With the fate of Washington at stake, Lew Wallace’s assignment was clear.
The message from the secretary of war came right to the point.
“Mr. President, the enemy are reported advancing toward Tenallytown and Seventh street road,” Edwin M. Stanton wrote to Abraham Lincoln. “They are in large force and have driven back our Cavalry. I think you had better come into town tonight.”
Dispatched late in the evening of July 10, 1864, Stanton’s warning was prompted by a development that seemed inconceivable only weeks earlier: A Confederate force of approximately 15,000 troops, marching down the Shenandoah Valley and then east through Maryland, had reached the outskirts of the District of Columbia and threatened to move on the capital of the United States.
Stanton noted a community north of the city of Washington and an important thoroughfare connecting the capital to the north. But his immediate concern was far more significant. Lincoln and his family, avoiding the oppressive heat of Washington, were spending the summer at their cottage at the Soldiers’ Home three miles north of the White House. With Rebels under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early advancing toward the northern reaches of the capital district, the Lincolns’ safety was at risk away from the Executive Mansion.
Much hung in the balance as the president complied with Stanton’s plea. In addition to providing the beleaguered Rebels with a stunning military triumph after a steady series of setbacks, a successful raid on Washington promised to overturn the political foundations of the Northern war effort by dealing a deathblow to Lincoln’s re-election prospects.
The Lincoln administration was particularly vulnerable in the summer of 1864. The Army of the Potomac, deep in Virginia, was bogged down by a desperate foe in a series of bloody engagements. In May alone, when Union and Rebel forces tangled at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, Northern casualties numbered 44,000 with little to show for this enormous sacrifice.
As the Union’s offensive in Virginia stalled, opposition to Lincoln’s management of the war intensified. “Copperhead” Democrats who favored peace with the South became more outspoken. Draft riots by Irish immigrants had erupted the year before in New York, but anti-war sentiments ran high even in the Republican heartland of the Old Northwest. In the eastern Illinois county seat town of Charleston, not far from where Lincoln’s stepmother lived, Copperheads and soldiers returning to their regiments rioted in late March. The melee, which left nine dead and 12 wounded, was only one of several such incidents that exploded in the vicinity.
“We have always believed,” the Joliet, Ill., Signal declared, “that this war was courted by the Republican party and has been fed and kept alive by that party.” As the war dragged on, that belief seemed to be gaining ground.
Dissatisfaction with Lincoln ran high in Republican circles as well. In what was seen as a blow to the party’s radical wing, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, resigned in late June. “There have been two elements in the Cabinet, the conservative and the radical. These have been at war, as they always will be, under all circumstances and in all places,” the Emporia, Kan., News wrote. “At the head of the latter stood Mr. Chase.”
Shortly before Republicans met in Baltimore to nominate Lincoln for a second term, the party’s 1856 presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, accepted the nomination of a rump convention of Republican Radicals and Copperheads united in their opposition to the president. Meanwhile, George B. McClellan, still enormously popular despite having been dismissed as commander of the Army of the Potomac in 1862, prepared to receive the Democratic nomination for president at the party’s August convention in Chicago.
With sentiment against the war rising and Republicans demoralized and divided, Democrats looked ahead to the fall elections and smelled victory. Robert E. Lee, hunkered down against Ulysses S. Grant in the vicinity of besieged Petersburg, gazed west to the Shenandoah Valley and saw opportunity.
“I think some very good officer should be sent into the Valley at once to take command there,” Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis on June 6. Lee suggested that the Rebels needed to organize their forces there and take steps to raise morale among local inhabitants. But within a week, his thinking advanced to something more ambitious.
On June 12, Lee told Early to prepare an infantry corps with two battalions of artillery to head west from the vicinity of Cold Harbor. Later that day, Early received his written orders from Lee. They were breathtaking in their audacity.
Lee wanted Early and his troops to depart for the Shenandoah Valley and attack Union forces under the command of Maj. Gen. David Hunter. After defeating Hunter, they were to march north down the valley to Winchester, cross the Potomac at Harpers Ferry or Leesburg, Va., and move on Washington from the north side of the Potomac. On top of everything else, Lee also hoped Early could dispatch troops to liberate Rebels held at the prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Md.
The general charged with carrying out Lee’s ambitious plan was a zealous Rebel. Born in 1816 in Franklin County, Va., Jubal Anderson Early graduated from West Point with a commission as a second lieutenant. His career in the U.S. Army lasted little more than a year, but Early later fought under the Stars and Stripes in the Mexican War as a major in a regiment of Virginia volunteers.
When the Virginia Convention debated secession in 1861, Early initially numbered among its opponents, but soon became a committed champion of rebellion. Nor did he have any qualms about slavery. “Reason, common sense, true humanity to the black, as well as safety to the white race, required that the inferior race should be kept in a state of subordination,” he believed.
A colonel when the war came, he fought at First Bull Run and received life-threatening wounds at the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862, but recovered and was promoted to brigadier general. He served under Lee at Gettysburg the following year, and fought at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. The mercurial bachelor, possessed of what The Washington Post in 1894 called “peculiar eccentricities of temperament through which he lost congenial friends quite as easily as he made them,” was now entrusted with an operation that could dramatically alter the course of the war.
