On June 15, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln calls for help in protecting Washington, D.C., America’s capital city.
Throughout June, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on the move. He had pulled his army from its position along the Rappahannock River around Fredericksburg, Virginia, and set it on the road to Pennsylvania. Lee and the Confederate leadership decided to try a second invasion of the North to take pressure off Virginia and to seize the initiative against the Army of the Potomac. The first invasion, in September 1862, failed when the Federals fought Lee’s army to a standstill at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland.
Lee later divided his army and sent the regiments toward the Shenandoah Valley, using the Blue Ridge Mountains as a screen. After the Confederates took Winchester, Virginia, on June 14, they were situated on the Potomac River, seemingly in a position to move on Washington, D.C. Lincoln did not know it, but Lee had no intention of attacking Washington. All Lincoln knew was that the Rebel army was moving en masse and that Union troops could not be certain as to the Confederates’ location.
On June 15, Lincoln put out an emergency call for 100,000 troops from the state militias of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia. Although the troops were not needed, and the call could not be fulfilled in such a short time, it was an indication of how little the Union authorities knew of Lee’s movements and how vulnerable they thought the Federal capital was.
Robert Todd Lincoln
Robert Todd Lincoln (August 1, 1843 – July 26, 1926) was an American lawyer, businessman, and politician. He was the eldest son of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, and the only one of their four sons to live to adulthood. Robert Lincoln became a business lawyer and company president, and served as U.S. Secretary of War and U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Lincoln was born in Springfield, Illinois, and graduated from Harvard College before serving on the staff of Ulysses S. Grant as a captain in the Union Army in the closing days of the American Civil War. After the war, he married Mary Eunice Harlan, and they had three children together. Following completion of law school in Chicago, he built a successful law practice, and became wealthy representing corporate clients.
Active in Republican politics, and a tangible symbol of his father's legacy, Lincoln was often spoken of as a possible candidate for office, including the presidency, but never took steps to mount a campaign. The one office to which he was elected was town supervisor of South Chicago, which he held from 1876 to 1877 the town later became part of the city of Chicago. Lincoln served as United States Secretary of War in the administration of James A. Garfield, continuing under Chester A. Arthur, and as United States Minister to the United Kingdom in the Benjamin Harrison administration.
Lincoln became general counsel of the Pullman Palace Car Company, and after founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln assumed the company's presidency. After retiring from this position in 1911, Lincoln served as chairman of the board until 1922. In Lincoln's later years, he resided at homes in Washington, D.C. and Manchester, Vermont the Manchester home, Hildene, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. In 1922, he took part in the dedication ceremonies for the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln died at Hildene on July 26, 1926, six days before his 83rd birthday, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Brief History of the Lincoln Papers
Abraham Lincoln&rsquos papers were acquired by gifts, transfers, deposits, purchases, and reproductions during the years 1901-2013. The Lincoln Papers came to the Library of Congress from Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926), who arranged for their organization and care shortly after his father was assassinated on April 14, 1865. At that time, Robert Todd Lincoln had the Lincoln Papers removed to Illinois, where they were first organized under the direction of Judge David Davis of Bloomington, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln's longtime associate. Later, Lincoln&rsquos presidential secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, assisted in the project. In 1874, most of the Lincoln Papers returned to Washington, D.C., and Nicolay and Hay used them in the research and writing of their ten-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York, 1890). Robert Todd Lincoln deposited the Lincoln Papers with the Library of Congress in 1919, and deeded them to the Library on January 23, 1923. The deed stipulated that the Lincoln Papers remain sealed until twenty-one years after Robert Todd Lincoln&rsquos death. On July 26, 1947, the Lincoln Papers were officially opened to the public.
The most complete account of the early history of the Abraham Lincoln Papers appears in volume 1 of David C. Mearns, The Lincoln Papers (Garden City, N.Y., 1948), 3-136. An article by the same author which appeared in the December 1947 issue of the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly External contains the substance of the story. An additional history of the provenance of the collection was prepared for the Index to the Abraham Lincoln Papers, pp. v-vi (PDF and page view) and subsequently reproduced in the finding aid (PDF and HTML). A version appears on this website as the essay Provenance of the Abraham Lincoln Papers.
Some Lincoln documents which had been retained by Nicolay were restored to the Lincoln Papers and were arranged as Series 2 to assure their identification. Other miscellaneous acquisitions are found in Series 3 and 4.
Scanned images from the Abraham Lincoln Papers first became available online in 2001 as the American Memory website Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcriptions prepared for roughly half of the documents by the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College were added in 2002. The present iteration of the online Abraham Lincoln Papers is an updated version of the American Memory site, with additional features, original materials not included in the previous presentation, and the replacement of images scanned from the microfilm edition with full-color images scanned from the original documents.
Washington's Civil War Defenses and the Battle of Fort Stevens
Fort Lincoln (Library of Congress)
By the close of the Civil War, Washington, D.C. was the most heavily fortified city in North America, perhaps even in the world. According to the report of the army’s official engineer, her defenses boasted 68 enclosed forts with 807 mounted cannon and 93 mortars, 93 unarmed batteries with 401 emplacements for field guns and 20 miles of rifle trenches plus three blockhouses. Moreover miles of military roads, a telegraphic communication system and supporting infrastructure — including headquarters buildings, storehouses and construction camps — ringed the city. Thus, “the finest existing example of the system of defenses based upon a series of detached forts connected by a continuous trench line” contributed to a sense of “seeming impenetrability.” Yet, that system came close to failing at a critical juncture in the war that might well have cost President Abraham Lincoln his life, the Union its war and the country her national unification. This unsung story finds scant attention today in history books or at the various parks preserving the remains of some 22 fortifications, including Fort Stevens, site of a critical battle during Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s 1864 attempt to capture the American capital.
Even today, the nation’s capital is guarded by an air defense and homeland security system perpetuating man’s age-old tradition of protecting seats of power and governance. And the story of defending Washington actually begins in the sorry tale of two inadequate river forts, Great Britain’s successful capture and burning of the nascent capital in August 1814 and a tradition of peacetime pecuniary neglect of national security. At the time of Lincoln’s election and the Secession Winter, and even through his inauguration, the bombardment of Fort Sumter and his subsequent call for volunteers to suppress rebellion, Washington possessed only a namesake river fort, with virtually no armament and manned by a drunken ordnance sergeant. The city itself had a militia of questionably loyalty supplementing a minuscule group of regular Army ordnance technicians and Marines for protection. True, there was the Navy Yard, but it was given to manufacture and repair and was no harbor bristling with ships and guns. A quick infusion of Army regulars from frontier and other posts and the intrepid leadership of the army’s commanding general, the aged Winfield Scott, ensured Lincoln’s safety. The eventual arrival of northern militia volunteers allowed the first rudimentary fortifications to be built on the “sacred soil of Virginia.” From little more than bridgehead protection would emerge engineer Brig. Gen. John Gross Barnard’s formal Defenses of Washington system. As chief engineer, Barnard was directed to design and build forts to defend Mr. Lincoln’s City.
The make-weight crisis came with the Union military disaster at First Manassas in July 1861. A combination of Lincoln’s fast-developing paranoia about the city’s safety, the arrival of a new general-in-chief, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and a plethora of military and civilian labor available in the fall and winter meant that the U.S. government became serious about protecting the city as a political symbol of Union. Washington (and now-occupied Alexandria, Va.) became the logistical hub and staging area for operations against Confederate forces in Virginia. In fact, Washington forts countervailed similar fortified rebel camps at Centreville, Leesburg and Dumfries on the Potomac. The navy’s fledgling Potomac Flotilla kept the river route to the capital open against Confederate batteries downriver, while two armed camps stared at one another at a distance of thirty miles. The Confederate withdrawal to the south and McClellan’s ambitious Peninsula Campaign altered the impasse that had emerged in the spring. By the summer of 1862, 48 forts and batteries protected the city, although by no means in any systematic way. At least, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington had rudimentary protection and a mind-set of defense. It also had a new and controversial zeitgeist that would henceforth determine how the war in the east would be fought and how the capital would be defended and, almost, lost.
This spirit of the moment represented an abiding contest between Lincoln and his generals that would govern affairs for the remainder of the war. It keynoted a theme generally often overlooked in Civil War historiography, that Lincoln and his administration wanted secure protection for Washington — forts, guns, garrison etc. —before any field army undertook a campaign against the Confederates in Richmond. Army commanders, in particular, identified the field army — the maneuver force personified by the Army of the Potomac — on the offensive against Richmond her defenders as the optimal protection for the Nation’s Capital. Barnard and his engineers, however, saw the situation differently: a symbiotic relationship where the forts and garrisons were a shield, working hand in glove with the maneuverable army or sword. Victory-hungry generals saw little need to lavish scarce resources of men and material in static defenses but then, neither did Lincoln, who simply demanded suitable protection for Washington.
Such controversy continued for two campaigning years. The engineers built and constantly improved Washington’s fortifications using both white and black, soldier and civilian labor. Ordnance men constantly shifted cannon while technically proficient “heavy artillery” units specifically recruited for Washington’s defenses learned their trade of trajectory and distance computation, surveyed the countryside presided over by the frowning heavy cannon, and fraternized with local civilians. It was a pleasant existence for the “spit and polish” white-gloved garrisons, broken only by periodic scares from Col. John S. Mosby’s partisans or Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s northward expeditions.
