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This Is Why Washington Wasn't Relentlessly Attacked By The Confederates

Natural barricades, manmade obstacles, and heavy reinforcements kept the capital safe.

The distance between Washington, D.C. and the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia is a scant 95 miles. They're practically neighbors. Early in the Civil War, the Union Army attempted to capture the rebel capital but the forces led by Gen. George McClellan only made it as far as the suburbs before being beaten back. Richmond wouldn't fall to the Union Army until 1865—but it wasn't through lack of trying.

Meanwhile, the District of Columbia sat precariously perched between rebel Virginia and border slave state Maryland. It was the heart and nerve center of the Union, yet aside from the threat of an advancing enemy, it wasn't as constantly attacked as an amateur strategist might think.

Related: 10 Civil War Battles That Shaped America's Bloodiest Conflict 

General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia did have a plan to threaten the Union capital. Lee's overall strategy was an attempt to take the fight to the Union, rather than fight on Confederate soil. His advances north did threaten Washington, but Lee didn't attack D.C. directly. His best chance to hit the Union capital came after his surprising win at the first Battle of Bull Run (also known as First Manassas to Southerners). With the Confederates were stunned by their victory as the Union was by their loss, the South was too disorganized to follow up. As Lincoln and the Union Army realized the war was going to last much longer than anticipated, the District became one of the most fortified cities on Earth.

To make it more difficult for the Confederates to swing around and conduct a raid on Washington, Union Generals George G. Meade and Joseph Hooker kept their armies between the Confederates and the capital as Lee's army advanced north toward Gettysburg in 1863.

As for the city itself, the Potomac acted as a formidable natural barrier—though manmade obstacles did their part as well. The city had a series of some 68 fortifications, 93 gun positions just waiting for cannon, 20 miles of trenches and 30 miles of military-use roads. It also boasted 87 mounted guns, 93 mortar positions, and untold communications lines. These fortifications ringed the city, even reaching out into the Virginia suburbs. As much as the South would have liked to capture the District, it would have needed an army far more capable to achieve its goal. Despite all of these deterrents, the Confederate Army made one brash attempt to capture Washington.

Related: 19 Essential Civil War Books 

In 1864, Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early went north through the Shenandoah Valley while Lee's army was under siege at Petersburg, Va. Early forces relieved Lee's supply lines at Lynchburg before swinging north through the valley. He captured and ransomed Fredericksburg then moved on where he was met by a small Union defense force at Monocacy. Had it not been for this delaying action, Early might have taken Washington.

civil war defense washington
  • General Jubal A. Early.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At this time, the city was filled with refugees and troops of varying quality. Most of the battle-hardened Union troops were out in the field fighting the Confederates, so Washington's defenders weren't the best of the best. The Confederate advance sent the city into a panic.

Union General Lew Wallace didn't know if Baltimore or Washington was Early's target, but the citizens of both cities were on high alert, and Wallace knew he had to at least delay Early until reinforcements could arrive. The Marylanders held Early off for a full day at the cost of more than 1,200 lives. But it was enough to delay the advancing Confederates while inflicting some heavy casualties. Early rode on, though, and came across the northernmost fortification of Washington, Fort Stevens.

When Early arrived, he had a strength roughly equal to that of the District's defenders. The defenders were mostly raw recruits and untested reservists, but combined with reinforcements, the city had a fighting chance. Going against the Confederate Army was the blazing heat of the July sun and the fact that they'd been on the march and fighting for nearly a month.

Related: That Time North Dakota Seceded From the Union 

The attack began in the late afternoon on July 11, 1864. Early's men began skirmishing with the Union fortification to test its defenses. As President Lincoln watched on, the battle began in earnest at 5pm, when veteran Confederate cavalry stormed the Union picket lines and Union artillery opened up on rebel positions across the lines. Over the coming night, more Union reinforcements would arrive. Soon, Early realized time was not on his side. Had he immediately attacked Fort Stevens, he might have taken the capital, but the reinforcements spelled his doom.

Early used skirmishers to cover his nighttime withdrawal. Fort Stevens and Washington's fortification had held, although President Lincoln was almost hit by a stray bullet. Early was able to retreat back to the Army of Northern Virginia, where it's said he told Lee and his own staff officers, "We didn't take Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like Hell."

Published on 19 Dec 2019

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