Prelude to the Battle
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Early Invades the Shenandoah Valley
As Grant pressed Lee in eastern Virginia during the spring and summer, Lee devised a plan to divert Union forces away from his army. Lee designated Lieutenant General Jubal Early and his corps as the Army of the Valley and, in June, ordered Early to leave Petersburg, Virginia and to re-deploy his army to the Shenandoah Valley. On June 17-18, Early’s army defeated Major General David Hunter and his Union forces at the Battle of Lynchburg, leaving control of the valley in Confederate hands.
Wallace Buys Time at the Battle of Monocacy
After driving Federal forces out of the Shenandoah Valley, Early launched his own offensive. His operations got off to a good start as he marched his 14,000-man Army of the Valley past the federal garrison at Harpers Ferry and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland at Shepherdstown on July 5 and 6.
Desperate to halt a possible Confederate assault on Washington, Major General Lew Wallace hastily assembled a small army to delay Early until Grant could send reinforcements to protect the capital. On July 9, Early’s army defeated Wallace’s 5,800 soldiers at the Battle of Monocacy near Frederick, Maryland. Although Wallace lost the battle, he bought precious time for Grant to shift troops from eastern Virginia to check Early’s advance.
Washington, D.C. at Risk
On July 10, Early continued his advance toward the nation’s capital, but he faced no easy task. By 1864, Washington was the most highly fortified city in the world, surrounded by over sixty forts and hundreds of trenches and artillery batteries. Still, the city was vulnerable because Grant had stripped the defenses of manpower to strengthen the Army of the Potomac in its pursuit of Lee. Only 9,000 reserves and convalescents were on hand to man Washington’s elaborate defenses when Early invaded Maryland.
Early Probes Federal Defenses
When Early’s army entered the District of Columbia on July 11, the daylong march through the ninety-degree-heat had taken its toll. In Early’s words, his soldiers were “almost completely exhausted and not in a condition to make an attack.” Early let the bulk of his army rest and sent out skirmishers to probe the enemy defenses. At about the same time, Grant’s reinforcements from the 6th and 19th Corps, commanded by Major General Horatio Wright, began arriving in Washington. The senior officer in command, Major General Alexander McCook, immediately sent Wright’s soldiers to the front.
Early Attacks Fort Stevens
Based on reconnaissance reports, Early determined that his best avenue for approaching the capital was from the north along the 7th Street Pike, near Fort Stevens. Around 3 p.m. the intensity of the skirmishing before Fort Stevens picked up. When Rebel cavalrymen penetrated the advance Union picket line, reinforcements sent by Grant drove them back.
President Lincoln Endangered
As Early’s troops approached Fort Fisher, President Lincoln and his wife Mary rode out to observe the action. During the fighting, enemy sharpshooters wounded an army surgeon standing next to Lincoln. Interestingly, John C. Breckinridge, who Lincoln defeated in the previous presidential election, led some of the Rebel soldiers who threatened the president’s life. The Battle of Fort Stevens marked the only time in American history that two former opponents in a presidential election faced each other across battle lines.
Aftermath of the Battle
The skirmishing around Fort Stevens continued on July 12. Early had planned to launch an assault that day but in his own words.
before it could be made it became apparent that the enemy had been strongly re-enforced, and we knew that the Sixth Corps had arrived from Grant’s army, and after consultation with my division commanders I became satisfied that the assault, even if successful, would be attended with such great sacrifice as would insure the destruction of my whole force before the victory could have been made available, and, if unsuccessful, would necessarily have resulted in the loss of the whole force. I, therefore, reluctantly determined to retire . . . . across the Potomac to this county before it became too late.
That evening, Early withdrew his army from the District of Columbia. He crossed the Potomac River into Leesburg, Virginia on July 13, ending the last Confederate invasion of a Northern state during the Civil War and the Battle of Fort Stevens.