Fort Stevens, Maryland
July 11-12, 1864
During Saturday and Sunday, July 9th and 10th, the Confederate sympathizers in Washington were anxiously listening for the sound of Early's guns. They knew his purpose, his strength, and the weakness of the city, of which he was expected to take possession without much resistance. The War Office certainly had all the information that Wallace could give them. It was a part of that information that about 25,000 veteran Confederate soldiers had passed the Monocacy on the pike leading to Washington, that they were marching rapidly in the direction of, and on Saturday evening were within thirty-five miles of, the capital. Of all this the loyal citizens knew nothing. The week closed on Saturday without their imagining that the city was in any danger, or that any thought for their personal safety was necessary. The story of Early's further movements will be given as its Washington aspect was presented.
It is true that some days the summer atmosphere had been full of rumors of Confederate invasion. Every few hours a newspaper "extra" was announced. One had certain information that the Confederates had entered Maryland in force-that Washington and Baltimore were to be cut off from the North and captured-that the capital would be attacked within twelve hours. The next issue declared the rumor to be an idle scare, and that the only Confederates north of the Potomac were a few cavalrymen on a raid. It was the general opinion that the authorities would not expose the city to any danger, and that any considerable portion of the army of Northern Virginia would not be detached and sent on an expedition northward without the knowledge of General Grant. If he knew that such an expedition had been undertaken, he could certainly have sent a force to protect the capital against it. It was the third year of the war. In 1861 such reports would have disturbed us. Now, citizens had become in a measure rumor-proof, and went about their business as coolly as if there had not been a Confederate within a week's march of the city.
I had closed my house, and my family were living with me at Willard's for a few days before sending them to New England to pass the season of oppressive heat. On the morning of Monday, the 11th of July, we were taking a late breakfast. The morning papers had accounts of a skirmish, two days before, on the Monocacy, above Baltimore. They all agreed that it was only a skirmish, with no very important consequences. But the details appeared to indicate that several thousand men had been engaged, and that General Wallace had been severely handled.
Three army officers breakfasted with us; two of them were on their way to the front. They ridiculed the suggestion that any considerable force had been detached from Lee's army and sent northward without the knowledge of General Grant. If he knew it, he had acted accordingly. The rebels had quite enough to do in the vicinity of Richmond. Washington, they said, was in no more danger than Boston. I was inclined to the same opinion. So much had been said about the importance of protecting Washington, so many veteran regiments had been detained there when they were needed in the field, that it seemed impossible that the city should now be exposed to danger.
The third officer was the brigadier in command of the Invalid Corps, who had taken but little part in the conversation, and expressed no opinion. As we were about to separate, he observed to me that he was going to visit the outposts, that the morning was pleasant, and if I had nothing better to do, perhaps I would like to join his party. If so, he would have a horse ready for me at his quarters on Fifteenth Street opposite the Treasury at ten o'clock, at which hour he intended to start. I cordially accepted his invitation, and reported at his quarters at the appointed time.
The first part of this excursion was delightful. Mounted on spirited animals, preceded by a small escort of cavalry, we took the road towards Georgetown. The air was fresh and cool, the roses and flowering plants loaded the reviving breeze with their perfume, and the birds were singing in the trees which shaded the broad avenue, which was as quiet as I had ever seen it on the Sabbath. Bright-eyed children at play, ladies taking their morning walk, and all the other indications of summer life in the city, suggest thoughts of restful peace, which for the moment divested the mind of all remembrance of the miseries and anxieties of war.
We rode over the venerable pavements of Georgetown to its outskirts, now ascending a slight hill, now going down into a wooded valley, bathing our horses feet in the clear brooks which we forded. We passed through Tennallytown and out a short distance on the road beyond. On the summit of the highest ridge thereabouts we were halted by a picket-guard of a dozen men. The necessary words and salutes passed, the officer in command appeared and entered into conversation with our brigadier. To the latter's question whether this was the last picket, the officer gave an affirmative reply.
Sweeping the northern horizon, my eyes rested on the broad cleared hillside across the valley. It appeared to be the camp of any army. There were army-wagons, pieces of artillery, caissons, unharnessed horses, tethered near by, a few shelter tents, and all the paraphernalia of a camp in which the men were at rest. I could not clearly make out any of the flags. Very little calculation was necessary to show that the men numbered some thousands.
