The Battle of Fort Stevens

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Jubal Early's 1864 Valley Campaign

The Battle of Fort Stevens

The battle of Fort Stevens was not so much a battle but it was more heavy skirmishing between two forces separated by massive fortifications.

After the Confederate tactical victory at Monocacy over the Union forces of Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, Jubal Early pressed on to the capital district. His goal was the menace the city and draw Union troops from the siege of Petersburg. General Robert E. Lee felt that Early’s raid could even cause the population of the North despair about ever winning this costly war.

Early’s Army of the Valley numbered about 10,000 men when the arrived at the District of Columbia at about noon on July 11, 1864. They approached the city from the northwest near Silver Spring, Maryland. A good part of his army was either out raiding out towns in Maryland or in transit. They were facing about an equal number of Union troops, ensconced in their forts and redoubts.

map of 1864 WashingtonAt this point in the war Washington was one of the most heavily defended cities in the world. Starting at the beginning of the war, the Army had carried out an aggressive campaign of building fortification around the city. According to a study by the National Park Service, the city had 68 inclosed forts and batteries, having an aggregate perimeter of 22,800 yards, (13 miles,) and emplacements for 1,120 guns, 807 of which, and 98 mortars were actually mounted; of 93 unarmed batteries for field-guns, having 401 emplacements; and of 35,711 yards (20 miles) of rifle-trenches, and 3 block-houses.

By 1863, it was garrisoned with approximately 25,000 men. However, General Ulysses Grant had started to draw down this source of personnel because of the casualties from the Overland Campaign. By the time that Jubal Early approached the city, the Union force numbered about 9,600 men, including the reinforcements under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright.

Washington was the residence of a number of general officers who for one reason or another were without commands. Some were incapacitated, others had been relieved or were waiting reassignment. Some were actually stationed in the city.

The commander of the Defenses of the Potomac River & Washington was Maj. Gen. Alexander M. McCook who had been relieved of command after Fort Stevensthe Battle of Chickamauga.Maj. Gen. Christopher Columbus Augur commanded the Department of Washington and also commanded the XXII Corps, whose troops manned the capital’s defensive works. Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore was called down from New York City to take command of a detachment from the XIX Corps.

The U.S. Army’s Quartermaster General, Brig. Gen.Montgomery C. Meigs, took command of an “Emergency Division”, composed of federal employees who were armed during the raid, directly under the command of McCook. Even the President wanted to get into the command structure and actually arrived at Fort Stevens to observe the fighting.

McCook eventually sorted at a workable command structure. He was in overall command. Gillmore commanded the northeast line of fortresses (Fort Lincoln to Fort Totten), Meigs commanded the northern line of forts (Fort Totten to Fort DeRussy—including Fort Stevens) and Augur’s First Division commander, Martin D. Hardin, commanded the northwest line of forts (Fort DeRussy to Fort Sumner).

Wright’s troops, at first, were to be held in reserve but McCook decided that he needed them on the front line where they took part in a good part of the skirmishing with the Confederates.

Unsure of the Union troop strength, Early hesitated to assault the fortifications opposite his force. His troops were exhausted due to the excessive Fort Tottenheat and the long march. They had been in the field since June 13th.  Many were still in transit from Monocacy.

At around 3:00 PM, the Confederates were ready and heavy skirmishing commenced with the Union defenders. Both sides used artillery. At about 5:00 PM, Confederate cavalry drove through the Union picket line but Union infantry drove them back and both sides settled into heavy skirmishing into the night.

The President accompanied by his wife and several aides drove out to Fort Stevens to observe the fighting on July 11th at about 3:00 PM. The group was briefly under fire and a Union surgeon standing next to him was wounded while they stood on the parapet of Fort Stevens. It was here that it is believed that he was ordered to take cover, perhaps by General Wright himself, although others have been credited over the years.

Overnight, additional reinforcements from the VI and XIX Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac arrived and were placed behind the line in reserve. The skirmishing continued the next day but Early realized that the city’s defenses were too strong and the losses that he would sustain were not worth the attempt. A Union force attempting to clear out Confederate sharpshooters were given a bloody nose and sustained over 300 casualties.

Early’s troops withdrew on the evening of July 12th and headed back into Montgomery County, Maryland, crossing the Potomac River on July 13 at White’s Ferry into Leesburg, Virginia. They were able to bring all of the supplies that they had captured in Maryland back to Virginia with them. Horatio Wright organized a pursuit force and set out after the Confederates on the afternoon of the 13th.


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