Saturday, December 13

RECOVERED HISTORY: THE BATTLE OF FT. STEVENS

The news that the ferry Jubal Early had become stuck in the Potomac River recalls an overlooked moment in DC and American history

The July 11, 1864 Battle of Ft. Stevens, which not only was the only time the Confederates directly threatened Washington, was important in another regard: it was one of the few times in history where bureaucrats have played a significant military role, having been called out (along with lightly wounded troops in the hospital) to help defend the city.

In the summer of 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early pushed his way towards Maryland with 20,000 men. General Wallace, a Union recruit trainer in Baltimore, found himself faced with an invasion but was uncertain whether the target was Washington or Baltimore. Wallace chose Frederick, MD, to make his stand, with the help of troops sent by train from Baltimore. With only 6,000 troops to defend six miles of river, he found himself overwhelmed. On the afternoon of July 9, the Union force left some 1,800 casualties and retreated to Baltimore. The confederates lost 1,300 men.

Though his own force was battered, Early knew the immense coup that capturing Washington would be. Further he probably knew that Washington had only about 9,000 regular troops to guard the whole city, Grant having removed some 14,000 soldiers to help him battle Lee around Richmond and Petersburg. Early sent out sorties on July 11 toward Ft. Stevens, located at the north end of Washington. They found a battlement protected only by home guards, clerks, and recovering soldiers literally rousted from their hospital beds to help defend the city. a ragtag force of 2,300.

By light of the next day, however, Early found the fort manned by regular troops, reinforcements who had arrived from Virginia and who repulsed Early's sorties. By the end of the day, Early was in full retreat. There had been 874 casualties. Among the spectators for the two days were Abraham Lincoln and his wife. One Ohio soldier would remember, "Lincoln got to the fort ahead of us. He was quiet and grave. He mounted the parapet so he could see better, and I saw him there in full view of the Johnnies, watching them and what went on inside. You can imagine what a target he made with tall form and stovepipe hat."

Lincoln became the only president ever to have come under direct fire and, according to legend, was told by a young soldier named Oliver Wendell Holmes to "get down, you damn fool." Still another story has a colonel telling Lincoln, "Please come down to a safe place. If you do not, it will be my duty to call a file of men and make you." Lincoln replied, "And you would be quite right, my boy. You are in command of this fort. I should be the last man to set an example of disobedience."

The Union force held and Early gave up his invasion of Maryland and DC and returned to the upper Potomac at a crossing known as White's Ford, which would later become the home-port of perhaps the world's only ferry whose bridge once consisted of an overstuffed armchair on the same deck as the cars. It was called the "Jubal Early."

Early admitted to his staff that "We didn't take Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like Hell."

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