Fired by his passion for the Confederate cause, Early wasted little time. At 2 a.m. the next day—one hour before the departure time designated by Lee—he left for the Valley.
The element of surprise was essential, Lee advised Davis. “As secrecy is an important element of Gen. Early’s expedition, I beg that your Excellency will cause notice to be sent to all the newspapers not to allude to any movement, by insinuation or otherwise.”
Hunter, who had been advancing east from the valley toward Lynchburg, quickly found out about Early’s movements anyway. After encountering Early in the vicinity of Lynchburg, he retreated deep into West Virginia, leaving the valley open to the Rebels. The victory allowed Early to give his hungry and tired troops, who had been on the march almost continuously since the expedition began, a day of rest.
Now accompanied by forces under the command of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, Early briefly pondered his next move. Perhaps plagued by second thoughts, Lee had sent several telegrams suggesting that Early could decide to remain in the Shenandoah Valley or return to the battle against Grant’s forces rather than move on Washington. But Early was eager to proceed. “I determined to continue to carry out the original design at all hazards, and telegraphed to General Lee my purpose to continue the movement.”
Early advanced rapidly down the valley. By July 2, his forces had arrived in Winchester, where he decided to cross the Potomac at Harpers Ferry rather than Leesburg. Two days later, Union forces evacuated Harpers Ferry. Early soon seized control of the armory town and drove the Union back into fortifications at Maryland Heights. The Rebels then occupied Hagerstown, Md., where they extracted a $20,000 levy. They were now ready to head east.
In Washington, as Lincoln’s Cabinet savored the sinking of the Confederate raider off the coast of France in June, Alabama Early’s advance occasioned something between complacency and mild concern. “A summer raid down the valley of the Shenandoah by the rebels and the capture of Harper’s Ferry are exciting matters, and yet the War Department is disinclined to communicate the facts,” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles noted in his diary July 6. “We always have big scares from that quarter, and sometimes pretty serious realities.”
Over the next several days, the Rebel menace grew more frightening as the Confederates occupied Boonsboro and continued toward Washington. Welles fumed that the War Department was overrun with oblivious “dunderheads” blind to the dangers Early posed, but that wasn’t entirely accurate. Closely monitoring the Confederate advance was Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, an Indiana native who commanded the Baltimore-based VIII Corps.
Like Early a veteran of the Mexican War, Wallace led Grant’s 3rd Division during the Union victory at Fort Donelson in February 1862. Then at Shiloh in April, he was roundly criticized because his division, delayed for several hours by poor roads, didn’t reach the battlefield until 7 p.m., too late to contribute to the first day’s fighting. Subsequent feuding with Grant, who relieved Wallace of his command after the battle, and Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had sidelined Wallace for a time, but now the Hoosier was all that stood between Early and Washington.
In a memoir that reflected the storytelling skills one would expect from the author of Ben-Hur, Wallace recalled receiving telegrams advising him of Rebel movements to the west. Prompted by the ever more alarming news, Wallace took a midnight train ride to Monocacy Junction July 5 to get a firsthand look at the strategically significant position, which happened to be the western boundary of the military department under his command.
As he studied the terrain, Wallace could see that bridges for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as well as the Georgetown Pike—the road to Washington—spanned the river. Three miles to the west, its church spires visible from the river, was the city of Frederick, connected to Baltimore by a third bridge over the Monocacy.
Although uncertain whether the Rebels intended to move toward Baltimore or Washington, Wallace understood quite clearly one fact about Early: “Everything known, and everything surmisable,” indicated the advancing Confederates vastly outnumbered the troops at his command.
Wallace estimated he had 2,300 troops, many “raw and untried.” But on July 7, B&O Railroad President J.W. Garrett advised that a “large force of veterans” dispatched by Grant had arrived in Baltimore and would be sent toward Frederick as soon as possible.
And not a moment too soon. On July 8, Breckinridge and Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur camped near Middletown while Brig. Gen. Watt Ransom held Catoctin Mountain. Monitoring Rebel movements, Wallace reluctantly withdrew from Frederick. “The town undoubtedly had its disloyal faction,” he recalled, but it also “had its legion devoted soul and purse to the Union. And it was hard abandoning them.” Confirming Wallace’s fears, Early occupied Frederick the next day and wrested a $200,000 levy from its citizens.
Back on the east side of the Monocacy, Wallace waited anxiously for reinforcements. In the early morning hours of July 9, a slightly overweight visitor, “quick and bluff in manner and speech, Celtic in feature and complexion,” roused him from a fitful sleep. It was Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts, commanding a division of the VI Corps, with about 5,000 troops. They briefly discussed the situation along the river before Ricketts departed. A relieved Wallace went back to bed “and slept never more soundly.”
After breakfast that morning, he strolled along the bluff by the railroad bridge spanning the river to survey his defenses. At the nearby John T. Worthington farm, slaves working in the fields believed buzzards flying overhead presented an ill omen, but Wallace was struck by the pastoral scene before him. “Everywhere I read the promise of a beautiful summer day. There was not a speck in the sky, and the departing night had left a coolness in the air delicious and most refreshing.”
