When the first inklings emerged early in 1861 that a fighting war pitting North versus South would soon break out, the residents of Washington, D.C.—at least those whose sympathies were with the Union—began to feel more than a little threatened. Though it was a haven for freed blacks, the District of Columbia also was the home of slave-owning whites and had the ambience of a Southern city, sitting below the Mason-Dixon line and surrounded by the slave-owning states of Maryland and Virginia.
The city’s only defensive fortification was Fort Washington, built in 1809 well south of the city on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Worse, only a handful of friendly troops were stationed nearby, and many of them defected to the Confederate side. By springtime,
Confederate flags flying in Northern Virginia could be seen across the Potomac from the city’s higher elevations.
In short, the Union capital was ripe for an invasion by the Confederates, and it wasn’t long before official Washington took notice.
In February, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, the Union Army commander, ordered Army Regulars into the city. By the end of April, some 11,000 Union troops had arrived to protect Washington. They set up makeshift camps in nearly every available space, including the Treasury Building, the Patent Office, City Hall, the Navy Yard and even inside the Capitol building.
Many of those troops were put to work in late May building a series of forts and interconnected rifle pits and trenches. An impetus for accelerating the work on this network of defensive forts came late in July, following the unexpected and disastrous Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia. That shocking loss, just 30 miles southwest of Washington, raised new fears in the capital about an impending Confederate invasion.
The defeat at Bull Run “left no longer room to doubt” the need for “a chain of fortifications” around Washington, reflected General John Gross Barnard, who was soon appointed the Army of the Potomac’s chief engineer. “With our army too demoralized and too weak in numbers to act effectually in the open field against the invading enemy, nothing but the protection of defensive works could give any degree of security.”
The man chosen to oversee the building of the defensive works was Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan—West Point Class of 1846, Mexican War hero and the former chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. McClellan took over as commander of the Army of the Potomac on July 27, just after First Bull Run. He immediately stepped up the fort and fortification-building effort. McClellan gave the job of overseeing construction to Barnard, who had fought at Bull Run.
“The chaos of Washington inspired McClellan to an almost frenzied activity,” Margaret Leech wrote in Reveille In Washington, her 1942 Pulitzer Prize–winning portrait of the city during the Civil War. “Convinced that the city was about to be attacked by an overwhelming force, he spent twelve and fourteen hours a day on horseback, and worked at his desk until early morning.”
While the 34-year-old general worked feverishly to process the thousands of volunteers for the Union Army, Barnard took over day-to-day supervision of construction of the forts. It continued at a frantic pace all summer.
The Massachusetts-born Barnard, West Point Class of 1833, had specialized in building garrisons and fortifications during his 28-year Army career. Among other things, he had helped build defenses in New York City, New Orleans and Pensacola, as well as in Tampico, Mexico, during the Mexican War in 1846. The effort in Washington first involved confiscating the land for the forts and their extensive fields of fire (as far, in some cases, as two miles), and then tearing down buildings and clearing large swaths of forests and farmland—without compensating property owners. “On both sides of the river, the farmers were ruined,” Leech noted. “Not only were their orchards and vegetable gardens trampled and their fields filled with tents, but the very face of the land was changed, as its soil was shifted into high mounds and deep ditches.”
Possession of the land, Barnard later said, was taken “with little or no reference to the rights of the owners or the occupants of the lands—the stern law of ‘military necessity’ and the magnitude of the public interests involved in the security of the nation’s capital being paramount to every other consideration.” The “injuries thus inflicted upon the citizens living along the lines, in the destruction and use of private property, were in the aggregate very considerable, and there were probably individual cases of extreme hardship; but, however much these evils might be deplored, they could not be avoided.”
One case in point: Fort Stevens, the northernmost fort and one of the most formidable, which, when finished, guarded
the entrance to Washington at the 7th Street Pike (now Georgia Avenue), the main thoroughfare into the city from the north. Fort Stevens was built in a section of Northwest Washington where the city’s first free blacks had settled in the 1820s. Known then as Vinegar Hill—and today as Brightwood—the section was home to many black landowners, most of whom were women, and many of whom operated small subsistence farms.
To build and later expand the fort, the government requisitioned land owned by Emory Methodist Church—which still stands on Georgia Avenue—as well as property owned by Elizabeth Thomas, a free black woman. According to the then 40-year-old Thomas, known as “Aunt Betty,” the Army confiscated her house and tore it down without her permission—and without compensating her.
“The soldiers camped here at this time were mostly German,” Thomas later said. “I could not understand them, not even the officers, but when they began taking out my furniture and tearing down our house, I understood.” Hours later, she said, she was sitting under a sycamore tree “with what furniture I had left around me. I was crying, as was my six-months’ old child, which I had in my arms, when a tall, slender man, dressed in black, came up and said to me, ‘It is hard, but you shall reap a great reward.’”
