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Early's March to Washington in 1864.1

by Jubal A. Early, Lieutenant-General, C. S. A.
On the 12th of June, 1864, while the Second Corps (Ewell's) of the Army of Northern Virginia was lying near Gaines's Mill, in rear of Hill's line at Cold Harbor, I received orders from General Lee to move the corps, with two of the battalions of artillery attached to it, to the Shenandoah Valley; to strike Hunter's force2 in the rear and, if possible, destroy it; then to move down the valley, cross the Potomac near Leesburg, in Loudoun County, or at or above Harper's Ferry, as I might find most practicable, and threaten Washington city.3 I was further directed to communicate with General Breckinridge, who would cooperate with me in the attack on Hunter and the expedition into Maryland.

The Second Corps now numbered a little over eight thousand muskets for duty. It had been on active and arduous service in the field for forty days. Divisions were not stronger than brigades ought to have been, nor brigades than regiments. On the morning of the 13th, at 2 o'clock, we commenced the march, and on the 16th arrived at the Rivanna River, near Charlottesville, having marched over eighty miles in four days. At Charlottesville I received a telegram from Breckinridge, dated at Lynchburg, informing me that Hunter was then in Bedford County about twenty miles from that place and moving on it. The railroad and telegraph between Charlottesville and Lynchburg had been, fortunately, but slightly injured by the enemy's cavalry, and had been repaired. I ordered all the trains of the two roads to be sent to me with all dispatch, for the purpose of transporting my troops to Lynehburg. The trains were not in readiness to take the troops on board until sunrise on the morning of the 17th, and then only enough were furnished to transport about half my infantry. I accompanied Ramseur's division, going on the front train; but the road and rolling stock were in such bad condition that I did not reach Lynehburg until about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and the other trains were much later. [493]

As General Breckinridge was in bed, suffering from an injury received near Cold Harbor, at his request General D. H. Hill, who happened to be in town, had made arrangements for the defense of the city with such troops as were at hand. Slight works had been hastily thrown up on College Hill, covering the turnpike and Forest roads from Liberty, manned by Breckinridge's infantry and the dismounted cavalry of the command [Jones's and Vaughn's brigades] which had been with Jones at Piedmont. The reserves, invalids from the hospitals, and the cadets from the Military Institute at Lexington occupied other parts of the line. My troops, as they arrived, had been ordered in front of the works to bivouac, and I immediately sent orders for them to move out on the turnpike, and two brigades of Ramseur's division arrived just in time to be thrown across the road at a redoubt about two miles from the city as Imboden's command was driven back by vastly superior numbers. These brigades, with two pieces of artillery in the redoubt, arrested the progress of the enemy, and Ramseur's other brigade, and the part of Gordon's division which had arrived, took position on the same line. The enemy opened a heavy fire of artillery on us, but as night soon came on he went into camp on our front.

Orders had been given for the immediate return of the trains for the rest of my infantry, but it did not get to Lynchburg until late in the afternoon of the 18th, and meanwhile I contented myself with acting on the defensive. There was artillery firing and skirmishing along the line, and in the afternoon an attack was made to the right of the turnpike, which was handsomely repulsed with considerable loss to the enemy. A demonstration of the enemy's cavalry on the Forest road was checked by part of Breckinridge's infantry under Wharton, and McCausland's cavalry. As soon as the remainder of my infantry arrived by the railroad, though none of my artillery had gotten up, arrangements were made for attacking Hunter at daylight on the 19th; but after midnight it was discovered that he was moving, and at light it was observed that he was in retreat, and pursuit commenced. The enemy's rear was overtaken at Liberty, twenty-five miles from Lynchburg, just before night, and driven through that place, after a brisk skirmish, by Ramseur's division. The day's march on the old turnpike, which was very rough, had been terrible. The pursuit was resumed early on the morning of the 20th, and the enemy was pursued into the mountains at Buford's Gap, but he had taken possession of the crest of the Blue Ridge, and put batteries in position commanding a gorge through which the road passes. On the 21st the pursuit was resumed very shortly after sunrise. The enemy had turned off from Salem toward Lewisburg, and McCausland had struck his column and captured ten pieces of artillery, but was compelled to fall back, carrying off, however, the prisoners and also a part of the artillery, and disabling the rest. As the enemy had got into the mountains, where nothing useful could be accomplished by pursuit, I did not deem it proper to continue it farther. A great part of my command had had nothing to eat for the last two days, except a little bacon which was obtained at Liberty. It had marched sixty miles in the three days pursuit, over very rough roads. I determined, therefore, to rest on the 22d, so as to enable the wagons and artillery to get up, and prepare the men for the long march before them.4

