HISTORYtalks: The capital can't be taken!: The Civil War Defenses of Washington by Steve T. Phan
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About the Event
Please join us for a Chambersburg Civil War Seminars & Tours Lecture Series! Our next lecture will be: The capital can't be taken!: The Civil War Defenses of Washington by Steve T. Phan. Cost is $5 per person. Zoom Login details will be sent with your email registration confirmation.
Fortress Washington was under siege. Three years of extensive construction, expansion, and training—all at the expenditure of exorbitant resources—had come down to a race. The Confederate Army of the Valley District, commanded by Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, advanced south along the Rockville-Georgetown Pike on the morning of 10 July 1864. The day was hot and humid, and dust covered the road as the exhausted rebel force aimed to complete their campaign by seizing the Federal capital. General Robert E. Lee’s “Bald Old Man” was running out of time. The previous day, Early’s infantry and cavalry columns unexpectedly ran into heavy Federal opposition along the Monocacy River on the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland. Token Resistance was expected, however. Elements of the Federal Middle Department (8th Army Corps) commanded by Major General Lew Wallace operated in the area for several days. Wallace cobbled together a hodgepodge mix of rear-echelon, garrison, and part-time troops to engage Early long enough for reinforcements to arrive on the field, and most importantly, to secure Baltimore and Washington. Support appeared on the waterways. The Federal high command outside Petersburg, Virginia at last responded to ominous reports of a large Confederate force operating in the Shenandoah Valley and advanced north into Maryland Wallace’s prospect of delaying Early improved dramatically with the arrival of veterans from the Army of the Potomac. Brigadier General James B. Rickett’s 3rd Division 6th Corps led the vanguard of reinforcements dispatched from the trenches of Petersburg. It was Rickett’s division that Early’s collided with on the morning of 9 July, turning a minor action into a major pitched-battle. The blue-clad defenders, outgunned and undermanned—a rare occasion for Civil War battles—retreated in disorder toward Maryland after an 8-hour fight. As a result, recalled one of Early’s division commanders, Major General James B. Gordon: “The way lay open to Washington.”
Awaiting the Confederate army was one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world. By summer 1864, the elaborate defensive system encircling Washington D.C. comprised 60 forts, 93 detached batteries, 5 blockhouses, fortified bridges, over 30 miles of military roads, and armament massing 800 cannons. Supplementing the defenses was a garrison of over 30,000 men. The capital defenders comprised heavy artillerist—expertly trained to operate the large caliber artillery pieces mounted in the forts—together with a mix of infantry and cavalry regiments. Nominally, such a heavy force entrenched in fortified positions made an enemy advance on Washington D.C. foolhardy and desperate. But 1864 called for desperate measures by both the Union and Confederacy.
Steve T. Phan is a Park Ranger and Historian at the Civil War Defenses of Washington. He recently served as acting Chief of Interpretation at Camp Nelson National Monument. He has also worked at Gettysburg National Military Park. Richmond National Battlefield Park, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Stones River National Battlefield, Rock Creek Park, and Buffalo Soldiers National Monument. A military history scholar of the Civil War era, Phan’s research focuses on military occupation, operational command, and fortifications during the Civil War. He is the author of articles about Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War and the Defenses of Washington for numerous publications. He was nominated for the National Park Service Tilden Award for Excellence in Interpretation (2019). He holds a Master’s degree in American History from Middle Tennessee State University.