That tall, slender man, Thomas said, “was President Lincoln, and had he lived I know the claim for my losses would have been paid.”
Whether the Lincoln story is true, Thomas never received her compensation but lived at Fort Stevens until she died in 1917.
Fort Stevens originally was named Fort Massachusetts by the men of the 37th Massachusetts Regiment, who began building it in October 1861. The fort was enlarged in 1862 and 1863, primarily by the men of the 11th Vermont Regiment, and its name changed on April 1, 1863, to honor Maj. Gen. Isaac Ingalls Stevens of the 79th New York Highlanders.
The Massachusetts-born Stevens, West Point Class of 1839, was a former governor of the territory of Washington and a two-term (1857-1861) member of Congress. He died on September 1, 1862, at the Battle of Chantilly in Virginia—a bloody engagement, fought in a severe thunderstorm, in which Union General Philip Kearney also perished.
When completed, Fort Stevens included several structures and featured a vast, 375-yard perimeter overlooking mostly open terrain. Rifle trenches surrounded the front of the three-sided fort. Inside were 19 artillery pieces, including 10 24-pound cannons. The complex also included a stockade, a blockhouse, barracks and officers’ quarters, as well as two bomb-proof magazines for storing ordnance.
Many of the other forts were two- or three-sided earthen structures called lunettes, based on 17th-century French field forts. Bigger strongholds such as Forts Stevens and Reno, which Barnard called “field forts,” also contained artillery emplacements, wooden blockhouses, infantry parapets, stockades and what were called “defensive barracks.”
The forts varied in size, according to Barnard, “from Forts Runyon, Lyon and Marcy, of which the perimeters are 1,500, 937, and 736 yards, down to Forts Bennett, Haggerty and Saratoga, &c., with perimeters of 146, 128, and 154 yards.”
Most were “inclosed works of earth,” Barnard said. They were built on hills and high ground, and all were connected by rifle pits and trenches, along with barricades across the bridges of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Thousands of Union troops and hired laborers did the work.
By the end of 1861, Barnard reported, the “aggregate perimeter” of all the works stretched nearly nine miles. The forts were armed with 480 pieces of artillery, including 24- and 32-pound howitzers, 24-pound siege guns, Parrott guns and lighter caliber guns mounted on field carriages.
By the end of 1862, 53 forts and 22 artillery batteries encircled virtually the entire city, from the northwest banks of the Potomac River all the way around to the river’s shoreline opposite Alexandria, Va. Barnard built forts on the Virginia side of the Potomac as well, stretching from Fort Marcy in the west to Alexandria in the southeast.
By spring 1864, the defenses of Washington were complete. They consisted of a formidable, interconnected, 37-mile-long string of 68 forts and nearly 100 open artillery batteries and blockhouses, linked by some 20 miles of contiguous rifle pits and trenches.
“From a few isolated works covering bridges or commanding a few especially important points,” the troops and laborers “developed a connected system of fortification by which every prominent point, at intervals of 800 to 1,000 yards, was occupied by an inclosed field-fort,” Barnard later wrote.
“Every important approach or depression of ground, unseen from the forts,” could be “swept by a battery [of] field-guns, and the whole [was] connected by rifle-trenches, which were in fact lines of infantry parapet, furnishing emplacement for two ranks of men and affording covered communication along the line.” Roads “were opened wherever necessary, so that troops and artillery could be moved rapidly from one point of the immense periphery to another, or under cover, from point to point along the line.”
Rumors flew throughout the war of pending attacks on Washington. Worries were strongest in the forts in Northwest Washington and on the Virginia side of the Potomac. The main concern was an attack or raid by the famed Confederate guerrilla leader Lt. Col. John Singleton Mosby, “the Gray Ghost,” whose men conducted hit-and-run operations throughout Northern Virginia.
Mosby began operating on his own in Northern Virginia on January 2, 1863, when Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart granted him the authority to form an independent ranger operation. Mosby’s Rangers, which became Company A, 43rd Battalion, Partisan Rangers on June 10, 1863, lived in their own or in sympathetic families’ houses, and scattered after each engagement. They furnished their own horses, food, weapons and uniforms.
Mosby’s harassing guerrilla activities took him into Fairfax County, Va., about 15 miles from Washington. But Mosby never made a move on the city’s forts.
Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early did, however, and he made more than just a move. In July 1864, Early came within a hairbreadth of invading Washington with a corps of battle-tested, lean and hungry troops.
