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A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Operations in front of Washington and recrossing the Potomac

< A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America


On the 10th, the march was resumed at daylight, and we bivouacked four miles from Rockville, on the Georgetown pike, having marched twenty miles. Ramseur's division which had remained behind for a short time to protect a working party engaged in destroying the railroad bridge, was detained, for a time in driving off the party of cavalry which had been following from Maryland Heights, and did not get up until one o'clock at night. McCausland, moving in front on this day, drove a body of the enemy's cavalry before him, and had quite a brisk engagement at Rockville, where he encamped after defeating and driving off the enemy.

We moved at daylight on the 11th: McCausland moving on the Georgetown pike, while the infantry, preceded by Imboden's cavalry under Colonel Smith, turned to the left at Rockville, so as to reach the 7th street pike which runs by Silver Spring into Washington, Jackson's cavalry moved on the, left flank. The previous day had been very warm, and the roads were exceedingly dusty, MS there had been no rain for several weeks. The heat during the night had been very oppressive, and but little rest had been obtained. This day was an exceedingly hot one, and there was no air stirring. While marching, the men were enveloped in a suffocating cloud of dust, and many of them fell by the way from exhaustion. Our progress was therefore very much impeded, but I pushed on as rapidly as possible, hoping to get into the fortifcations around Washington before they could be manned. Smith drove a small body of cavalry before him into the works on the 7th street pike, and dismounted his men and deployed them as skirmishers. I rode ahead of the infantry, and arrived in sight of Fort Stevens on this road a short time after noon, when I discovered that the works were but feebly manned.

Rodes, whose division was in front, was immediately ordered to bring it into line as rapidly as possible, throw out skirmishers, and move into the works if he could. My whole column was then moving by flank, which was the only practicable mode of marching on the road we were on, and before Rodes' division could be brought up, we saw a cloud of dust in the rear of the works towards Washington, and soon a column of the enemy filed into them on the right and left, and skirmishers were thrown out in front, while an artillery fire was opened on us from a number of batteries. This defeated our hopes of getting possession of the works by surprise, and it became necessary to reconnoitre.

Rodes' skirmishers were thrown to the front, driving those of the enemy to the cover of the works, and we proceeded to examine the fortifications in order to ascertain if it was practicable to carry them by assault. They were found to be exceedingly strong, and consisted of what appeared to be enclosed forts for heavy artillery, with a tier of lower works in front, of each pierced for an immense number of guns, the whole being connected by curtains with ditches in front, and strengthened by palisades and abattis. The timber had been felled within cannon range all around and left on the ground, making a formidable obstacle, and every possible approach was raked by artillery. On the right was Rock Creek, running through a deep ravine which had been rendered impassable by the felling of the timber on each side, and beyond were the works on the Georgetown pike which had been reported to be the strongest of all. On the left, as far as the eye could reach, the works appeared to be of the same impregnable character. The position was naturally strong for defence, and the examination showed, what might have been expected, that every appliance of science and unlimited means had been used to render the fortifications around "Washington as strong as possible. This reconnoissance consumed the balance of the day.

