150 Years Ago This Week: President Lincoln under fire

July 1864

On Sunday, July 10, Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate troops marched closer to the environs of Washington, D.C. There was some minor fighting at Rockville, Md., and at the Gunpowder River bridge north of the city.

Due to possible danger at their summer residence at the Soldiers’ Home on the northern outskirts of Washington, President Abraham Lincoln and his family returned to the Executive Mansion. To a group of concerned citizens from Baltimore, Mr. Lincoln said that he believed the Confederates were marching on Washington, not Baltimore.

“They can not fly to either place. Let us remain vigilant, but keep cool. I am hopeful that neither Baltimore nor Washington will be sacked.” The president wired Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant at City Point, Va., that Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck said he believed Washington could be defended by hundred-day enlistment men and invalid soldiers.

On July 11, Gen. Early’s men were at Silver Spring, Md., and burned the home of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair while trying to ascertain the strength of the Federal defensive forces. In Washington, units of the Union 19th Corps from New Orleans and two divisions of the Sixth Corps from City Point readied for a Confederate attack. The Union troops now numbered over 20,000 and Gen. Early was apprehensive about the success of an attack.

There was some minor fighting at Fort Stevens, inside the limits of Washington, and President Lincoln had come out from the White House to watch the action. Officers ordered him away from the parapets as bullets and artillery shells whizzed about. The president was more curious than worried about being hit.

The next day, July 12, with panic in the streets of Washington, Gen. Early’s men assaulted Fort Stevens in an attempt to get past the defenses of Washington. For the only time thus far in American history, a sitting president came under hostile fire; a Massachusetts officer from the Sixth Corps and future Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., yelled at the president standing on a parapet: “Get down, you fool!”

That night, Gen. Early ordered his men to retreat, saying that he had tested the defenses of Washington and found them too strong to overcome. In reality, the Confederate force might have succeeded in reaching the Capitol and the White House, but it is unlikely that they could have taken the city and held it.

A hundred miles to the south, a greatly disturbed President Jefferson Davis wrote to Gen. Robert E. Lee at Petersburg about the unraveling military situation in Georgia: “Gen. Johnston has failed and there are strong indications he will abandon Atlanta. It seems necessary to relieve him at once. Who should succeed him? What think you of Hood for the position?”

The president of the Confederacy had every right to be concerned: The next day, Maj. Gen. William Sherman prepared to advance his entire Union force across the Chattahoochee River and around the north side of Atlanta.

On July 14, Gen. Early’s troops crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford south of Leesburg, Va., and were safely back in Virginia, far in advance of some 15,000 pursuing Union troops. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, commanding this force, advised the War Department against the plan to pursue the Confederates into Virginia.

The same day, Union and Confederate cavalry clashed at Tupelo, Miss. Although tactically a Union victory there, Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest and his 9,500 cavalrymen were still able to roam at will and harass the Union troops supporting Gen. Sherman’s armies at Atlanta.

The next day President Lincoln returned with his family to the summer cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, now that the Confederate invasion scare had abated. He expressed being unhappy that Gen. Early’s Confederates had gotten away freely to Virginia.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.