Defense of the Union
The sesquicentennial of the Civil War continues this month with the anniversary of a pivotal battle decided in part by the work of 15 Army engineers.
BY MATTHEW MCLAUGHLIN
ow in its fourth year, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War continues this month with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens, a Confederate attack on the nation’s capital of Washington, DC, with arguably as much potential to change the outcome of the war as the Battle of Gettysburg in July of the previous year.
When Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia on its second invasion into the North in the summer of 1863, he did so in part to weaken the North’s resolve and strengthen its peace movement. When the Confederate general ordered Lt. Gen. Jubal Early to threaten Washington in the summer of 1864, he again did so in part to strike a political blow to the antislavery Republican Party and President Abraham Lincoln, who was up for reelection that year against a Democratic Party running on a peace platform.
Thankfully for Lincoln and the Union cause, a number of contributing factors prevented Early from taking the capital, among them the city’s massive fortification and defense system designed by just 15 Army engineers.
“The defenses of Washington, by far, were the biggest effort the engineers had during the war,” says Army Corps of Engineers Historian James Garber. “By the time we really got into the war, to First Manassas [Bull Run], there were only 30 engineers left. Fifteen of those were used to build the defenses of Washington. They rotated in and out, but approximately 15 were used throughout the process.”
At the start of the Civil War there were 120 Army engineers, but some, like Lee, resigned their commission and joined the Confederacy, and many more took leave to lead the Northern States’ volunteer forces. Despite this and other challenges, half of the remaining Army engineers led by Chief Engineer Brig. Gen. John Gross Barnard transformed Washington from a city with only a single river fort to the most heavily fortified city in North America, if not the world.
By the close of the Civil War, Washington’s fortification and defense system included 68 enclosed forts with 807 mounted cannons and 93 mortars, 93 unarmed batteries with 401 emplacements for field guns, 20 miles of rifle trenches, three blockhouses, 32 miles of military roads, a telegraphic communication system, and other additional supporting infrastructure, according to a report by Barnard later in his career.
“From a few isolated works covering bridges or commanding a few especially important points, was developed a connected system of fortification by which every prominent point, at intervals of 800 to 1,000 yards, was occupied by an enclosed field-fort, every important approach or depression of ground, unseen from the forts, swept by a battery for field-guns, and the whole connected by rifle-trenches which were in fact lines of infantry parapet, furnishing emplacement for two ranks of men and affording covered communication along the line, while roads were opened wherever necessary, so that troops and artillery could be moved rapidly from one point of the immense periphery to another, or under cover, from point to point along the line,” the then colonel of engineers and brevet major general wrote in 1871. “The woods which prevailed along many parts of the line were cleared for a mile or two in front of the works, the counterscarps of which were surrounded by abattis.”
Defending the Capital
Before the Civil War even began, there was concern over protecting Washington, and Army engineers had begun surveying for possible defenses.
“This is sort of 19th century military strategy speak, but in times of war, defending the capital city was one of the most important and often times one of the most difficult duties,” Garber says. “They were inherent population centers but they also housed buildings and workers and records and all the leadership that governments needed to operate, and psychologically their preservation served as a bulwark in the face of adversity while [losing] the capital city was infinitely more demoralizing than any defeat on the battlefield.”
Additionally, a strong fortification and defense system was seen by some as a means of freeing up more men for offensive action against Confederate forces, and Washington was also a city that was home to resources critical to the war effort.
Given the capital’s importance, Army engineers began working to protect Washington before both the war and any discussion of a formal fortification and defense system. With the secession of South Carolina in December 1860 followed by additional southern states in early 1861, Army engineers had to consider the possibility not only that the capital could come under attack by rebel forces but that it would be directly adjacent to enemy territory if Virginia seceded as well.
Matters were complicated by both the political climate and Washington’s topography—the city is surrounded by low hills, effectively sitting in a shallow bowl. From Virginia’s nearby hills, an enemy army could easily shell the city, making it apparent to the engineers that parts of the state would need to be occupied.
“In those first few months of 1861, so as to not upset Virginians and to possibly put them into a state of rebellion while they were having their conventions to discuss secession, the Army engineers did not want to cross into Virginia,” Garber says. “There were three bridges that led from [Washington] into Virginia, and basically engineers and their staff would ride out to the end of the bridges and they would try to survey the Virginia countryside from there.”
When the federal government received word of Virginia’s secession in May 1861, engineers and three columns of infantry immediately crossed into Virginia to capture the high ground around the capital—building two forts and surveying for additional fortifications.
As time and the war marched on, Confederate forces demonstrated they were a greater threat than originally thought. By the summer of 1862, 48 forts and batteries protected the city, but Barnard continued to advocate for even stronger defenses. Lee and the Confederate forces had also proven they could take the war north of the Potomac River, and as such, Barnard not only wanted to improve military roads and communication lines but the defenses to the north of Washington. He wanted to turn haphazard defenses around the capital into a true fortification and defense system.
