Rockville, MD's role in The Civil War: A warning to Lincoln, "Get down, you fool!"

President Lincoln had a close call when he viewed the fighting at Fort Stevens on one July day, 1864.

Photo: Ramparts at Fort Stevens today

VIENNA, Va.,  July 18, 2012 — It is bad when you live near towns as close as Vienna, Va. and Rockville, MD are, and yet the battle, which occurred in Rockville, totally escapes your memory. That is until a friend brings it to mind, as happened this week.

Rockville was a tiny, sleepy town in Maryland during the Civil War, the population around 365 souls, mostly white, ten percent black. Cattle and other farm animals roamed on farms. Being part of Maryland, a border state, and in truth both sides of the War were represented by the people living there. Many people were slave owners and about as many were not, so the feelings ran fairly high along Main Street. The town was home to many carpenters, blacksmiths and millers, and it appears to have had a healthy legal profession as well.

In July of 1864, the town became a potential feather in the cap of Confederate Lt. General Jubal Early, with the realization that this could be the inroad into the capture of the capital, Washington City, only about 20 miles away.

Jubal Early with his beard trimmed during the War

Forts Encircle Washington

A series of forts had been thrown up around Washington, probably the most notably being Fort Marcy, where more than a century later, the body of President Clinton’s friend Vince Foster was to be found after his untimely demise. Others gave their names to the area’s forts – Fort Davis,  Fort Dupont, as well as one near the town of Monocacy, site of another battle, Fort Stevens, which had been originally named Fort Massachusetts.

It was Early’s forces that had attacked the troops of Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace at Monocacy, and after a hard fought battle, the Union men were soundly beaten. Early had sustained heavy losses, as the federals went into full retreat, but characteristically he had announced that the only reason he had not pursued them further was because his forces did not want to be burdened with so many prisoners of war.

However, the main obstacle to a Confederate takeover was General Winfield Scott, who had other plans for the area.  Scott knew that if he could somehow cut off the flow of supplies and materiel, which came from north in Baltimore down to Virginia, this would allow him to prevent raids by the Confederate forces and allow the reopening of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Early: “My bad old man.”

Col. Charles P. Stone had amassed a good number of Union soldiers ready to defend the town and surrounding area, to prevent any incursion by Confederate forces. His opposition would be “My bad old man,” as Robert E. Lee called Jubal Early, who stood about six feet tall, although arthritis contracted years before in the Mexican War had given him a stooped appearance. 

A  lawyer with a full grey beard and an imposing demeanor, Early had never been in favor of secession in the first place and was one of the few Southern officers who disavowed any religion and didn’t mind saying so. However, he remained a loyal and dedicated Southerner, ready to prove his valor whenever needed.

Fort Stevens as Lincoln would have seen it on his visit

This delay had bought Wallace time to order reinforcements to protect the Washington circle of forts. Grant had also sent men from his Army of the Potomac, and President Lincoln asked Grant to come and handle the defense personally, but Grant felt his presence at Petersburg, Va. was more important and declined.

Early’s troops, some 14,000 in total, had invaded Maryland on June 27 of that year, which brought both Henry Halleck and Ulysses Grant to the realization that these men were intent on taking Washington City.

But it was not until July 11, 1864, before the day of reckoning arrived, and the Union then needed more fighting men. The decision of the War Department was to literally put together old soldiers from the Soldiers’ Home, as well as recovering and disabled veterans from the Invalid Corps, to bolster the line of defense. These groups appeared sufficiently strong enough to give Jubal Early second thoughts, and after a brief skirmish just outside the line of forts, Early began to withdraw.

Presidential Visit to See the Fight

It was at this time that President and Mrs. Lincoln, along with various dignitaries and politicians, decide to visit Fort Stevens. Remembering the crowds at the Battle of Manassas, this should not seem too strange; apparently “watching the battle” had become a fairly favorite source of entertainment for those not directly involved.

Hearing and seeing an exchange between two groups of sharpshooters, the President climbed upon a firing step so that he could better see over the parapet and have an unrestricted view of the fighting going on. The tall President therefore had unwittingly (or unwisely) exposed his head and chest to potential enemy fire.

Rare photo of Pres. Lincoln standing, 1863

The fighting was closer than anyone expected, as a surgeon standing nearby to the president was wounded by the gunfire. A young officer with more brashness than wisdom, did not recognize his Commander in Chief, and shouted, “Get down, you damn fool!” And Lincoln took his advice and came down off the step.

The officer, whose hasty warning possibly saved the President’s life, was Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would one day become one of the most eloquent associates to sit on the high court of the land. There has never been a record report if Lincoln and Holmes ever discussed his actions that day.

Sheridan’s Assault on the Valley

Early’s forces continue to dog the Union troops through the first part of August, much to Grant’s displeasure. It was then that General Grant sent General Phil Sheridan with 48,000 men to defeat Jubal Early and return the valley to its state of neutrality, which resulted in that area being safe from the ravages of war until its end.

The valley remained important both as the back door to Washington, as well as providing easy access to Baltimore and Philadelphia. It was a rich and fertile area, known as the Breadbasket of the Confederacy.

And so Sheridan began his all-out assault. It was General Grant who had told Sheridan that he wanted the devastation of the croplands in the Shenandoah Valley to be total and complete, “so that a crow flying across the valley would have to carry its own rations.”  [In an ironic twist of time and space, this has nothing to do with battles between the Ravens and the Eagles today.]

Sheridan would continue his relentless and heartbreaking ravaging of the Valley, since his troops outnumbered those of Early. It took a fantastic guerrilla leader, Col. John Singleton Mosby, the Confederacy’s “Grey Ghost,” to make a dent in the onslaught until Sheridan returned from Winchester, Virginia to lead his troops in a counterattack, and wrest the victory from Early’s hands, and the Valley campaign was ended.

Both Fort Stevens and Monocacy have good viewing places to check out how the country looked then; Fort Marcy is also well-marked, but Fort Davis and Fort Dupont in Southeast DC seem to lack the historical significance, and exist mostly as parks for picnicking on hot July days.

After the War, Early escaped to Texas by horseback, and finding no Confederate force still there, he went on to Mexico, sailing to Cuba and Canada. It was while he was in Canada that he wrote his memoir of the War. President Andrew Johnson pardoned him, but Early remained the epitome of an “unrestricted Rebel.”   At the age of 77, he fell down a flight of stairs in Lynchburg, VA., and now lies buried in Spring Hill Cemetery there.  

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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