BY BILL BROWN
The July 10-13 weekend commemorates the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens. See the Voice Announcements page for a listing of events, including hikes, Civil War living history, 19th century crafts, period music, children’s activities; historic talks and walks; Civil War soldiers’ encampments and military demonstrations. This article was originally posted March 28, 2014
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You live on a battlefield.
If you call Takoma Park, Takoma, DC, or Silver Spring home, 150 years ago you would have been within ear-shot, if not gun- and cannon-shot, of a Civil War battle.
In July 1864 a rebel army of 14,000 straggled into Silver Spring from the north, looting and shooting as they came. Following what is now Georgia Avenue, they came to Fort Stevens, one of several forts set in a ring around the capitol.
After a night’s rest – and more looting and pillaging in Silver Spring – the confederates resisted a Union advance but their line was pushed north from the fort’s doorstep – stretching from what is now Walter Reed Hospital east to what is now Takoma Park, MD.
President Lincoln himself witnessed the battle from Fort Stevens, exposing himself to enemy fire. Most current-day local residents have seen the big stone marking that dangerous spot where Lincoln allegedly stood near the corner of 13th Street and Piney Branch Road, NW. A doctor standing next to him was struck in the leg by an enemy bullet.
Fort Stevens. The boulder marking the spot where it is said Lincoln stood was taken from Cameron Creek. The creek, called “The River of Death” following the battle, has since been “under-grounded.” It ran from Silver Spring south to Rock Creek past Fort Stevens.
It was “The Day Lincoln Was Almost Shot,” the title of a recent book by historian Benjamin Franklin Cooling III. Cooling, who grew up in the area and remembers sledding on Fort Steven’s earthworks as a child, gave a talk on the Battle of Fort Stevens March 20 at the Takoma Park Library, Washington DC.
On that near-fatal day alarmed onlookers, Cooling told an audience of around 30, urged the president to get out of harm’s way. It was the only time in the country’s history that a seated president has come under enemy fire.
Author and historian Benjamin Franklin Cooling III speaks at the Takoma Park Library, Washington, DC.
This year is the battle’s sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary, which will culminate in a July 11 – 12 event on the Fort Steven’s grounds, now national parkland.
Cooling, an able story-teller, brought to life the pre-battle, rural area two decades before a section to the east became Takoma Park. Then, it was mostly farmland: fields and a few houses and trees. Most trees in the Washington, DC vicinity were chopped down during the war. So, the countryside’s rises and ridges, now obscured by buildings and foliage, were clearly seen from the fort’s earthworks. That also meant that the earthworks – and the President – could be seen by a rebel sniper up a tree on the grounds of what became Walter Reed Hospital.
Land for the fort was seized and occupied by the US military shortly after the war’s 1861 outbreak. Also seized was the Brightwood home of Elizabeth “Aunt Betty,” Thomas, a “free black.” She claimed to have been one of those who shouted at Lincoln to get out of harms way as he stood within sniper view. She also claimed the president personally promised that after the war she’d receive “a great reward” for the taking of her land and destruction of her house. He was assassinated before that could come about, but Aunt Betty remained in Brightwood. She became a well-known character, telling her stories to the veterans who returned to visit the battle-scene.
On the first day of battle, July 11, 1864, Cooling said, attacking confederate lieutenant general Jubal Early, who Cooling described as “hard-swearing and half-drunk,” arrived but did not assault the fort. It was a hot day, and not all of his troops were there. They were straggling on the road, spread from Gaithersburg to Silver Spring.
Officers and men of Company F, 3rd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, in Fort Stevens. NPS photo.
Early’s mission was to threaten and, if possible, take Washington, DC. At the time Union forces were pressing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia back toward Richmond. It was also an election year, so a successful raid on Washington would not only divert Union troops from battles further south, it might turn the voters against Lincoln and the war. Lincoln’s main opponent was a peace candidate. So, not only was Early’s raid a military mission, it was a political one, too. It was also a fund-raising mission.
Cooling called the general “The Great Extortionist.” Early extorted several thousand dollars from civilians all along his raid’s route. Frederick, Maryland gave him $200,000 to spare the city.
Probing and fighting
That first day, Early’s forces probed the defensive line to the west and east of Fort Stevens, looking for a way into the city. They engaged in a tough firefight in Rock Creek Park with soldiers from Fort DeRussy perched high above the creek’s west bank. Confederate soldiers tramped across much of what is now this publication’s readership base: South Silver Spring, Takoma Park, MD, and Takoma DC.
On July 12th Early saw that reinforcements, some of Grant’s troops rushed north from Petersburg, VA, had arrived. So, he did not attempt to push through the Union lines. After a day of skirmishing, the federal troops sortied from the fort, pushing the confederate lines back from its doorstep. According to a recent map, the rebel picket line at 6:00 pm, an hour before the Union troops advanced, extended east to west from the middle of Walter Reed Hospital, along what is now Geranium Avenue, NW, to just north of the Cady-Lee Mansion, and into what is now Takoma Park, MD.
Mister Cooling and his book, “The Day Lincoln Was Almost Shot.”
Early’s troops were putting up a rear-guard action to cover his withdrawal. His forces were gone by the morning of July 13th, returning to Virginia – and returning peace to the Washington, DC region.
The battle of Gettysburg is called the “high-water mark of the confederacy,” said Cooling, but given how Early brought the war directly to the nation’s capital, that title more accurately belongs to the battle of Fort Stevens.
It was a near thing, said Cooling. There could have been other outcomes. If Early hadn’t been delayed a day by a battle near Frederick, MD (The Battle of Monocacy), or if he had attacked the day he arrived at Fort Stevens, he would have found it weakly defended. Washington might have been sacked, or burned, the government might have been forced to flee as it had in 1814. And that might have affected the upcoming elections, installing a president more inclined to a negotiated peace.
The really big “what if,” said Cooling is what if Lincoln had been shot as he stood on the earthworks. If Lincoln had died or been incapacitated, Cooling asked the audience, who would be president?
Nobody in the audience knew.
“Hannibal Hamlin!” said Cooling. Hamlin was Lincoln’s first-term vice president. His second-term vice president was Andrew Johnson, who became president when Lincoln was shot 9 months later.
The 150th battle anniversary July 11-12, 2014, which falls on a weekend, will be marked with commemorative events at the Fort Stevens Park. There will be Washington Revels group performing period music and songs, historical re-enactors including one portraying “Aunt Betty,” and – if a permit can be obtained – a cannon will be fired.
Local historic groups are involved, these include the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington, and Historic Takoma, whose president Diana Kohn wrote this account of the battle for the Takoma Voice.