In fact, Lee came close to challenging, if not capturing, Washington’s defenses — both the field army and the field fortifications — after the Battle of Second Manassas. The long-forgotten battle of Chantilly, the remnants of the defeated forces of John Pope and Lee’s almost mystical inhibition about the impregnability of Washington’s defenses gave him pause and, like after the Battle of First Manassas, the moment of decision slipped away. However, the appearance of Confederates so close to the city panicked Lincoln and his generals once more, particularly as Lee’s host slipped into Maryland. Many saw the specter of 1814 all over again, when the enemy swooped in from the north through Bladensburg to plunder the city. Fortifications suddenly grew stronger thanks to soldier and contract labor. A free black landowner watched her house crumble beneath soldier axes and sledgehammers as Fort Massachusetts was expanded and became Fort Stevens. She always claimed that she had been promised a “great reward” for her sacrifice for military necessity by a tall, black-clad stranger, but that Lincoln’s promise never materialized. But, a rejuvenated Army of the Potomac, once more under McClellan’s steady hand, regrouped, Lee was thrown back at Antietam and the capital was saved. The war receded once more to Central Virginia and the road to Richmond. The same thing happened again the next year. Washington and the government panicked, as Lee circumvented the capital on his march into Pennsylvania, leaving behind much of his army on the bloody fields of Gettysburg.
By mid-point in the struggle, a War Department Commission, led by Barnard, had dissected the strengths and weaknesses of what had become a vast system of defenses for Washington, as well as the needs and costs for maintaining and improving those fortifications. Civilian labor now provided the means for erecting more earthworks, barracks, sheds and storehouses. Civilians also constructed elaborate river works at Fort Foote (which supplanted the aged Fort Washington) to deter naval attacks — a threat not so much from the Confederates as from European powers seeking to intervene. The commission calculated the need for infantry garrisons numbering 25,000 men, plus 9,000 trained artillerists, a cavalry force and an additional 25,000-man maneuver force — all separate from the campaigning Army of the Potomac. In typical military fashion, the numbers were completely unrealistic given manpower deficiencies and draconian efforts to fill the armies of the Union proper. In terms of the mission of defending the city, however, the figures were reasonably realistic. Yet, as the months of 1863 waned without a serious direct threat to the capital, predicable complacency prevailed. After all, the city had 60 forts, 93 batteries and 837 guns together with 23,000 garrisoned men in position to defend her. Wasn’t that sufficient?
Fort Totten - Washington DC (Library of Congress)
Matters looked good on paper. A now-connected system of fortifications existed by which every important point (at eight hundred to 1,000 yard intervals) was occupied by an enclosed fort of some type. Every important approach or depression not necessarily commanded by such a fort was swept by a battery for field guns (to be emplaced in an emergency by arrival of batteries of the maneuver army). Rifle-pits for two ranks of men connected the forts around the perimeter of the city, except to the east of the city beyond the Anacostia River. This was the zone of least threat, even though an enemy could knife between forts and take commanding artillery positions along the ridge overlooking the Navy Yard and within firing distance of the capitol. Yet, this point in time became the moment of maximum danger, as newly arrived General-in-Chief, Ulysses S. Grant led the Army of the Potomac in spring and summer campaigns against Lee and Richmond. Dismissing Lincoln’s concern for the defense of Washington, Grant nearly sacrificed the whole game, as it turned out.
Grant, like McClellan and the other army commanders adhered to the notion that the best defense was a good offense. The Army of the Potomac needed trained manpower and to his mind, the defenses of Washington, in part, could provide it. So all the “Heavies” and the infantry and cavalry departed the forts for the field, replaced by semi-invalid Veteran Reserves, trainees, 100-day levies and a small cadre of experienced troops who escaped the dragnet. Ever-mounting casualty lists from the Overland Campaign only served to drain even more from Washington’s protection despite admonitions from the engineers, and the ever dangerous Robert E. Lee sensed opportunity. In the early summer he dispatched Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early on the war’s most daring and ambitious attempt to capture Washington. This story too has seemingly escaped the pages of history as possibly the decisive moment in the Civil War. Of course, it remains a central point in the story of the defenses and defending the city.
Confederate authorities felt that another offensive north of the Potomac could shock the war-weary North in a presidential election year. Lee was more focused, thinking Early’s expedition could relieve pressure upon his own forces in the Richmond-Petersburg lines. He directed Early to capture Washington if he could, cut rail and telegraph communications around Baltimore and free the thousands of prisoners purportedly held at Point Lookout in southern Maryland. It was a tall order that depended upon speed, deception and, ironically, the weather. Grant and the Army of the Potomac had no inkling of the daring raid until it was almost too late. Leaving Richmond in late June, Early saved Lynchburg and Lee’s logistical lifeline, and then swiftly transited the Shenandoah Valley, crossing into Maryland by July 7. Two days later, he ransomed the town of Frederick for $200,000 and fought a pitched battle with a motley array of Federals assembled by VIII Corps and Middle Department commander Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace (who went on to write Ben Hur) on the banks of the Monocacy River, just south of town. The battle — now one of the National Park Service’s flagship sites — resulted in decisive Confederate victory, but at heavy cost to Early’s legions and a delay in his timetable.Monocacy, aptly termed “the battle that saved Washington,” cost Early a whole day’s march time and was one of two episodes that determined the fate of the capital and the nation that summer.
Jubal Early (Library of Congress)
Early won the battle but lost the ensuing race to get to the capital before, freshly alerted to the dire threat, reinforcements could arrive in the city, rushed by water from City Point, Va. A panicked government, a confused command setup and ill-matched troop units, coupled with refugees and an overcrowded city populace made for an unstable situation in anticipation of Early’s arrival. But, the main story was the combination of the delay and losses caused by the Battle of Monocacy, temperatures reaching the mid-nineties and troop columns enveloped in dust. Lincoln wired hysterical Baltimoreans to be “vigilant but keep cool” as he hoped neither city would be taken. Still, he really had no control over the situation. Nor, it seems, did Early, as it took his men a day and a half to reach the Washington suburbs. Hasty reconnaissance suggested the need to shift eastward in order to break through the defense system and more time was wasted marching across the Federals in plain view from Rockville, Md., to the Seventh Street road. Sharp-eyed Federal signalers caught sight of the dusk clouds and what they portended by the time Early’s advance elements appeared before Fort Stevens about mid-day on July 11. The general was up to the task at hand his army was not. Strung out beside the road for miles in the heat and dust, they were simply too tired and thirsty to mount the decisive attack Early needed. The Confederate force might at this point have been successful at breeching the Yankee lines, but instead merely settled into cooling bivouacs at Silver Spring and in the vicinity of today’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center while their leaders studied Washington’s fortifications before them.
Union lines appeared strong but feebly manned. All that Confederate officers could discern through binoculars were citizens and militia manning the ramparts. Still, a headlong rush seemed inopportune in the heat, so the raiders resorted to skirmishing while the defenders remained content to await reinforcements. It was a curious standoff in retrospect. Perhaps by this stage in the war nobody wanted to take chances. Certainly the soldiers were in no particular mood to sacrifice themselves. One who was, however, appears to be President Lincoln, who arrived by carriage with an official party and a host of curious. From the Potomac east to the rail tracks to Baltimore, the line of Washington’s forts became the battle sector. Sharpshooters peppered ramparts, Lincoln and his wife Mary ostensibly visited the wounded in the fort’s hospital but nobody made a move toward pitched battle on July 11.
The next day would be critical the decisive moment for both sides. Dawn brought the illusion that veteran reinforcements in faded blue had arrived on the Union lines. In reality, these merely dismounted cavalry and invalids. Confederate leaders again hesitated. Ironically, hastily improvised cavalrymen thrust into the rifle pits deceived Early long enough for the real reinforcement from the VI and XIX Corps to arrive at Washington’s wharves and march out to bolster the defenses. Early now realized his precarious position. Isolated north of the Potomac with pursuers coming in on his rear from the west, it looked like would be unable to complete his missions of freeing prisoners, disrupting communications and — above all — capturing Washington. “We didn’t take Washington,” Early told his staff officers, “but we scared Abe Lincoln like Hell.” But now he must escape Lee needed his men. Skirmishers would have to buy him time until night would permit withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the persistence of the Union Commander-in-Chief’s desire to view the skirmishing from atop Fort Stevens’s parapet nearly achieved unexpected consequences for Early and the Confederacy. When a surgeon nearby went down with a sharpshooter’s bullet, Union commanders realized this nonsense of a president being shot at had to stop. He could be killed, the battle lost and the war altered all with the crack of an Enfield rifle in the hands of a butternut sharpshooter. So the army generals ordered an advance by several veteran brigades from the Army of the Potomac. It was all very military — flags flying, lines straight — and Lincoln loved it. However, 10 percent of the attackers went down in the melee as rebels rushed down from their camp sites and the late afternoon produced a new stalemate, out beyond the fortifications, in the no-man’s land that today features urban neighborhoods and the outskirts of Walter Reed, before Early slipped away under cover of darkness.
