Fort Stevens

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023-2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the October 2023 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

The Union’s panicked and disorganized retreat from the First Battle of Bull Run laid bare an obvious danger to the North. The Union capital of Washington, D.C. was vulnerable to attack from a Confederate army. But for the Confederate’s own disorganization after their victory, the very first major battle in the Eastern Theater of the war could have resulted in the capture of the Union’s government. Accordingly, it was soon determined that substantial fortifications around the capital needed to be deliberately, quickly, and diligently constructed.

And so it was that 68 forts of varying size and capability would be eventually constructed to protect Washington, D.C. As mentioned in the October 2023 history brief, I had the opportunity to visit the “Lincoln Cottage” after our excellent field trip to Manassas, which was planned by Roundtable President Bob Pence. From there it was a short drive to one of these 68 forts, that being known as Fort Stevens.

Fort Stevens as it appeared during the author’s visit

After the First Battle of Bull Run, Major General George McClellan was appointed as the Union Army Commander. He immediately recognized the need to protect the capital, deployed his available troops for its defense, and in August 1861 placed Major John Barnard of the Corps of Engineers in charge of building a system of forts which would initially mount 300 artillery pieces. Like so many organizationally related decisions, Little Mac’s choice of Barnard to what would be a frustrating and underappreciated role turned out to be an excellent choice.

As noted in Benjamin Franklin Cooling III and Walton H. Owen II’s book Mr. Lincoln’s Forts, working with a small coterie of a dozen engineering officers, Barnard by the end of 1861 could point with pride to some rapid results: 23 forts south of the Potomac River, 14 forts and three batteries between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and 11 forts beyond the Anacostia River. These initial 48 positions varied in size with armaments being mostly 24- and 32-pounder cannons on seacoast carriages with a spattering of 24-pounder siege guns, rifled Parrotts, and smaller caliber field artillery. Barnard advocated throughout the war for sufficient manning of the forts’ garrisons lest those troops be sent to the field armies.

Originally named Fort Massachusetts, it was renamed Fort Stevens in honor of General Isaac Stevens, who was killed at the battle of Chantilly. Construction began shortly after Bull Run on high ground five miles north of the capital. The fort had a commanding view of several miles in multiple directions but most importantly northward. It protected the vital Seventh Street Turnpike that ran directly from Silver Spring, Maryland to Washington. When finally completed in 1862, as noted in Mr. Lincoln’s Forts, it was “375 perimeter yards…and was a lunette with a stockaded gorge or rear face, with 19 guns and mortars.” By 1864 it was more powerfully armed with four 24-pounder seacoast cannons, six 24-pounder siege guns, two 8-inch siege howitzers, and five 30-pounder Parrotts. It had two magazines and a bombproof sufficient for its garrison of 423 officers and men. Interestingly, it was rated only as “fair” by Barnard’s staff in combat readiness.

An 1864 photograph of Fort Stevens

Fair or not, in July of 1864 the war was fortuitously and fatefully coming in the direction of Fort Stevens. The strategic situation was that General Ulysses Grant had led the Army of the Potomac across the James River and put the city of Petersburg under siege. Seeing an opportunity, General Robert E. Lee, in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, dispatched Jubal Early’s corps to move north and threaten the Union capital. According to Stephen Sears in his book Lincoln’s Lieutenants, Grant drew the wrath of some in the Union War Department for crossing the James River, especially General Henry Halleck who proclaimed, “I predicted this to General Grant before he crossed the James River and that Lee would play the same game of shuttle cock between him and Washington that he did with McClellan.” Responding to Lee’s threat, Grant adroitly ordered the Union VI and XIX corps to transport by sea to Washington, D.C.

Early wasted no time heading up the Shenandoah Valley, brushed aside Union forces sent to delay him, entered Maryland, and subjugated towns such as Frederick, demanding and receiving supplies, money, and other booty. Emerging from Washington to stop him was General Lew Wallace with a pick-up force just large enough to slow Early’s momentum for a crucial day on the Monocacy River. Thence, Early headed to Silver Spring, Maryland, where his victorious troops happened upon the mansions of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and his father, which the Confederate troops ransacked and in which they discovered one of the most fabulous supplies of whiskey and wine probably in the entire state of Maryland.

Drunkenness took its toll on Early’s men, and they did not resume a serious advance toward Washington until late in the day of July 11. By then they were exhausted from a hot march and faced the just now arriving Union VI corps. Those troops bolstered the garrison at Fort Stevens, whose parapets and heavy artillery presented in and of itself a formidable obstacle to Early’s advance on the capital. Accordingly, rather than a full assault, Early wisely used small troop contingents to heavily skirmish with the Union forces on July 12.

All the while, President Abraham Lincoln had kept a cool head projecting only a casual concern about of the news of Early’s advance, which went a long way toward avoiding panic in the capital. Curious about what was happening on the front, Lincoln and Mary Todd traveled from the Lincoln Cottage to visit Fort Stevens; the record is unclear regarding how much time he and she spent there.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

But as Doris Kearns Goodwin notes in her book Team of Rivals, “The tall president’s presence in the line of fire made a vivid impression on those who were there. ‘The president evinced a remarkable coolness and disregard of danger,’ recalled General Horatio Wright. Even after a surgeon standing by his side was shot, ‘he still maintained his ground till I told him I should have to remove him forcibly…In consideration of my earnestness in the matter, he agreed to compromise by sitting behind the parapet instead of standing upon it.’…Still, Lincoln would periodically stand, provoking concern on the part of a young captain who shouted, ‘Get down, you fool.'” Years later, the captain, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., son of a poet whom Lincoln greatly admired, became a distinguished Supreme Court justice.

Early retired as quickly as he arrived and to Lincoln’s consternation escaped unmolested due to confusion in the Union command. Sayeth Goodwin, “Mary Lincoln, sounding her husband’s profound disappointment that the rebels had escaped, turned on Stanton during a conversation at the Lincoln Cottage. Stanton remarked with rare levity, ‘Mrs. Lincoln, I intend to have a full length portrait of you painted, standing on the ramparts at Fort Stevens overlooking the fight!’ Mary Todd retorted, ‘That is very well. And I can assure you of one thing, Mr. Secretary. If I had had a few ladies with me the Rebels would not have been permitted to get away as they did!'”

The first sitting president to expose himself to enemy fire

Lincoln’s appearance on the field of battle became famous as the first time that a sitting president exposed himself to enemy fire. Further, Fort Stevens proved its robustness to deter a serious attack by a substantial Confederate force. It thus proved its purpose and confirmed the sound military planning begun by General Barnard three years earlier.

If you visit Fort Stevens, parking on the street is available but tricky, as spaces are hard to find due to the thickly settled residential surroundings. I parked in an alley adjacent to the south side. The several-acre National Park Service site is a modest portion of the original fort, but includes two evocative and impressive pieces of heavy artillery in the parapets, with a plaque commemorating Lincoln’s visit under fire. Some years back, I also visited Fort Ward, which is south of the Potomac River. For those interested in a more extensive preservation of another of “Lincoln’s Forts,” Fort Ward is also well worth a visit. I wrote an article on Fort Ward for volume 38, number 4 of our Roundtable’s publication The Charger, if anyone is interested in checking out the particulars in advance of such an excursion.

Click on the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.

Related links:
Lincoln’s Cottage
Fort Ward: Bastion Against the South