Early's Raid

The defenses of Washington had been built during the early part of the war, when a Union defeat seemed a real possibility, but they saw no fighting until July 1864, when victory seemed close at hand Grant's army had bogged down in front of Petersburg, and Lee sought to take advantage of the situation by launching a bold raid on the north. Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early, in command of 14,000 soldiers, marched down the Shenandoah Valley and forded the Potomac at Shepherdstown on July 5, 1864. On July 9 the Confederates defeated a small Union force along the Monocacy River at Frederick, and then advanced toward Washington. At that time, few soldiers manned the defenses of Washington because Grant had stripped the garrison to reinforce his army in Virginia.

Washington seemed to be at Early's mercy, but the city had been at war for three years and Union veterans coolly set about organizing a defense. Among the wounded soldiers recuperating in the city was a cavalryman named Major William Fry. Fry made the rounds of the city's military hospitals and assembled nearly 500 troopers by commandeering every man well enough to ride. They requisitioned horses and set out on the road to Rockville, Maryland, where they met the Confederates' own horsemen and skirmished all day on the 10th. These cavalrymen kept commanders in Washington well informed about Early's movements, allowing reinforcements to be sent to threatened areas around the city. Meanwhile the Veteran Reserve Corps was called to arms, a force of older men, semi-invalids, and clerks from the War Department, most of whom had not been in combat since the Mexican War. After a great deal of command confusion - reading accounts of these days, it sometimes seems that there were more generals in Washington than soldiers - Major General Alexander McCook was put in command of the defense. Grant had sent two divisions of veterans northward by ship, so McCook's tactic was to delay Early's Confederates until the reinforcements arrived. The newspapers reveled in the city's calm response, one editor remarking, "The annual invasion of Maryland, which, next to the weather, supplies the 'sensation' of this week, does not excite any very disturbing apprehension for the safety of Baltimore and Washington."

Determined to press his advantage, Early pushed on, arriving in front of Fort Stevens about noon on July 11. Here he noted that the fort seemed undermanned, but, impressed by the "very formidable character of the works," he did not order an immediate assault. Some of his men thought he had made a mistake. One wrote later, "a volley, a Rebel yell, and a vigorous charge would have given us Washington." But Early suspected that Union reinforcements were on the way, and he knew that his own men were tired from a long march on a hot, dry day. He wanted to make a careful reconnaissance, give his men a rest, and form up his strung-out units properly for the attack. As it turned out, he was probably wise to hesitate. At the very moment he reached Fort Stevens, steam ships carrying thousands of Grant's veterans were docking downtown, to the cheers of the residents. Had Early attacked at noon he might have found getting out of the city much harder than getting in.

Hand drawn image of Fort Derussy with abatis, an obstacle formed of the sharpened branches of trees laid in a row, surrounding it.
Soldiers' Drawing of the Magazine at Fort DeRussy in 1862.


Meanwhile, the Confederates began probing at the defenses around Fort Stevens. At first the Federals fell back, abandoning their picket posts and retreating to the rifle pits under the guns of the fort. But when it became clear that the Confederates were not really pushing their attack, McCook ordered his dismounted cavalrymen to reclaim their posts, which was "smartly done" by 1:30 in the afternoon. The Confederates turned away from Fort Stevens and probed its flanks for a weak spot, sending skirmishers into the Rock Creek valley. Fighting was under way in front of Fort DeRussy, west of Rock Creek, by 2:30 P.M. Later in the evening a whole brigade of the Veteran Reserve pushed the Confederate skirmishers back from Fort DeRussy. "The regiment promptly formed their line and advanced, firing rapidly, and, under a heavy fire, driving the enemy's right back, occupying their ground" along a ridge north of the fort. The Confederates formed a line along the next ridge to the north, and both sides held their positions as night fell. The Confederates also tried the east side of Fort Stevens, but they had no more luck in that direction. If they were to win passage into Washington, they would have to do so by assaulting the Union forts.

Diagram of the Fort DeRussy plan. Fort DeRussy is in the center; important cross-sections of the fort are enlarged and labeled.
Plan of Fort DeRussy made in 1863.


Early later reported that on the 11th he had decided to order an assault on Fort Stevens during the next morning, but when he scanned the defenses through his field glasses he changed his mind. During the night Union reinforcements had come up, and the Union trenches now bristled with men flying the flags of the veteran VI Corps. Early did not attack, but neither did he immediately withdraw. Skirmishing and occasional artillery fire continued throughout the day on the 12th. Confederate sharpshooters were keeping Forts Stevens and DeRussy under fire, so McCook gave the order to drive them back out of range. In front of Fort Stevens this action was undertaken at 7 P.M. on the 12th by men from VI Corps under Brigadier Frank Wheaton. Six veteran regiments led the charge, but they met "stubborn resistance" and advanced only a few hundred yards before the attack was halted. Wheaton's command had 59 men killed and 145 wounded in three hours of fighting. The town once known as Leesborough, Maryland, showed its gratitude for this service, and its dislike of the Confederacy's leading general, by renaming itself Wheaton. The Veteran Reserve tried to dislodge the Confederates from a farm north of Fort DeRussy. According to their commander, "They advanced gallantly until very near the building, when they were opened on by the enemy from behind a breastwork of logs and brush. They were compelled to retire, the enemy being in such force."

Early met with his division commanders during the morning of the 12th and decided to return to Virginia the next day. When heavy fighting broke out in the afternoon, preparations for the withdrawal were already under way, and the "stubborn resistance" put up by the Confederate infantry had the character of a rear-guard action. The Confederates pulled out during the night, and by the morning of the 13th the Battle of Fort Stevens was over.

Painting of President Lincoln at Fort Stevens observing the fighting. He stands next to a high-ranking military personnel of some kind. The air is smoky from the cannons being fired by soldiers. There is one dead soldier on the ground next to Lincoln.
Painting by Eugenie de Land Saugstad, c. 1908, of President Lincoln at Fort Stevens.


During the afternoon of July 12, Abraham Lincoln visited Fort Stevens and stood up on the parapet to get a view of the fighting. Bullets flew around him, and a Union officer who did not recognize him snapped at him to get down before he was killed. Lincoln did get down, but he had just become the only sitting U.S. president to come under enemy fire in wartime.

Photograph of three Soldiers at the Fort Stevens Parapet surrounded by trees. Two soldiers stand in the middle of two hills and one stands on the right hill.
Fort Stevens Parapet, 1900, Courtesy of Ron Harvey, Jr.


Part of a series of articles titled The Battle of Fort Stevens.

Rock Creek Park

Last updated: April 20, 2020