The bloodletting created the semblance of Union battle victory in the only Civil War battle inside the District of Columbia. Washington’s forts had held and performed their designated task. The boom of heavy cannon, the crack of musketry, the clatter of arriving and shifting maneuver forces and the only time that a serving American president had come under enemy fire while in office all marked the so-called “Battle of Fort Stevens.”
Monocacy, Fort Stevens and Early’s raid symbolized the continuing peril of the Union — notwithstanding the result. In London, newspapers proclaimed that the Confederacy seemed more formidable an enemy than ever. Grant had been caught off-guard and nearly lost the capital by neglect and Lincoln’s political fortunes sunk to their lowest depths. The threat to Washington provided a wake-up call that changed the direction of the war. Grant continued his tenacious hold on Lee, even though Early remained a hovering threat in the lower Shenandoah until Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Valley campaign ended that annoyance in September and October. That, together with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, shifted the fortunes of war and secured Lincoln’s reelection. As the war wound down, the engineers and garrisons in Washington’s forts continued to expend money and labor bolstering the works. And, after Appomattox, they maintained some of the forts as long as possible conflict threatened with France over Mexico.
Cannon at Fort Stevens (CWPT)
Gradually, landowners reclaimed the ground and cut the timber that buttressed walls and structures in the forts. The military collected cannons, tools and equipment inside the forts, sending them back to depots downtown. Engineers wrote reports seeking to prevent the disbanding of all the forts and the recurrence of an unprotected national capital. Yet, the re-united nation wanted to forget war and erase military expenditures for any large standing army or navy. The books closed formally on the vast wartime endeavor on June 14, 1866 and authorities never again considered extensive field fortifications to defend Washington. Later on in the century, however, new river batteries were constructed as protection against foreign naval intrusion. Then, they too receded into history as technology and changing dimensions of national security rendered them obsolete. In the 1860s, engineer Barnard considered his Civil War brainchild the equal of any European fortification system of its time.
Defending Washington had expended $1.4 million of the war effort and kept back an average of 20,000 men from the Army of the Potomac at any given time. Grant’s insensitivity to Lincoln’s paranoia about the city’s protection in the spring and summer of 1864, coupled with the president’s failure to sufficiently dent Grant’s focus on the offensive, as he had two years earlier with McClellan, carried the nation to the brink of disaster by July. The “what ifs” that subsequently accompanied Early’s appearance — possible death or capture of Lincoln, the capture of the capital, whether temporary or permanent, and the cause for Grant’s lifting the Richmond-Petersburg siege during the critical election campaign — all remain wondrous to contemplate today. Standing today where Lincoln stood in 1864 atop the Fort Stevens parapet (a spot well-marked by a stone marker and bas relief), one must marvel why posterity has never declared this singular event one of the pivotal episodes (or even Confederate “lost opportunities”) of the Civil War. If Lincoln had been killed or the capital lost, George B. McClellan might have been elected, possibly leading to a military Caesar taking charge during a horrendous of civil-military crises, determining the postwar course of the nation — or nations. We do well to ponder the effect since it took three critical civil rights amendments to render permanent Lincoln’s emancipation effort and victory over slavery. All that might have turned out for differently if the Defenses of Washington had not held on July 11 and 12, 1864 at Fort Stevens!
Years later, a Senate commission seeking parkland for a burgeoning city ensured that at least some of the forts and their undeveloped landscape would form the basis of a fort circle park system to benefit residents with fresh air and green space. More recently, Virginia jurisdictions have saved the last remaining vestiges of these sentinels of another era. Nonetheless, today’s Defenses of Washington remain high on preservationists “endangered species” lists. True, a Civilian Conservation Corps reconstructed Fort Stevens’s parapet and magazine. These, together with nearby Battleground National Cemetery, give posterity a sense of this forgotten field of strife despite niggardly interpretation and the complete absence of a visitor’s center for comprehending the magnitude of the people and events and people that took place there. The McMillan Commission efforts to use remaining forts as core elements for urban parkland provided an important precedent. The legacy of these efforts, however, is troubled. The survivors of the once-mighty Defenses of Washington are attended by overgrown earthworks, abandoned trash, poorly interpreted historical remains and plagued by questionable public safety.
Today’s tourism could profit from the McMillan and other preservation efforts concerning the Defenses of Washington. Key survivors provide something “beyond the National Mall” for visitor experience in the Nation’s Capital. Happily, they include Alexandria’s city-run Fort Ward Museum and Park, offering reconstructed earthworks and the only true visitor’s center devoted to the topic. Arlington County’s Fort C. F. Smith and the National Park Service owned Fort Marcy off the George Washington Parkway or Fort DeRussy in Rock Creek Park suggest prime un-restored but preserved examples of the forts. Other fragments remain scattered around the city, but some of the best languish east of the Anacostia River in neighborhoods of dubious access due to crime. The better maintained if under-interpreted Fort Stevens in northwest Washington and the fascinating river fortifications in southern Maryland — old Fort Washington and its state-of-the-art Civil War successor, Fort Foote — make ideal tourist destinations. In fact, visitors to the latter will be treated not just to the formidable earthen parapets and sophisticated design for withstanding heavy naval attack, but solid interpretive markers and two remounted seacoast Columbiad cannon add a uniqueness rarely found elsewhere. Battleground National Cemetery near Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Georgia Avenue, NW, and Fort Stevens have recently been joined by a new heritage walking trail in the adjacent Brightwood neighborhood, dealing heavily with the battle, make the area worth a special pilgrimage.
Abraham Lincoln: Domestic Affairs
Abraham Lincoln's presidential campaign victory lit the fuse that would explode into the Civil War. Between the time of his election in November and his inauguration in March of 1861, seven states from the lower South seceded from the Union. Delegates from these states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and formed the Confederate States of America. They drafted and passed a constitution that was similar to the U.S. Constitution, except in four areas. The Confederate constitution supported states' sovereignty, guaranteed the perpetual existence of slavery in the states and territories, prohibited Congress from enacting a protective tariff and giving government aid to internal improvements, and limited the presidential term to six-years.
Passing over the most radical Southern secessionists, the convention named Jefferson Davis as president of the new nation. Davis was a Mississippi slaveowner and U.S. senator who had been the secretary of war in the Pierce administration. Alexander Stephens, a moderate Georgia Whig who had become a Democrat, was named vice president. Davis's inaugural address emphasized secession as a peaceful move that rested upon the consent of the governed to alter or abolish forms of government that were destructive to their freedoms and interests.
The Southern position assumed that the United States was a compact of Southern states. In this perspective, each state individually had agreed to allow the national government to act as its agent without ever relinquishing fundamental sovereignty. Any state at any time could withdraw from the compact with the other states. Most Northerners saw the Union as something permanent, a perpetual Union, as a "more perfect Union" than the one operating under the Articles of Confederation.
Lincoln denied that the states had ever possessed independent sovereignty as colonies and territories. He claimed that the states had accepted unconditionally the sovereignty of the national government with the ratification of the Constitution. To those Southerners who claimed the right of revolution to justify secession—just like the founding fathers had revolted against England—Lincoln answered with a legalistic distinction rooted in common sense. The right of revolution, he argued, is not a legal right but a moral right that depends upon the suppression of liberties and freedoms in order for it to be justified. What rights, freedoms, or liberties were being trampled underfoot by his election? The South still enjoyed all the constitutional freedoms they had always enjoyed. To exercise revolution with no moral cause to justify it is "simply a wicked exercise of physical power." Most Northerners agreed with Lincoln that secession amounted to an unconstitutional act of treason.
Response to Secession
Lincoln passed the time between the Montgomery convention and his inauguration in public silence while sending private messages to Congress and key military officers. He tried to reiterate his campaign promise that he would take no actions as President to impair or limit slavery in those states where it existed. In demonstrating his intent, the President even supported a thirteenth amendment then passed by Congress that would guarantee slavery in the existing slave states.
However, Lincoln drew the line at supporting a package of compromises sponsored by Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, known as the Crittenden Compromise. This proposal included a series of constitutional amendments to guarantee slavery in the states. Furthermore, the compromise sought to prohibit Congress from abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia and deny Congress the power to interfere with the interstate slave trade. Crittenden's legislation also empowered Congress to compensate slaveholders who lost runaway slaves to the North and protected slavery south of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes in all territories "now held or hereafter acquired." Lincoln understood that to accept the amendments would be to overturn the Republican platform, and he instructed party leaders to make no concessions whatsoever on the slavery expansion issue. The compromise was defeated in the Republican-controlled Congress. Lincoln also rejected overtures from a "Peace Convention" held in Washington, under the auspices of former president John Tyler, giving its delegates no encouragement.
