One of the most fascinating episodes of the American Civil War was Jubal Early's Raid on Washington. It really should be made into a movie, as it has an amazing cast of characters and a plot of epic drama. It also has led generations of Civil War buffs to ask the question: could Jubal Early have captured Washington D.C. and won the war for the Confederacy?
A quick recounting the events is in order. In the summer of 1864, the Confederacy was desperately trying to hold back the massive Union offensives in both Virginia and Georgia. Its only hope was to hold out until the presidential elections in the North, which might see Abraham Lincoln removed from office and replaced with an administration willing to negotiate a peace. To achieve this, the South had to hold its major cities, inflict heavy Union casualties, and take any opportunities to embarrass or humiliate the Union armies, so as to persuade the Northern public that the continuation of the war would be a futile waste of life and treasure.
By early June, the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac under General Ulysses S. Grant had almost wrecked one another in the series of bloody engagements collectively known as the Overland Campaign. In the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania, the Battle of North Anna, and the Battle of Cold Harbor, the two armies had bled each other white. Lee had suffered around 30,000 casualties, while Grant had suffered somewhere around 55,000. It was slaughter on a scale never before seen on American soil. Grant, through attrition and sheer force of numbers, was slowly eroding the Confederacy's ability to continue military resistance. At the same time, Lee, with every Northern soldier who died at the hands of his men, was whittling away at the Union's willingness to continue the war.
With the battlelines momentarily stalemated outside of Cold Harbor, Lee faced a new threat when he learned that a small Union army under General David Hunter had defeated Confederate forces in the strategically important Shenandoah Valley. Though he needed every man to face Grant, Lee make the risky decision to detach his vaunted Second Corps, commanded by General Jubal Early, and dispatch it to the Shenandoah Valley. Early, a pugnacious and brilliant fighter (and, by all accounts, an accomplished master of profanity) was the perfect man for the assignment. Setting out on the morning of June 13, within a week Early had chased a frightened Hunter out of the Valley and recovered it for the Confederacy.
Early now put into operation the second phase of Lee's plan, which was daring in the extreme. In addition to clearing the Shenandoah Valley, Lee wanted Early to move rapidly north, cross the Potomac River into Maryland, and present a threat to Washington D.C. Lee well understood the nervousness of the Lincoln administration when it came to the security of the capital and he hoped that such a move would force Grant to detach significant forces from the Army of the Potomac in order to protect Washington.
Early had less than 15,000 men, who were tired, hungry and lacking shoes and proper clothing. Nevertheless, they were quite possibly the finest infantry in the world. They were mostly Virginians and North Carolinians, but also included Georgians, Alabamians, and Louisianans. Some Maryland cavalry came along for the expedition, too, and their knowledge of the land would prove useful. These were the survivors of those who had marched and fought with Stonewall Jackson in the 1862-63 campaigns. Moreover, they were led by some of the best division commanders of the Confederate Army: John C, Breckinridge, John B. Gordon, Robert Rodes, and Stephen Ramseur. As Robert Kean, an official in the Confederate War Department, observed, these were "men to dare and do almost anything."
By contrast, the Union forces tasked with defending Washington were weak, scattered, and disorganized. With David Hunter having retreated into the wilds of West Virginia, there was no major Union field force between Early and Washington. General Franz Sigel had about 5,000 men defending the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and some scattered units in Maryland were under the command of General Lew Wallace, but no one seemed to be in charge and no one seemed to have any clear idea of what was happening. Even worse, the Union high command took a mystifyingly long time to realize that anything was wrong. In Washington, President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and Chief-of-Staff Halleck had no clear idea as to the location, intention, or size of Early's force. On July 3, just before the Confederates began crossing the Potomac, General Grant stated to Halleck his belief that Early's corps had returned to the Richmond area. It wasn't until July 5, the very day that Early began to cross into Maryland, that Grant decided to send reinforcements north towards Washington, and then only a single division under James Ricketts, which had a reputation for unreliability and had fought poorly at the Battle of the Wilderness.
