- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

Sunday, July 10, 1864, was a fearsomely hot and humid day, with the sun mercilessly beating down upon Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Army of the Shenandoah Valley, marching down the Washington Turnpike toward the District of Columbia.

They had entered Maryland on July 5 after first looting abandoned Union Army warehouses at Martinsburg, W.Va. They were the instrument of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s plan to lighten the burden on his beleaguered troops at Petersburg, Va., who were pinned down by the enormous and well-equipped Army of the Potomac. Lee had given Early a choice of rejoining the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, after he had defeated Gen. David Hunter’s forces at Lynchburg, or advancing on Washington. Early chose to attack Washington.

The previous day, July 9, had seen Early’s army defeat a smaller Union force, under Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace, at Monocacy Junction near Frederick. Too exhausted to pursue Wallace’s troops in their retreat toward Baltimore, Early’s soldiers camped on the battlefield, tended their wounded, ate dinner, then attempted to sleep in the ferocious heat.

At dawn on Sunday, they resumed their march, with Brig. Gen. John McCausland’s cavalry upfront and troops under 27-year-old “Boy General” Stephen Dodson Ramseur bringing up the rear. In temperatures above 90 degrees, the Army of the Shenandoah Valley laboriously climbed the hills east of Frederick, then marched southeast toward Washington, raising tremendous dust clouds and the attention of the capital’s defenders and residents, who had heard rumors of Early’s advance for several days. Where was Early? Washington soon found out.

Message of warning

About 5 p.m., Maj. Gen. Christopher Columbus Augur, overall commander of Washington’s defenses, received a message from Maj. William Fry, who had been on the “Washington Road, Two miles from Rockville,” at 4 p.m. It read in part, “General: I have taken position and formed. My rear guard is fighting the enemy near Rockville. I have been joined by a Squadron Eighth Illinois Cavalry and expect to be engaged in a few moments. I would respectfully suggest that the forts in the vicinity of Tennallytown be strongly guarded as the enemy’s column is a mile long.”

Fry, the nominal commander of the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, had gathered a motley regiment of about 500 horsemen from the Giesboro Depot (near today’s Bolling Air Force Base) and set out to determine Early’s whereabouts and relay the information back to Washington.

The battle for Washington began when Fry’s command engaged McCausland’s numerically superior force along Rockville Pike, between today’s Redland Boulevard and Indianola Drive. McCausland’s troops slowly pushed Fry’s cavalry back through Rockville, leaving dead troops and horses in the street. Fry’s force fought McCausland’s troops in two lines on today’s Hungerford Drive and on Commerce Lane, east and west of Washington Street.

Confederate charges broke both lines, and Union troops scattered. Fry made a final stand on a hill on Viers Mill Road, about a mile south of town, near today’s St. Mary’s Church. He retired only when the Confederates brought artillery to bear on his small force.

Fry’s spent command was relieved the next day by the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, commanded by Col. Charles Russell Lowell. McCausland’s command continued down the Georgetown Pike (Wisconsin Avenue) and River Road, approaching Washington’s defenses at Tennallytown, today’s Tenleytown, and drawing fire from the 100-pound Parrott rifled cannon at Forts Reno and Bayard. McCausland reported back to Early at Rockville, informing him that the hilltop fortifications at Tennallytown and farther south were impregnable.

Fort Stevens

After spending Sunday evening at the Summit Hill Farm in Gaithersburg, the Army of the Valley passed through Rockville on Monday morning, July 11. Despite constant exhortations from officers to “close up,” the Confederates were badly disorganized and strung out, and for some hours, Rockville’s residents heard the sounds of tramping feet and martial music, while Early and his staff ate breakfast at Rockville’s finest hostelry, the Montgomery House hotel.

In response to McCausland’s report, Early decided to avoid the Tennallytown fortifications and directed his troops eastward onto Viers Mill Road. After arriving at Leesborough (Wheaton), they swung south along the Washington and Brookeville Turnpike, which became the Seventh Street Road, today’s Georgia Avenue. After passing through Sligo Post Office (Silver Spring), the lead division arrived in the vicinity of Fort Stevens around noon.

At that time, there were just 209 inexperienced troops inside the fort and only about 500 to 600 defenders manning skirmish lines outside the fortifications. However, many Confederate officers were forced to spend the afternoon rounding up stragglers, and Early himself stated: “When we reached the sight of the enemy’s fortifications the men were almost completely exhausted and not in condition to make an attack.”

Early and his officers bivouacked at Silver Spring, the elegant home of Francis Preston Blair, about 2½ miles from Fort Stevens. There they decided to attack the redoubts of the fort at first light, July 12. However, dawn revealed thousands of Union troops manning the redoubts and the extensive earthworks and rifle pits to the south and east, convincing Early that an assault would be futile. After some hours of skirmishing, the Army of the Valley packed its gear and retreated, destination White’s Ferry on the Potomac. Early and his troops had to content themselves with having, as Early put it, “scared Abe Lincoln like hell.”