"Whose corps is that, general?" I asked, pointing in the direction of the camp.
"We think it is Early's, but do not certainly know. It may be Breckinridge's," he answered.
"Great heavens!" I exclaimed. "Do you mean to say that those are Confederates!"
"There is no possible doubt of that," he replied. "If you doubt it, you can satisfy yourself by riding down to their picket at the bottom of the valley. I am not sure that you will be permitted to return. I am going to show you another and a larger camp, if we can get within sight of the Blair mansion at Silver Springs."
"Thanks," I said, "I am not at all curious. General, I must ask you to excuse me for leaving your so unceremoniously. It has just occurred to me that I have a most important engagement at Willard's at this hour. I must keep it. I do not care to take a look at Silver Springs. Yonder view satisfied me, fully."
"I thought it would," he observed. "I saw that you did not comprehend the situation, and therefore invited you to ride out here and judge for yourself. I would like to have you make the circuit on the north side of the city. But that will take time, and I shall very probably find some of the roads obstructed. I can guess your appointment at Willard's. This may yet be a good day to send your family north-if they can get there? Yesterday would have been better."
"They would have gone three days ago if I had had any suspicion of that," I said, indicating the Confederate camp. "But tell me, what is your estimate of the Confederate force now before the city?"
"For some reason the War Office does not care to have that subject discussed. At daylight this morning I had reports from three independent sources. They agree substantially that Early has Ewell's old corps entire, and a part of another, numbering over 20,000 infantry, and forty guns, with about 6000 cavalry. The infantry and guns were counted by a scout before they left Maryland Heights. Wallace developed their force at Monocacy. He estimated it at over 20,000, besides the cavalry. One squadron under Bradley T. Johnson has gone around Baltimore to strike the railroads on the north. McCausland's and Rosser's cavalry are roaming over the country between this city and Baltimore. They can take the railroad any time they choose."
"Then the city is in great danger!" I said. "What good cam come of concealing it?"
"There is but one way that it can be saved," he responded. "Grant must have sent men by steamer. The only question is whether they will arrive in time. I supposed Early would have attacked this morning. He is at Silver Spring now. We think he must have had a hard battle with Wallace day before yesterday, and is giving his men arrest. He will certainly attack to-night or to-morrow morning."
It was time for me to leave; I stood not on the order of my going. I did not draw rein until I reached the treasury, whence I returned the tired horse to its quarters by a messenger.
The report at the close of business on Saturday lay on my office table. A glance at it showed me that every not and bond in the office had been sent to its destination by the mail of Saturday evening. I closed the door of my room again and started to leave the building. On my way out I called at the treasurer's office, which a man was just entering with a package of empty canvas mail-sacks. I found General Spinner, the treasurer, Mr. Tuttle, his cashier, and three or four of his principal clerks, engaged in filling mail sacks with Treasury notes and other securities. All were working with great earnestness and expedition.
"You are busy, general!" I observed. "I have just seen what convinces me that you are not wasting your time, that you are engaged in a work of necessity."
"I have not time to be angry!" he exclaimed. "Did the authorities give you any notice of our danger?"
"None whatever," I answered. "I have only this moment discovered it for myself."
"Nor did they to me. I have a small steamboat-no matter where. I can take any bonds or money you may have. I think it better to move in light-marching order, and to carry nothing but money or securities-if we decide to move!"
"Thank you, I have nothing of that description. I shall try and move my household by rail. I shall stay myself, and take whatever comes."
At the hotel our effects were literally dumped into our trunks by my direction, and my family prepared for instant movement. At the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station, I learned that a train, just arrived, reported the road uninterrupted. Another train would leave for Philadelphia within an hour. Within less than two hours from my first view of the confederate force we were all, together with two friends to whom I offered the opportunity, speeding northward at the rate of forty miles an hour. At Baltimore I left the rest of the party, having first written a despatch in cipher, which they were to send me if they reached Philadelphia. In due time I received it at the Fountain Hotel and knew they were out of harm's way.
