Washington, D.C. has always been under attack, rhetorically. But twice it was militarily attacked, with presidents at the scene of combat, and the anniversaries of each are this summer.
This past weekend was the 150th anniversary of Confederate General Jubal Early’s July 11-12, 1864 attack on Fort Stevens on what is now Georgia Avenue in Northwest D.C. He had virtually snuck up on the nation’s capital with a nearly 15,000 man army, when Washington’s defenses had been stripped bare by General Grant’s siege at Petersburg.
General Early first arrived at the city’s northern boundary ahead of his troops and spied “feebly manned” defending forts and claiming to see the Capitol dome. Much of his army behind him was bedraggled and exhausted from the extreme heat and dust as they meandered down what is now Rockville Pike through suburban Maryland.
Early’s forces had been delayed by Union General Lewis Wallace’s blocking action at Monocacy just south of Frederick, Maryland. Wallace, later the author of Ben-Hur, would style, not unfairly, his exertions as the battle that saved Washington. But Early also lost precious time by extorting small fortunes from Maryland towns under threat of destruction. Having borrowed from banks to pay off the Confederates, some of these towns didn’t settle the debt until the late twentieth century.
Some of Early’s advance guard also reputedly tarried at the Silver Spring, Maryland estate of famed Lincoln counselor Francis Blair, savoring his liquor collection. Early himself would convene a war council there after the first day of battle, his generals also enjoying Blair’s wine and rum.
These delays, even if costing only hours, were critical. At Lincoln’s instruction, Grant had urgently dispatched a corps from Petersburg to D.C. by steamers. Even as Early was before Fort Stevens, those troops were disembarking at the pier in southwest D.C. and marching through the streets amid cheers of relief. The city’s depleted forts had, in desperation, been supplemented with invalids and government clerks.
Even as some government officials prepared for evacuation just in case, Lincoln himself, especially after the dispatch of reinforcements, seems not to have been overly worried, counseling: “Keep cool.” He eagerly visited Fort Stevens, likely on both days, to watch the battle for himself. Famously, he came under fire, a Union officer falling at his side, amid reported shouts of “Get down, you damned fool!” An elderly Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes would later claim, as a young army officer, that he had so shouted.
A free black woman had owned the property where Fort Stevens stood, and her home was destroyed in its construction. In a chat Lincoln had reputedly consoled her on the sacrifice and promised a future “great reward.” Decades later, as an aged survivor, she complained that she never saw any tangible reward. Perhaps Lincoln was speaking metaphorically.
Noticing the reinforcements, General Early did not press the attack and withdrew back into Virginia, boasting he had “scared Abe Lincoln like hell.” Had he pressed his attack earlier against the unprepared city, the political humiliation perhaps would have contributed to Lincoln’s defeat at the polls and a negotiated end to the war, permitting the Confederacy’s survival.
These events at Fort Stevens 150 years ago were robustly commemorated this past weekend at the partially restored fortification with reenactors (including the black property owner awaiting her reward), lecturers, cannon fire and period music. Esteemed ninety-year-old historian Ed Bearss, himself a Guadalcanal survivor, was among the speakers. A chorus singing Civil War songs performed at the Methodist church built on part of where the fort stood.
A military invasion of Washington several generations ago seems today almost quaint, but it was terrifying at the time, especially to Washingtonians then old enough to recall another more successful attack 50 years earlier, in August 1814, when the British burned the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings. This ignominious anniversary marking 200 years will also soon be commemorated, along with the more successful subsequent defense of Baltimore, which inspired what became the National Anthem.
The author of that hymn, Francis Scott Key, a D.C. lawyer, witnessed not only the heroism at Baltimore but also the earlier debacle in Washington. A devout Episcopalian and Federalist who thought the war immoral and unwise, he still volunteered to serve in the D.C. militia that feebly tried to stop the invading British at Bladensburg, Maryland. With President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe looking on, the mostly militia force, although greater numerically, was no match for British veterans of the Napoleonic wars.
After the Americans fled, the British marched to Capitol Hill, burning the elegant if uncompleted Capitol, later torching the equally sumptuous White House, with other government buildings, including the Navy Yard. Light from the flames could be seen as far away as Baltimore and Fredericksburg, Virginia. The commanding British general made great show of sparing civilian property, and he insisted he’d have spared even the White House if First Lady Dolley Madison had still been in residence. She had, of course, fled, famously rescuing a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
Neither the President nor First Lady, as they escaped through suburban Virginia and Maryland, were always received very well in homes and taverns, instead hearing frank criticism of Madison’s failure to defend the capital. The Madisons retained their dignity, quickly returned to the burned city, and managed to restore their nation’s fortunes in war as well as their reputations. There was subsequent talk of moving the national capital rather than rebuilding, but it of course stayed where its namesake had wanted it, and where its resurrection from the ashes will be commemorated next month.
“I know this is kind of late, but: Sorry,” British premier Tony Blair jocularly once told a laughing joint session of Congress when recalling that British troops had once been in their chambers under less friendly circumstances. So no hard feelings, against the British, or against the descendants of General Early’s army. But the two attacks 150 and 200 years ago merit our reverent commemoration, promoting remembrance that our nation has survived much and hopefully will survive much, much more.