Hoping to show his peaceful intentions, Lincoln prepared his inaugural address with an eye to keeping the upper South from joining the secessionists. His speech, delivered on March 4, 1861, was firm but conciliatory. He reaffirmed his promise not "to interfere with slavery" where it existed, and he assured the Confederate states that he would not "assail" (violently attack) them for their actions at Montgomery. On the other hand, Lincoln made it clear that he would "hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government . . ." He pleaded with the Southerners: "We must not be enemies." He reminded them that no state could leave the Union "upon its own mere motion" and pledged to enforce the laws, "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous issue of civil war."The very next day, the new President received a dispatch from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the federal installation at Fort Sumter, on an island in Charleston harbor. Anderson notified the President that the fort would have to be resupplied or evacuated. In a master stroke that allowed him to attempt to supply the fort without engaging Confederate forces, Lincoln sent unarmed supply ships to Fort Sumter—giving advance notice of their peaceful intentions. This shifted the decision as to who would fire the first shot from Lincoln to Jefferson Davis. The Confederate president did not blink. He ordered General Pierre G. T. Beauregard to compel Sumter's surrender before the supply ships could arrive. At 4:30 in the morning on April 12, 1861, Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter. After a thirty-three-hour attack and exchange of fire, Major Anderson surrendered the fort and the Civil War had begun.
From Bull Run to Appomattox
Few people expected the war between the Confederacy and the Union to last as long as it did, four and a half years to incur so much bloodshed, over six hundred thousand deaths to involve so many soldiers, nearly 3 million men or to be so total an effort on both sides. It was the bloodiest war in American history. Lincoln thought at first that calm heads among the Southern slaveholders would soon prevail Southerners thought that the North would move to a negotiated peace at the first sight of blood. The North did not seriously take the South's willingness to fight almost to the death for its ideals the South had no idea that Lincoln would show the iron will to endure almost any cost in order to preserve the Union.
The American Civil War that followed Fort Sumter's surrender involved fundamental strategies on both sides that altered little over time. For the Union, Lincoln adopted the so-called "Anaconda strategy" first proposed by old "Fuss and Feathers," General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Mirroring the tactics of the anaconda, a South American snake that suffocates and kills its prey through constriction, the strategy required the encirclement of the Confederacy by securing the border states. Additionally, Scott proposed mounting a massive naval blockade, severing the South in two by taking the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans, and pushing relentlessly upon the Virginia front while protecting Washington, D.C., from Confederate attack. Within a year, Lincoln modified the plan to include invasion of the South. The Confederacy, on the other hand, felt that its best hope lay in fighting a defensive war by using offensive tactics to make the Northern armies suffer severely for each inch of ground won in battle. In time, the North's will to fight would be sapped, and foreign powers—such as England—would come to the aid of the Confederacy with weapons, loans, and military support.
For Lincoln, Union victory required him successfully to address an array of specific and interrelated issues:
- Finding the right generals who could press the North's advantages in men and resources by engaging the enemy and winning battles
- Raising a citizen's army of volunteers willing to be trained and to die for the Union
- Marshalling the American economy to meet the tremendous war needs
- Dealing with dissent on the home front without destroying the democratic freedoms upon which the nation was founded
- Preventing foreign recognition of the Confederacy
- Conducting the war in a way that would enable a just peace to be achieved and
- Dealing with the problem of slavery in a war that slavery had caused, in a nation in which most whites were antiblack.
Given the complexities of these issues, it is clear that navigating the Civil War was the greatest challenge ever faced by an American President.
Finding the Right Generals
Lincoln appointed and replaced his generals at a pace that most observers considered unwise. In his mind, however, he wanted commanders who could win battles, pursue defeated armies, and engage the enemy no matter the cost in lives or materials. He was impatient with all the training and preparations for battle because he believed that the South was inadequately prepared to accept substantial casualties and that the Union's superior numbers gave it a distinct advantage. Lincoln cared little whether the officers were Democrats or Republicans as long as they could manage men and were politically acceptable. He knew that he would have to make political appointments in order to win support for the war in Congress, and he did so with dispatch and a refusal to be bothered by the criticism of so-called professional soldiers. Lincoln responded to such complaints by saying that everyone would just have to learn on the job.
His dismissal of George B. McClellan after that general had defeated the Confederate icon General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland took nearly everyone by surprise. Lincoln had wanted McClellan to pursue and destroy Lee's retreating army at Antietam he wanted the same thing of General George C. Meade at Gettysburg. In Lincoln's mind, both of these Union victories failed because they allowed the Confederates to escape intact to fight another day. Lincoln finally found his ideal general in Ulysses S. Grant, the western commander who captured Vicksburg in July 1863. Transferred to the eastern front, Grant fought Lee in a series of battles that pressed his advantage in numbers and tenacity. In these engagements, Grant never retreated nor resisted the opportunity to kill enemy soldiers. His protégé, General William Sherman, who had served with him in the western theater, also won Lincoln's admiration by taking the war home to the Southern people on his march through the South, capturing Atlanta and laying waste to the Southern countryside. For Lincoln, the war might have ended months earlier if Grant or Sherman had been in command at Gettysburg or Antietam. In Lincoln's opinion, every soldier killed in battle, and every sacked Southern home or burned field of crops, shortened the war and saved lives.
Raising a Citizen's Army
The Civil War was fought on both sides by citizen-soldiers who volunteered for stints of between ninety days and the duration of the war. A great many of them reenlisted after their time expired, receiving bonuses and privileges. In March 1863, the Union passed a conscription law to require military service, but even then nearly two-thirds of the new soldiers were volunteers. Lincoln delegated the responsibilities of feeding, equipping, and transporting the Union forces to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a former Democrat from Ohio. Stanton worked closely with the individual states, which initially equipped and supplied their vastly expanded militia units. By 1863, the War Department operated as an effective and massive government agency that linked the farms that supplied the food and the industries that supplied the armaments to the battlefield with remarkable efficiency.
President Lincoln took a personally active role in the war, visiting soldier camps in the D.C. area. He also frequently intervened to grant presidential pardons to deserters and young soldiers who were about to be executed for various crimes while in the army. In Lincoln's public messages, he also demonstrated gratitude for the great service to the Union offered by his soldiers in blue. Most of the volunteers greatly respected "Mr. Lincoln," as he was called by them.
Not all Northern citizens, however, eagerly volunteered for war. And as the carnage mounted, the numbers declined. Lincoln accepted conscription as a necessary measure which he hoped would spur more volunteers who could avoid the draft by serving for shorter terms. Almost immediately, so-called Peace Democrats attacked the law as "aristocracy legislation" because it allowed a draftee to hire a substitute for $300. About 25 percent of the men drafted from 1863 to 1865 had hired substitutes, another 45 percent were exempted for health reasons, and another 25 percent simply dodged the draft. As a result, only about 7 percent of all men drafted actually served. The protests spilled over into several American cities, where recent immigrants accused draft agents of calling up more poor working men and recent immigrants than anyone else. A bloody riot broke out in New York City on July 13, 1863, in which 105 people, many of them innocent African Americans, lost their lives. Lincoln rushed five units of the U.S. Army from the battlefield at Gettysburg to end the fighting.
Marshalling the American Economy
Lincoln appointed several efficient cabinet members responsible for leading and preparing the American economy for war. His first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, the party boss of Pennsylvania, had thrown his support to Lincoln at the Republican convention in return for a cabinet appointment. But he was a corrupt and inefficient ally, who once described an honest politician as "a man who, when he's bought, stays bought." In 1862, Lincoln replaced him with Edwin M. Stanton, who restored honesty and efficiency to the department.
At the U.S. Treasury, Lincoln named Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, a leading abolitionist who constantly criticized Lincoln for his less-than-radical stand on emancipation. Despite their differences, Chase proved to be a remarkably apt director of the nation's finances. Among his most innovative and long-lasting programs was his use of the Legal Tender Act of 1862 to issue fiat currency, called "greenbacks," which were not backed by specie (gold or silver), to help finance the war. These paper dollars carried with them no promise to pay with gold in the future. They were valued instead as "legal tender" notes, meaning that everyone was required to accept them at face value in the settlement of debts. But the majority of the Union's war expenses was financed by taxes, loans, or the sale of government bonds.
Chase supervised the first income tax (3 percent on incomes over $800) in the nation's history as well as the national banking system, which was established by Congress and signed into law by Lincoln in 1863. This law resurrected the central banking system destroyed by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. It authorized the chartering of national banks, which could issue bank notes as loans to customers for up to 90 percent of the value of the U.S. bonds held by each bank. This provision created an instant demand for government bonds as many private banks and state banks were forced to become national banks and bought bonds in order to issue bank notes to their borrowers. In time, these bank notes became an important form of currency in the nation, circulating with greenbacks, paper checks drawn on deposits, and gold-backed certificates as the principal medium of exchange.
Chase also worked closely with the nation's bankers, merchants, and industrialists to find ways to sell bonds to the larger public. Assisted by Philadelphia financier Jay Cook, Secretary Chase used patriotic appeals to sell war bonds in amounts as small at $50. Cook sold over $400 million in bonds, earning a fortune for himself in commissions. By the end of the war, the U.S. had borrowed $2.6 billion, the first case in American history of mass financing for defense and war.
Dissent on the Home Front
Opposition to Lincoln's program and policies by Peace Democrats escalated into full-fledged counterwar measures by 1862. Most of these opponents were old-line Democrats who resented the centralizing laws and measures supported by the Republican majority in Congress. They especially opposed the national banking system, the newly passed protective tariffs, the draft, martial law, and any talk of emancipating slaves. Winning several congressional seats in 1862, Peace Democrats became more vocal and their critics began referring to them as "Copperheads." The term apparently came from the practice of some Midwestern, hard-money Democrats who wore copper pennies around their necks in protest of legal tender greenbacks. Others claim that the term was a derogatory comparison of Peace Democrats to the copperhead snake.