This was the last train that passed over the railroad northward until the burned bridges were rebuilt after Early's retreat. The next train that left Washington was looted by Harry Gilmor's detachment of Johnson's cavalry. He had been a conductor on the railroad, and knew where to strike it. Upon this train were General Franklin, general D. W. C. Clarke, executive Secretary of the Senate, with his family, and other prominent persons. Their trunks were rifled, and everything of value taken or destroyed. General Franklin adroitly escaped from the Confederates the same day of his capture.
During that evening I learned more about the fight on the Monocacy. There were wounded men at the station, and among them I found some Vermonters. They said that their regiment (the Tenth Vermont) had had some heavy fighting-had been compelled to retreat by sheer force of numbers, and was then at the Relay House, on the road to Washington. They could form no idea of the enemy's force except that it was very large, and as they were not pursued and the principal fight was in defense of the pike to Washington, they inferred that the Confederates were on the road to that city.
I called upon some acquaintances and spent the evening in walking about the city. I saw no evidences of "dismay or consternation." No one was fleeing northward. The train on which my family went received no rush of passengers, as would have been quite natural. But I did see many evidences of preparation and stern determination to fight and defend the city. The street windows of stores and dwellings were barred and being made secure. It was reported that General Wallace had returned to the city, that he was organizing and arming the volunteers for its defence, who were presenting themselves in great numbers.
Towards midnight I went to the Fountain Hotel, but not to sleep. The danger to the capital of the nation was too imminent; and at dawn I arose, went to the crowded station, and took the first train for Washington. I was the only passenger. At the way stations and road crossings the mounted Confederates were numerous, but as we were running into the city, which they regarded as already virtually in their hands, we were not molested.
At the depot in Washington a surprise awaited me. From the direction of the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street came the sound of enthusiastic cheering. I should not have been more surprised by an outburst of cheers from a funeral procession.
"What does this cheering mean?" I asked of the first colored cab driver in encountered.
"I reckon it's Gen'l Sedgwick's ole army, massa!" he replied. "Dey'se gon' out to hab a little talke with Gen'l early dis mo'nin'. I reckon Gen'l Early can't wait for 'em. He's done gone souf, I reckon."
I made my way to Seventh Street and partially through the crowd. There was no mistake. Those sturdy veterans were marching with furled banners, to the beat of a single drum at the head of each regiment. Standing on the top of my carriage, I not only recognized the cross of the Sixth Corps, but also the faces of a lot of Vermonters. It was gratifying to see the citizens rushing into the ranks, as they rested on their arms, with baskets of eatables, buckets of water, and a hearty welcome to their deliverers. A Vermonter assured me that a large portion of the Sixth Corps was already at the front, and a part of the Nineteenth Corps, just returned from New Orleans, was to follow them. They marched with swinging stride out on Seventh Street, and with a lighter heart I made my way to the Treasury.
The arrival of the Sixth Corps removed our anxiety for the safety of the capital. Even the Confederates regarded these redoubtable veterans as invincible. Still, I hoped that Early would not retire without a battle, which, if possible, I intended to see. Directing the clerks in my office to make everything snug, I gave them the rest of the day for a vacation, and ordered my horses and light wagon to be at the Treasury promptly at one o'clock. I sent to Secretary Stanton for a pass to the front, which he accorded me, with, however, an earnest warning not to use it, as a heavy battle now seemed imminent on the north side of the city.
As I hope to give not only the first, but an accurate account of the battle of Fort Stevens, a sketch of the topography of the locality seems necessary. The extensions of Seventh Street and Fourteenth Street united in a single highway about three miles north of the city limits, which, after crossing two ranges of hills, extended still northward, passing the residence of the elder Blair at Silver Springs. On the crest of the first of these ranges, about one hundred yards west of the road, was Fort Stevens, with Fort Reno about the same distance east of the highway. There were other forts in close proximity. Beyond these forts the road descended into a valley, where, about a third of a mile from the forts, were farm-houses with their outbuildings, around which the land was under cultivation. Passing these, the road ascended the opposite slope for a half-mile or more, and hen crossed the second range of hills. This slope for about a mile on either side of the highway had been cleared, but was not covered with a thick growth of bushes. Farther on the right and left of the road the hillside and valley were broken by wooded ravines. The two forts had just been connected by a trench, the earth from which had been thrown upon the outside into a breastwork, which crossed and effectually obstructed the highway.