As Early's men crossed the Potomac, scooping up Union supply depots at Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry as they did so, Sigel withdrew his smaller force onto the well-fortified high ground of Maryland Heights, just north of the river from Harper's Ferry, and awaited attack. Early spent two priceless days trying to pry Sigel out of these fortifications, but did not risk a direct assault, which he knew might fail and which would bring heavy casualties even if it succeeded. On July 7, Early decided to cut his losses, ignore Sigel and move on towards Washington. The lost time would soon be sorely regretted.
While this had been going on, Lew Wallace had suddenly emerged as the only Union man doing anything decisive or constructive. Without waiting for orders from his superiors, he began to assemble every soldier he could find at Monocacy Junction, on the direct route between Harper's Ferry and Washington. But his force was pathetically weak, made up of only of a few regiments of cavalry and a hobbled-together infantry brigade made up largely of inexperienced Ohio militiamen. In the pre-dawn darkness of July 8, salvation arrived in the form of Ricketts's infantry division.
Wallace technically had no authority to issue orders to Ricketts, who was not under his command. In a sign of the confusion that still infected the Union high command, Ricketts was under orders to proceed to Maryland Heights to reinforce Sigel. Had they marched on, the 3,000 Union troops of the division would have run directly into Early's 15,000 oncoming Confederates and been wiped out. Despite the uncertain command situation, Ricketts decided to disobey his orders and remain at Monocacy under Wallace's direction. This courageous decision very likely saved Washington City from Confederate capture.
On July 9, the Battle of Monocacy was fought. Early's 15,000 Confederates attacked Wallace's ad hoc force of less than 6,000. Early not only outnumbered Wallace nearly three-to-one, but his troops were of a much higher quality. But Wallace had selected an excellent defensive position behind Monocacy Creek and his troops fought with a surprising stubbornness. Early feinted on the left and launched his main attack on the right, spearheaded by Gordon's division. Ricketts's men dispelled rumors of their lack of fighting spirit and resisted stoutly, before superior numbers finally compelled them to give way. By the afternoon, Wallace's men had been soundly beaten and were retreating in disorder towards Baltimore. Yet, though undoubtedly a defeat, the Battle of Monocacy delayed Early's advance on Washington for a crucial day.
While fighting raged at Monocacy, confused Union authorities were making frantic efforts to prepare to the defend the capital. At first glance, it would seem to be an easy task. Three years of strenuous and expensive construction work had ringed Washington City with a vast chain of forts, trenches, and heavy artillery batteries. By the summer of 1864, it was the most heavily fortified city on the planet. Yet General Grant, in a display of overconfidence for which he has strangely escaped censure by historians, had ordered most of the garrison to join the Army of the Potomac for the spring campaign, leaving the immense defenses without the soldiers to make them worth anything. As Early approached the city, it was weakly defended.
No one appeared to be in charge in the city. Chief-of-Staff Halleck and Secretary of War Stanton seemed to be issuing orders almost at random to any officer they encountered. Stanton ordered General Alexander McCook to take command, while Halleck ordered General Quincy Gilmore to do the same and, for good measure, Grant at Petersburg sent word that he wanted General Edward Ord to be in charge. The whole thing was an enormous, confused mess.
The very muddle that was the Union command structure at Washington has made it difficult for historians to piece together exactly how many Union soldiers there were in Washington as Early approached. It might have been around eight or nine thousand men, but they were of distinctly low quality. Many were nothing more than government clerks hastily mustered into military service, who had received no training and who had never fired their weapons. The rest were members of the so-called Veteran Reserve Corps, known up until March as the Invalid Corps, men so disabled by sickness or wounds as to be unfit for active service and given jobs such as guarding prisoners and working as provost marshals. Against the men who had fought under Stonewall Jackson, these men could not be expected to put up much of a fight.
The strength of the Washington defenses lay primarily in its heavy artillery. But Grant had ordered all of the skilled artillerymen out of the capital's forts and into the ranks of the Army of the Potomac when he had embarked upon the spring campaign. Inspections rapidly undertaken during Early's approach at the orders of Halleck and Stanton revealed that many batteries were manned only by men who had no idea how to fire the cannon.
Washington City was there for the taking, if only Early could get to it in time.
