Smithsonian Magazine
July 1988

There, in the heat of July, was the shimmering Capitol 


By Thomas A. Lewis

The year was 1864 and the South was all but beaten, yet Jubal Early's ragged
army had Washington, D.C. within its grasp

It may be altogether fitting and proper that the battlefield has come to this. A ragged half-block of grass surrounded by brick tenements and row houses, it lies between the main business district of Washington, D.C. and the burgeoning suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. When I visited there last, I was greeted by a couple of hundred feet of eroding breastworks and concrete replicas of a half-dozen gun platforms, awash in fast-food wrappers and broken glass. Instead of uniformed guides there were the flat stares of four men pulling frequently on a large wine bottle.
It is not hard to be reminded here of lost causes and wasted lives; of how events often reel crazily away from the people who set them in motion, battering down winners and thrusting losers toward greatness. So what is left of Fort Stevens may be precisely the right memorial for the curious confrontation that occurred here, and for the weary men who led it.
To Lieut. Gen. Jubal Early of the Confederate States Army, at least for a little while that day, it must have seemed that the war was young again. In the noonday heat of July 11, 1864, the commander of the battlehardened II Corps of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia sat his horse on a rise of ground in Maryland and saw, shimmering in the heat waves just six miles to the south, the luminous dome of the United States Capitol. Immediately in front of him were the frowning works of Washington's formidable ring of defensive entrenchments. A glance told him, he wrote later, that they were "but feebly manned."
It was a year and a week after the fateful Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, four months after the advent of Ulysses S. Grant as the Federal General in Chief, and a month since Grant's armies had begun hammering at Petersburg, south of Richmond. For some time, in other words, there had been for the South precious little glory in this war and even less fun. The proud young men strutting to the music of the bands were no more; now sad-eyed, leather-skinned, worn-out infantrymen stumbled barefoot through the heat and dust until they dropped. The taped and ostrich-feathered officers, happily risking all for home and country, were dead, replaced by bitter shells of men playing out a losing hand.
 And yet, by God, here at midday on a Monday in July was the balding, foulmouthed, tobacco-chewing, prophet-bearded jubal Early, at the gates of the Federal capital. He had taken command of the men who had earned immortality as Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry," had marched them far enough and fought them hard enough to rival the memory of their dead commander, and now he stood on the brink of legend himself. He was going to take Washington City-its Treasury, its arsenals, its Capitol building, maybe even its President.
Even better, he was going to lift some of the crushing burden from the shoulders of his chief, Robert E. Lee. Beleaguered, almost surrounded, his sources of
food and reinforcement slowly being choked off, his great heart failing under the agonizing pressure, Lee had asked jubal Early to attempt two things, each of them a tremendous challenge.
First, reclaim the Shenandoah Valley from the Federal army that had managed, for the first time in the war, to occupy the granary of the Confederacy.
Then, if he could, invade the North again, as Lee had done in the campaigns of Antietam and Gettysburg, and raise such an uproar that Grant would be forced to detach part of his army to protect Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington City; or attack Lee in his fortifications and risk suffering more of the slaughter that had stunned his army at Cold Harbor.
There were political as well as military benefits to be gained. The Union, heartily tired of war, would be electing its President in November. The likely Democratic candidate, George McClellan, was promising a negotiated peace while Abraham Lincoln was promising to finish the war no matter how long it took. If Early could embarrass Lincoln, deepen the war-weariness and brighten McClellan's prospects, he might assure the survival of the Confederacy.
The role of savior did not fit snugly on the tall form of the man they called "Old Jube." Thin and fierce, stooped by what he said was rheumatism, a confirmed bachelor at 48, he had a tongue that (when it was not caressing a plug of tobacco) rasped like a steel file on most sensibilities and a sense of humor that enraged as often as it amused. His adjutant general, Maj. Henry Kvd Douglas, admired Early's fighting abilities but saw him vvith clear eyes: "Arbitrary, cynical, with strong prejudices, he was personally disagreeable." It is remarkable. then, that before the war he had been a moderately successful politician and lawyer in his native Franklin County, in southwestern Virginia.
Professional soldiering seems not to have appealed to Jubal Early; he resigned from the U.S. Army in 1838, just one year after graduation from West Point, and went back only briefly in 1846 to do his duty in the Mexican War. He had argued caustically against secession and for the Union until his state seceded, whereupon he became an equally caustic supporter of the Confederacy and a colonel in its army.
It soon became clear that he was that rare commodity, a forceful and courageous leader of men in battle. This had been so at First and Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. As his commands increased in size, however, his touch became less sure and his luck more spotty. Yet such was General Lee's confidence that in 1864 Early had been given command of one of the three corps in the Army of Northern Virginia.
And now here he was, on the brink of history, about to quench the boundless thirst for recognition that glittered ceaselessly from his black eyes. Pursuant to Lee's instruction, he had chased one Federal army away from Lynchburg, Virginia, and clear into the West Virginia mountains where it disappeared. He met another near Frederick, Maryland, on the Monocacy River, and swept it aside. On fire with the glory of it all, forgetting his limited objective, Early now rasped out his orders to Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes, commander of the leading division: throw out a skirmish line; move forward into the enemy works; attack the capital of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln himself visited the fort and watched the sinuous dust clouds raised by enemy columns approaching from the northwest. "In his long, yellowish linen coat and unbrushed high hat," an Ohio soldier who had seen him at the fort wrote, "he looked like a care worn farmer in time of peril from drouth and famine." Far away to the south, the relentless Grant had refused to be distracted from his slow strangulation of Lee's army. On the whole, Lincoln approved; he had, after all, tried for three long years to find a general who would devote himself to destroying the enemy armies instead of striking attitudes and defending Washington. But it must have occurred to the President, that afternoon, that maybe Grant had gone too far.
A few months before, there had been 18,000 trained artillerymen manning the 900 guns and guarding the 37 miles of fortifications that ringed Washington. Grant had taken those men for harsher duty in the trenches in front of Petersburg, and now, on the threatened north side of the barrier Potomac, there were on the line no more than 4,000 frightened home guardsmen and militiamen.

