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Lincoln Under Enemy Fire: The Complete Account of his Experiences During Early’s Attack on Washington

by John Henry Cramer, University of Tennessee Press, 2009, $35

In the 1940s, historian James G. Randall asked his graduate students to select one incident from Abraham Lincoln’s life, whether fact, legend or myth, and try to determine exactly what happened. The assignment led John Henry Cramer to investigate what transpired on Lincoln’s famous visit to Fort Stevens during Jubal A. Early’s attack on Washing – ton, D.C., in July 1864. Cramer specifically sought to identify the person who ordered Lincoln off the fort’s parapet when he came under fire from Con federate sharpshooters and to determine precisely what that person said.

In 1948 Cramer, then a history professor at Youngstown State University, published his findings. His account is still recognized as authoritative, thus making the University of Tennessee’s recent reprint of Cramer’s classic a valuable addition to Lincoln and Civil War historiography.

Cramer examined contemporary letters, diaries and newspaper articles detailing eyewitness ac – counts of the July 11-12 events at Fort Stevens, as well as histories and reminiscences written later. He found that several people were credited with uttering a variety of commands to the president. Cramer evaluated and compared numerous accounts about what had happened on those days, and sought to ascertain their historical credibility.

Since Lincoln was definitely at Fort Stevens, Cramer opined that more than one person might have called out to the president. “It is said that General [Horatio] Wright pleaded with the President to come down, and it is told that he ordered him down,” Cramer reported. “A young colonel is said to have ordered him down in language unbecoming to be addressed to a President, and a private soldier is credited with having advised Mr. Lincoln to get down.”

Wright was commander of the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps, which had been rushed to the capital’s defense as Early was approaching. He was with Lincoln on the fort’s parapet. The young colonel in question was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future Supreme Court justice. The private soldier was probably John Bedient, a 100-day volunteer with the 159th Ohio National Guard, the unit manning the fort’s guns.

“In no one of the anecdotes is there conclusive evidence that would permit of accrediting any one person with the words that made President Lincoln come down from his precarious place,” Cramer wrote, “but as more than one eyewitness attributes the words to General Wright, his anecdote of the incident deserves serious consideration. Many portions of these tales may be true, but the account of the general in command has a substantiation of evidence that is lacking in other anecdotes of the incident.”


Originally published in the May 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here