The seasonal idyll was long over by late morning, when Confederate cavalry led by Brig. Gen. John McCausland crossed the Monocacy. Once across the river, the dismounted Rebels proceeded cautiously through Worthington’s fields. As they advanced, a line of Union infantry from Ricketts’ division suddenly rose from behind a fence and rows of corn. Resting their muskets on the railing, the Union troops opened fi
re with a “murderous volley” that decimated McCausland’s troops. “Watched from a distance the whole Rebel line disappeared as if swallowed up in the earth,” recalled Worthington’s son, Glenn, who witnessed the battle as a boy of 6 from a cellar window of his family’s farmhouse. Stunned, the surviving Rebels retreated in disarray. McCausland mounted a second attack several hours later. “It was load and fire, load and fire,” Worthington remembered. “Kill, kill, kill, and they were brothers, too; all American citizens, now strangely divided and arrayed against each other in deadly combat.” The outcome was much like the first attack. Ricketts’s forces held their position and the Confederates retreated.
As he followed the progress of the battle, Wallace kept an eye on the time. Every hour Early was delayed provided Grant, who was monitoring events from Virginia, with more time to buttress defenses around Washington. Late in the afternoon, the Confederates tried again. This time, Breckinridge and Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon succeeded where McCausland had failed. The advance compelled Ricketts’s men to give ground and opened up the railroad bridge for Ramseur’s troops to cross.
The Rebels had carried the day, but Wallace believed he had achieved something more important. “A sense of relief came to me,” he later wrote, because “if the day was lost to me, General Early might not profit by it. Measured by his designs, and the importance of time to his cause, my loss was scarce worth a pinch of good old Scotch snuff.”
Perhaps pride in his tactical triumph caused Wallace to gloss over the battle’s toll in human life. Casualties for the outnumbered Union forces reached nearly 1,300, while Early lost 900 of his men. Among the wounded was Col. William Seward Jr., the son of Lincoln’s secretary of state, who was injured when his horse fell after being shot. The Confederates inflicted pain on another Cabinet family when they sacked and burned the estate of Montgomery Blair, Lincoln’s postmaster general.
One day after the Rebel victory at Monocacy, Welles learned that a neighbor’s son had been captured by Confederate pickets inside the District of Columbia.
But Wallace was correct in claiming that Union resistance at Monocacy Junction had bought critical time. After sending Ricketts’s division to Baltimore, Grant dispatched additional troops—the remainder of the VI Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright and the XIX Corps that had just returned from Louisiana—to assist in the defense of the nation’s capital.
“The Rebels are upon us,” Welles recorded in his diary July 11. As Early approached Fort Stevens, on the Seventh Street Road in the northern reaches of the District, he hoped to mount a surprise attack and take the stronghold by storm. But as his troops gathered for the assault, Early and his commanders “saw a cloud of dust in the rear of the works toward Washington.” The Union reinforcements Grant dispatched had arrived. Before long, columns of Federal troops fled into Fort Stevens. Artillery and skirmishers deployed. Without the element of surprise working in his favor, Early chose to wait.
Early had other reasons to hesitate. Weeks of marching and battle had weakened the host massed before Fort Stevens. Dust and intense heat on the road from Monocacy Junction made matters worse, and Early lost some troops to sunstroke as he approached Washington. Many of his fighters lacked shoes, and casualties incurred at Lynchburg and Monocacy had reduced the number of Rebels under arms. Meanwhile, newspaper reports indicated that Gen. Hunter was headed back by way of the Ohio River and would soon be at Harpers Ferry.
After consulting with his commanders on the evening of July 11, Early decided to attack the next day. But as dawn broke and he surveyed the scene before him, he realized how unfavorable his prospects had become. Early spied Union troops at the parapets of Fort Stevens, and had received reports that Grant was sending more reinforcements. With the Capitol dome in view, Early concluded that, although he had “given the Federal authorities a terrible fright,” he was not going to capture Washington.
Nevertheless, the Rebels engaged with Federal troops over the course of two days. As at First Bull Run, the fighting drew the curious from the city, who lined nearby hills, climbed into trees and perched on fences to watch the battle unfold. Among those drawn to the action was Lincoln, who made two visits to Fort Stevens and was roughly told by someone in blue—possibly future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—to get out of the line of fire.
Lincoln survived the skirmishing at Fort Stevens and prospered at the polls that November. Frémont abandoned his bid for the White House in September. Wallace went on to a distinguished career as an author and diplomat, serving as U.S. minister to Turkey. After failing to seize Washington or win the freedom of Southern POWs at Point Lookout, Early retreated into Virginia and continued to fight until he was relieved of command weeks before the surrender at Appomattox. He died in 1894, unreconciled to the Southern defeat but comforted by the knowledge that he had terrified Washington 30 years before.
Journalist Robert B. Mitchell has written about the Trent Affair, the Underground Railroad and Davis County, Iowa for America’s Civil War. He loves bluegrass, as long as he doesn’t have to cut it.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.