The rapid marching which had broken down a number of the men who were barefooted or weakened by previous exposure, and had been left in the Valley and directed to be collected at Winchester, and the losses in killed and wounded at Harper's Ferry, Maryland Heights, and Monocacy, had reduced my infantry to about 8,000 muskets. Of those remaining, a very large number were greatly exhausted by the last two days marching, some having fallen by sunstroke, and I was satisfied, when we arrived in front of the fortifications, that not more than one-third of my force could have been carried into action. I had about forty pieces of field artillery, of which the largest were 12 plunder Napoleons, besides a few pieces of horse artillery with the cavalry. McCausland reported the works on the (Georgetown pike too strongly manned for him to assault. We could not move to the right or the left without its being discovered from a signal station on the top of the "Soldier's Home," which overlooked the country, and the enemy would have been enabled to move in his works to meet us. Under the circumstances, to have rushed my men blindly against the fortifications, without understanding the state of things, would have been worse than folly. If we had any friends in Washington, none of them came out to give us information, and this satisfied me that the place was not undefended. I knew that troops had arrived from Grant's army, for prisoners had been captured from Rickett's division of the fifth Corps at Monocacy. From Sharpsburg I had sent a message to Mosby. by one of his men, requesting him to cross the Potomac below Harper's Ferry, cut the railroad and telegraph, and endeavour to find out the condition of things in Washington, but he had not crossed the river and I had received no information from him. A northern paper, which was obtained, gave the information that Hunter, after moving up the Ohio River in steamboats, was passing over the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and I knew that he would be at Harper's Ferry soon, as Imboden had done very little damage to the road west of Martinsburg. After dark on the 11th, I held a consultation with Major-Generals Breckenridge, Rodes, Gordon and Rarmseur, in which I stated to them the danger of remaining where we were, and the necessity of doing something immediately, as the probability was that the passes of the South Mountain and the fords of the upper Potomac would soon be closed against us. After interchanging views with them, being very reluctant to abandon the project of capturing Washington, I determined to make an assault on the enemy's works at daylight next morning, unless some information should be received before that time showing its impractibility, and so informed those officers. During the night a dispatch was received from Gen. Bradley Johnson from near Baltimore, informing me that he had received information, from a reliable source, that two corps had arrived from Gen. Grant's army, and that his whole army was probably in motion. This caused me to delay the attack until I could examine the works again, and, as soon as it was light enough to see, I rode to the front and found the parapets lined with troops. I had, therefore, reluctantly, to give up all hopes of capturing Washington, after I had arrived in night of the dome of the Capitol, and given the Federal authorities a terrible fright.

Grant in his report says, in regard to the condition of things when I moved towards Washington: "The garrisons of Baltimore and Washington were at this time made up of heavy artillery regiments, hundred days men, and detachments from the invalid corps." And, in regard to the force of Wallace at Monocacy, he says: "His force was not sufficient to ensure success, but he fought the enemy nevertheless, and although it resulted in a defeat to our arms, yet it detained the enemy and thereby served to enable Gen. Wright to reach Washington with two divisions of the 6th Corps, and the advance of the 19th Corps, before him." Stanton says in his report: "Here (at Washington) they (we) were met by troops from the Army of the Potomac, consisting of the 6th Corps under General Wright, a part of the 8th Corps under General Gilmore, and a part of the 19th Corps, just arrived from New Orleans under General Emory." Taking Grant's statement of the troops which had arrived from his army as the most reliable, they were sufficient to hold the works against my troops, at least until others could arrive. But, in addition to those which had already arrived, there were the detachments from the invalid corps, called, I believe, the "Veteran Reserves" (of which I was informed there were about 5,000), the heavy artillery regiments, the hundred days' men. and. I suppose, the part of the 8th Corps mentioned by Stanton. To all these may he added the local troops, or militia, and the government employees. Some of the northern papers stated that, between Saturday and Monday, I could have entered the city: but on Saturday I was lighting at Monocacy, thirty-five miles from Washington, a force which I could not leave in my rear: and, after disposing of that force and moving as rapidly as it was possible for me to move. I did not arrive in front of the fortifications until after noon on Monday, and then my troops were exhausted, and it required time to bring them up into line. I had then made a march, over the circuitous route by Charlottesville. Lynchburg, and Salem, down the Valley, and through the passes of the South Mountain, which, notwithstanding the delays in dealing with Hunter's, Sigel's, and Wallace's forces, is, for its length and rapidity, I believe, without a parallel in this or any other modern war—the unopposed marauding excursion of the freebooter Sherman through Georgia, just excepted. My small force had been thrown up to the very wall of the Federal Capital, north of a river which could not be forded at any point within 40 miles, and with a heavy force and the South Mountain in my rear—the passes through which mountain could be held by a small number of troops. A glance at the map, when it is recollected that, the Potomac is a wide river, and navigable to Washington for the largest vessels, will cause the intelligent reader to wonder, not why I failed to take Washington, but why I had the audacity to approach it as I did, with the small force under my command. It was supposed by some, who were not informed of the facts, that I delayed in the lower Valley longer than was necessary: but, an examination of the foregoing narrative will show that not one moment was spent in idleness, but that every one was employed in making some arrangement, or removing some difficulty in any way, which it was necessary to make or remove, so as to enable me to advance with a prospect of success. I could not move across the Potomac and through the passes of the South Mountain, with any safety, until Sigel was driven from, or safely housed in, the fortifications at Maryland Heights.

