Road to reinforce the line near Fort Stevens.   Early wakes to find faded blue uniforms in the trenches before him – not hastily armed government clerks, but veterans fresh from the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor.  They will continue to arrive throughout the day.

Accordingly, there is no great battle, but still some intense skirmishing made more interesting in that it is occurring within the boundaries of the District.  Early’s troops occupy the modern Walter Reed Hospital campus, flanked by Rock Creek, while the Federals are centered on Fort Stevens, an earthwork still partially preserved as a park in the District.  About 4:00 on the evening of the 12th, Lincoln and the First Lady drive their carriage to Fort Stevens to witness the fighting first-hand.  Lincoln stands in full view of Confederate sharpshooters as men fall on either side of him.  He is quickly commanded to stand down.   There are two versions of how this command is delivered.  One is that General Wright, commander of that sector, urges Lincoln: “Mr. President, this spot is too dangerous for you.”  Alternatively, a young Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have been more direct in shouting, “Get that damned fool down!”  It is only a matter of luck that Lincoln is not hit.

Confederate sharpshooters continue to pepper the Federals.  The forts roar back, wrecking the local farmhouses occupied by the snipers. The Yankees sweep forward at around 5:00 to clear the Confederate skirmishers; they succeed, but at a cost of 300.  Point made, Early withdraws his skirmishers at sunset and begins his withdrawal.  Confederate casualties are uncertain, but are probably around 400-500; 17 Confederates remain in a mass grave at Grace Episcopal Church on Georgia Avenue.  Union casualties are around 373; 40 of the 72 Yankees killed lie in their own national cemetery dedicated by Lincoln, also on Georgia Avenue.

By July 13th Early is across the Potomac at Leesburg.  In the aftermath, he further avenges Hunter’s outrages upon Virginians at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Early sends McCausland north to Chambersburg with a demand that the citizens produce either $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks to compensate Virginians whose homes had been destroyed by Hunter, else McCausland’s cavalry will inflict payback.  The town had been occupied twice before when Lee’s troops had orders to be on their best behavior, so the townsfolk do not take the threat seriously.  McCausland waits six hours.  When the compensation is not forthcoming, justice follows and the Yankee town is put to the torch.  Perhaps 550 buildings are burned in the July 30th fire.

Washington is lucky to escape a similar fate.  Had Early arrived a day earlier, Grant’s veteran reinforcements would still have been on transports steaming up from City Point.  Nobody knows whether Meig’s clerks and convalescents could have stood against Early’s wolves alone, but one doubts it.  While Early could never have held Washington, there would be little to stop him from torching the Federal buildings as the British had done fifty years before in the summer of 1814.  That Early had the guts to take on the enemy capital with what amounts to a raiding party is testament to his skill as a commander – with that extra day, he might have pulled it off.

In the end, it turns out that the hero of Fort Stevens is Lew Wallace, who bought the North its extra day by losing to a much larger force at Monocacy.  Grant subsequently realizes his mistake in relieving Wallace of command and restores him with honors and praise:  “If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent. … General Wallace contributed on this occasion by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory.”  Wallace will go on to serve with distinction as governor of New Mexico.  He is best remembered as the author of Ben Hur, but ought to be remembered as the savior of Washington.

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@cartercoleman.com.

SOURCES:  Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs; B. F. Cooling, The Day Lincoln was Almost Shot: The Fort Stevens Story; Fort Stevens, Rock Creek Park, http://www.nps.gov/cultural_landscapes/snp/600147.html; The Burning of Chambersburg, http://www.angelfire.com/wv/wasec9/chambersburg.html

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