When the war began, Lincoln decreed by executive order that all people who discouraged enlistment in the army or otherwise engaged in disloyal practices would be subject to martial law. This presidential action suspended the writ of habeas corpus (which prevents the government from holding citizens without trial). Between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand citizens, mostly from the border states, were arrested on suspicion of disloyal acts.
The most notorious Copperhead, Clement Vallandigham, a former Ohio congressman, was arrested by the military commander of Ohio in May 1863 for advocating—in his campaign for governor—a negotiated peace and antiwar demonstrations. A military court convicted him of treason and sentenced him to confinement for the duration of the war. Lincoln banished him behind Confederate lines to keep him from becoming a martyr. (By 1864, Vallandigham was back in the North, drafting the peace platform of the Democratic Party.) The incident raised serious questions about the violation of Vallandigham's First Amendment rights—freedom of speech—and the legitimacy of having military courts in areas like Ohio, in which civilian courts functioned. (After the war, in Ex Parte Milligan, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional military trials of civilians during wartime in areas where civil courts are open and functioning.)
Conducting the War
Foremost in Lincoln's mind in 1861 was how to keep the upper South from joining the Confederacy. After the fall of Fort Sumter, however, what with the secession of four more states (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas), Lincoln turned his attention to military victory above all else. On the field of war, he wanted battle victories, but he did not otherwise want to do anything that might lessen Union sympathies in the South. This produced serious conflicting interests for the President. For example, Lincoln never recognized the legitimacy of the Confederacy and refused to officially negotiate with any of its representatives, yet he agreed to treat all captured prisoners as members of a sovereign nation rather than as traitors to be executed or imprisoned. Until 1863, when African American soldiers began enlisting in Union ranks, Lincoln and Davis supported a prisoner exchange policy that kept few prisoners in long-term prison camps.
With the enlistment of blacks in the U.S. Army, the Confederates announced that they would either execute captured black soldiers or return them to slavery. Lincoln stopped the execution threat by threatening in turn to execute one Confederate prisoner for every black soldier killed. The Confederacy unofficially abandoned the execution policy but refused to back down on returning the black soldiers to slavery. As a result, very few prisoners were exchanged after the summer of 1863.
With the fall of Vicksburg and New Orleans, Lincoln confronted the issue of how to "reconstruct" the defeated states. Should Confederate leaders and soldiers be punished for treason, deprived of their property, imprisoned, or exiled abroad? What about the average Confederate soldier? Should they be given the vote? On what terms should the Confederate states be allowed back into the Union? What powers would the Union have over the defeated states? And what about the former slaves?Initially, Lincoln hoped to offer an olive branch to the defeated states by suggesting a no-revenge policy toward the Confederacy. When his forgiving tone enraged Radical Republicans, Lincoln backed off. On the issue of slavery, he first talked about colonization as the best solution, and he funded projects in Central America and Haiti, both of which never got off the ground. Concerned about the election of 1864, Lincoln hoped to appeal to border state Democrats with his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which he issued in December 1863. According to its terms, Lincoln offered a presidential pardon to all Southern whites (with the exception of government officials and high-ranking military offices) who swore an oath of allegiance to the United States and accepted the abolition of slavery. Additionally, if the number of white males swearing allegiance to the Union equaled 10 percent of the voters in 1860, that group could form a new state government.
Radical Republicans in Congress countered with their own Reconstruction proposal in the Wade-Davis bill in July 1864. According to its provisions, a majority of a state's white voters were required to take an oath of loyalty and to guarantee black equality. Then loyal state voters could elect delegates to a constitutional convention as the first step in the readmission process. Lincoln pocket vetoed the bill, and then invited Southerners to rejoin the Union under either plan, knowing that they would select his proposal without doubt.
When Louisiana whites took advantage of Lincoln's proclamation in 1864, they adopted a state constitution that abolished slavery and provided a school system for whites and blacks alike. But the document did not provide for suffrage for educated blacks or Union veterans, despite a personal plea from Lincoln, though it did empower the legislature to enfranchise blacks. The reconstructed Louisiana state legislature then passed labor laws aimed at putting the formerly enslaved back on the plantations as low-paid wage laborers with limited freedom of travel and no political or civil rights. Angry Republican congressmen, understanding these new laws to be a reincarnation of the old slave codes, refused to admit Louisiana's representatives and senators to Congress—or those from Arkansas and Tennessee, which had also organized under Lincoln's "10 percent plan." Nor did these Republicans allow the counting of the electoral votes from these three states in 1864 election.
Following Union military successes and his reelection in the fall of 1864, Lincoln apparently had second thoughts about his Reconstruction plans. Two days after General Lee's surrender at the village of Appomattox Courthouse, Lincoln promised that a new policy would be forthcoming. The President intended to include voting rights for some blacks—probably for those owning property and who were literate-and stronger measures, including an army of occupation, to protect their civil rights. Unfortunately, three days after this statement, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln dead at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
The Problem of Slavery during the War
There can be no question but that Lincoln hated slavery, that he believed that it mocked and contradicted the Declaration of Independence, and that it was the one issue that threatened the survival of the Union. It is also clear, however, that as a politician, Lincoln had always compromised on the slavery issue. For example, as a congressman, he identified with the Free-Soil, nonexpansionist antislavery forces rather than those abolitionists opposed to slavery as a moral evil with which no compromise could be tolerated. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln denounced racial equality in politics and society. As a presidential candidate, Lincoln promised to uphold the institution where it was constitutionally protected in Southern states, and he supported the voluntary colonization of blacks to Africa.
Once he became President, Lincoln attempted to act consistently with his campaign positions, with the Constitution, and with the wishes of his Republican constituency. His purpose, he said again and again, was to save the Union—not to free the slaves. At first, Lincoln announced his commitment to not interfere with slavery. He did this in order to keep four slave states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—in the Union, and to obey the Constitution, which did not empower the federal government to abolish slavery. And he hoped to win the support of Northern Democrats by not using the war to kill slavery as an institution. Nevertheless, events began to push Lincoln in the direction of emancipation within a few months after the fall of Fort Sumter. Almost immediately, Lincoln found himself besieged by prominent Republican senators—especially Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Ben Wade of Ohio—insisting that he use the President's war power as commander in chief to free the slaves immediately.
Lincoln tried to meet these demands without losing the border slave states by proposing a gradual emancipation program in which the federal government would pay loyal slavemasters in the border states for the voluntary emancipation of their slaves. The border states refused to accept the plan, however, and Lincoln came away from the discussions convinced that few slavemasters would ever voluntarily abandon slavery.
Additionally, once the war started, thousands of slaves began to run to Union lines. Thousands of other slaves began to exhibit insubordinate and even rebellious behavior on their home plantations, especially as more and more Southern white males went away to war. Northern free blacks urged Lincoln to act decisively to encourage slave rebellions. They called for the President to issue an emancipation proclamation. Also, it seemed almost certain that an act of emancipation would make it difficult for England or France to officially recognize the Confederacy in view of the antislavery sentiments among their home populations—especially in England.
Accordingly, Lincoln announced to his cabinet on July 22, 1862, that he would issue an Emancipation Proclamation in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces in time of war. The Proclamation would free all slaves in areas still in rebellion, and henceforth it would be a Union objective to destroy slavery within the Confederate South. His cabinet persuaded Lincoln to wait until a Union victory, lest it appear to the world like an act of desperation. When General McClellan stopped Robert E. Lee's advance into Maryland at Antietam Creek in September 1862, Lincoln announced his preliminary proclamation. The President warned that if the rebellion did not end by January 1, 1863, he would issue his presidential order of emancipation and move to destroy slavery in the rebel states once and for all.
Just prior to his July announcement to his cabinet, Lincoln had signed the Second Confiscation Act passed by Congress, which provided for the seizure and liberation of all slaves held by people who supported the rebellion. This bill, however, exempted loyal slaveowners in the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation, however, made no such exceptions. In the final Proclamation, Lincoln left out occupied Tennessee and certain occupied parts of Louisiana and Virginia as well as the loyal slave states. The document declared, with the exception of those areas, that all slaves in the rebellious states were hereafter "forever free." It also asserted that black men would now be enlisted in the Union army as regular soldiers (the U.S. Navy had accepted black sailors from the beginning of the war).
In a single stroke of his pen, Lincoln issued the most revolutionary measure ever to come from an American President up to that time. And he had never been more eloquent than in his message to Congress in December of 1862, after the upsurge of Democratic strength in the congressional election, in which he linked emancipation to saving the Union: "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth."By the end of the war, over 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army, winning distinction on the field of battle. Most of these soldiers were former slaves (150,000) who flocked to Union lines, often bringing their families with them. This flood of formerly enslaved people amounted to one of the greatest folk movements in American history, and it also created a massive refugee crisis. Lincoln met the problem by establishing a refugee system that put most able-bodied women and children refugees to work for wages on abandoned and captured farms and plantations supervised by the government. Often, these refugee farms and plantations were protected by a home guard of black solders—the husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers of the formerly enslaved workers. This was especially the case in the Mississippi River Valley from New Orleans to Memphis.
