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The Day Lincoln Was Almost Shot: The Fort Stevens Story

 Benjamin Franklin Cooling III, Scarecrow Press, 2013, $45

Every Civil War battlefield deserves a champion as passionate and learned as Frank Cooling is about the Defenses of Washington, the imposing ring of fortifications surrounding the Union capital from 1861 to 1865. Unfortunately, the remnants of those defenses that still dot the urban landscape are mostly unknown and unappreciated by even the most ardent buffs.

This is Cooling’s sixth volume on the subject. Without engaging in counterfactual history, he argues that the war’s outcome might have been different had Abraham Lincoln been shot while standing on the ramparts of Fort Stevens during Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s invasion of Maryland and Washington, D.C., in July 1864. With an army of 12,000 rag-tag troopers, Early sowed anxiety and confusion throughout the North that July. Since it was a presidential election year, the capture of Washington, even if only for a few days, might well have prompted the election of a peace candidate in the fall.

Cooling puts the July 11-12 engagement at Fort Stevens into the larger context of the South’s attempt to relieve relentless Union pressure on Richmond, Petersburg and the Army of Northern Virginia. Though Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis knew their chances were slim, their audacity in authorizing Early’s campaign is worthy of study by a wider audience.

Cooling fills the book with interesting and arcane anecdotes, using participants’ words to move the narrative. There’s Lee’s pipe dream of using Early’s raid to free 20,000 Confederate prisoners supposedly held at Maryland’s Point Lookout prison; B&O President John W. Garrett’s determination to save his railroad from destruction; the delaying action fought on the banks of the Monocacy River by disgraced Union General Lew Wallace; Lincoln’s almost child-like determination to witness a real firefight; and the curious coalition of 100-day volunteers, convalescing soldiers and government workers hastily rounded up to defend the fort before VI Corps veterans could arrive. This is a colorful and unusual tale.


Originally published in the January 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.