Old Jubilee’s Near Miss
Saturday, October 22, 2011
By Bob Hurst
Those of you who are regular readers of this series will possibly recall that the October 2010 article was about a missed opportunity by the Confederacy to capture Washington after routing the Federal Army at the Battle of First Manassas. That situation involved General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson’s desire to follow the fleeing yankees into the practically undefended city and capture the northern capital and possibly Abraham Lincoln himself. This possibly would have brought a quick end to the War. That action did not come to fruition, though, as President Jefferson Davis would not allow General Jackson to go on the offensive by launching an attack on the capital since the Confederate president was committed to the Confederacy taking the high road and maintaining only a defensive strategy for the War.
This column will be about another narrow miss by the Confederates in capturing Washington which occurred much later in the War and involved another of my favorite generals of the Confederacy, Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early. Before we look at the missed opportunity, let me first tell you a bit about General Early, or "Old Jubilee" as he was frequently called.
Jubal Anderson Early was born into a fine Virginia family of Franklin County. He graduated high in his class at West Point (Class of 1837) and, after a brief stint in the military returned to his home county to begin a practice in law. He served as a member of the Virginia Secession Convention and was actually opposed to secession. He immediately offered his services to his State, however, when Virginia voted to secede. He joined the Confederate Army and was recognized as someone with great potential by Robert E. Lee and was given the rank of colonel. He rose quickly through the ranks because of his command skills and was promoted to brigadier general from July 1861, major general from January 1863 and lieutenant general from May 1864.
General Early was considered outspoken and of strong opinion. He was recognized as an expert strategist and one of the outstanding combat commanders of the Confederate Army. Altogether he was an accomplished person and military commander. One of the things I have always admired about Jubal Early came after the War had ended. He served as the first president of the Southern Historical Society and maintained a solid and well-reasoned defense of the Confederate effort and especially of Robert E. Lee during a period when many were trying to attack both. Jubal Early lived for almost thirty years after the War ended and remained unreconstructed until the day he died – truly a man that I can admire.
Now that we’ve discussed a bit about this outstanding Southerner, let’e look at how he came so close to taking Washington and bagging Abraham Lincoln in the process.
This episode in the history of the War began in mid-June 1864 when General Robert E. Lee sent a dispatch to General Early concerning a rather ambitious plan for summer action. At this time Jubal Early was commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps which was known as "The Army of the Valley".
In this plan General Lee wanted General Early to first take Lynchburg and then make a sweep through the Shenandoah Valley to the northern extremities of Virginia before turning south through Maryland and eventually end by making an assault on Washington . Two other elements of this ambitious plan, in addition to overthrowing Union garrisons along the way, were to destroy telegraph and railroad lines in the vicinity of Washington and Baltimore and also have part of the force make a lightning strike into southern Maryland to free the Confederate prisoners being held at the infamous Point Lookout prison.
The plan was extremely ambitious but General Lee knew that the South was running out of time and it would take something daring to turn the tide on the scourge in blue which had a vastly larger supply of soldiers to extend the War, money to finance the War and supplies to support its army. Plus, Lee had always been a risk-taker and in General Early he felt he had the most capable commander to successfully execute such a daring plan since the death of the redoubtable "Stonewall". Another element of this bold plan was to hopefully draw the armies of Grant and Meade away from the Richmond/Petersburg theater when they realized an attack was being made on Washington. This would offer some relief to General Lee’s army.
General Early’s sweep northward through the Shenandoah Valley began well with a resounding defeat of the blue coats at Lynchburg on June 18 and 19. This victory was especially gratifying since the yankee commander was General David Hunter, one of that group of reprobate northern commanders who delighted in attacking Southern civilian targets a la Sherman and Sheridan.
By early July General Early’s forces had reached as far north as Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg where federal garrisons were taken by the boys in gray. Early, at this point, slowed down the approach to Washington to allow his weary troops to rest and relax for awhile and enjoy the feasts intended for the yankee troops at the captured garrisons. General Early also spent time in this area ransoming some of the neighboring towns to make the northern sympathizers pay for the destruction done to the Shenandoah Valley by the likes of Hunter and Sheridan. This delay in the advance on Washington, however, created problems as we shall soon see.
