July 11, 1864 (Monday)
Washington was ringed to the north by a dozen or more forts, linked by embrasures, batteries, and trenches. These covered the approaches along the Georgetown Pike, running northwest out of the city toward Rockville, the Seventh Street Road, running north toward Silver Spring, and the Bladensburg Road, running northeast in the direction of Baltimore.
The Confederates under General Jubal Early had been held back by Lew Wallace’s small force at Monocacy Creek, but through the day previous, the Rebels marched, encamping near Rockville. On the morning of this date, he divided his forces. His infantry, fronted by cavalry, turned off the Georgetown Pike for Silver Springs, while cavalry alone remained near Rockville.
They were off by he break of day, with the cavalry under John McCausland holding to the Georgetown Pike. “This day was an exceedingly hot one, and there was no air stirring,” recalled Early. “While marching, the men were enveloped in a suffocating cloud of dust, and many of them fell by the way from exhaustion. Our progress was therefore very much impeded, but I pushed on as rapidly as possible, hoping to get to the fortifications around Washington before they could be manned.”
The cavalry to his front along the Seventh Street Pike were driving back their Federal counterparts back into the main works before dismounting to play upon the enemy as skirmishers. By noon, Early himself could see Fort Stevens, then hardly manned at all. In fact, at this point, only a bit more than 200 men held the fort. He sent word back to his lead division, commanded by Robert Rodes, to hurry into line and advance into the vacant Federal works.
General Grant had dispatched portions of the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps from the siege at Petersburg, placing them under the banner of Horatio Wright. They were taken by steamer from City Point, near Richmond, up the Potomac to Washington, where they arrived around noon – just as Early was looking upon Fort Stevens. Through the streets marched the veterans, until they left the city and tramped their way to the line of forts.
In the meantime, the Federal skirmishers now exchanging fire with the Rebels were those of Alexander McCook’s Cavalry. He had established his headquarters a little south of Fort Stevens. His men held several miles of ground, unsure where exactly the Rebels would strike.
Commanding the bulk of the Washington garrison troops was General Christopher Augur. The entire capital, in fact, was his department, his men being the Twenty-Second Corps. Within that structure was a so-called “Emergency Division,” commanded by Montgomery Meigs, the Army’s Quartermaster General. This hastily assembled body was made up of Federal employees with no experience in battle. But they too came.
“Before Rodes’ division could be brought up, we saw a cloud of dust in the rear of the works towards Washington,” wrote Early after the war, “and a soon a column of the enemy filed into them on the right and left, and skirmishers were thrown out in front, while an artillery fire was opened on us from a number of batteries. This defeated our hopes of getting possession of the works by surprise, and it became necessary to reconnoiter.”
Rodes deployed his skirmishers, who drove back the Federals. This gave Early a better look at what was before him. “They were found to be exceedingly strong,” he continued, “and consisted of what appeared to be enclosed forts fro heavy artillery, with a tier of lower works in front of each pierced for an immense number of guns, the whole being connected by curtains with ditches in front, and strengthened by palisades and abattis. The timber had been felled within cannon range all around and left on the ground, making a formidable obstacle, and every possible approach was raked by artillery.”
As far as he could see, from left to right, the entire mass was impregnable. “This reconnaissance consumed the balance of the day.” Thinking of his men, Early concluded that due the the battle at the Monocacy, strenuous marches, and pure exhaustion, only about a third of his force – perhaps as few as 3,000 men – could be taken into battle. His artillery was no match at all for the heavy garrison guns.
To his right, along the Georgetown Pike, McCausland reported much the same. He could move neither right or left without being spotted from the Federal signal station. “Under the circumstances,” he concluded, “to have rushed my men blindly against the fortifications, without understanding the state of things, would have been worse than folly.”
Making matters even worse, Early had tried to communicate with cavalry under John Mosby, to see if he knew anything about the true Federal numbers now in Washington, but he was of little help. From a Northern newspaper, he learned that another column of enemy infantry, under David Hunter, was now moving close to Harpers Ferry in his rear. This was all looking incredibly bad.
On the other side of the defenses, Fort Stevens was paid a visit by President Lincoln. According to one witness, David Homer Bates of the telegraph office, the President “carefully observed the whole situation of affairs” from Fort Stevens. And according to another, Francis Carpenter, Lincoln was accompanied by the First Lady. “While at Fort Stevens on Monday, both were imprudently exposed, – rifle-balls coming, in several instances, alarmingly near!” Lincoln would return the following day.
When darkness finally fell, Jubal Early called together his officers, telling him all he know of “the danger of remaining where we were, and the necessity of doing something immediately, as the probability was that the passes of the South Mountain and the fords of the upper Potomac would seen be closed against us.”
The officers exchaned ideas and all were hesitant to leave without some sort of victory. Early couldn’t agree more. “I determined to make an assault on the enemy’s works at daylight next morning, unless some information should be received before that time showing its impracticability.”
But late that night, word came in from cavalry commander Bradley Johnson, who was still en route to Point Lookout to free the Confederate prisoners held within. He had heard from a reliable source that Grant had dispatched two corps of infantry and that the rest of the Army of the Potomac had abandoned Petersburg to track him down. This wasn’t anywhere near true, but Early had nothing else to go on.
“This caused me to delay the attack until I could examine the works again.” This could not be done until daylight.1
- Sources: A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Six Months at the White House by Francis Bicknell Carpenter; Lincoln in the Telegraph Office by David Homer Bates; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. [↩]