- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

“Nothing ahead but earthworks,” the farmer said. The tall, stooped soldier in the saddle grunted and spurred his horse down the dusty road for a look.

Blocking the Seventh Street Pike (today’s Georgia Avenue), however, was a modern fort protected with abatis and ditches, its parapet pierced by a score of heavy guns that began to fire at the approaching horsemen. For Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, midday on July 11, 1864, was the moment of decision.

Two days earlier, he had whipped a Union force just outside Frederick, Md., and now his tatterdemalion army, straggling badly in the more than 90-degree heat, was at the outskirts of the Federal capital.

Early rode back through his rapidly thinning columns, urging his troops to make one last push on Washington, but barely a third of his exhausted men remained in the ranks. Had the Confederate general but known it, Fort Stevens was being held just then by a company of 78 green, 100-days men from the Ohio National Guard, 52 convalescents, and a 79-man battery of Michigan artillerymen.

“There had been talk among us about a chance to go to the front,” quipped one Ohio guardsman, “but now the front had come to us.”

Frantic call

As the Confederate army dribbled up and began collecting near the house of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring, Early sent forward the men of Lt. Col. David Lang’s 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, 200 strong, to probe the fort. Pushing aside the inexperienced Union pickets, the Virginians had gotten to within 50 yards of Fort Stevens by 1:30 p.m., prompting a frantic call for help from its commander.

The Federals responded by sending their own dismounted horsemen, the 25th New York Cavalry, which had arrived late the night before and camped behind the fort. Though green, the 400 New Yorkers were enough to push Lang’s Virginians back to where they had started and burn some of the houses capable of sheltering the Confederates. These men obviously were not “melish” — short for “militia” — and their appearance was enough to give the Confederate chiefs pause.

“They are no hundred-day’s men,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes, who had just arrived. “They are veterans.” The men manning the guns in the fort were not, however, and their huge shells passed harmlessly over the Southerners.

As the troops arrived, Rodes dispatched four battalions of his elite Division Sharpshooters to develop the situation. These handpicked light infantrymen, all of whom had been through an intensive marksmanship program that spring, began pushing forward once again, their Enfield short rifles outranging the Burnside carbines of the horse soldiers.

Led by Maj. Eugene Blackford of the 5th Alabama, the sharpshooters drove the cavalrymen back toward their rifle pits in front of the fort in sharp fighting that cost the New York troopers five killed and 13 wounded. Soon the Confederates were within 100 yards of the fort, shooting at anyone who dared show his head.

However, as Early squinted through his field glasses from the high ground in front of the fort, he could see dust clouds to the south that heralded the arrival of Union reinforcements. The race to Washington was over.

Panicked city

Early’s march down the Shenandoah Valley had come as a surprise to the Union high command. Gen. Robert E. Lee had instructed Early to threaten Washington and take it if he found the opportunity. Lee hoped Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would have to weaken his army at Petersburg to protect the capital.

Although a ring of 68 forts protected Washington, Grant had stripped their garrisons earlier that summer for reinforcements, then had failed to spot Early’s army until it had crossed the Potomac on July 5. This led to a near panic in Washington as it became clear that the Confederates were approaching the capital.

War Department clerks, convalescents, “hospital rats” and anyone else who could hold a rifle was sent to the parapets. The threat to Washington finally persuaded Grant to send his VI Corps steaming toward the capital, and around noon on July 11, even as Old Jube’s men were probing Fort Stevens, the first division of these veterans began debarking at the Alexandria docks under the eye of President Abraham Lincoln.

After a circuitous march, they finally arrived behind Fort Stevens around 4 p.m., then had to wait in woods half a mile away while Union chiefs tried to sort out the byzantine Federal command structure.

Popping of muskets

Meanwhile, the situation at the fort was again becoming critical. Blackford’s sharpshooters were peppering the fort with Minie balls from a nearby peach orchard, driving the gunners from their weapons.

“The rebels were said to be ‘just out thar,’ ” remarked one VI Corpsman, “and the yip! of rebel bullets into, and over the Fort, and the wounded going back, showed that they were indeed ‘that.’ ”

The Union chiefs, who placed Early’s numbers at 30,000 men, more than twice their actual number, dithered but finally sent out three regiments in skirmish formation around 5 p.m. A serious fight developed when Rodes, in turn, backed his sharpshooters with infantry. The Federals replied by sending up two more regiments, and after some hard fighting, the picket lines stood about where they had been that morning. By 7 p.m., things had settled down somewhat, but the popping of muskets continued all night.

That evening, Early and his generals raided Postmaster Blair’s wine cellar and held a council of war. All were reluctant to quit after coming so far, but it was clear that Union reinforcements had arrived, and with just 13,000 men in their ranks, the risks of remaining grew hourly.

Noisy show

At sunup the next day, July 12, Blackford’s sharpshooters again probed the fort, which they found fully manned and ready. Early called off his offensive and decided to withdraw that night. Feigning an attack, the Southern general sent his skirmishers up for a noisy show, his light field pieces barking like popguns against the heavy cannon in the forts.

