The Only Battle Ever Attended by a Sitting U.S. President

Remember that time Washington, D.C. was attacked by an army? Of course you don’t, it was 150 years ago this weekend. While legendary generals Grant and Lee were fighting elsewhere, the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia pushed ahead to take the Union capital, guarded by Fort Stevens. Both sides were thoroughly unprepared. By the summer of 1864, the Confederate army was a mere shell of what it started out to be.

For some time, in other words, there had been for the South precious little glory in this war and even less fun. The proud young men strutting to the music of the bands were no more; now sad-eyed, leather-skinned, worn-out infantrymen stumbled barefoot through the heat and dust until they dropped. The caped and ostrich-feathered officers, happily risking all for home and country, were dead, replaced by bitter shells of men playing out a losing hand.
And yet, by God, here at midday on a Monday in July was the balding, foulmouthed, tobacco-chewing, prophet-bearded Jubal Early, at the gates of the Federal capital. He had taken command of the men who had earned immortality as Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry," had marched them far enough and fought them hard enough to rival the memory of their dead commander, and now he stood on the brink of legend himself. He was going to take Washington City—its Treasury, its arsenals, its Capitol building, maybe even its President.

The Union side wasn’t as formidable as they should have been, either -at least not in Washington. General Grant had taken the 18,000 artillery soldiers of Fort Stevens elsewhere to fight the Confederates, with Lincoln’s blessing, meaning the capital was guarded by a mere 4,000 home guards and militia.

Everyone took charge of everything. The military department was commanded by Maj. Gen. Christopher Augur; but the Army Chief of Staff, Henry Halleck, ordered Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore to take charge in the emergency; but the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, had called in Maj. Gen. Alexander McCook to handle the crisis; but General in Chief Grant had sent Maj. Gen. E.O.C. Ord to save the situation.

When yet another general, who for some reason was relaxing in a New York City hotel, sent word that he would be available for duties commensurate with his rank, Chief of Staff Halleck blew up. "We have five times as many generals here as we want," he responded, "but are greatly in need of privates. Anyone volunteering in that capacity will be thankfully received."

But the foot soldiers from the South were so weary that their advance was slow, and Washington called up reinforcements. By the time the main bulk of troops faced each other, the president himself took up a front row seat at Fort Stevens.  

Delighted at the prospect of seeing actual combat for the first time, Lincoln bounded up to the parapet and stood looking over the field, his familiar, top-hatted form an inviting target for Confederate sharpshooters. While Wright begged the President to take cover, a trooper in Lincoln’s cavalry escort saw bullets “sending little spurts and puffs of dust as they thudded into the embankment on which he stood.” Thus for the first and only time in history a President of the United States came under fire in combat.

Smithsonian magazine gives the details of the battle that had federal bureaucrats shaking in their shoes 150 years ago.

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