by Andy Mateja

As Grant & Lee settled down to a protracted siege outside of Richmond and Petersburg, Lee was becoming restless and unwilling to completely surrender the initiative to his Union antagonists.
Believing Washington was stripped of protective troops to fill the Grant’s huge casualty losses of the past 40 days and probably vulnerable to attack, Lee’s audacious nature took center stage with an audacious plan to divert attention from the siege and demonstrate to Washington DC and the rest of the North that the Army of Northern Virginia is still a dangerous threat. His plan was bold and unexpected by his opponents… detach the Second Corps under Jubal Early from his defensive line right under the noses of George Meade and Ulysses Grant and have this “mobile strike force” defeat Gen David Hunter’s Union forces in the important logistical center of Lynchburg VA move northward down the Shenandoah Valley, cross the Potomac River into Maryland, and threaten Washington DC. Elements of his plan were used effectively back in 1862 with Stonewall Jackson to divert men and supplies from McClellan’s advancing army and keep Lincoln and his advisors off balance and under constant duress.
1864 after all was an election year and it was Lee’s strategic goal to seize the initiative during the summer months and prove to the Northern voters that despite Grant’s costly efforts to overwhelm Lee’s smaller and poorly supplied forces (with Lincoln’s TOTAL support), the Confederate Army was still able to move freely and threaten vital Northern industrial and population centers….including Washington DC. The hopeful result would be that the voters would no longer support Lincoln’s war effort and perhaps vote him out of office.
Jubal Early began the movement of his forces (now called the Army of the Valley District) on June 13th and easily defeated Hunter’s forces that retreated westward into the Alleghenies. Early left a force behind to secure Lynchburg and moved northward with less than 15,000 troops , ordering his cavalry to destroy the B&O railroad bridges while he captured Winchester and Harpers Ferry. Confederate President Jefferson Davis also wanted Early to free the rebel prisoners at Point Lookout (almost 100 miles from Wash DC) which now complicated Lee’s original strategy. To further complicate matters, Early’s forces decided to enjoy a Fourth of July “feast” at Martinsburg which slowed down his planned advance on Washington DC. When Early did move in Maryland he ran into a makeshift Union defensive force commanded by Gen Lew Wallace of Shiloh notoriety. After collecting over $200,000 from Hagerstown and Frederick, Early thought he was facing only local militia and ordered his commanders to “brush them aside” and continue the advance. Wallace delayed Early’s advance through a hard fought battle at Monocacy Junction on July 9th which bought valuable time for the defense of Washington DC which Lincoln and the War Dept now realized was Early’s target. Speed was now of the essence for both sides.
When Grant learned of the danger to Washington DC, he dispatched the VI Corps and the newly arrived XIX Corps from New Orleans. Early finally arrived on the outskirts of Washington DC on July 11th – several days behind schedule. However his men were exhausted from the Monocacy battle and the hot dusty march in the oppressive 90+ degree July heat. Early was unable to launch an attack that day even thought the Union reinforcements had not yet arrived in strength? Early knew his one-and-only opportunity was slipping away…………
If Early had launched his attack that day near the Seventh Street Road there was a good chance he could have captured Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary and other dignitaries at the Old Soldiers Home which Lincoln frequented on a regular basis at his “summer residence”. Lincoln however never one to shirk from danger, wanted to be on the scene and traveled with a small cavalry escort to Ft Stevens where much of the fighting was destined to take place. However only skirmishing occurred for the rest of the afternoon.
As Early planned for his attack the next morning , more than 20,000 Union troops arrived and filed into the outer defenses. This defense line had been mostly vacant the day before. After seeing the Union defenses now effectively manned, Early decided not to launch a full attack and instead settled on skirmishing. Lincoln and his party came under fire at this time on the parapets of Ft Stevens, with one of the party being wounded in the leg. Skirmishing escalated into cannon duels and troop engagements, with most of the fighting occurring where present day Walter Reed Hospital is located.
At day’s end Early decided no more could be accomplished there and with the return of much of his cavalry from the failed effort to free the prisoners at Point lookout, he decided to pull back and return to Virginia. Lack of aggressive Federal pursuit angered Lincoln who let his feeling be known to Grant. He wanted a commander assigned to the protection of the Washington DC region and Grant chose Gen Phillip Sheridan.
Lee, rather than having Early return to the main confederate force outside Petersburg, ordered Early to remain in the Shenandoah Valley to keep the threat on Washington DC alive through the fall months. Early and Sheridan began to square off in August but the advantage was still Early’s. It was at this dark period that Lincoln believed he would lose reelection which he shared with his cabinet. With both Grant and Sherman stalemated and Early still free to roam the Shenandoah Valley, he could not see how the Northern voters would continue to support his war efforts.
Little did Lincoln realize that a few short weeks later all would completely turn around 180 degrees and his reelection and ultimate victory would be reassured……………………………….