But help was on the way to the beleaguered city. Down at Petersburg, Grant had finally woken up to the truth that Jubal Early and a significant chunk of the Army of Northern Virginia were in Maryland and posed a terrifying threat to Washington City, a threat that Grant himself had made possible by stripping the capital of its garrison. On the night of July 9, as Wallace's defeated troops streamed away from the battlefield at Monocacy, Grant gave orders for the VI Corps to depart by ship for Washington City without delay, as well as a division of the XIX Corps. These were seasoned veterans, led by an experienced officer in the form of General Horatio Wright. Behind the formidable Washington City defenses, these troops would easily hold even against Early's men. The question was whether or not they would arrive in time.
When the Battle of Monocacy ended on the night of July 9, Early and his small army were exhausted. They had marched hundreds of miles through the summer heat, fought innumerable skirmishes with the enemy, and capped it all off with a sharp and brutal battle along Monocacy Creek. Yet the prospect of capturing Washington City and perhaps carting Lincoln and his cabinet off to Libby Prison was so alluring that they were more than willing to continue. Early's men were on the road again on July 10, bearing down on the nearly defenseless city of Washington, while cavalry ranged across Maryland to burn bridges, tear down telegraph wires, and generally raise mayhem. Baltimore was in a panic and Washington City seemed almost cut off from the rest of the Union.
The road to Washington was hot in the extreme. There was much straggling along the way as exhausted men fell by the wayside, unable to keep up with their comrades. There had been no rain for some time and the dust was suffocating. Even for Stonewall Jackson's old "foot cavalry", there were limits to human endurance. July 10 would be remembered as one of the most difficult marches that these men had ever undertaken. When it was over, Early's troops were just north of Rockville, Maryland, within twenty miles of the Capitol Building and White House. But they were weak, thirsty, and exhausted, with many soldiers having become separated from their units along the way.
The march on July 11 started well before dawn. As exhausted as his men were, Early knew he had to push them. Though he could not have known that the ships carrying the men of the VI and XIX Corps were already on their way, he had to assume that Union reinforcements were rushing to protect Washington. He knew it was a race against time. But, as with the day before, it also turned into a contest with nature, as it was again unspeakably hot and dry on the road. Confederate cavalry under General John McCausland were the first to arrive in front of the Washington defenses. Though impressed by the formidable fortifications, he sent back word to Early that the works appeared only lightly manned. One can imagine how Early's pulse quickened when he heard the news and how his legendary cursing was put to use hurrying his men along, no matter how hot and tired they were.
As the day wore on, more and more Confederate troops marched up to the ramparts of Fort Stevens, one of the chief defensive points on the northern side of the city's defenses. It took time to get the men in position and they would need rest before being able to launch an attack. Brisk skirmishing took place out in front of the fortified line, while Confederate sharpshooters took positions from which they could snipe at Yankees within the fort. Artillery banged out. Unfortunately for Early, simply getting his main force to close up on Fort Stevens took most of the day. His men were in no shape for fighting. By the time enough men had assembled for a serious attack, darkness was already beginning to fall. A night's rest would be enough for his men to recover their strength and they would attack in the morning. Early could only hope that Union reinforcements were still more than a day away.
Yet even as Early and his commanders met at the mansion at Silver Spring, raided its wine cellar, and made jokes about returning Breckinridge to his old chair in the Senate chamber, the ships carrying the VI and XIX Corps were arriving on the Potomac River wharves. One can imagine the relief felt by Lincoln, Halleck and Stanton, to say nothing of the citizenry of Washington (aside from the pro-Southern element) as thousands of tough veteran infantrymen marched north from the boats to take up positions in the forts and trenches.
When the sun rose on July 12, Early saw a sight that must have made his heart sink. Fort Stevens and the adjacent trenches were filled with blue-coated soldiers. The heavy guns were manned by experienced artillery crews. Even with his whole force, notwithstanding the unmatched quality of his infantry, any attack on the Washington defenses would accomplish nothing but the slaughter of his own men. Moreover, he knew that his small army was now in great danger itself. The Union forces previously hemmed in at Harper's Ferry were possibly approaching from that direction and Hunter's force was finally emerging from the mountains of West Virginia. Combined with the two corps of the Army of the Potomac now in Washington, there was a risk of being caught between two fires. It was time to get away while the getting was good.