I invited Edward Jordan, Solicitor of the Treasury, and H. C. Fahnestock, of the banking-house of Jay Cooke & Co., to drive out to the front with me. The road was crowded with soldiers. They had passed scores of rum-ships, but not a man was intoxicated, and they made way for us to pass, with some good-natured badinage about "home-guards," and going into battle with a "pair of horses and a Concord wagon." On the last rise to the forts, the road was unobstructed, and the horses carried our light wagon up to the trench at a lively pace. The trench was well filled with men of the sixth corps, most of them lying down and taking matters very coolly. A tall, angular captain came out as we approached, slowly walked around and surveyed my team, then placing one foot on the hub of the fore wheel of the wagon, in the broadest Yankee dialect observed,
"Got a good pair of hosses there, judge. Them's Morgan hosses. You don't often see 'em gray. They are most always bay."
"I do think they are a pretty good team," I said, pleased with his commendation.
"Naow, I wouldn't wonder if them hosses might be wuth a couple of hundred apiece-that is, if they was sound and kind, and hadn't no tricks about 'em."
"They cost more than that-I consider them worth three or four times the sum you name," I said.
"No? Yew don't say so!" he exclaimed. "Wall! I don't know but they be. Hosses-that is good hosses-well-matched and good steppers, is hard to git." He seemed to be pondering the subject, again walked around them, looked them over, and continued with the same deliberation:
"Judge, if I owned a good pair of gray Morgan hosses, sound and kind and good steppers, wuth, say, twelve or fifteen hundred dollars, I wouldn't let 'em stand right there, not very long! Because a hoss was shot plumb dead right there not a half-hour ago."
To turn the team around and move from that exposed elevation was the work of a moment. I had not the slightest idea that we were under fire. The captain had been so entertaining that I had not looked over the earthwork. Now, looking down into the valley, though not a rebel was visible, I saw from the bushes and behind the logs frequent little jets of white smoke spurt out in a vicious manner; and in spite of the opposing wind I could now hear the crack of rifles, and the buzzing sound over our heads, dying away in the distance, I knew was the ping of minie bullets. The captain followed us. He called a colored man out of the ditch, told him to take my team to a place he indicated, and look after them until I returned, and he, possibly, might earn a quarter. Upon my expressing some surprise, he said:
"Oh, I know them hosses, judge. You bought 'em of William Drew, at the Burlington Fair! And I know you too, judge. I've heerd you in the old Court House in Middlebury, lots of times. Don't you remember the 'Cornwall Finish' Merino Case? I was on that jury. I am -----, of Starksboro'. That darkey is all right. He has froze to me. He'll take good care of the team."
"But you may be called into action!" I said.
"No such luck as that!" he replied. "Early is pulling foot for Virginia. These fellows are his rear guard. He didn't count on meeting the Old Sixth. He found we had come, and soon after he left. I wish Wright would let us go in. We'd get a sight of his coat-tails, if we didn't overhaul him."
I recognized the captain as an Addison County farmer. My friends left me here, and it was hours before I saw them again. The darkey drove my wagon into a ravine in the rear of a building used as a hospital, and I returned to the ditch. I was crawling up to look over the earthwork, when the captain called me down. "That won't do!" he said. "There's too much lead up there! You'd better watch the boys, and do as they do."
He took me to a place where a large stick of square timber lay on top of the earth-work, raised a little above it, thus leaving a space through which the whole region beyond was visible. "You'll be safe there, if you don't forget and raise your head too high, he said; then left me and returned to his company.
I lay there and watched the movements of the Confederates for half an hour. They were all under cover, and nothing could be seen of them but the smoke from their guns. In the early morning, when they had intended to storm the forts, they had occupied the opposite hill, and had filled the clusters of buildings of which I have spoken. There had been a sharp-shooter behind every stump and log and boulder, up to within a hundred yards of our lines. From all these places they were firing at every man exposed on our side. The captain said that before the Sixth Corps came their fire had been effective, and the loss on our side heavy.
