Confederates invade Union soil for 3rd time

One hundred fifty years ago this week in Civil War history, a Confederate detachment of forces from Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Union soil for the third time, established an offensive position against Fort Stevens in northwest Washington, D.C., and nearly shot President Lincoln, who was an onlooker during the battle.

Those Confederate forces, Stonewall Jackson’s old 2nd Corps, were now led by Lt. Gen. Jubal Early and were, up to that time, the combat soldiers that came closest to the enemy’s capital.

These events were the culmination of a plan laid by Lee. He was under increasing pressure to extend his lines in battles with Gen. George E. Meade’s army that was threatening to evolve into a siege around Petersburg, Va. Lee wanted to relieve that pressure.

His idea was to threaten / menace Baltimore and / or Washington and force Gen. U.S. Grant to send seasoned troops away from Petersburg to the defense of Washington.

Washington’s strong ring of forts around the capital city had been weakened as garrison troops had been released to reinforce Meade’s depleted forces in the Richmond / Petersburg area.

The only blue uniforms standing between Petersburg, Va., and Washington, D.C., were Gen. David Hunter’s forces in the Shenandoah Valley, the classic path Lee had already used twice before to invade the North, and a smaller contingent under Franz Sigel at Harper’s Ferry. Early was told to remove each of those obstacles and proceed to Baltimore and / or Washington.

He was to create as much mayhem as he could, even if it meant capturing Washington itself along with Mr. Lincoln. Of course, he was not to risk losing any significant amount of his troops in the process.

Early was a bit of an odd choice to command this mission. He was not liked by most of Lee’s general officers. In fact, Lee was likely the only one who did like him.

Early had voted against secession in the Virginia delegation. Yet, like Lee, he decided to defend his native state in spite of his opposition to separation.

Although Jubal was from the elite, planter class – the Southern aristocracy, if you will – he did not demonstrate the good graces indicative of that class. Early was an atheist among fundamentalists. He sired four illegitimate children. He had few friends and did not care whom he offended, thus he was often insubordinate, a trait he would not tolerate from his own men.

Because of his unconventional traits, historian Alex Axelrod wrote, “Early was never entrusted with a large, permanent independent command. He was no strategist, and although he imposed effective discipline on the men of his commands, he inspired no affection, let alone devotion. He was a battle leader, but not a leader for war.”

All that said, Early was an extraordinary force, especially in defensive situations, on the battlefield. He played important roles in almost every major battle in which the Army of Northern Virginia fought. He was notorious for plugging up holes in Confederate lines that were about to be penetrated and overrun by Union Forces.

Although his fellow generals may not have liked him, they depended on Old Jube to bring them through tight situations.

Assault on Lynchburg

On June 17, Union Gen. David Hunter started an assault on Lynchburg, Va. When he arrived, he found that Confederate Gen. John Breckinridge, commander of the Department of Southwest Virginia, had assembled and deployed a defensive force of about half the number of Hunter’s 16,700 force. Hunter was able to push back some of the Confederate forces but was stymied by two brigades of Major Gen. Ramseur’s division that occupied the area around a redoubt two miles from the city.

During the night, some of Early’s 2nd Corps arrived by rail from Charlottesville to even the odds. Unsure about the arrival of Early’s reinforcements, Hunter decided to press the attack on June 18. Early decided to remain in a defensive posture until the balance of his 2nd Corps arrived.

Hunter decided not to attempt frontal attacks on the Confederate redoubts but probe for an opening or openings in the lines between the redoubts. His probes and assaults throughout the day gained nothing.

By the end of day, Hunter had dropped back to a defensive position. Early decided that he would go on the offensive the next day. But Hunter decided to fall back to the Blue Ridge Mountains and retreated that night under cover of darkness.

Early gave pursuit for the next three days with little profit except that he drove Hunter back into the safety of West Virginia. Hunter later claimed that he abandoned the Lynchburg campaign because he was low on ammunition. At any rate, from a tactical point of view, Hunter was out of Early’s way.

Early brought Breckinridge and his troops under his command. His army, now 14,000 strong, started for Staunton, the head of the Shenandoah Valley, via Lexington, “where on June 25, part of the column filed past Stonewall Jackson’s grave, heads uncovered, arms (rifles) reversed, bands intoning a dirge with muted horns and muffled drums,” per historian Shelby Foote.

On July 4, the army reached Harper’s Ferry, where Early had hoped to bag the garrison there of about 2,500 men and Franz Sigel’s force of 5,000. But the nimble Sigel, who was called The Flying Dutchman because of his aversion to standing and fighting, had entrenched the 7,500 Union troops on Maryland Heights, a defensive position too difficult for Early to storm and dislodge.

Early spent the next two days preparing to cross the Potomac at Boteler’s Ford, the same ford used by Lee’s army to retreat back into Virginia after the battle of Antietam in September of 1862. He started across the river and into Northern soil on July 6.

Early close to D.C.

They crossed South Mountain on the 8th and reached Frederick, Md., on the morning of the 9th. Early was only 40 miles from Washington, which he could reach in a two-day march. At the very least he should be able to return to Southern soil with a wealth of Northern ordnance and weaponry taken from the arsenals, armories and ordinance shops in unprotected Washington.