At Lynchburg I had received a telegram from General Lee, directing me, after disposing of Hunter, either to return to his army or to carry out the original plan, as I might deem most expedient. After the pursuit had ceased I received another dispatch from him, submitting it to my judgment whether the condition of my troops would permit the expedition across the Potomac to be carried out, and I determined to take the responsibility of continuing it. On the 23d the march was resumed, and we reached Buchanan that night. On the 26th I reached Staunton in advance of the troops, and the latter came up next day, which was spent in reducing transportation and getting provisions from Waynesboro‘. The official reports at this place showed about two thousand mounted men for duty in the cavalry, which was composed of four small brigades, to wit: Imboden's, McCausland's, Jackson's, and Jones's (now Johnson's). The official reports of the infantry showed ten thousand muskets for duty, including Vaughn's dismounted cavalry. Besides Breckinridge's own infantry division, under Elzey (now under Vaughn, afterward under Echols), Gordon's division of the Second Corps was assigned to General Breckinridge, in order to give him. a command commensurate with his proper one. Nearly half the troops were barefoot, or nearly so, and shoes were sent for. But without waiting for them the march was resumed on the 28th, with five days rations in the wagons and two days in haversacks. Imboden was sent through Brock's Gap to the South Branch of the Potomac to destroy the railroad bridge over that stream, and all the bridges on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad from that point to Martinsburg. On [494]

Map of the Virginia campaigns of 1864-5.

the 2d of July we reached Winchester, and here I received a dispatch from General Lee, directing me to remain in the lower valley until everything was in readiness to cross the Potomac, and to destroy the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal as far as possible. This was in accordance with my previous determination, and its policy was obvious. My provisions were nearly exhausted, and if I had moved through Loudoun it would have been necessary for me to halt and thresh wheat and have it ground, as neither bread nor flour could be otherwise obtained; which would have caused much greater delay than was required on the other route, where we could take provisions from the enemy. Moreover, unless the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was torn up the enemy would have been able to move troops from the West over that road to Washington.

On the morning of the 3d Sigel, with a considerable force, after slight skirmishing, evacuated Martinsburg, leaving considerable stores in our hands. McCausland burned the bridge over Back Creek, capturing the guard at North Mountain depot, and succeeded in reaching Hainesville; but Bradley T. Johnson, after driving Mulligan, with hard fighting at Leetown, across the railroad, was himself forced back, when Sigel united with Mulligan, upon Rodes's and Ramseur's divisions, [495] which arrived at Leetown after a march of twenty-four miles. During the night Sigel retreated across the Potomac at Shepherdstown to Maryland Heights.

During the night of the 4th the enemy evacuated Harper's Ferry, burning the railroad and pontoon bridges across the Potomac. It was not possible to occupy the town of Harper's Ferry, except with skirmishers, as it was thoroughly commanded by the heavy guns on Maryland Heights; and the 5th was spent by Rodes's and Ramseur's divisions in demonstrating at that place. In the afternoon Breckinridge's command moved to Shepherdstown and crossed the Potomac, followed by Rodes's and Ramseur's divisions early on the 6th. Gordon's division advanced toward Maryland Heights, and drove the enemy into his works. Working parties were employed in destroying the aqueduct of the canal over the Antietam, and the locks and canal-boats. On the 7th Rodes moved through Rohrersville on the road to Crampton's Gap in South Mountain, and skirmished with a small force of the enemy, while Breckinridge demonstrated against Maryland Heights. McCausland had occupied Hagerstown and levied a contribution of $20,000, and Boonsboro' had been occupied by Johnson's cavalry. A letter from General Lee had informed me that an effort would be made to release the prisoners at Point Lookout, and directing me to take steps to unite them with my command. My desire had been to manoeuvre the enemy out of Maryland Heights, so as to move directly to Washington; but lie had taken refuge in his strongly fortified works, and I therefore determined to move through the gaps of South Mountain north of the Heights. On the 7th the greater portion of the cavalry was sent in the direction of Frederick:; and that night the expected shoes arrived and were distributed.