I was interested in watching our own men. Only a few of them were firing, and after each shot they dropped back into the ditch to reload their rifles. One of them had a target-rifle which would weight thirty pounds, and a field-glass. How he contrived to bring such a piece of heavy artillery into action, I do not know. He was as deliberate as if firing at a mark. After one discharge he continued looking through his glass for a long time. He then dropped back into the ditch and quietly remarked, "I winged him that time!" He pointed to a fallen tree, behind which, he said, a particularly dexterous sharp-shooter had been firing all the morning, killing two men and wounding others. He had borrowed the target-rifle to stop him, and thought he had done it, "for he didn't show up any more!"
Leaving the ditch, my pass carried me into the fort, where, to my surprise, I found the President, Secretary Stanton, and other civilians. A young colonel of artillery, who appeared to be the officer of the day, was in great distress because the President would expose himself, and paid little attention to his warnings. He was satisfied the Confederates had recognized him, for hey were firing at him very hotly, and a soldier near him had just fallen with a broken thigh. He asked my advice, for he said the President was in great danger.
"What would you do with me under like circumstances?" I asked.
"I would civilly ask you to take a position where you were not exposed."
"And if I refused to obey?"
"I would send a sergeant and a file of men, and make you obey."
"Then treat the President just as you would me or any civilian."
"I dare not. He is my superior officer; I have taken an oath to obey his orders."
"He has given you no orders. Follow my advice, and you will not regret it."
"I will," he said. "I may as well die for one thing as another. If he were shot, I should hold myself responsible."
He walked to where the President was looking over the parapet. "Mr. President," he said, "you are standing within range of five hundred rebel rifles. Please come down to a safer place. If you do not, it will be my duty to call a file of men, and make you."
"And you would d quite right, my boy!" said the President, coming down at once. "You are in command of this fort. I should be the last man to set an example of disobedience!"
He was shown to a place where the view was less extended, but where there was almost no exposure.
It was three o'clock. General D. D. Bidwell's brigade of five veteran regiments now marched through Fort Stevens out upon the open space in front, where they were extended into two lines, threw out skirmishers, and then all lay flat upon the ground. The Confederate fire was so hot that in the little time required for this manoeuver one third of the men of this brigade were killed or wounded. I had supposed that a battle-field was filled with the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying. There was nothing of the kind, scarcely a spasmodic action, and in the majority of cases those who had been struck by the enemy's balls seemed rather to be lying quietly down. These veterans, under this heavy fire, went about their work as coolly as though on parade.
There was a flag raised, and thirty guns from four forts opened fire at the same instant. Six guns from Fort Stevens simultaneously hurled their shells against the clusters of buildings in the valley. We heard the shells strike, and saw them explode, throwing up a mass of dust and lime. A body of Sixth Corps men came out from the rear of the fort and poured their fire at short range into the crowd of rebels that rushed from the buildings like bees from a hive, across the open space to the bushes. In less time than is required to write the fact, there was a win[d]row of fallen men heaped entirely across this space. Now thick and fast the shells dropped into the bushes on the hillside. Hurrying crowds of Confederates rushed from either side into the highway and packed it full. Into these living masses the artillerymen now directed their galling fire. They had just returned into a fort which they had previously garrisoned for a year, and knew the range of every tree and object. One could follow the course of the shells by their burning fuses. They rose in long, graceful curves, screaming like demons of the pit, then descending with like curves into the crowds of running men, they appeared to explode as they touched the ground. The men swayed outward with the explosion, but many fell, and did not rise again. After the retreat of the last Confederates, the bodies lay so near each other that they almost touched. It was beautiful artillery work, but its results were horrible.
The shelling ceased. Instantly, the brigade lying on the ground was up and away. Over fences and other obstructions, dashing through the bushes, here and there halting a moment to re-form their broken lines, they went over the hillside, clearing away every Confederate, until they reached the summit of the ridges, where were buildings in which many of the enemy were captured. They then halted and formed in line of battle at right angles to the highway.
