The Confederate general and his men rode south on Rockville Pike, past the sites of White Flint Mall, Strathmore Music Center and the Beltway, none of which was there at the time. Instead, the horses trotted by woods, rolling fields and farmland on that hot July day 150 years ago.
The Union colonel and his men rode north up the same road to confront the rebels, out of the Union fortifications at Tenleytown, and then past the places where Mazza Gallerie and Saks Fifth Avenue stand today.
The Battle of Bethesda was a small skirmish, part of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s assault on Washington. Until recently, with the publication of several battlefield diaries, its exact location was unknown. Now we know that it took place at the Old Stone Tavern, where Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Home stands today, near the Bethesda Metro station.
The officers who fought there — Confederate Gen. John McCausland and Union Col. Charles Russell Lowell — are known for other operations, and this engagement has been largely forgotten. But guns blazed from early morning to mid-afternoon before the Union troops pulled back under orders at 3 p.m.
The residents and shoppers who crowd Bethesda today may not realize that it sits on a broad hill, since office and apartment buildings dwarf the natural rise of the land. Col. Lowell rode up that hill on his way to battle. To the north, Gen. McCausland rode up the hill from the other side. The battleground would have been the shallow swale on top.
Lowell, in his dispatches to headquarters, said he was near the Old Stone Tavern and in “a good position to remain.” That would be at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, in the heart of what is now downtown Bethesda.
But a subordinate officer, Maj. William Fry, who had been independently skirmishing with the Confederates closer to Rockville before joining Lowell, wrote: “In the vicinity of the Old Tavern the enemy were again found to be advancing in force. We fell back, skirmishing constantly, until, within 2 miles of [the city’s fortifications], a dismounted skirmish line was formed and held, the enemy never succeeding in driving us away.”
His description left some ambiguity about whether the Union had “fallen back” closer to the city of Washington.
Lowell’s command, the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment, contained one of the most famous cavalry units of the war: the California Hundred. They were Union men who had volunteered in California and traveled east to join the fight. One of them, Cpl. Valorus Dearborn of San Francisco, kept a diary that appears to clarify the situation. It says that on July 11, the Union cavalry moved some distance from Washington’s fortifications and then fell back to the Old Stone Tavern, where they held their position “for the day.”
The battle probably consisted of exchanges of fire between dismounted Confederates along the northern edge of the swale and dismounted Yankees along the southern. Another Californian, Cpl. George Buhrer, recorded that the Union cavalry “took positions behind fences, bushes, stumps, rocks, etc.” He described the fire as “quite sharp,” while Dearborn called it “hot.” A military observer listening from Washington called it “rapid.”
Union records show that Lowell had about 800 troops, and he estimated he was facing six squadrons of rebels, or about 600 men. The Confederates also had a cannon, positioned near Wisconsin Avenue, while some local civilians came out with their guns “to get a shot at a Reb,” according to Pvt. George Towle, in his memoirs of the war.
As the day wore on, reinforcements arrived for the Union position but proved to be of little assistance. “They came marching up the road in close order with arms at right shoulder shift like militia on parade,” Towle wrote. “They were very soldierly appearing until they reached the brow of the rise in front of us where they were first exposed to the Confederate fire. None of them were hit, but the immediate result was that the command as a command, officers and all disappeared; and I have often wondered when, if ever, some of them stopped running.”
William Offutt, a historian of Bethesda, cautions that this was only a skirmish. If any of the cavalry troopers later gave accounts of having fought in a full-scale battle, they shouldn’t be trusted: “No one did at the time.” Nonetheless, he says, this new history “adds to our store of knowledge.”
By dark, the guns had fallen silent, with slight casualties from the day of fighting. Despite all the fury, little damage had been done to either side. Of course, as Offutt notes, at the time, Bethesda was a simple country crossroads, with the Old Stone Tavern, a blacksmith’s shop and a few rural buildings. There wasn’t much for the fighting to destroy. Bethesda remained in Union hands, safe for the upscale restaurants, bagel shops and yoga studios that occupy it today.
John Walsh is a Washington lawyer and a historical researcher with a PhD in history from Boston College.