The President was worried that his wartime proclamation might be nullified (voided) by the courts after the war on the grounds that any confiscation of "property" required due process of law, and that such a policy could only be adopted by a law passed by Congress. Thus, Lincoln used his reelection victory in 1864 to promote a constitutional amendment that would end slavery everywhere in the nation. The Republican platform of 1864 had endorsed the Thirteenth Amendment—which the U.S. Senate had passed in April, and Lincoln used all the powers of his office, including patronage, to push it through the House, which adopted the amendment on January 31, 1865. Lincoln would not live, however, to see it become part of the Constitution after its ratification in December 1865.
Homestead Act of 1862
Legislation granting public lands to small farmers had been among the campaign promises of the 1860 Republican platform, and Lincoln supported early passage of the Homestead Act, which he signed into law on May 20, 1862. The bill stipulated that any adult citizen (or person intending to become a citizen) who headed a family could obtain a grant of 160 acres of public land by paying a small registration fee and living on the land for five years. The settler could own the land in six months by paying $1.25 an acre. By the end of the Civil War, fifteen thousand homestead claims were filed, and many more followed in the postwar era. Designed originally as a means of allowing the poor to have their own farms, the law benefited few people. This was because to take advantage of the nearly free homestead lands, families had to find the initial resources to travel west, to clear the land, and to sustain themselves—all before they could harvest crops for markets. Most of the land originally went to poor Midwestern and Eastern farmers, who then sold their properties after five years to land speculators allied with the railroad interests. Nevertheless, the law established the basic framework for the development of western territories.
Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862
Lincoln also signed into law and supported the legislation sponsored by Justin Smith Morrill, senator from Vermont, transferring giant allocations of federal lands to the states to be sold for the support of agricultural and mechanical arts colleges. The amount of land granted each state was proportional to its representation in Congress—thirty thousand acres for each senator and representative. In total, under the original act, some seventeen million acres were given to the states. The bill demonstrated Lincoln's commitment to make the federal government an important force in higher education, one that would insure its democratization. Military science was also to be included in the curricula of these so-called land-grant colleges. Later, these schools in the Midwest and South were to become the great state university systems.
Lincoln’s Missing Bodyguard
When a celebrity-seeking couple crashed a White House state dinner last November, the issue of presidential security dominated the news. The Secret Service responded by putting three of its officers on administrative leave and scrambled to reassure the public that it takes the job of guarding the president very seriously. “We put forth the maximum effort all the time,” said Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan.
That kind of dedication to safeguarding the president didn’t always exist. It wasn’t until 1902 that the Secret Service, created in 1865 to eradicate counterfeit currency, assumed official full-time responsibility for protecting the president. Before that, security for the president could be unbelievably lax. The most astounding example was the scant protection afforded Abraham Lincoln on the night he was assassinated. Only one man, an unreliable Washington cop named John Frederick Parker, was assigned to guard the president at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.
Today it’s hard to believe that a single policeman was Lincoln’s only protection, but 145 years ago the situation wasn’t that unusual. Lincoln was cavalier about his personal safety, despite the frequent threats he received and a near-miss attempt on his life in August 1864, as he rode a horse unescorted. He’d often take in a play or go to church without guards, and he hated being encumbered by the military escort assigned to him. Sometimes he walked alone at night between the White House and the War Department, a distance of about a quarter of a mile.
John Parker was an unlikely candidate to guard a president—or anyone for that matter. Born in Frederick County, Virginia, in 1830, Parker moved to Washington as a young man, originally earning his living as a carpenter. He became one of the capital’s first officers when the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in 1861. Parker’s record as a cop fell somewhere between pathetic and comical. He was hauled before the police board numerous times, facing a smorgasbord of charges that should have gotten him fired. But he received nothing more than an occasional reprimand. His infractions included conduct unbecoming an officer, using intemperate language and being drunk on duty. Charged with sleeping on a streetcar when he was supposed to be walking his beat, Parker declared that he’d heard ducks quacking on the tram and had climbed aboard to investigate. The charge was dismissed. When he was brought before the board for frequenting a whorehouse, Parker argued that the proprietress had sent for him.
In November 1864, the Washington police force created the first permanent detail to protect the president, made up of four officers. Somehow, John Parker was named to the detail. Parker was the only one of the officers with a spotty record, so it was a tragic coincidence that he drew the assignment to guard the president that evening. As usual, Parker got off to a lousy start that fateful Friday. He was supposed to relieve Lincoln’s previous bodyguard at 4 p.m. but was three hours late.
Lincoln’s party arrived at the theater at around 9 p.m. The play, Our American Cousin, had already started when the president entered his box directly above the right side of the stage. The actors paused while the orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief.” Lincoln bowed to the applauding audience and took his seat.
Parker was seated outside the president’s box, in the passageway beside the door. From where he sat, Parker couldn’t see the stage, so after Lincoln and his guests settled in, he moved to the first gallery to enjoy the play. Later, Parker committed an even greater folly: At intermission, he joined the footman and coachman of Lincoln’s carriage for drinks in the Star Saloon next door to Ford’s Theatre.
John Wilkes Booth entered the theater around 10 p.m.. Ironically, he’d also been in the Star Saloon, working up some liquid courage. When Booth crept up to the door to Lincoln’s box, Parker’s chair stood empty. Some of the audience may not have heard the fatal pistol shot, since Booth timed his attack to coincide with a scene in the play that always sparked loud laughter.
No one knows for sure if Parker ever returned to Ford’s Theatre that night. When Booth struck, the vanishing policeman may have been sitting in his new seat with a nice view of the stage, or perhaps he had stayed put in the Star Saloon. Even if he had been at his post, it’s not certain he would have stopped Booth. “Booth was a well-known actor, a member of a famous theatrical family,” says Ford’s Theatre historical interpreter Eric Martin. “They were like Hollywood stars today. Booth might have been allowed in to pay his respects. Lincoln knew of him. He’d seen him act in The Marble Heart, here in Ford’s Theatre in 1863.”
A fellow presidential bodyguard, William H. Crook, wouldn’t accept any excuses for Parker. He held him directly responsible for Lincoln’s death. “Had he done his duty, I believe President Lincoln would not have been murdered by Booth,” Crook wrote in his memoir. “Parker knew that he had failed in duty. He looked like a convicted criminal the next day.” Parker was charged with failing to protect the president, but the complaint was dismissed a month later. No local newspaper followed up on the issue of Parker’s culpability. Nor was Parker mentioned in the official report on Lincoln’s death. Why he was let off so easily is baffling. Perhaps, with the hot pursuit of Booth and his co-conspirators in the chaotic aftermath, he seemed like too small a fish. Or perhaps the public was unaware that a bodyguard had even been assigned to the president.
Incredibly, Parker remained on the White House security detail after the assassination. At least once he was assigned to protect the grieving Mrs. Lincoln before she moved out of the presidential mansion and returned to Illinois. Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, former slave Elizabeth Keckley, recalled the following exchange between the president’s widow and Parker: “So you are on guard tonight,” Mrs. Lincoln yelled, “on guard in the White House after helping to murder the President.”
“I could never stoop to murder,” Parker stammered, “much less to the murder of so good and great a man as the President. I did wrong, I admit, and have bitterly repented. I did not believe any one would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless.”
Mrs. Lincoln snapped that she would always consider him guilty and ordered him from the room. Some weeks before the assassination, she had written a letter on Parker’s behalf to exempt him from the draft, and some historians think she may have been related to him on her mother’s side.
Parker remained on the Metropolitan Police Force for three more years, but his shiftlessness finally did him in. He was fired on August 13, 1868, for once again sleeping on duty. Parker drifted back into carpentry. He died in Washington in 1890, of pneumonia. Parker, his wife and their three children are buried together in the capital’s Glenwood Cemetery—on present-day Lincoln Road. Their graves are unmarked. No photographs have ever been found of John Parker. He remains a faceless character, his role in the great tragedy largely forgotten.
Abraham Lincoln became the United States’ 16th President in 1861, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy in 1863.
Lincoln warned the South in his Inaugural Address: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you…. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect and defend it.”
Lincoln thought secession illegal, and was willing to use force to defend Federal law and the Union. When Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter and forced its surrender, he called on the states for 75,000 volunteers. Four more slave states joined the Confederacy but four remained within the Union. The Civil War had begun.
The son of a Kentucky frontiersman, Lincoln had to struggle for a living and for learning. Five months before receiving his party’s nomination for President, he sketched his life:
“I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families–second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks…. My father … removed from Kentucky to … Indiana, in my eighth year…. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up…. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher … but that was all.”
Lincoln made extraordinary efforts to attain knowledge while working on a farm, splitting rails for fences, and keeping store at New Salem, Illinois. He was a captain in the Black Hawk War, spent eight years in the Illinois legislature, and rode the circuit of courts for many years. His law partner said of him, “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”
He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys, only one of whom lived to maturity. In 1858 Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for Senator. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican nomination for President in 1860.
As President, he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.