The army turned south down a spur of the B&O Railroad, marching toward its junction with he main B&O road at Monocacy River. At this point, its path was blocked by a Union force that defended the railroad bridgeheads and the crossroads of the two macadam roads leading to Washington / Baltimore. That force had been hastily thrown together by Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, commander of the Middle Department, including Maryland, Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Wallace, who later authored the famous book ”Ben Hur,” had been a hero at the Battle of Fort Donalson and the goat at the Battle of Shiloh, both in early 1862. Because of his performance at the latter, Grant had him shuffled off to this backwater Middle District, there unheard from in history until this fateful day.

Wallace had heard of Early’s approach on July 5 and recognized the dire consequences to the Union war effort if Early controlled Washington even temporarily. Certainly Early would put the torch to the Navy Yard, the Treasury and the Quartermaster Depot, stocked with $11 million in equipment and supplies, burning all items of military importance that he could not take with him.

Therefore, Wallace spent the next two days piecemealing together a force of 2,300 for deployment at the crossroads leading to Baltimore and Washington. With such a small force, he knew he could not force Early back, but he hoped to slow him down until reinforcements could arrive to defend Washington. History would show that he accomplished that goal.

On July 6, General Grant inaugurated his plan to reinforce Washington by sending one division, 4,700 men of the VI Corps under General Ricketts and 3,000 of Sheridan’s unmounted cavalrymen, a third of which were unarmed, to Baltimore via rail.

The remaining two divisions of the VI Corps, under Wright, were ordered to follow in the wake of Ricketts division on steamers.

The first contingent disembarked on the 8th in Baltimore and Wallace requested the VI Corps veterans to join him immediately at the Monocacy defenses. Sheridan’s unmounted troopers were sent to both Baltimore and Washington to help reduce the civilian panic in those two cities.

Now Wallace had 7,000 troops with which to greet Early’s arrival, and 5,800 were deployed at the rail and road junctions.

Early probed his opponent’s line to understand its strength and deployment geography. Soon one of Early’s generals, Gordon, attacked, coming from a downstream ford rather than any road and was able to hit the VI Corps flank before it could turn to face its aggressors. The Union boys were soon hightailing it down the Baltimore Road designated escape route.

By 4 p.m., the battle was over and Early had 1,000 prisoners. Not wanting any more, he made no pursuit.

Through interrogation of his prisoners Early ascertained that he had accomplished his mission. Grant had sent a veteran Corps to Washington’s aid, relieving the pressure on Lee’s army.

Battle weary

Early had lost in effect, two days march on Washington. He lost all of July 9 and July 10. By noon on the latter, straggling became more and more prevalent. The 20 marches every day for the past 12, plus the battle, had taken its toll on the Confederate army. It had to go into bivouac still 10 miles distant from Washington. It was midnight before the trailing elements caught up.

On July 11, Early reached the outer ring of forts defending the capital. The first was Fort Stevens. The War Department had cobbled together an army of militia, elderly veterans disabled soldiers from the Invalid Corps and Sheridan’s unmounted cavalry.

But Early’s troops were in no shape yet to mount a serious offensive. Only half of them, at best, were battle-ready. The generals were ready but soldiers were not.

Early and his generals decided during the evening of the 11th to begin an early morning assault on the fort the next day unless other intelligence arrived in the interim. In fact, it did. Scouts came in from Baltimore with information from Confederate agents there that Grant had sent not only the VI Corps to Washington but also the XIX.

The order to attack was countermanded, pending reconnaissance in the morning.

In the morning, the arrival of reinforcements was confirmed and Early called off any offensive. He made plans to withdraw during the night back to the Shenandoah.

Since the Confederates failed to attack, General Wright wanted to go on the offensive. But the fort commander and the district commander, both of whom outranked Wright, would not grant permission. Finally, at mid-afternoon, the fort commander granted the concession that a sortie could go out and clear the area of the Confederate skirmishers, many of whom were sharpshooting at the parapets.

Lincoln a target

Lincoln was one of those who stood on the parapets to watch the proceedings. Of course, at 6-foot-4 and wearing a tall stovepipe, hat he made an obvious target. A surgeon standing beside him was hit. A young officer, crouching below the parapet, and not cognizant of the identity of this tall gentleman, yelled, “Get down, you damn fool!”

The officer was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who would later become the most prolific and celebrated associate justice to ever sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In any event, Wright’s sortie actually became bigger than a skirmish. The Confederates established a battle line. Wright called for reinforcements. The two forces went at it until darkness set in. Wright retired from the field. Early was relieved.

The battle had disrupted his withdrawal plan and he did not want to be caught trapped in enemy territory and surrender a quarter of Lee’s army. He made good his escape and continued to create mayhem in the Shenandoah for weeks, until General Philip Sheridan was sent out to shut him down, which he did.

All in all, Early’s raid was successful in it mission to draw veteran Union troops away from the Richmond/Petersburg arena. Many, if not most, historians speculate that Early’s actions in this campaign extended the Civil war by six months.

Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.