Every Confederate not captured, killed, or wounded, had now retreated over the hill, out of our view. I supposed the battle was over, when one of the officers standing near me exclaimed, "There they come!" and a squadron of cavalry, appearing over the crest of the hill, charged upon what seemed to be our doomed line of battle. They were dashing onward to the sound of the famous rebel yell. It looked as though that rushing mass of men and horses would brush away that thinned line of men like the dew. But now the jets of smoke darted from them in rapid succession, and riderless horses dashed out from the cavalry. Slower and slower still became its advance, more frequent were the jets of smoke form the line of infantry, until the horsemen came to an actual halt, seemed to quiver for a moment, then wheeled and disappeared over the hill to be seen no more. Again had a charge of cavalry been resisted and defeated by infantry in line of battle, and the last armed rebel who was ever to look upon the figure of liberty on the dome of the Capitol had disappeared forever.
The fighting was over, but the experiences of the day were not yet ended. I went back to my horses, found them well cared for, and then went on to the field of battle. Men with stretchers were already carrying off the wounded and collecting the dead. A few yards beyond our works I met two men. One, tall and powerful, was leaning heavily upon the other, a boy who was carrying the guns of both. The former asked me if I knew where the field-hospital was? After directing him to it I inquired where he was hurt. He replied by opening his shirt and exposing the path of a minie-bullet directly through his chest. I took his name, and afterwards traced him, found out that he recovered, and was, when last heard from, a healthy man. His surgeon said that the wound was received during the exhalation of the air from his lungs. Had the ball entered the lungs during inhalation, the would must have been fatal.
The buildings in the valley, which had been fired by the shells, burned very slowly, and were only now fully aflame. On all the floors, on the roofs, in the yards, within reach of the heat, were many bodies of the dead or dying, who could not move, and had been left behind by their comrades. The odor of burning flesh filled the air; it was a sickening spectacle!
Near a large fallen tree lay one in the uniform of an officer. His sword was by his side, but his hand grasped a rifle. What could have sent an officer here to act as a sharp-shooter? I placed my hand on his chest to detect any sign of life. It encountered a metallic substance. I opened his clothing, and took from beneath it a shield of boiler-iron, moulded to fit the anterior portion of his body, and fastened at the back by straps and buckles. Trusting to this protection, he had gone out that morning gunning for Yankees. In the language of a quaint epitaph in Vernon, Vt., upon one who died from vaccination,
"The means employed his life to save,Directly over his heart, through the shield and through his body, was a hole large enough to permit the escape of a score of human lives.
Hurried him headlong to the grave!"
I had not forgotten the sharp-shooter "winged" by the target-rifle. There, behind the log, he lay, on his back, his open eyes gazing upwards, with a peaceful expression on his rugged face. In the middle of his forehead was the small wound which had ended his career. A single crimson line led from it, along his face, to where the blood dropped upon the ground. A minie-rifle, discharged, was grasped in his right hand; a box, with a single remaining cartridge, was fast to his side. The rifle and cartridge-box were of English make, and the only things about him which did not indicate extreme destitution. His feet, wrapped in rags, had coarse shoes upon them, so worn and full of holes that they were only held together by many pieces of thick twine. Ragged trousers, a jacket, and a shirt of what used to be called "tow-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; his face and boy were thickly coated with dust and dirt, which gave him the color of the red Virginia clay.
A haversack hung from his shoulder. Its contents were a jack-knife, a plug of twisted tobacco, a tin cup, and about two quarts of coarsely cracked corn, with, perhaps, an ounce of salt, tied in a rag. My notes, made the next day, say that this corn had been ground upon the cob, making the provender which the Western farmer feeds to his cattle. This was a complete inventory of the belongings of one Confederate soldier.
How long he had been defending Richmond I do not know. But it was apparent that he, with Early's army, during the past six weeks had entered the valley at Staunton, and had marched more than three hundred miles, ready to fight every day, until now, when in the front, he was acting as a sharp-shooter before Washington. He was evidently from the poorest class of Southern whites. I detached his haversack and its contents from his body and carried them away.
I noticed many of the Confederate dead who were clothed in blue, and had it not been for the hats, which were of many shapes and sizes, they would have closely resembled our own men. Where the brigade had formed which afterwards charged the Confederates and drove them over the hill, there were many Federal dead. It was subsequently reported that our loss here exceeded two hundred and fifty. The time could not have been longer than ten minutes before they were all lying flat on the ground.
