The 156th Battle of Fort Stevens Commemoration will consist of digital programs featured on the Civil War Defenses of Washington (CWDW) Facebook page and website. Programs will air digitally during the week of July 6-12, 2020.
Where: On the historic grounds of Fort Stevens, located with the unit block of Quackenbos Street, NW (also known as Elizabeth Thomas Way) between 13th Street and Georgia Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20011.
Five stories on Fort Stevens
The Confederate Army at the gates of Washington
In 1864, Washington, DC, was one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world. 68 forts, supported by 93 batteries, mounting over 900 cannons and mortars encircled the city. In May and June, 1864, 18,000 heavy artillerists from Washington’s forts were transferred to the front in Virginia, leaving an assorted mix of rear-echelon troops to garrison the nation’s capital. These troops included the Veteran Reserve Corps (Invalid Corps), 100-days national guardsmen, hospital convalescents, government clerks and civilian volunteers. When a Confederate force under the command of General Jubal Early arrived outside the capital on July 11, 1864, this motley crew of defenders was all that stood between the Confederate Army and the White House.
Lincoln under fire
The Battle of Fort Stevens is the only time that a sitting U.S. president has come under enemy military fire. There are accounts that President Lincoln visited Fort Stevens to observe the Confederate advance toward the capital on both days of the Battle of Fort Stevens. During the first day’s action, Lincoln visited Fort Stevens to view the action for a short time before departing to greet reinforcements from the veteran VI Army Corps. The following day, President Lincoln returned to Fort Stevens and was escorted to the battlefront where he came under enemy fire. Unconfirmed accounts claim that someone shouted “Get down, you fool!” and he was quickly escorted under heavy guard back to the White House.
Elizabeth Proctor Thomas
During the Civil War, the Union Army fortified every approach to Washington, DC. Federal engineers discovered strategic high ground a few miles south of Silver Spring, Maryland. This area, known as Vinegar Hill, was home to a community of free African Americans, including Elizabeth Proctor Thomas. In September 1861, Union soldiers took possession of private land, including Thomas’s farm, to construct Fort Massachusetts, renamed Fort Stevens in 1862. The fort’s expansion resulted in the destruction of Thomas’s home, orchard, and barn. Following the war, Thomas spent years filing claims for damages against the federal government. She sold a portion her Fort Stevens acreage to William Van Zandt Cox who hoped to preserve the remaining earthworks and establish a park. An unconfirmed account states that Thomas was eventually awarded $1,835 in 1916, a year before she died.
Battleground National Cemetery
In the aftermath of the Battle of Fort Stevens, the Union army tended to wounded soldiers from the field and buried 40 fallen Union soldiers on a one-acre plot of land north of the fort named Battleground National Cemetery. George T. Stevens, a surgeon with the 77th New York Infantry Regiment, wrote this somber account:
“We gathered our dead comrades from the field where they had fallen, and gave them the rude burial of soldiers on the common near Fort Stevens...We laid them in their graves within sight of the capital, without coffins, with only their gory garments and their blankets around them. With the rude tenderness of soldiers, we covered them in the earth; we marked their names with our pencils on the little boards of pine, and turned sadly away to other scenes.”
Fort Stevens reborn
At the end of the war, civilians restored most of the earthworks to farms and homes. The area around Fort Stevens returned to the original owners, including Elizabeth Proctor Thomas. Remnants of Fort Stevens’s earthworks survived into the 20th century as part of a battlefield park. At a 1911 ceremony, Union and Confederate veterans and local residents, including Thomas, dedicated a stone marker where President Lincoln had once stood on the parapet. The federal government purchased the property in the 1920s. The National Park Service began managing Fort Stevens in 1933. In 1936, the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt a section of the fort.
The Defenses of Washington dramatically altered the landscape around Washington D.C. Federal soldiers occupied large swaths of land around the capital in Maryland and Virginia, often on civilian property. Buildings, farms, orchards, and forests were cut down to construct the capital forts, an elaborate system of earthworks, roads, and blockhouses. The relationship between soldier and civilian was tense, and often resulted in violence. That drama is revealed in this presentation, entitled, “Forts vs Residents.”
The Civil War wrought destruction and disruption to millions of Americans. The Union Army constructed an elaborate system of fortifications to protect the nation’s capital. The soldiers occupied civilian property as “military necessity,” and in the process, denuded the landscape of trees and buildings. In Brightwood, a small community on the outskirts of Washington, Federal soldiers constructed Fort Stevens to protect the Seventh Street Road (Georgia Avenue), a critical north-south passageway into the capital. A small community of free African Americans resided in the neighborhood, including Elizabeth Proctor Thomas. Her family property, including the home, barn, and orchard, were destroyed when the fort was expanded in 1862. According to Thomas, President Abraham Lincoln visited and stated that she shall reap a great reward for her sacrifice to the Union war effort. In the decades after the war, Thomas became the local heroine of Fort Stevens, and was often visited by reporters and veterans of the battle. She was part of the dedication of the stone boulder at Fort Stevens in 1911. The National Park Service and the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington honor the sacrifice and legacy of Elizabeth Proctor Thomas.
Beyond Fort Stevens: The Battle of Cool Springs
“We haven’t taken Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln to hell,” boasted Lieutenant General Jubal Early to a staff officer after his failed raid on Washington. The Confederate Army of the Valley District were 100 yards away from Fort Stevens before Federal reinforcements arrived to secure the nation’s capital on July 11, 1864. The following day, Early was attacked by fresh Union veterans around 5:00 p.m. A hasty rear-guard action secured his retreat from Washington, but he was not alone. The Union Army was in hot pursuit. Elements of the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps, recently transported from Petersburg, Virginia to Washington, were tasked with pursuing Early and his force before it retreated south across the Potomac River and reunited with General Robert E. Lee. The Federal pursuit culminated with the Battle of Cool Springs, fought along the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia on July 17-18, 1864.