Lincoln never let the world forget that the Civil War involved an even larger issue. This he stated most movingly in dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the war. In his planning for peace, the President was flexible and generous, encouraging Southerners to lay down their arms and join speedily in reunion.
The spirit that guided him was clearly that of his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.: “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds…. ”
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South. The opposite was the result, for with Lincoln’s death, the possibility of peace with magnanimity died.
The White House in the 19th century
The mansion quickly became a focal point of the new federal city and was symbolically linked to the United States Capitol by way of Pennsylvania Avenue. Following his inauguration in March 1801, Jefferson became the second president to reside in the executive mansion. In keeping with his ardent republicanism, he opened the house to public visitation each morning, a tradition that was continued (during peacetime) by all his successors. He personally drew up landscaping plans and had two earthen mounds installed on the south lawn to remind him of his beloved Virginia Piedmont. Meanwhile, construction continued on the building’s interior, which still lacked ample staircases and suffered from a persistently leaky roof. During Jefferson’s tenure, the White House was elegantly furnished in Louis XVI style (known in America as Federal style).
During the War of 1812 the building was burned by the British, and Pres. James Madison (1809–17) and his family were forced to flee the city. The Madisons eventually moved into the nearby Octagon House, the Washington mansion of John Tayloe, a Virginia plantation owner. Reconstruction and expansion began under Hoban’s direction, but the building was not ready for occupancy until 1817, during the administration of Pres. James Monroe (1817–25). Hoban’s reconstruction included the addition of east and west terraces on the main building’s flanks a semicircular south portico and a colonnaded north portico were added in the 1820s.
During the 19th century the White House became a symbol of American democracy. In the minds of most Americans, the building was not a “palace” from which the president ruled but merely a temporary office and residence from which he served the people he governed. The White House belonged to the people, not the president, and the president occupied it only for as long as the people allowed him to stay. The idea of a president refusing to leave the White House after losing an election or an impeachment trial was unthinkable.
The inauguration of Andrew Jackson (1829–37), the “people’s president,” attracted thousands of well-wishers to the nation’s capital. As Jackson rode on horseback down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, he was surrounded by a frenetic throng of 20,000 people, many of whom attempted to follow him into the mansion to get a better look at their hero. A contemporary, Margaret Bayer Smith, recounts what happened next: “The halls were filled with a disorderly rabble…scrambling for the refreshments designed for the drawing room.” While friends of the new president joined arms to protect him from the mob, “china and glass to the amount of several thousand dollars were broken in the struggle to get at the ices and cakes, though punch and other drinkables had been carried out in tubs and buckets to the people.” Said Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, “I was glad to escape from the scene as soon as possible.” During his administration Jackson spent more than $50,000 refurbishing the residence, including $10,000 on decorations for the East Room and more than $4,000 on a sterling silver dinner and dessert set decorated with an American eagle.
In 1842 the visit to the United States of the English novelist Charles Dickens brought an official invitation to the White House. After his calls at the White House door went unanswered, Dickens let himself in and walked through the mansion from room to room on the lower and upper floors. Finally coming upon a room filled with nearly two dozen people, he was shocked and appalled to see many of them spitting on the carpet. Dickens later wrote, “I take it for granted the Presidential housemaids have high wages.” Until the Civil War, however, most White House servants were enslaved people. Moreover, the wages of all White House employees—as well as the expenses for running the White House, including staging official functions—were paid for by the president. Not until 1909 did Congress provide appropriations to pay White House servants.
Dickens was not the only foreign visitor to be disappointed with the White House. On a trip to Washington just before the Civil War, Aleksandr Borisovich Lakier, a Russian nobleman, wrote that “the home of the president…is barely visible behind the trees.” The White House, he said, was “sufficient for a private family and not at all conforming to the expectations of a European.” Subsequent changes to the building in the 19th century were relatively minor. The interior was redecorated during various presidential administrations and modern conveniences were regularly added, including a refrigerator in 1845, gas lighting in 1849, and electric lighting in 1891.
The White House was the scene of mourning after the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln (1861–65). While Mary Todd Lincoln lay in her room for five weeks grieving for her husband, many White House holdings were looted. Responding to charges that she had stolen government property when she left the White House, she angrily inventoried all the items she had taken with her, including gifts of quilts and waxworks from well-wishers.
- More Information
- About The Daily Signal
- Contact Us
- Commenting Policy
- Daily Signal Podcasts
- Copyright Information
- About The Heritage Foundation
- Connect with us
Join the millions of people who benefit from The Daily Signal’s fair, accurate, trustworthy reporting with direct access to:
How the Emancipation Proclamation Worked
Here's a question for your next trivia game: How many slaves did the Emancipation Proclamation free?
But you learned in school that President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, right? Well, the history books may have been stretching the truth.
An important fact to know about Lincoln is that he was a savvy politician. The Emancipation Proclamation was a document that officially changed nothing -- Congress had already passed laws outlawing slavery in the rebel states, which was the only territory Lincoln covered in the Proclamation. (Lincoln the politician wanted to keep border-state voters happy.)
And the Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, two years after the Civil War began -- what took Lincoln so long? Again, politics. He couldn't very well have issued a decree freeing the slaves when the North was losing the war. There would be no way to enforce the Proclamation, thus making it appear a desperate and hollow threat. So Lincoln waited until a big Union win, at Antietam.
Speaking of enforcement, the Proclamation technically freed slaves in another country -- the Confederacy had seceded. So what happened to the slaves in the Union? They had to wait until 1865 for the passage of the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment, which wasn't officially ratified until after Lincoln was assassinated.
But the Emancipation Proclamation must have done something. Otherwise, why would we consider it such an important document?
While it didn't technically set anyone free, the Proclamation was part of Lincoln's strategy to demoralize the South, and it worked. Poorer Southern whites resented that they were now fighting a war to protect wealthy plantation owners who were desperate to hold onto their "property." And as word of the Proclamation spread, slaves left those plantations en masse. Their exodus even helped turn the tide in the siege of Vicksburg, a vital Union win.
Additionally, France and England, which had been secretly helping the South, could not officially recognize a country that still enslaved other human beings. Europe also could not provoke a country that, according to the Emancipation Proclamation, was now fighting slavery.
And if all that weren't enough, the Emancipation Proclamation can be credited with giving this country another state.
Beyond politics, the Emancipation Proclamation became a symbol of what the Civil War was heading toward. It was no longer about states' rights, rebellion and nullification -- with one document, Lincoln turned it into a war to end slavery.
When Washington, D.C. Came Close to Being Conquered by the Confederacy
It may be altogether fitting and proper that the battlefield has come to this. A ragged half-block of grass surrounded by brick rowhouses, it lies between the main business district of Washington, D.C. and the suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. I was greeted by a couple of hundred feet of eroding breastworks and concrete replicas of a half-dozen gun platforms.
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 battle-hardened 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 caped 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.
Jubal Early (© Library of Congress) Fort Stevens after an attack led by Jubal Early (© Medford Historical Society Collection/Corbis ) Francis Preston Blair (seated in the center) photographed with his staff (© Medford Historical Society Collection/Corbis ) Union Soldiers at Fort Stevens (SA 3.0) Fort Stevens Park, a recreation built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937 (SA 3.0) Fort Stevens Park, a recreation built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937 (SA 3.0) Cannon at Monocacy River battlegrounds that was used by soldiers under command of Major General Lew Wallace (© Mark Reinstein/Corbis ) Plaque in remembrance of the night Abraham Lincoln was at Fort Stevens during an attack (SA 3.0) Battleground National Cemetery located on Georgia Avenue (Public Domain) Monument at Grace Episcopal Church in remembrance of the 17 Confederate soldiers that died attacking Washington, D.C. (SA 3.0)
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 Kyd Douglas, admired Early's fighting abilities but saw him with 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,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 his rank, 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 mounted officers reluctantly slowed their pace, but before midday the road behind the army was littered with prostrate men who could go no farther.
Thus when Early ordered General Rodes to attack, both men—on horseback—were far ahead of the plodding columns. While Early fumed and spat tobacco juice, his officers struggled to get men and guns in position. They managed to mount a skirmish line to chase in the Federal pickets, but putting together a massed line of battle was beyond them. The afternoon wore on, and to Early every hour was the equivalent of a thousand casualties.
It was not the fault of his men. General Gordon later wrote of them that they possessed, “a spirit which nothing could break.”
Nor was it a failure of the officers Jubal Early had for subordinate commanders some of the best generals in the Confederacy. John Gordon and John Breckinridge were, like Early, lawyers and politicians who lacked his West Point training but had shown a remarkable ability to lead men in combat. Breckinridge was a former Vice President of the United States and a candidate for President in 1860, who came in second to Lincoln in the electoral vote now he was second in command of an army advancing on the US. capital. Stephen Dodson Ramseur, a major general at 27, possessed a ferocity in battle that usually got results.
No one embodied more of the paradoxes of this war than John Breckinridge. A passionate and lifelong champion of the Union and the Constitution, he had been convinced for years that slavery could not and should not survive but he also believed that it was unconstitutional for the national government to prohibit slave states from participating in the country’s booming Western expansion—the settlement of the territories.