The Californians

On the way to White’s Ferry, Early’s army again passed through Rockville, on July 13. His rear guard was composed of cavalry led by Brig. Gens. William Lowther “Mudwall” Jackson and Bradley Johnson. Johnson commanded the 1st Maryland Cavalry. His 800 troops had returned the previous day from a raid on Baltimore, during which they had destroyed vital railroad tracks north of the city and burned down the home of Maryland’s Unionist governor, Augustus W. Bradford. For this last act, and for his role in the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., on July 30, Johnson would be indicted for treason in May 1865.

Advance units of Early’s army reached Rockville about 11 p.m. on July 12. The Army of the Valley took about 12 hours to pass through town, with Johnson’s rear guard finally clearing out around noon July 13. The 2nd Massachusetts cavalry, including Californians, commanded by Col. Lowell, waited on the Viers Mill Road hill until the Confederates evacuated the town. Then Lowell’s command, numbering several hundred, began to follow Early’s 10,000 troops, entering Rockville about 20 minutes later.

The Californians had come east in 1862 and 1863, responding to recruiting calls from J. Sewall Reed, a Massachusetts native who had moved to San Francisco. Reed had made a deal with Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew to raise companies of cavalry and credit them to Massachusetts’ quota. Charles Russell Lowell, a 28-year-old Army of the Potomac veteran, was made the regiment’s colonel. By 1863, Californians had come to make up five of the regiment’s 12 companies. Very confident and boastful of their equine abilities, they spent two frustrating years chasing guerrilla units in Northern Virginia. They would encounter their first “real combat” against Early’s rear guard, the 1st Maryland Cavalry.

‘Halt! Dismount!’

Leaving Rockville, the Confederate rear guard took up a defensive position along Watts Branch, a small stream running parallel with West Montgomery Avenue. They stationed themselves on both sides of the stream. Behind their lines, West Montgomery Avenue curved around out of sight, toward Darnestown.

After becoming aware that Union cavalry had taken possession of Rockville, Early ordered Johnson to retake the town. Just as Johnson formed the 1st Maryland into assault formation behind the bend in the road, Lt. Col. Caspar Crowninshield, with four companies of the 2nd Massachusetts, came into view. As Crowninshield’s men drew their swords to attack Mudwall Jackson’s troops along Watts Branch, the 1st Maryland came charging around the bend in a fierce counterattack. The Watts Branch valley resonated with the sounds of pistol shots and clashing sabers as the Union cavalry fled back toward Rockville. Several Union troopers fell, badly wounded, as Johnson’s troops chased them back into town.

By 2:30 p.m., only a few minutes after Johnson’s counterattack, Col. Lowell, stationed at the Montgomery House hotel, heard sounds of the fighting coming closer. As Lowell left the hotel and mounted his horse to lead his column, riderless horses and panic-stricken troops from Crowninshield’s foray came charging back into town, and into Lowell’s column, with Confederate cavalry close behind.

With no time to form a battle line, Lowell shouted above the din, “Halt! Dismount! And let your horse go!” About 50 or 60 Union troopers followed that order and took up defensive positions along two sides of the courthouse triangle.

Two volleys from their rapid-fire, seven-shot Spencer carbines effectively stopped Johnson’s Confederates. Union troops shot at Confederates from behind trees, woodpiles and fences as panicked residents took to their cellars. Confederate troops found themselves trapped in unfamiliar surroundings.

Lowell ordered a charge, capturing several Maryland Confederates and pushing the rest back toward the western edge of town. There they were met by another Confederate cavalry charge. However, the superior firepower of the Spencer carbines again halted the Confederates. Johnson, however, began bringing up infantry from Watts Branch.

Stream of history

Fierce fighting continued into late afternoon, but the numerically superior Confederate infantry pressured the 2nd Massachusetts to fall back. The Union regiment slowly retreated, firing as it went. Faced by overwhelming numbers of Confederates, Lowell pulled the battered unit back to a defensive line close to today’s St. Mary’s Church. Led by Johnson, a Confederate flanking movement, though unsuccessful, forced Lowell to pull back still farther. Johnson, at last satisfied, left 30 troops to guard the town and rode west with his command to rejoin the main army.

Lowell resumed the chase the next day, encountering Johnson’s troops near Poolesville, but the Confederates stopped the 2nd Massachusetts, allowing Early’s main army to cross into Virginia unmolested.

Watts Branch is a 2-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide stream, still running parallel to West Montgomery Avenue. Visitors to Wooton’s Mill Park can cross the stream on a sturdy metal footbridge.

Up the hill, the landscape is graded, and children ride bicycles around the grounds. The current runs along peacefully in sharp contrast to frenetic traffic nearby and belying the fact that Union and Confederate troops once fought nearby and died for their beliefs and their country.

Steven Bernstein is a free-lance writer who lives in Montgomery County, Md.

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