Paroxysms of hysteria in the city

Reinforcements were on the way, to be sure. As soon as he realized what Early was up to, Grant dispatched two veteran VI Corps divisions-11,000 strong-and diverted to Washington 6,000 men of XIX Corps. The transports were not far downstream from the city, Lincoln knew, but Jubal Early had arrived. His 4,000 cavalry and artillerymen were harassing the Federal line for miles in either direction; he had 10,000 infantrymen and 40 cannon, and his skirmishers were already chasing the Federal pickets back into the fortifications.
Confronted by what they had so long feared--actual danger--the civilians of Washington went into paroxysms of hysteria, telling each other that a Confederate army "50,000 strong" was laying waste to Maryland and Pennsylvania. Military and political functionaries, meanwhile, went berserk.
Everyone took charge of everything. The military department was commanded by Maj. Gen. Christopher Augur; but the Army Chief of Staff, Henry Halleck, ordered Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore to take charge in the emergency; but the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had called in Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook to handle the crisis; but General in Chief Grant had sent Maj. Gen. E.O.C. Ord to save the situation.
When yet another general, who for some reason was relaxing in a New York City hotel, sent word that he would be available for duties commensurate with hisrank, Chief of Staff Halleck blew up. "We have five times as many generals here as we want," he responded, "but are greatly in need of privates. Anyone volunteering in that capacity will be thankfully received."
Everyone thought of something. Halleck had the hospitals checked for potentially useful walking wounded, so they could be formed up and marched toward the fortifications. On the way they probably stumbled into a ragged formation of clerks from the offices of the Quartermaster General, Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who had decided that now was the time for them to exchange their pencils for rifles. Someone else made preparations for destroying the bridges over the Potomac River. A steamboat was fired up and held ready to get the President away.

A restless tattoo of musketry

But the President was singularly serene. "Let us be vigilant," he telegraphed to an overwrought Baltimore committee, "but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore nor Washington will be sacked." Yet on that sultry afternoon, with the earth trembling to the bark of the big guns, with the acrid smell of black powder hanging in the stifling air and a restless tattoo of musketry sounding along the lines, keeping cool could not have been easy.
Both the Federal defenses and the Confederate threat looked stronger than they were. "Undoubtedly we could have marched into Washington," wrote one of Early's division commanders, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. "I myself rode to a point on those breastworks at which there was no force whatsoever. The unprotected space was broad enough for the easy passage of Early's army without resistance."
Just beyond this inviting gap lay the legislative and administrative heart of the enemy government. What is more, there was the Federal Navy yard, with its ships to burn; the United States Treasury with its millions of dollars in bonds and currency, the seizure of which would have had catastrophic effects on the Northern economy; warehouse after warehouse of medical supplies, food, military equipment, ammunition-all scarce and desperately needed in the Confederacy. In short, a rich city, virgin to war, awaiting plunder.
Not to mention the incalculable humiliation to the Union if such a rape of its capital occurred. Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace (later the author of Ben Hur) had been stiffened to make his desperate stand against Early on the Monocacy, he wrote afterward, by a vision of "President Lincoln, cloaked and hooded, stealing from the back door of the White House just as some gray-garbed Confederate brigadier burst in the front door."
But for the moment, at least, the enormous prize was out of reach. The problem was not a lack of will or courage or even firepower; the problem was something that civilians and historians rarely think of as part of war-simple fatigue. Early's foot soldiers were just too tired to walk that far.
During the hottest and driest summer anyone could remember they had marched about 250 miles from Lynchburg in three weeks. They had fought hard at the Monocacy on July 9, then after burying their dead had marched again at dawn, struggling 30 miles in the searing heat to bivouac near Rockville, Maryland. The night of the 10th brought so little relief from the heat that the exhausted men were unable to sleep. On the l lth, with the sun burning more fiercely than ever, they had begun to give out.
General Early rode along the loosening formations, telling staggering, sweating, dust-begrimed men that he would take them into Washington that day. They tried to raise the old Rebel Yell to show him they were willing, but it came out cracked and thin.

(The remainder of the article is available on request)

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