Saturday, February 12, 2011

Confederates Attack Washington -- the President Comes Under Fire!


In July 1864 Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent a force under Lt. General Jubal A. Early to attack the Union Capital of Washington D.C.  Why did Lee do this and weaken his overall strength?  His purpose was to relieve the pressure that Ulysses S. Grant was putting on Petersburg by forcing Grant to pull his own forces away to counter the movement.  Was this successful?

Jubal Early and the 14,000 troops of the Army of the Valley (the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia plus other attached units) began moving towards Washington during the second week of July in 1864.  The orders he had received from Robert E. Lee where to clear the Shenandoah Valley of Union Forces, menace Washington and Baltimore, to ultimately force U.S. Grant to counter this invasion and weaken the forces of the Army of the Potomac. 

Lee had great confidence in Early.  In a message to Confederate President Jefferson Davis he wrote: “If the movement of Early meets with your approval, I am sure that it is the best that can be made,” Lee also knew that Early would be commanding former units of “Stonewall” Jackson, and that they would be motivated by returning to scenes of earlier triumph in the Shenandoah Valley.

Although respected by his own officers, Early never enjoyed the reverence of the former commander Stonewall Jackson.  An officer on Early’s staff wrote: “Quick to decide and almost inflexible in decision, with a boldness to attack that approached rashness and a tenacity in resisting that resembled desperation [Early] was yet on the field of battle not equal to his own intellect or decision.” This rashness and tenacity would falter somewhat during the movements through Maryland and into Washington as the assault progressed.

Early’s forces were successful in the first phase of their mission, driving Union forces from the Shenandoah Valley.  They crossed the Potomac with the intention of swinging north and east from Shepherdstown and approaching Washington from the rear. On the morning of July 9, Early’s army moved into the vicinity of Frederick Maryland, about 30 miles north of Washington.  

The main opposition to Early’s force was a Union force of about 5,800 Union soldiers under Major General Lew Wallace, who would later write the classic novel Ben-Hur. Wallace needed a battlefield success to redeem his career after a run in with Union Commander U.S. Grant during the Battle of Shiloh.  Fearing a numerically superior force Wallace withdrew his troops to a position south of Frederick called Monocacy Junction. On July 9th 1864 Wallace decided to make a stand against the oncoming army. In a wire to Washington that night he reported, “I shall withdraw immediately from Frederick City and put myself in position on the road to cover Washington if necessary.” 

Skirmishing began at 6:30 AM with Confederates pushing back the Union pickets.  Shortly thereafter a duel broke out between artillery pieces stationed on either side of the river.  Confederate Calvary forced their way across the river, dismounted and advanced against the Union infantry.  The Confederates where driven back by the well-covered Union infantry. The Confederates reformed and renewed the attack further to the right.  Again they fell back in the face of superior firepower.  

The climax of the Battle of Monocacy occurred at 3:30 PM with three brigades of Confederates attacking the Union left. Bitter fighting in a wheat field brought a bloody stalemate. Two additional Confederate Brigades joined in, and the Union defenders yielded despite valiant fighting as Union courage gave way to superior Confederate numbers.  The Confederate soldiers harried the retreating Union Soldiers, but in a puzzling move Early called off the pursuit and allowed Wallace to escape. Early’s rationale was that he didn’t want to be encumbered by a large number of prisoners as he continued towards Washington  In his official account of the Battle of Monocacy Early wrote: “The enemy in a very short time was completely routed by Gordon, and left the field in great disorder and retreated in haste on Baltimore. In this action our entire loss was between 600 and 700, including the cavalry, but I regret to say Brigadier-General Evans was wounded and some gallant officers killed.  On the morning of the 10th I moved toward Washington… “

General Lew Wallace in his official report summed up the Union position by writing: “The nine regiments enumerated as those participating in the action represented but 3,350 men, of whom over 1,600 were missing three days after, killed, wounded, or prisoners--lost on the field. The fact speaks for itself. "Monocacy" on their flags cannot be a word of dishonor. “

The Battle of Monocacy was a clear tactical victory for Jubal Early, but despite suffering a clear tactical defeat, Wallace had achieved a much larger strategic goal.  The Battle had cost Jubal Early a precious twenty-four hours, which permitted reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac to reach Washington prior to the Confederates.  If not for Wallace and his heroic stand on the shores of the Monocacy, the Confederates would have arrived in Washington as early as July 10th instead the Confederates didn’t depart for Washington until that day.  

