Rebel Attack on NW Washington

By Elliot Carter

This stunning Civil War map lays out a planned Confederate attack on Washington DC. In 1864 General Lee was searching for a way to relieve pressure on his army at Petersburg, where he was under siege. He gambled and sent General Jubal Early and 10,000 troops on a diversion to attack Washington. The hope was that Lincoln would panic and recall some of the Union forces. A good showing against the Capital also had the potential to impact the results of the looming fall elections.

Gen. Early's troops looped around Washington and approached it from the northwest. Soldiers marched down River Road through Bethesda and then fanned out into a massive line of battle stretching from Friendship Heights to Fort Totten. Then the Confederate troops had to rest; they had covered 250 miles over the past month and were in no condition to mount an attack that afternoon.

The yellow lines on this modern map show the fortifications confronting them. Washington's garrison at this time was barely 9,000 old men, convalescents and government employees-turned-soldiers. An official study conducted previously had estimated that a minimum of 25,000 men were required to defend the earthworks.

Washington was in a state of chaos during all of this. The Smithsonian records that:

"Confronted by what they had so long feared—actual danger—the civilians of Washington went into paroxysms of hysteria, telling each other that a Confederate army "50,000 strong" was laying waste to Maryland and Pennsylvania. Military and political functionaries, meanwhile, went berserk." 

Over the past few days thousands of tough veteran reinforcements were rushed north from the Siege of Petersburg. The veterans started arriving by boat that evening and filed into the miles of pre-constructed earthworks.

General Early's heart sank as he saw this unfold. He conducted reconnaissance the next day and ordered some minor probing attacks, but the prize was no longer there for the taking. “I had, therefore, reluctantly to give up all hopes of capturing Washington, after I had arrived in sight of the dome of the Capitol” he lamented. The assault diagramed on this map never went forward. 

According to Mr. Lincoln's Forts

"Early realized the precarious position in which he had placed his troops. His army lay far from Lee's support and virtually isolated above the Potomac onthe Maryland side of the river. Federal troops were rapidly closing his path of retreat, and the arrival of the veterans from the Army of the Potomac prevented the capture of Washington."

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