Lincoln Was No ‘Damned Fool’ Under Fire

July 12, 1864 (Tuesday)

House near Fort Stevens showing effect of shot during Early's attack on Washington.
House near Fort Stevens showing effect of shot during Early’s attack on Washington.

Jubal Early had planned to attack the defenses north of Washington at first light, but word from his cavalry raiding near Baltimore stayed his hand. There were, he had learned, two full corps of Federal infantry en route from Petersburg. He again looked over the ground, but it was not to be. “I had, therefore, reluctantly to give up all hopes of capturing Washington,” he wrote after the war, “after I had arrived in sight of the dome of the Capitol, and given the Federal authorities a terrible fright.”

Though to Early it was over, to Washington, it might have just begun. Word coming also from Baltimore told of the ravages of Bradley Johnson’s Confederate cavalry. “The Rebels captured a train of cars on the Philadelphia and Baltimore Road,” wrote Gideon Welles in his diary, “and have burnt bridges over Gunpowder and Bush Rivers.” The governor’s house was set to burning by the 1,500 or so Rebels. “General demoralization seems to have taken place among the troops, and there is as little intelligence among them as at the War Office in regard to the Rebels.” Welles related that they “no mails, and the telegraph lines have been cut; so that we are without news or information from the outer world.”

As the skirmishing north of the city continued, rumors replaced news. President Lincoln, who had visited Fort Stevens the previous afternoon, wrote to General Grant: “Vague rumors have been reaching us for two or three days that Longstreet’s corps is also on its way this vicinity. Look out for it’s absence from your front.” A specific reply wouldn’t come for another twenty-four hours.

1920s photograph of the monument dedicated to where Lincoln was under fire.
1920s photograph of the monument dedicated to where Lincoln was under fire.

But Lincoln seemed little-worried. Tuesday was the day for the regular Cabinet meeting, and when the attendees arrived, they found him at noon signing a stack of commissions as if some large horde of Confederates weren’t about to sack the city.

Gideon Welles arrived and asked Lincoln if there was any more news about where the Confederate forces were supposed to be. The President couldn’t say with any amount of certainty, but he believed them to be concentrated around Silver Spring. Welles “expressed a doubt whether there was any large force at any one point, but that they were in squads from 500 to perhaps 1500 scattered along from the Gunpowder to the falls of the Potomac, who kept up an alarm on the outer rim while the marauders were driving off horses and cattle.” Lincoln hardly said anything in reply apart from restating that “there must be a pretty large force in the neighborhood of Silver Spring.”

One notable absence from the meeting was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Welles remarked that he seemed “dull and stupefied” over the Rebel invasion.

With Secretary of War William Seward and a few others, Lincoln drove out again to Fort Stevens, just south of Silver Spring, and the suspected point of the Rebel attack. He was greeted by a crowd of officers. Both left the carriage, went inside the fort and stood upon the parapet, overlooking the ground before them. A soldier approached him, lightly touching his arm, and begged him to come down, “for the bullets of the rebel sharpshooters may begin to come in, any minute, from the woods yonder.”


Lincoln, according to one source, William Seward’s son Frederick, complied. But by the word of John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, Lincoln “stood, apparently unconscious of danger, watching, with that grave and passive countenance, the progress of the fight amid the whizzing bullets of the sharp-shooters, until an officer fell mortally wounded within three feet of him, and General [Horatio] Wright peremptorily represented to him the needless risk he was running.”

Gideon Welles, who arrived sometime after Lincoln, somewhat corroborated Hay’s story, stating that “one man had been shot in the fort a few minutes before we entered.” Welles “found the President, who was sitting in the shade, his back against the parapet towards the enemy.”

But a folk tale grew, relating that a young Oliver Wendel Holmes “lost his judicious mind the the smack and bang of battle. He shouted at the Chief Executive, “Get down, you fool!” Somehow, according to some retellings of the legend, Holmes, who was then a staff officer under General Wright, did not recognize the President.

In truth, Holmes was certainly there on this date, but the tale grew in the telling. He would often take friends and visitors to old Fort Stevens, sixty years after the war. He would tell them how he actually saw President Lincoln on the parapet, and usually said nothing more. Once in a while, however, Holmes would add that he was the one who told Lincoln to “Get down, you damned fool!” The story, now embedded in American history, was a fabrication put forward by Holmes long after the war. No contemporary accounts breathed a word of it, and it didn’t even appear in print until the 1937.

Unveiling of Lincoln tablet at Fort Stevens, July 12, 1920.
Unveiling of Lincoln tablet at Fort Stevens, July 12, 1920.

The Federals sent out a heavy skirmish line toward the Confederate position, which was driven back by Robert Rodes’ division. After the contact was broken, Jubal Early’s Confederates began their withdrawal. Before leaving, a torch was put to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair’s house. Early, after the war, denied that he ordered it to be done. “The fact is,” he argued, “that I had nothing to do with it, and do not yet know how the burning occured.” It would have been justified, but a bad idea, said Early, “to set the house on fire when we were retiring, as it amounted to notice of our movement.”

Gideon Welles weighed in the next day about just who burned the house. Some Rebels “claimed to have done [it] in retaliation for the destruction of the house of Governor Letcher, – a disgraceful act and a disgraceful precedent.” He concluded that “men in authority appear to have had direction in burning Blair’s house.”

By the next morning, Washington knew of the retreat and the city was safe once again. Early’s Army of the Valley was in Leesburg, Virginia, on the 14th, having crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford. They were, at first, pursued only by cavalry. 1

  1. Sources: Diary by Gideon Welles; Abraham Lincoln: A History, Vol. 9 by John Hay and John Nicolay; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 7; Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State by Frederick William Seward; Diplomat In Carpet Slippers by Jay Monaghan; Lincoln Under Enemy Fire by John Henry Cramer. []
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