After a day of fruitless skirmishing in front of Fort Stevens, during which President Lincoln famously if foolishly came up to watch the fighting, Early and his men quietly stole away during the night. Laden with supplies they had gathered during their liberal foraging in Maryland, as well as a large amount of livestock and horses they had collected, they withdrew across the Potomac River and, a few days later, were safe in their lair of the northern Shenandoah Valley. The Union had not seen the last of Jubal Early.
Early's Washington Raid was over. It's one of the great dramas of the American Civil War and, ever since, historians have asked themselves whether he might have actually captured Washington D.C. The answer seems to be an emphatic yes. Had Jubal Early's force arrived at Washington D.C. a mere twenty-four hours before it actually did, it could have punched its way past the untried clerks and invalids without much trouble. The most obvious point of divergence that would have allowed this to happen would have been for Early not to have wasted the crucial two days trying to pry Sigel off of Maryland Heights by Harper's Ferry. Had he immediately decided to do what he eventually did - ignore Sigel and march on towards Washington - he would have had plenty of time to get there before reinforcements arrived.
Moreover, on two occasions, Grant ordered reinforcements to the north that made the difference at a critical moment, on July 5 when he ordered Ricketts's division to Baltimore and on July 9 when he ordered the VI and XIX Corps men to Washington. Had he delayed in either instance, the consequences for the Union would have been disastrous. Had Grant waited even one more day before sending Ricketts, Wallace would not have been able to delay Early at the Battle of Monocacy, Early would have arrived in front of Washington on July 10 rather than July 11 and would have been able to capture it. Had Grant waited even one more day before sending the VI and XIX Corps, Early would have been able to take the city on July 12, for the defenses would have still been feebly manned.
The consequences of a capture of Washington City by the Confederates in July of 1864 can scarcely be overstated. There would have been no way for Early to have held the city for very long after capturing it, but Grant would have had little choice but to send additional heavy reinforcements away from Petersburg to deal assist with the recapture and this might have forced the termination of the Siege of Petersburg altogether. It might even have allowed Lee to go onto the offensive. What seems almost certain is that Grant's campaign to capture Richmond would have been completely derailed.
Almost as important would have been the impact of Union war logistics. Washington City was not just the political capital, but the greatest military supply depot in the world. Warehouses were jam-packed with rifles, artillery, ammunition, blankets, uniforms, saddlery for cavalry and artillery horses, camp equipment and every other conceivable kind of military supply. Whatever Early's men would not have been able to carry off with them would have been put to the torch. The Washington Arsenal on the peninsula between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers was the largest such facility in the United States and Early's men would have surely destroyed it, just as they would surely have burned down the Navy Yard. The War Department, the Navy Department and the Treasury Department (after being looted of its greenbacks) would have just as surely been burned. Conceivably, Early's men might have left the Capitol Building and the White House nothing but charred bits of rubble. The Southerners, having marched through the towns and farms of the Shenandoah Valley that had been left in ruins by the Yankees, were not going to be in any mood for leniency against their Northern enemies, as was historically shown by their destruction of the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The destruction of military facilities in Washington City would have inflicted a mortal blow on the Union efforts to win the war in Virginia before the end of 1864.
Yet catastrophic as they would have been, the military consequences would have paled against the political ones. Historically, the summer of 1864 was a disastrous time for the Union war effort, with fiascoes at Cold Harbor, Kennesaw Mountain, and Brice's Cross Roads. Historically, the near-capture of Washington by Early was humiliating for the Lincoln administration. Imagine how more humiliating its actual capture would have been. The Democratic Party would have had a field day with political cartoons featuring Lincoln as he escaped down the Potomac River on a boar while Early's men ransacked the capital. All possibility of Lincoln winning that year's presidential election would have been finished. Even worse for the Union cause, the pro-peace wing of the Democratic Party would have seen its hand immensely strengthened. Combined with the fact that the Confederates would certainly have been in a stronger military position when the new president would have taken office in March of 1865, it seems virtually certain that a negotiated peace with the Confederacy would have followed, perhaps along the same lines as those which I outlined in my novel Shattered Nation.
The outcome of momentous historical events is often balanced on the edge of a knife. There is no better example of this in American history than the story of Jubal Early's Raid on Washington.