Here's a question for these July days: Did the heat save the city of Washington from the advancing Confederate army -- or was it the whiskey kept by my great-great-great grandfather, Francis Preston Blair of Silver Spring?
One hundred and twenty-six years ago, panic swept the nation's capital on July 11 and 12. Gen. Jubal Early and an estimated 50,000 Confederate troops (many said 100,000) were marching down Georgia Avenue.
Terrified civilians, some driving herds of livestock, flooded into the city ahead of the rebel column. At the War Department, generals argued about who was in command while a motley crew of convalescents, quartermasters and clerks were sent up 7th Street to man the city's defenses. At the Navy Yard a steamboat stood by to whisk President Abraham Lincoln to safety.
But in truth, Early led only 10,000 men. And as they marched through Rockville on July 11, they unknowingly crossed the path of President James Madison's flight, 50 years earlier, from the British and a burning capital. By nightfall Jubal Early would narrowly miss duplicating the British feat by a few crucial hours.
His men had marched 250 miles in three weeks, without benefit of rain or rest. Many were barefoot. Two days earlier they'd fought a pitched battle at Monocacy, near Frederick. Now, under the blazing sun, they couldn't keep pace, despite Early's pleas.
"It was one of the hottest days I ever felt" reminisced a Georgia private in his memoirs. "We were enveloped in clouds of dust and a great many of our dear boys fell by the roadside from exhaustion."
When Early's column reached Silver Spring it sagged to a halt. But it was too late. As Jubal Early looked through his field glasses he saw veteran Union reinforcements marching up Georgia Avenue to defend the city.
Instead of attacking, the rebels spent the rest of the day "lazily lounging about the cool waters of Silver Spring, picking blackberries in the orchard" of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Francis Preston's son, according to the memoirs of Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon.
They also, the story goes, happened on the "Old Gentleman's" barrels of surplus spirits.
Lincoln's Navy secretary, Gideon Welles, a teetotaler, had ordered the Union Navy dry. Sailors no longer received a daily ration of grog. As a result, the Navy had a large inventory of spirits for sale. Several Silver Spring bargain hunters, including Francis Preston Blair, a close friend of Welles, were said to have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Years later Jubal Early wrote "not more than one-third of my force could have been carried into action" because of fatigue. But according to local legend it was Gideon Welles who unwittingly rendered many of Early's men unfit for action.
On Tuesday, July 12, a bloody skirmish with several hundred casualties took place where the Walter Reed Medical Center stands today. From the ramparts of Ft. Stevens, President Lincoln watched while snipers' bullets whizzed around him.
At dark, Early withdrew from Silver Spring leaving 200 men to guard the home of Francis Preston Blair. His son's estate, Falkland, fared less well. It burned to the ground.
Today, little evidence of Early's raid remains in Silver Spring. Some garden apartments and the Metrorail station occupy the Falkland homesite, and a post office stood where the "Old Gentleman" lived.
Seventeen Confederate boys who died in the skirmish are buried in Grace Church cemetery. And although history records that Lee surrendered at Appomatox and Lincoln preserved the Union, only those brave young rebels, buried along Georgia Avenue, can tell us whether Washington was saved 126 years ago by Francis Preston Blair's barrels of surplus Navy grog.
-- Blair Lee