It was after nightfall when we started to return to the city. The soldiers on their way to the front, having been notified that the fight was ended, had bivouacked in the fields, and left the road clear, so that we made rapid progress. On our left, a single heavy gun from a fort at intervals sent a shell, with a screaming rush, in the direction of the retreating Confederates, like some wild animal growling his anger at the escape of his prey. It was the last gun of the attack upon Washington. We carried the news of the retreat of the Confederates to they city, and that night its inhabitants slept soundly, free from alarm or anxiety.
In order to show the disparity between his own and the Union forces on the 12th of July, General Early has made a singular combination of figures. It is said that figures never lie, but sometimes they come closer to a false impression than the Confederate general did to the capture of Washington. Although such was not the fact, let it be assumed, as he claims, that within the circle of the defences of the capital there were about 20,000 men-quartermaster; laborers, who had never had a gun in their hands; district militia, of doubtful allegiance; department clerks, and soldiers only half cured of their wounds. No one then familiar with the state of affairs in Washington will doubt that the condition and forces of the defences were accurately known to General Lee. It was upon that knowledge that Early's campaign was projected and executed; that he came before the city; that he had disposed his forces; that he had ordered the assault at dawn on Tuesday morning. We must believe this, for General Early so wrote down the facts only two days afterwards. Of what avail, then, to take the census of males in the city? General Early intended to strike the capital before Grant could reinforce it, and to that end he had made a march of almost incredible swiftness and severity. When he ordered the assault, he believed he had reached Washington with its situation unchanged, and so had accomplished his object. Such facts cannot be refuted. They establish the ultimate fact by circumstantial proof, which is declared by the common law to be more satisfactory than the positive evidence of witnesses, who may be mistaken, while circumstances are always consistent with each other .It must therefore be accepted as a fact of history that the capture of Washington and the release of the Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout were the objectives of Early's campaign.
Nor is the exact hour of his arrival before Washington any more important. At Frederick he was only thirty-five miles from the capital. In his report of July 14th he says, "On the morning of the 10th, I moved towards Washington, taking the route via Rockville, and then turning to the left to get on the Seventh Street Pike. The day was very hot, and the roads exceedingly dusty, but we marched thirty miles." He passed the night of the 10th within five miles of Washington. Presumptively, he could have attacked next morning, when a considerable of his force was at Silver Spring and above Georgetown, within two miles of the defences. His own statement of the positions of his force on the 11th is very indefinite. The first detachment of the Sixth Corps did not reach the defences until after four in the afternoon. Had he made the attack on the morning of the 11th, he would have found the city in the condition supposed by General Lee when the campaign was projected. The Confederate army would have met with no resistance except from raw and undisciplined forces, which, in the opinion of General Grant, and it was supposed of General Lee also, would have been altogether inadequate to its defence. Its capture and possession for a day would have been disastrous to the cause of the Union. Early would have seized the money in the Treasury, the archives of the departments, the immense supplies of clothing, arms, and ammunition in store; he would have compelled General Grant to raise the siege of Richmond; he would have destroyed uncounted millions in value of property, and he would have had the same opportunity to retreat of which he availed himself next day.
But with his veterans behind the defences, he would have had no occasion to retreat. The released prisoners at Point Lookout in two days would have added 20,000 to the strength of his army. The Confederates of Maryland would have swarmed to his assistance, and he could certainly have held the capital long enough to give Great Britain the excuse she so much desired, to recognize the Confederacy and break the blockade. After the danger had passed, when its magnitude became apparent, there was but one opinion among the friends of the Union. It was that we had escaped a loss of prestige and property, compared with which previous disasters would have been trifling, and probably a blow fatally destructive to the Union cause.
And there is another record which will be held in honor so long as and wherever courage is held to be a virtue among men. It is the page which is filled with the story of Monocacy, where the streams ran blood, in-experienced men fought like veterans, and veterans like the legionaries of Caesar. When the children of the republic are asked what it was that brought Early's campaign to naught and saved the capital, let them be taught to answer, "General Wallace and his command at the battle of Monocacy, and the arrival of the Sixth Corps within the defences of the capital."