Battle of Fort Stevens
Work on Barnard’s proposed expansion began in 1863 and was serviceable by the spring campaign season, but while Lee took the fight into the North a second time that year, Washington’s defenses went untested. At the very least, they seemed to be an effective deterrent against Confederate attack. That is until the summer of 1864.
With the promotion of Ulysses S. Grant to General-in-Chief of the Union armies in March 1864 came new tactics, including the destruction or disruption of resources and activities that could support the Confederate war effort and the pulling of even more men from Washington’s defenses for attacks in the South.
In order to put a stop to the destruction of Confederate resources in the Shenandoah Valley, to relieve pressure by Grant’s swollen forces upon his own forces in the Richmond-Petersburg lines, and to strike a political blow to President Abraham Lincoln and the antislavery Republican Party in an election year, Lee in June ordered Early to drive Union forces out of the Shenandoah and threaten or take the meagerly defended Washington. After accomplishing his first task, Early began what would be the last major invasion into Union territory, and on July 11 he and more than a quarter of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stood before the northern perimeter of Washington’s fortification and defense system at Fort Stevens.
The march to Washington was not as fast or as easy as Early may have hoped for. He first had to fight his way through Union Gen. Lew Wallace’s forces in a battle at the Monocacy River outside of Frederick, Maryland, which delayed his arrival and left his forces fatigued.
Meanwhile, Washington was in a panic, putting everyone it could manage into the northern defenses of the city. This included disabled veterans and clerks from the US Quartermaster Corps.
Despite seeing Washington’s defenses weakly manned, Early hesitated to order a full assault against the capital’s fortifications by his own battle-weary forces. Instead Confederate troops spent the day reconnoitering the area and skirmishing with Union troops at Fort Stevens, which was supported by nearby Forts DeRussy, Slocum, and Totten.
The Battle of Monocacy and his hesitation in the face of Washington’s defenses cost Early any opportunity he may have had to take the capital. Thanks to the military roads of the Army engineers’ fully realized defense and fortification system, reinforcements from the VI and XIX Corps that arrived at the Washington Navy Yard that afternoon already lined the parapets of the city’s northern defenses by dawn the next day.
Heavy skirmishing continued July 12, but upon seeing the Union reinforcements, Early again decided not to order an assault on Washington’s defenses. Despite this, July 12 was not without Confederate opportunity to change the course of the war.
President Lincoln, who had travelled to Fort Stevens with his wife and other officials to see the fighting that day, allowed his curiosity to get the better of him during the battle. Looking for a better view of the fighting, the 6’4” president stepped onto the parapet of the fort, an obvious target for Confederate sharpshooters.
Many individuals claimed to be the one to encourage President Lincoln down from the parapet, according to the National Park Service. The most notable individual was a young officer and future justice on the US Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who reported shouting “get down, you damn fool!”
Despite all that could have happened with the president standing atop the fort, Lincoln survived the battle and Early withdrew his troops late that night. Washington’s defense and fortification system had succeeded, despite being stripped of soldiers by Grant.
“Early attacks right at the worst possible time for the defenses of Washington,” says Walton Owen, assistant director and curator of the Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site. “And yet the system is strong enough that it is able to maintain itself.”
Following the war, Early found himself defending his decisions at the Battle of Fort Stevens. He responded to his critics on several occasions, writing that Washington’s fortification and defense system was such that almost any manner of defenders could have withstood an assault.
“I can conceive of no reason why ‘quartermaster’s men,’ ‘teamsters,’ and ‘citizen volunteers’ should not have been capable of resisting an assault made by an attacking force that had to move over abattis, across ditches, and over infantry parapets, when they were so effectively shielded by the works behind which they were ensconced,” he wrote in an 1881 letter to the editor of The Republican. “As to the ‘veteran reserves,’ they were merely disabled from active service in the field by their wounds, and were, or ought to have been, as capable of efficient service in the trenches as any troops whatever, as they must be supposed to have been thoroughly trained. The idea, therefore, that I could have entered Washington by a vigorous assault on the works on my arrival is without any well-grounded foundation.”
Barnard also quoted Early in his 1871 report as saying “examination showed, what might have been expected, that every appliance of science and unlimited means had been used to render the fortifications around Washington as strong as possible.”
While other factors no doubt contributed to the outcome at Fort Stevens, most notably the Battle of Monocacy, it is clear that without the work and determination of Army engineers, July 11 and 12 of 1864 could have ended very differently, as could have the entire Civil War. Following the successful defense of the capital, Grant’s hold on Lee and several conclusive Union victories secured Lincoln his reelection and eventually led to Union victory in the war.