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Skirmish at Fort Stevens

July 11 – 12, 1864

“I had therefore, reluctantly had to give up all hopes of capturing Washington, after I had arrived in sight of the dome of the Capitol,” wrote Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early of his lost opportunity. His II Corps had won the Battle of Monocacy on July 9, 1864, and had marched through the blistering heat all the next day. they were utterly exhausted by the time they reached Fort Stevens, the northernmost of the 60 forts surrounding Washington, on July 11. The city’s entrenchments had been stripped of men to reinfoce Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s butchered troops in Virginia. Early could clearly see “the works were but feebly manned,” but the Confederates were too worn out to mount a major assault that day. “It was a fatal pause,” wrote a Union officer, for soon 15,000 Union reinforcements began filing into the trenches.

Early had achieved one of his goals — the transfer of Union troops from the Richmond front — but now his corps was badly outnumbered, and he dared not attempt to take the city with his small command. Indeed, his concern was getting his men safely back to Virginia. The Union and Confederate troops skirmished before Fort Stevens throughout the day, but no large scale attacks were launched on either side, and casualties for both sides were around 600 men.

On the night of July 11, the Southern troops pulled back and marched toward a Potomac River crossing at White’s Ford 30 miles from Washington. Said Early to one of his officers, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”

Lincoln wasn’t really all that scared, at least not once the veterans from Virginia started unloading from transports at the Sixth Street wharves. He visited Fort Stevens on both the 11th and the 12th and came under enemy fire both days — the only American president to do so while in office. A member of his escort wrote that Rebel bullets “were sending little spurts and puffs of dust from the embankment on which he stood.”

Fascinating Fact: Lt. Col. and future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., saw a civilian standing at the parapet exposed to enemy fire. “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot,” he growled, before he realized he was speaking to the president.