Next month, the sesquicentennial spotlight will shine on the little known Battle of Fort Stevens in Washington, D.C., the only Civil War battle fought in the nation’s capital. It is also the only battle that President Lincoln witnessed.
On July 10 through 13, the National Park Service is sponsoring a commemoration of the battle that took place on July 11 and 12, 1864. Events at several locations include a discussion of the battle by scholar Benjamin Franklin Cooling, a walking tour of Fort Stevens and other nearby Civil War sites, an historians’ round table, a commemorative program at the battlefield with key note speaker and a memorial service for those interred at the Battleground National Cemetery a few blocks away.
There is not much of a battlefield to see at the 13th and Quackenbos Streets NW site. The now-residential area was built up long ago. The fort, reconstructed in the 1930s, shares a city block with several houses and a church.
An invasion of the capital by Confederates and the battle at Fort Stevens were never supposed to happen. Washington was heavily protected by a ring of 60 forts, about 90 batteries and 20 miles of rifle trenches. Fort Stevens was one of those forts but it and others had lost most of the 23,000 soldiers assigned to Washington’s defenses when they were needed for the campaign against Richmond. They were replaced by convalescing soldiers and new recruits.
It was the audacious Gen. Jubal Early who shocked the city when he and his troops marched into Washington on July 11. They got as far as Fort Stevens, about seven miles from the White House. Lincoln and his wife Mary rushed out to see what was happening but it wasn’t until the next day that a battle actually took place.
On July 12, Lincoln returned to the fort, this time standing on a parapet to watch enemy soldiers skirmishing with the men in blue. When a man standing next to the president was shot, military officials forced their commander to get down. Before the day ended, there was a real battle for Lincoln to watch when several brigades from the fort marched out on to the open field and were attacked by the Confederates. After dark, Early and his men slipped away and back to the safety of Maryland and then Virginia.
The Union claimed victory.