After abandoning the idea of capturing Washington, I determined to remain in front of the fortifications during the 12th, and retire at night, as I was satisfied that to remain longer would cause the loss of my entire force.

Johnson had burned the bridges over the Gunpowder, on the Harrisburg and Philadelphia roads, threatened Baltimore, and started for Point Lookout, but I sent an order for him to return. The attempt to release the prisoners of which I was informed by General Lee, was not made, as the enemy had received notice of it in some way. Major Harry Gilmore, who burned the bridge over the Gunpowder on the Philadelphia road, captured Major-General Franklin on a train at that point, but he was permitted to escape, either by the carelessness or exhaustion of the guard placed over him, before I was informed of the capture.

On the afternoon of the 12th, a heavy reconnoitering force was sent out by the enemy, which, after severe skirmishing, was driven back by Rodes' division with but slight loss to us. About dark we commenced retiring and did so without molestation.[1] Passing through Rockville and Poolsville, we crossed the Potomac at White's Ford, above Leesburg in London County, on the morning of the 14th, bringing off the prisoners captured at Monocacy and everything else in safety. There was some skirmishing in the rear between our cavalry and that of the enemy which was following, and, on the afternoon of the 14th, there was some artillery tiring by the enemy, across the river, at our cavalry which was watching the fords. Besides the money levied in Hagerstown and Frederick, which was subsequently very useful in obtaining supplies, we brought off quite a large number of beef cattle, and the cavalry obtained a number of horses, some being also procured for the artillery. [2]

  1. Grant says: "On the 12th, a reconnaissance was thrown out in front of Fort Stevens to ascertain the enemy's position and force. A severe skirmish ensued, in which we lost 280 in killed and wounded. The enemy's loss was probably greater. He commenced retiring during the night." In regard to the same affair, Stanton says: "By these troops (Wright's, Glilmore's, and Emory's) the enemy was driven back from Washington and retreated hastily to Virginia, pursued by our forces under General Wright." Grant's statement is correct, with the exception of the estimate he places on our loss. Comment on Stanton's is unnecessary when it is compared with that of Grant.
  2. On the night of the 12th, the house of Postmaster-General Blair near Silver Spring was burned, and it was assumed by the enemy that it was burned by my orders. The fact is that I had nothing to do with it, and do not yet know how the burning occurred. Though I believed that retaliation was fully justified by the previous acts of the enemy, yet I did not wish to incur the risk of any license on the part of my troops, and it was obviously impolite to set the house on fire when we were retiring, as it amounted to notice of our movement. Some of my officers thought the burning was done by some person in the neighborhood, who took advantage of our presence to commit the act with impunity. It may have been occasioned by a shell from the enemy's guns some of which went in that direction late in the day, or it may have been the act of some of my men; and a number of them had abundant provocation for the act, in the sight of their own devastated homes as they marched down the Valley on Hunter's track. In retaliation for the burning of this house, two Federal gunboats with a body of soldiers on board were sent up the Rappahannock River, on which there was not a Confederate soldier, to burn the house of the widow of the brother of the Hon. James A. Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, and she and her little children were turned out of doors, and the house with all its contents consigned to the flames. A card was left, signed by Butler or his order, stating that the house was burned in retaliation for the burning of the Hon. Montgomery Blair's house. This retaliation upon a widowed lady and her orphan children, by a combined military and naval expedition, was worthy of the agent selected, and the cause in which he was engaged. But, though it was very congenial to his nature, I do not regard Butler as alone responsible for this act. The odium of it should attach to his superiors Lincoln and Grant, he being the favorite of the former, and the subordinate of the latter, and at that time, serving under his immediate orders.