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11 Jul 2019

Washington, D.C.: Fort Stevens, Fortifications, Monocacy, and more

Washington, D.C.: Fort Stevens, Fortifications, Monocacy, and more

Less than five miles north of the American Battlefield Trust's offices in Washington, D.C., a National Park Service site at Fort Stevens commemorates a relatively little-known battle that could easily have changed the course of American history.

There may be no better symbol of the tension between defense and offense that plagued Union leadership throughout the Civil War than this place, where all was nearly lost on July 11-12, 1864. In honor of that underappreciated anniversary, here's a bit more about the Battle of Fort Stevens.

In early July 1864, authorities in Washington and at Union General-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters near Petersburg dismissed reports of the massive Confederate force invading Maryland. Fortunately for the Union cause, private citizen John Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, wasn't about to risk having his railroad destroyed by Confederate raiders yet again. Prompted by telegraph reports of renewed, widespread depredations against his line in western Maryland, Garrett urged Major General Lewis "Lew" Wallace, local departmental commander at Baltimore, to investigate.

The Confederates had an ambitious plan — and it was going well up to that point. They were securing provisions from Maryland farmers, demanding ransoms from towns such a Frederick, spreading wild rumors about their numbers, damaging important Federal infrastructure and, potentially, taking Washington in the bargain. We will never know how that third and final Confederate invasion could have played out if John Garrett hadn't convinced General Wallace to investigate and ultimately undertake the Battle of Monocacy.

Monocacy was a Confederate victory, but it came at great cost. Depleted by casualties, 90-degree weather and scant provisions, Early's army finally arrived at Washington's fortifications on July 11 in need of rest. As skirmishers advanced to the fortifications that encircled the city, which at the time were staffed only by Home Guards, clerks, and convalescent troops, the Confederates gathered their strength.

During the night, Union reinforcements from Grant's army at Petersburg — veteran units from the Sixth Corps — disembarked from troop transports and marched north through the streets of Washington to bolster the city's defenses. By the time Early was ready to attack at Fort Stevens on July 12, Washington was ready. President Lincoln himself was famously present to become one of the few sitting U.S. presidents ever to come under direct enemy fire.

As military historian B. Franklin Cooling puts it, "Standing today where Lincoln stood in 1864 atop the Fort Stevens parapet (a spot well-marked by a stone marker and bas relief), one must marvel why posterity has never declared this singular event one of the pivotal episodes (or even Confederate ‘lost opportunities') of the Civil War."

Recognizing that the Union capital was now defended by veterans, Early abandoned any thought of taking the city and withdrew by cover of night, heading west to a new assignment in the Shenandoah Valley.

Read more about the history of Washington D.C.'s defenses in a feature article by Dr. B. Franklin Cooling on battlefields.org.

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