A major hurdle on the advance toward Washington occurred at Monocacy. Under the outstanding leadership of Early and generals John B. Gordon, John C. Breckenridge, Stephen Ramseur, John McCausland and Robert Rodes the Confederates inflicted massive casualties on the federals (more than 20% of the federal troop count) and the victory opened the way to Washington but the battle proved more difficult than anticipated and caused another delay in the approach to the capital by the weary troops. [ An interesting sidenote to the battle is that the Union commander, General Lew Wallace, after the War authored the marvelous book BEN HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST which was many years later made into an Oscar-winning motion picture. That picture to this day remains one of the all-time favorites of a certain fellow who first saw it as a young boy growing up in Alabama. OK, I’ll admit that some yankees did accomplish some things worthy of recognition.]
By July of 1864 the city of Washington resembled a fortress. Since the beginning of theWar, some 60 forts had been built around the city in addition to 37 miles of earthworks containing sites for artillery. More than 31,000 troops were available for the defense of the city but few of these were regular troops or battle-hardened veterans. Many were troops in training and even government workers and few had the ability to capably handle artillery duties. All of this was known to General Early since Washington was filled with Confederate spies.
By July 10 General Early was ready to make the final approach to Washington. Unfortunately the Confederate troops, wearied by month-long campaigning over long distances in the stifling heat, were near exhaustion. On the afternoon of July 11 it was reported to General Early that it likely was possible to breech the defenses at Fort Stevens, one of the chain of forts surrounding the city. As the Confederates advanced, however, they were being met by Federal reinforcements of regular troops that had begun arriving that morning. General Early and his officers decided to not force the issue that day but to give the men another day of rest and survey the situation the next morning.
The final advance on Washington began in the morning of July 12. By this time Federal reinforcements had flowed into the city – by some estimates as many as 20,000 troops. The 14,000 Confederates engaged the Federals for most of the day and there were numerous skirmishes and some artillery fire but Washington was not going to fall that day.
The most interesting event of the day, however, involved Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and his entourage had traveled out to Fort Stevens in the afternoon to watch the battle. Lincoln’s group was standing on the parapet of the fort viewing the action when a Confederate sharpshooter stationed almost 1000 yards from the fort noticed a tall man wearing a top hat standing among a group atop the fort. The sharpshooter took aim and fired and saw someone go down. It was impossible, though, to determine exactly which person he had hit because of the distance and the haze created by the extreme heat of the day.
The individual who was killed by the shot was a physician named Cornelius Crawford. Crawford had been standing beside Abraham Lincoln. When the group realized how close Lincoln had come to being killed they quickly rushed him down from the parapet. As Lincoln removed himself from his position of vulnerability, he issued an order authorizing artillery bombardment of the area harboring the sharpshooters. This included the civilian homes in the area.
At the end of the day of skirmishes, General Early ordered his troops to withdraw back to Virginia.
In his dispatch to General Early, General Lee had indicated that he wanted Early to "threaten Washington". This could be interpreted as meaning General Lee never envisioned the capital being taken but merely threatened to the point that forces under Grant and Meade would be pulled from the Richmond/Petersburg theater, thus taking pressure off Lee’s army, to rush to the defense of Washington.
Hindsight indicates that had Jubal Early been able to get his troops to Washington just a day or two earlier then it is entirely likely the city could have been taken. The overall plan was so ambitious, though, that it exhausted the Confederates trying to cover such a great distance and accomplish so much. The battle at Monocacy also played a major role in delaying the Confederate forces in reaching Washington before reinforcements arrived and likely saved the city from being captured.
It seems certain that if Early could have taken Washington or if the sharpshooter’s bullet had found Lincoln then things would have been changed drastically in the summer of ’64. It’s even possible that the Federals would have called a cease-fire since losing their capital would have certainly created a damaging psychological blow to the North. The War never was very popular among the civilian population of the North.
As it stands, though, it is just another "what if". Of course, you cannot change history. I truly wish that General Early and the boys in gray could have gotten to Washington just two days earlier. Ah, well, as Whittier so wisely wrote: "For of all sad words of tongue or pen the saddest are these: it might have been!"