The sharpshooters moved forward once again, saturating the Federal positions with rifle fire from their skirmish line, which ran through heavy brush just behind a small brook at the base of a low rise. Much of the long-range fire came from the top of this knoll, where, a Union officer noted, “a fine wooden mansion two stories in height, with a cupola” stood (and where Walter Reed Army Medical Center stands today).

Just across the pike lay another spacious dwelling, “surrounded by an orchard and large shade trees,” which also gave a fine view of the Yankee lines, as well the unfinished Capitol dome in the distance.

The Union command was still in disarray, with too many generals and not enough privates. In addition, battlefield tourists had become a sizable problem for the Federals. These included members of Congress, Cabinet officials, well-connected government bureaucrats and even President Lincoln, who visited Fort Stevens on both days of the battle.

Civilian gawkers

Much to the consternation of his escorts, the commander in chief had taken to rubbernecking from the ramparts. Given the skill of the Southern riflemen and the range of their weapons, this put the president in great danger, which became very clear when a fusillade of shots from Rebel sharpshooters seriously wounded a surgeon standing next to him — making Lincoln the only chief executive to come under enemy fire while in office.

Legend has it that a young Massachusetts officer, Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, yelled out to Lincoln, “Get down, you fool” and that the president soon took his advice.

The soldiers were unimpressed by the civilian gawkers. “I suppose they think it was a splendid sight,” said one, “but we poor fellows could not see much fun in it.”

War-worn veterans

The Federals now sent out two groups of about 100 men to burn the mansions, but each unit was ambushed and driven back in turn. The arrival of the second of the VI Corps’ divisions in midmorning swelled total Federal strength to more than 30,000 men, but still their generals seemed locked in a defensive mind-set, unable to decide what to do.

Late that afternoon, the Federal commanders — their minds concentrated by the near-miss of Lincoln — readied a force to drive off the pesky Confederate sharpshooters. Three of their best regiments (7th Maine, 43rd and 49th New York) under Col. Daniel Bidwell quietly moved up behind the skirmish line they had established the day before.

“The pseudo-soldiers who filled the trenches around the Fort,” sneered one VI Corps soldier, “were astounded at the temerity displayed by these war-worn veterans in going out before the breast-works, and benevolently volunteered most earnest words of caution. The enemy’s skirmishers were at this time within six hundred yards of the Fort in strong force, and their bullets, which were plenty, were assisted by shells from artillery planted behind them.”

Forward and backward

When all was ready, about 5 p.m., the guns of Fort Stevens opened up. After 36 shots — one for each star on the national flag — the attack began. Several heavy shells hit one mansion, and through their field glasses, the Yankee gunners could see Rebel riflemen bailing out of the upper stories just ahead of the flames.

Caught off guard, the grayback pickets “skedaddled as fast as they could, leaving everything in their pits,” a New York officer wrote. The Yankees took the hill and the mansion, but there the Rebs were “found to be much stronger than had been supposed,” a Union officer wrote later, and the advance ran into trouble.

The Confederates sent up three regiments of their own — the 43rd, 45th and 53rd North Carolina — provoking a hot and deadly fight, and in response, Bidwell brought forward his three reserve regiments, the 150-man picket reserve of the 102nd Pennsylvania, and a company of sharpshooters. At the top of the hill they ran into what the New York officer called “a strong force of the enemy … behind a board fence,” who put up a stout resistance.

The Rebels allowed the leading Union companies to advance almost unopposed, then slid around their flank, enfilading them and forcing them to fall back. Union Pvt. Belas North and his comrades “were having it all our way when, presto, they halted, rallied, turned and under sharp fire advanced to gobble us.”

The Confederate counterattack forced their opponents on the defensive. Crouched behind a fence, the Federals repulsed one attack, but the Rebels re-formed and came on again. By now, many Yankees were down to their last few cartridges.

Lt. Col. Augustus Dwight of the 122nd New York claimed that his men “held their ground for twenty minutes … then fell back, rallied again, charged them without ammunition and drove them back again.”

Faced with such stubborn resistance, the Federals called for more reinforcements but could make no progress. “In no other engagement of our three years’ service did we witness so many acts of individual valor and daring,” remembered one soldier, who termed it “a desperate engagement.”

Two days of fighting had cost the Federals about 600 men killed or wounded. The Confederate toll was about 500.

Two ‘victors’

Around 6 p.m., the fighting sputtered out, with neither side able to gain an advantage. Both claimed to have repulsed three attacks by the other and felt they had won the day — the Yankees for having driven away the enemy and saved the capital, the Confederates for having successfully covered their withdrawal with what Early called “but slight loss.”

Old Jube thought he had accomplished his larger goal as well. “Major, we haven’t taken Washington,” he told an aide as they departed, “but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”

That night, Early and his Army of the Valley decamped for parts south without interference. Their Washington campaign was, one Federal said, “the most impudent thing the rebels ever attempted.”

Fred L. Ray is the author of “Shock Troops of the Confederacy” (www.cssharpshooters.com), from which this article is adapted. One of his ancestors was a sharpshooter in the 12th Alabama Infantry.

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