As promised, I proceed to compare other statements of General Early with facts which no one has ever questioned. Possibly they may have a bearing upon the credibility of other statements of his which are controverted. In his report of July 14th, after stating that he had moved his force up to the vicinity of the fortifications" (of the capital), he says: "Late in the afternoon of the 12th, the enemy advanced in line of battle against my skirmishers (of Rode's division), and the latter being reinforced, repulsed the enemy three times.
No other account of the proceedings of that day makes any mention of any repulse of Federal troops, nor of any advance by them "in line of battle." In his article published long after the war, General Early referred to this advance as an affair which occurred late in the afternoon of the 12th, between some troops sent out from the works and "a portion of these troops in my front line." General Long has omitted all mention of such an event. The account which I have given of the fighting before the works on that afternoon could be confirmed by two thousand witnesses. The only line of battle that afternoon was formed by Bidwell's brigade, after they had charged over the valley and up to the crest of the hill, opposite the fort, and driven every Confederate over the hill and out of sight of Washington. And this brigade was not repulsed; on the contrary, it went up the hill at a speed scarcely outstripped by the pursued Confederates. On the top of the hill these veterans did form in line of battle, and were charged upon by the Confederate cavalry. But it was the cavalry, and not the Union force, which was repulsed and retreated. If the subject were open to argument, it might be asked for what possible purpose a force, attacked when it was behind breastworks, went out to form a line of battle in front of them! No, this is a statement that cannot possibly be true.
General Early frankly confesses that some of his men who were captured before Washington "did some very tall taking about my (his) strength and purposes." He says that he himself told a "sympathizer" that he "would not mind so small a force as 20,000 in the earth-works of Washington." Such observations are so very difficult to explain, that we may leave them with the comment that they do not increase our confidence in the evidence of the witness who made them.
Both General Early and General Long have asserted frequently, and with great apparent satisfaction, that the Confederate advance "threw the authorities, civil and military, at the Federal capital, as well as the whole population of Washington, into a wild state of alarm and consternation." Similar statements have been so frequently made that they have been countenanced by some Union writers since the war, who have no personal knowledge on the subject. General Early even claims that the universal "wild dismay" so upset the Northern judgment as to disqualify it from forming any reliable conclusions, and that it led to the most exaggerated estimates of the Confederate forces.
These statements are destitute of the least shadow of foundation, for a reason which is conclusive. The Union men in Washington had not the slightest knowledge of the existence of the danger. No confidence was placed in the press, which as often contradicted as it asserted the fact of Early's advance, and all its statements were upon rumor. It may be assumed that those who had the custody of the money and securities would have been informed as early as others, but until the Sixth Corps was in sight of the capital on Monday, neither the treasurer nor the register had any knowledge on the subject. Had I supposed there was even danger of possible delay on the railroads, I should have sent away my family, who were staying with me at a hotel. When they finally left the city on Monday, I offered to a party of acquaintances the opportunity of going by the same train, and told them what I had seen above Georgetown. But they were so confident that only cavalry raiders were around the city that they declined, and consequently Major Gilmor relieved them of their luggage at the Gunpowder River the next morning.
There was indignation in Washington when the facts were known, but there was no scare and no fear. And the indignation was directed against our own authorities, and not against the Confederates, the former being charged with the defence of the city. It was claimed that they should not have permitted its exposure to any danger. Even now, when we learn from the Memoirs of General Lee, within four hours after the despatch of the Sixth Corps by General Grant to the defence of Washington, a courier was on his way from General Lee to General Early with a letter giving its numbers and destination, we may consider it somewhat remarkable that one third of Lee's army could have been detached on the 13th of June, and marched over two hundred miles into Maryland, and no knowledge of the movement have reached Grant until the 5th of July, when he sent the first reinforcement of a part of the Sixth Corps to Baltimore.
The effect produced by the mere presence of this corps was a grand tribute to the reputation of its soldiers. No one asked what its numbers were. They had come, and the capital was saved. The friends of the Union at once assumed that the city must have been in danger, or General Grant would not have sent the Sixth corps to its defence. The inhabitants resumed their ordinary avocations; one went to his field, another to his merchandise, with perfect confidence that the Sixth Corps would take care of Washington; and from his instant and precipitate retreat the belief was universal that General Early was of the same opinion.
Source L. E. Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1891), pp 403-427.