Battle of Fort Stevens (July 11 - 12, 1864)

Updated: September 27, 2016

The Confederate defeat at the Battle of Fort Stevens, which took place in the District of Columbia on July 11 and 12, 1864, ended the last Rebel invasion of a Northern state during the Civil War.

On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade's Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee's army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade's flank.

As Grant pressed Lee in eastern Virginia during the spring and summer, Lee devised a plan to divert Union forces away from his army. Lee designated Lieutenant General Jubal Early's corps as the Army of the Valley and, in June, ordered Early to leave Petersburg, Virginia and to re-deploy his army to the Shenandoah Valley. On June 17 and 18, Early's army defeated Major General David Hunter's Union forces at the Battle of Lynchburg, leaving control of the valley in Confederate hands.

After driving Federal forces out of the Shenandoah Valley, Early launched his own offensive. His operations got off to a good start as he marched his 14,000-man Army of the Valley past the Federal garrison at Harper's Ferry and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland at Shepherdstown on July 5 and 6. Desperate to halt a possible Confederate assault on Washington, Major General Lew Wallace hastily assembled a small army to delay Early until Grant could send reinforcements to protect the capital. On July 9, Early's army defeated Wallace's 5,800 soldiers at the Battle of Monocacy near Frederick, Maryland. Although Wallace lost the battle, he bought precious time for Grant to shift troops from eastern Virginia to check Early's advance.

On July 10, Early continued his advance toward the nation's capital, but he faced no easy task. By 1864, Washington was the most highly fortified city in the world, surrounded by over 60 forts and hundreds of trenches and artillery batteries. Still, the city was vulnerable because Grant had stripped the defenses of manpower to strengthen the Army of the Potomac in its pursuit of Lee. Only 9,000 reserves and convalescents were on hand to man Washington's elaborate defenses when Early invaded Maryland.

When Early's army entered the District of Columbia on July 11, the daylong march through 90-degree heat had taken its toll. In Early's words, his soldiers were "almost completely exhausted and not in a condition to make an attack." Early decided to let the bulk of his army rest and sent out skirmishers to probe the enemy defenses. At about the same time, Grant's reinforcements from the 6th and 19th Corps, commanded by Major General Horatio Wright, began arriving in Washington. The senior officer in command, Major General Alexander McCook, immediately sent Wright's soldiers to the front. 

Based on reconnaissance reports, Early determined that his best avenue for approaching the capital was from the north along the 7th Street Pike, which was defended by Fort Stevens. Around 3 p.m. the intensity of the skirmishing before Fort Stevens picked up, and Rebel cavalrymen penetrated the advance Union picket line but were driven back as Grant's reinforcements began arriving at the fort.

Also present at Fort Stevens during this encounter were President Lincoln and his wife, Mary, who rode out to observe the engagement. During the action, enemy sharpshooters wounded an army surgeon standing next to Lincoln, who was summarily told to take cover. Interestingly, one of the Confederate commanders during this engagement was Major General John C. Breckinridge, who Lincoln had defeated in the previous presidential election. The Battle of Fort Stevens marked the only time in American history that two former opponents in a presidential election faced each other across battle lines.

The skirmishing around Fort Stevens continued on July 12. Early had planned to launch an assault that day but again, in his own words, "before it could be made it became apparent that the enemy had been strongly re-enforced, and we knew that the Sixth Corps had arrived from Grant's army, and after consultation with my division commanders I became satisfied that the assault, even if successful, would be attended with such great sacrifice as would insure the destruction of my whole force before the victory could have been made available, and, if unsuccessful, would necessarily have resulted in the loss of the whole force. I, therefore, reluctantly determined to retire . . . . across the Potomac to this county before it became too late." That evening, Early withdrew his army from the District of Columbia. He crossed the Potomac River into Leesburg, Virginia on July 13, ending the last Confederate invasion of a Northern state during the Civil War.

The following Ohio units participated in the Battle of Fort Stevens:

Infantry units:

150th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

151st Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

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"Battle of Fort Stevens," Ohio Civil War Central, 2019, Ohio Civil War Central. 25 Aug 2019 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=493>

APA Style

"Battle of Fort Stevens." (2019) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved August 25, 2019, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=493

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