Washington Prepares for a Southern Visitor

July 10, 1864 (Sunday)

Halleck is pretty much ready.
Halleck is pretty much ready.

As Lew Wallace’s Federals retreated from the battlefield along the Monocacy River, President Lincoln ordered him to fall back not to Washington, but toward Baltimore. It was still mostly unknown whether the Rebels under Jubal Early would strike for Washington, now to their southeast, or would move, instead, upon Baltimore.

General Early had certainly expected some resistance, but after the previous day’s battle, he must have felt at least some surprise to learn that among his prisoners were soldiers from the Sixth Corps, who were supposed to have been along the Petersburg front, far to the south. This gave him pause, though not for long.

With news of Wallace’s defeat, General Grant offered to come personally to Washington to command its defenses. He also ordered the rest of the Sixth Corps to the city. He also gave a bit of strategic advice: “All other force, it looks to me, should be collected in rear of enemy about Edwards Ferry and follow him and cut off retreat if possible.” If Early’s force comprised roughly a third of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. If they were cut off from Petersburg, it would leave Lee with hardly enough men to hold the defenses.

“Gen. Halleck says we have absolutely no force here fit to go to the field,” came Lincoln’s reply. “He thinks that with the hundred day-men, and invalids we have here, we can defend Washington, and scarcely Baltimore.”


He also tallied the other troops in the area. There was Albion Howe, who took over for Franz Sigel, in Harpers Ferry with 8,000. Also, David Hunter’s army had finally been located, and after traversing West Virginia, they were now moving on Harpers Ferry from Cumberland, Maryland, though very slowly. There was some chance of getting militia from Pennsylvania and New York, but it, in Lincoln’s mind, would be hardly worth counting.

“Now what I think is that you should provide to retain your hold where you are certainly, and bring the rest with you personally,” closed Lincoln, “and make a vigorous effort to destroy the enemie’s force in this vicinity. I think there is really a fair chance to do this if the movement is prompt.”

Chief of Staff Henry Halleck echoed Lincoln’s sentiments, agreeing with Grant’s idea to get into Early’s rear – except “we have no forces here for the field.” All that was available to them were “militia, invalids, convalescents from the hospitals, a few dismounted batteries, and the dismounted and disorganized cavalry sent up from James River.”

He agreed with Lincoln that they should be able to defend Washington, but could do nothing more until Hunter arrived in Harpers Ferry. Only then, and after the rest of the Sixth Corps showed up, could anything be thrown on the offensive.

Grant's message to Washington.
Grant’s message to Washington.

Two days earlier, Grant had sent a message to General Lee concerning the exchange of prisoners. He had yet to hear back from him, and was wondering where he might be. “I begin to believe it possible that [Lee] may have gone on the Maryland campaign, taking with him considerable re-enforcements from the army in your front,” he wrote to George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, before urging him to make a reconnaissance to see if this were true.

Later that night, Grant replied to Lincoln, informing him that he had just dispatched an entire corps from the army around Petersburg. “They will probably reach Washington tomorrow night.” Grant placed Horatio Wright in charge. Grant hoped for Write to join with Hunter to bring their number to 10,000.

“I have great faith that the enemy will never be able to get back with much of his force.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 2, p155-157; Vol. 40, Part 3, p74-75; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
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