The coverage of the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens focused on the fort and the Battleground National Cemetery, where 40 Union soldiers who fell defending the nation's capital lie buried. But the city's only Civil War battle left other physical markers -- one of which seems to have disappeared mysteriously.
While exploring the area on foot, I found by chance one tiny memorial to this battle that brought the war to within five miles of the White House. I had walked to the preserved remains of the old fort, along the west side of Georgia Avenue, and had checked out the cemetery farther up the avenue on the east side. Walter Reed Army Medical Center is nearby, so I went to look around that site as well. And so, I found the marker of the old Snipers' Tree.
First, a bit of background. In early July 1864, Gen. Robert E. Lee sent Gen. Jubal A. Early north to threaten Washington. Lee and Early hoped that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would send reinforcements to the capital, thus weakening the Union siege of Petersburg and nearby Richmond.
Also, if Washington were captured for even a brief time, it would hurt President Abraham Lincoln's chances of being reelected in a bitter three-way race. He was running against Radical Republican nominee Charles C. Fremont, who feared that Lincoln was "soft" on the South, and Democratic candidate Gen. George B. McClellan, the popular former general in chief whom Lincoln had twice fired.
Early's army marched into the District but was halted July 11-12 at Fort Stevens, one of the forts encircling the city. Grant had sent the Sixth Corps to Washington, where it arrived just in time to help repel the Confederates.
Lincoln himself came out to watch. He stood at the fort's parapet and came under enemy fire. His tall, lean figure, dressed in black and wearing his trademark stovepipe hat, made a recognizable target. Tradition has it that he finally took cover when a young Union officer yelled at him, "Get down, you damn fool!" Another tradition says that the young man was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., future associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to The Washington Post of Jan. 14, 1907, Col. William P. Roome actually saw a nearly-spent bullet hit Lincoln in the thigh and then drop to the ground. The president glanced down at it for a moment and smiled.
About half a mile north of this fort, where Walter Reed now stands, a full-grown tulip tree stood. It was four to five feet wide and 70 to 80 feet high. Confederate snipers climbed the tree and used it as a convenient spot from which to fire at Fort Stevens -- and at Lincoln.
After the war was over, the tulip tree was preserved as a reminder of the battle. Eventually the tree was destroyed by lightning, and only the stump was left. The stump was removed in 1929. Later on, a marker was placed there.
I knew nothing of this tulip tree footnote to the Battle of Fort Stevens. I had never seen it in any history book. All the same, while walking a few hundred feet from the Walter Reed main entrance at Georgia Avenue, in front of Building 12, I found a plaque flanked on either side by a cannonball. It read:
Site of a tulip tree
used as a signal station by
Confederate soldiers under
General Jubal A. Early
during the attack on
July 11 and 12, 1864
Also used by
Two cannon balls
relics of Civil War days
found on the dairy farm of
which is now a part of
Walter Reed Medical Center
Mr. William Burdett
In the old microfilmed newspapers at the Library of Congress, I found a few brief items on the tulip tree, though nothing on the marker.
I also found a minor mystery. The Washington Post of May 30, 1906, mentioned a white marble gravestone "on the historic farm of F.B. Blair, sr.[sic], just beyond Fort Stevens."
It was the resting place of one of the snipers, allegedly the last Confederate to die in the battle. His name was not known. On each Memorial Day, the Post added, people would leave flowers there. Recent inquiries at Walter Reed uncovered nothing about it.
Does anybody know of such a stone?
John Lockwood is a National Park Service ranger and amateur historian who has lived in the District since 1960.