For his constitutional arguments he was ostracized in the Senate and described as a traitor to the United States back in Kentucky he pleaded with his state to stay out of the spreading civil war. Union military authorities ordered his arrest. Thus John Breckinridge had been left with nowhere to go but into the armies marching against the Union, on behalf of slavery.
Such were the men who stood at Jubal Early’s side that afternoon. Before he could form his gasping troops and launch his attack, Early saw “a cloud of dust in the rear of the works toward Washington, and soon a column of the enemy filed into them on the right and left, and skirmishers were thrown out in front.” Artillery fire opened from a number of batteries.
The Confederates had managed to take a few prisoners, who freely admitted that their lines were being held by “counter jumpers, hospital rats and stragglers.” But the men just arriving were veterans, perhaps reinforcements from Grant. Jubal Early was bold, but he was not foolhardy however tempting the prize, he would not commit to battle without knowing what he was facing. As he wrote later, “It became necessary to reconnoiter.”
The Federal regiment that had impressed Early was from Grant’s Army of the Potomac, but it was alone. Meanwhile, however, Abraham Lincoln had spotted something really interesting in his spyglass, and driven eagerly south to the Sixth Street wharves.
Marching off in the wrong direction
He arrived in midafternoon, and stood quietly gnawing on a chunk of hardtack while Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright assembled the first 650 arrivals from VI Corps and marched them off—in the wrong direction—toward Georgetown. With great shouting and clatter, some staff officers got the men turned around and headed up 11th Street, toward the enemy.
A Vermonter named Aldace Walker marched with VI Corps that day. He thought it was still morning, and had his dates confused, but he remembered how the presence of the capable Old Sixth brought “intense relief to the constitutionally timid Washingtonians. . . .Citizens ran through the lines with buckets of ice-water, for the morning was sultry newspapers and eatables were handed into the column, and our welcome had a heartiness that showed how intense had been the fear.”
The official welcome was less clear-cut. To his disgust, Wright was ordered to hold his men in reserve, even though the raw troops at Fort Stevens were being severely pummeled by Early’s guns and skirmishers, and were already showing signs of caving in. In the end, the only thing the soldiers did that night (and this only because Wright insisted on it) was to move out in front of the fortifications to restore a picket line and push back enemy skirmishers. “The pseudo-soldiers who filled the trenches around the fort were astounded at the temerity displayed by these war-torn veterans in going out before the breastworks,” Walker remembered scornfully, "and benevolently volunteered most earnest words of caution.”
Apparently the Federal high command did little that night but further confuse each other. Charles Dana, an Assistant Secretary of War and an old friend of Grant’s, sent a despairing wire to the commanding general Tuesday morning: “General Halleck will not give orders except as he receives them the President will give none, and until you direct positively and explicitly what is to be done, everything will go on in the deplorable and fatal way in which it has gone on for the past week.”
On Monday night, Early and his division commanders gathered at their captured headquarters, “Silver Spring,” the imposing mansion of the prominent Washington publisher and politician Francis Preston Blair (and a former political patron of John Breckinridge). There the Confederate officers had dinner, a council of war and a party. Men were still straggling in from their hellish march, and it seemed a precious opportunity had been lost the previous afternoon. But the Federal works were still not manned in strength, and Early ordered an assault at first light.
A sound of revelry by night
His officers raided Francis Blair’s wine cellar and talked about what they would do next day. They joked about escorting John Breckinridge back to his former place as presiding officer of the Senate. Outside, soldiers speculated about how they would divide up the contents of the Treasury. According to General Gordon, one private was asked what they would do when they took the city, and said the situation reminded him of a family slave whose dog chased every train that came by. The old man wasn’t worried about losing his dog, said the soldier, he was worried about what the dog was going to do with a train when he caught one.
It was all good fun, but soon daylight was coming.
General Early was up before dawn, surveying the Federal fortifications with his field glasses. The trenches and the parapets teemed with blue uniforms—not the dark, new blue of fresh, untested cloth, but the faded sky-blue of well-used material. Everywhere he saw fluttering battle flags bearing the Greek Cross of VI Corps. The door to Jubal Early’s niche in history had just slammed shut.
“I had, therefore, reluctantly to give up all hopes of capturing Washington, after I had arrived in sight of the dome of the Capitol,” he wrote. But they could not give any sign of flinching with that many soldiers ready to pour after them. They would stay in place, look as dangerous as they knew how, and as soon as darkness covered them head back to Virginia. The Federals, meanwhile, made ready to fight a climactic battle for the city. They did it in the time-honored Washington way—with endless meetings, The day wore on, the baking heat returned, the sharpshooters let fly at anything that stirred, the cannon boomed from time to time—and nobody moved.
The citizens of Washington regained their courage. Ladies and gentlemen of society and rank declared a holiday and swarmed out to picnic and cheer the intrepid defenders. Some perhaps had been among the picnickers who, three years before, had gone to cheer the boys going into battle at Bull Run, but if they remembered the bloody stampede that had engulfed the tourists on that day, they gave no sign.
At midafternoon they were joined by the President and Mrs. Lincoln, who arrived at Fort Stevens in a carriage. General Wright went out to greet the Commander in Chief and casually asked if he would like to see the fight the various Chieftains had at last agreed to try a reconnaissance in force, to press the Confederates back and see just how strong they were. General Wright intended his question to be purely rhetorical, but as he wrote later, “A moment after, I would have given much to have recalled my words.”
Delighted at the prospect of seeing actual combat for the first time, Lincoln bounded up to the parapet and stood looking over the field, his familiar, top-hatted form an inviting target for Confederate sharpshooters. While Wright begged the President to take cover, a trooper in Lincoln’s cavalry escort saw bullets “sending little spurts and puffs of dust as they thudded into the embankment on which he stood.” Thus for the first and only time in history a President of the United States came under fire in combat.
Behind the breastworks, a busy young captain from Massachusetts named Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. glanced up, saw a tall, awkward civilian standing in the spray of bullets and snapped, “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot.” Only then did the future Supreme Court justice realize that he was berating the President.
Meanwhile a VI Corps brigade, about 2,000 strong, was sneaking out of Fort Stevens and taking position in a wooded area 300 yards east of what is now Wisconsin Avenue, just behind the line of Federal skirmishers and out of sight of the enemy. Their orders were to make a surprise charge at the Confederate positions on the wooded ridge less than a mile from Fort Stevens.
Lincoln watched these maneuvers intently, standing fully exposed on top of the parapet, oblivious to the leaden hail. General Wright stood at the President’s side, along with C.C.V. Crawford, the surgeon of one of the attacking regiments. Suddenly, a round ricocheted off a nearby soldier’s rifle and into Crawford’s thigh. Gravely wounded, he was carried to the rear.
General Wright, beside himself, ordered everyone off the parapet, and when the President ignored him threatened to have a squad of soldiers forcibly remove Lincoln from danger. “The absurdity of the idea of sending off the President under guard seemed to amuse him,” Wright recalled, and more to put an end to the fuss than anything else, Lincoln finally agreed to sit behind the parapet and thus place most of his frame behind cover. But he kept leaping to his feet to see what was happening.
When the attacking regiments were in position, the guns of Fort Stevens opened a sustained fire on the enemy positions. The 36th shot, fired at about 6 p.m., was the signal for the picket line to plunge forward. Behind it, appearing as if from nowhere, surged thousands of howling Federals.
“I thought we were ‘gone up,’” one of Early’s staff officers remembered. But these were men familiar with death, and they opened a fire so hot that the Federals came to a halt and sent for reserves. The enemy, the Federal division commander reported, “was found to be much stronger than had been supposed.”
There was cheering from the spectators and joking in the rear echelons, but this was no game Aldace Walker remembered it as a “bitter little contest.” Every regimental commander in the leading Federal brigade was shot down a hundred Confederate dead were later found lying on the field between Fort Stevens and the Blair house. Heavy fighting continued until 10 P.M., even though General Wright ordered his men to hold their ground but not to storm the Confederate lines.
Major Douglas found Jubal Early in Francis Blair’s mansion after dark, getting ready to pull out. “He seemed in a droll humor, perhaps one of relief,” Douglas recalled, “for he said to me in his falsetto drawl, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”’ And so with hollow laughs they began a long retreat, away from legend and glory, into Virginia, where Appomattox waited.
A half-mile north of the crumbling remains of Fort Stevens, the asphalt and concrete environs of Georgia Avenue are interrupted by another unremarkable, postage-stamp square of green. Hardly larger than a townhouse lot, it is a National Cemetery, wherein are buried a few of the men for whom this “bitter little contest” was the last. Some earnest monuments to the men of New York and Ohio are crowded together here, but the most imposing thing one sees on entering is a bronze plaque. It memorializes not the dead, but an 1875 order prohibiting picnicking on, and otherwise defacing, their graves. Forgetfulness came quickly.
This article was originally published in Smithsonian magazine in July, 1988. The National Park Service offers a number of upcoming activities in recognition of the 150th anniversary of Jubal Early's attack on Washington.
About Thomas A. Lewis
Thomas A. Lewis continues to write about lost causes from somewhere in West Virginia. He presides over the website The Daily Impact, where he chronicles the ongoing crash of the industrial age. His latest book, Tribulation A Novel of the Near Future, describes one way the crash might happen.