As Early’s army moved south Union General in Chief, U.S. Grant and Major General Henry W. Halleck, chief-of-staff, communicated by telegram about the situation.  Halleck urged the strengthening of the defenses of Washington. Halleck stressed “Until more forces arrive…the militia are not reliable to even hold the fortifications of Washington…we must have more forces here.”  Grant reluctantly agreed to forward a Union Corps, but wanted them back at Petersburg by the twentieth of the month.   

President Abraham Lincoln was becoming concerned about the situation.  He knew that Hundred-day men and invalids were defending the capital. The defenses of Washington were made up of well over sixty forts with 31,231 officers and men with 979 pieces of artillery.  These numbers were considered to be the bare minimum.  Grant assured him that the additional forces would be in the city by the night of July 11th. Grant decided however to remain in the Richmond-Petersburg area and continue his assault on the line there. The authorities in Washington hoped that there would be a sufficient show of force to bluff the enemy until Grant’s veterans could arrive from Petersburg to save the city.

The exhausted Confederates arrived in Silver Spring Maryland, just north of Washington on July 11th.  Early established his headquarters on the property of Francis Preston Blair, and began pushing skirmishes into Washington to scout the Union defenses. The Confederates encountered Union skirmishes near the northernmost fort, Fort Stevens.  There was a strong exchange of gunfire that convinced Early that the defenses were strongly held.  The deception had worked because only a heavy artillery battery occupied the fort.  In the meantime the troops from the Petersburg area were arriving to strengthen the defenses.  By the evening of July 11th the Federal line of Forts were occupied. Early did not have the strength to capture the city so he merely demonstrated against Fort Stevens while he planned his retreat

While the fighting was going on, President Lincoln visited Fort Stevens on July 12th to see what was happening.  A member of the Presidential party was hit was hit by a Confederate bullet as Lincoln stood high on a parapet.  This was the only time in the nation’s history that an American president actually came under hostile enemy fire.    Elisha Rhodes, a Union soldier wrote: “On the parapet I saw President Lincoln…as the President…looked on, every man tried to do his best…the rebels supposing us to be militia…broke and fled.  Early should have attacked early in the morning [before we got there]. Early was late. “

On July 12th, Early began his retreat into Virginia.  A Union force of 10,500 men under General Wright pursued him. Fighting occurred on July 17-18th at Cool Springs Virginia where the Federals withstood three counter attacks.  After retreating the pursuit continued throughout the next three months ending with the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19th.  Here Jubal Early’s forces were finally defeated and the very small remainder joined Robert E. Lee for his dwindling defense of Petersburg and Richmond.         
Was the plan successful?  Not overall. Early had temporarily helped Lee’s defense of Richmond by tying up a large Union Force for several months both in Washington, and during the pursuit that followed.  In this, General Early did accomplish Robert E. Lee’s goal of taking off some of the heat.  Ultimately though because of bad tactical decisions, the once powerful army of Jubal Early became ineffective.  This occurred because of major defeats enroute back to Petersburg.  In returning to Petersburg to assist in the defense of the road to Richmond, Early’s force ultimately consisted of just he and some staff. The rest had been captured after Cedar Creek. So in weighing the overall advantage of this maneuver one has to consider the final outcome.  Although the heat had certainly been somewhat diminished for three month’s time, the overall loss of troops was more than Robert E. Lee could compensate for.