By summer 1864, Washington’s physical defenses were, metaphorically speaking, rock solid. But there was a big problem: a severe shortage of personnel to man the forts.
When they were designed, Barnard thought the number of troops required to garrison the forts would be at least 23,000, probably more. But in July 1864, Washington was virtually bereft of able-bodied Union soldiers; nearly all of them had been sent to the Army of the Potomac, which had laid siege to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in Richmond and Petersburg. The exact figure is unknown, but an educated guess would be that the forts were manned by perhaps 10,000 men, many of whom were Veteran Reserve Corps—convalescing wounded Union soldiers not well enough to go back to the front lines.
Army Chief of Staff Henry “Old Brains” Halleck had sent Barnard’s aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Barton Alexander, to inspect the forts along the Potomac River on July 5—the day Early’s men had crossed that same river into Maryland some 60 miles north, from Shepherdstown in West Virginia.
Alexander, an engineer, found one lieutenant and 63 Veteran Reserve Corps men defending Washington at Chain Bridge, the northernmost entry point over the Potomac into the city. Only one man, a Private Spink of the 147th Ohio National Guard, manned the artillery batteries on the Washington side of the bridge.
Acting Ordnance Sergeant Spink, Alexander reported, “knows nothing about ordnance or artillery. In fact, no one at the bridge knows how to load the guns.” Spink’s job, he said, was cleaning the guns, “airing” the ammunition and sweeping the platform.
New York Herald war correspondent Sylvanus Cadwallader, who arrived in Washington on July 11 and toured the defenses, had a similar assessment. “The armament was insufficient, the ordnance supplies limited, and all of [the forts] were so weakly manned as to make any protracted resistance impossible,” he wrote in his memoir.
n the morning of July 10, Early roused his troops from farms at Monocacy Junction, four miles south of Frederick, Md. Early had defeated Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace the day before at Monocacy, and on blisteringly hot July 11, Early led his men along the Georgetown Pike (now Route 355) on a straight line toward Washington.
The going was slow because of the punishing heat and the exhaustion the men felt from having been on the march since June 13—after Lee had ordered Early to go to the Shenandoah
Valley, boot out the Union troops, move into Maryland and “threaten” Washington. Early bivouacked July 10 in and around the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg, about 10 miles outside Washington. When word arrived that Early had defeated Wallace just 45 miles west and was heading for the nation’s capital, Union commanders scrambled to put together a force of volunteers to defend the city as panic gripped its inhabitants. Halleck urgently called for more volunteers.
“We are greatly in need of privates,” Halleck said. “Any one volunteering in that capacity will be thankfully received.”
On the night of July 10, “the motliest crowd of soldiers I ever saw,” one soldier recalled, was organized primarily to man Forts Reno and Stevens, the two largest forts guarding the northwest quadrant of the city. The crew included, among others, quartermaster employees, staffers from the War, Navy and State departments, and convalescents from military hospitals. Or, in the words of another Union soldier, a collection of “counter jumpers, clerks in the War Office, hospital rats and stragglers.”
At 6:20 the next morning, Early’s men began moving from Rockville and Gaithersburg. Early himself arrived at the gates of Fort Stevens shortly after noon and found the defenses of Washington were “but feebly manned.”
But Grant was reluctant to send troops away from Richmond and Petersburg. He had not given in until the late afternoon of July 9, after word came of the defeat at Monocacy.
At 8:45 p.m. on July 9, Halleck had ordered two divisions of the VI Corps (the rest had gone to Monocacy) to get to Washington from outside Richmond. The ships carrying the men made it to the old 6th Street Wharf in Washington at noon on the 11th—just as Early was first contemplating Fort Stevens and an attack on the “feebly manned” fort and city.
But Early informed Lee three days later, “the men were almost completely exhausted and not in a condition to make an attack.” By the time Early believed his men were ready, it was too late. The VI Corps men had arrived at Fort Stevens, rendering any prospect of a successful assault remote at best.
Early decided not invade to Washington, but he stuck around for two days to cause other kinds of trouble. His men engaged Union forces outside Fort Stevens and Fort Reno in 48 intermittent hours of skirmishing and artillery duels July 11 and 12 that caused some 300 Union casualties and an equal, if not larger, number on the Confederate side.
By dawn on July 13, Early had taken his troops back across the Potomac River into Virginia. The Union forces did not give chase. The defenses of Washington were not breached. And
there would be no more Confederate attempts to attack the city for the rest of the war. n
Marc Leepson’s most recent book is Desperate Engagement: AA History of the Battle of Monocacy and Early’s move on Washington, D.C. America’s Civil War would like to thank Wally Owen of the Fort Ward