Early on the morning of the 8th the whole force moved: Rodes through Crampton's Gap to Jefferson; Breckinridge through Fox's Gap; and Ramseur, with the trains, through Boonsboro' Gap, followed by Lewis's brigade, which had started from Harper's Ferry the night before, after burning the trestle-work on the railroad and the stores which had not been brought off. Early on the 9th Johnson, with his brigade of cavalry and a battery of horse artillery, moved to the north of Frederick, with orders to strike the railroads from Baltimore to Harrisburg and Philadelphia, burn the bridges over the Gunpowder, also to cut the railroad between Washington and Baltimore, and threaten the latter place; and then to move toward Point Lookout for the purpose of releasing the prisoners, if we should succeed in getting into Washington. The other troops also moved forward toward Monocacy Junction, and Ramseur's division passed through Frederick, driving a force of skirmishers before it.

The enemy in considerable force, under General Lew Wallace,5 was found strongly posted

Map of the battle of the Monocacy.


1864-1865: map of the Defences of Washington.

on the eastern bank of the Monocacy, near the junction, with an earth-work and two block-houses commanding both the railroad bridge and the bridge on the Georgetown pike. McCausland, crossing the river with his brigade, dismounted his men and advanced rapidly against the enemy's left flank, which he threw into confusion, but he was then gradually forced back. McCausland's movement, which was very brilliantly executed, solved the problem for me, and orders were sent to Breckinridge to move up rapidly with Gordon's division to McCausland's assistance, and, striking the enemy's left, to drive him from the positions commanding the crossings in Ramseur's front, so that the latter might cross. This division crossed under the personal superintendence of General Breckinridge, and while Ramseur skirmished with the enemy in front, the attack was made by Gordon in gallant style, and with the aid of several pieces of King's artillery, which had been crossed over, and Nelson's artillery from the opposite side, he threw the enemy into great confusion and forced him from his position. Ramseur immediately crossed on the railroad bridge and pursued the enemy's flying forces, and Rodes crossed on the left and joined in the pursuit. Between 600 and 700 unwounded prisoners fell into their hands, and the enemy's loss in killed and wounded [497]

Fort Stevens, Washington. From a War-time photograph.

was very heavy. Our loss in killed and wounded was about 700. The action closed about sunset, and we had marched about fourteen miles before it commenced. All the troops and trains were crossed over the Monocacy that night, so as to resume the march early the next day. During the operations at Monocacy, a contribution of $200,000 in money was levied on the city of Frederick, and some much-needed supplies were obtained.

On the 10th the march was resumed at day — light, and we bivouacked four miles from Rockville, on the Georgetown pike, having marched twenty miles. McCausland, moving in front, drove a body of the enemy's cavalry before him, and had a brisk engagement at Rockville, where he encamped after defeating and driving off the enemy.

We moved at daylight on the 11th, McCausland on the Georgetown pike, while the infantry, preceded by Imboden's cavalry under Colonel Smith, turned to the left at Rockville, so as to reach the 7th street pike which runs by Silver Springs into Washington. Jackson's cavalry moved on the left flank. The previous day had been very warm, and the roads were exceedingly dusty, as there had been no rain for several weeks. The heat during the night had been very oppressive, and but little rest had been obtained. This day was an exceedingly hot one, and there was no air stirring. While marching, the men were enveloped in a suffocating cloud of dust, and many of them fell by the way from exhaustion. Our progress was therefore very much impeded, but I pushed on as rapidly as possible, hoping to get into the fortifications around Washington before they could be manned. Smith drove a small body of cavalry before him into the works on the 7th street pike, and dismounted his men and deployed them as skirmishers. I rode ahead of the infantry, and arrived in sight of Fort Stevens on this road a short time after noon, when I discovered that the works were but feebly manned.

Rodes, whose division was in front, was immediately ordered to bring it into line as rapidly as possible, throw out skirmishers, and move into the works if he could. My whole column was then moving by flank, which was the only practicable mode of marching on the road we were on, and before Rodes's division could be brought up we saw a cloud of dust in the rear of the works toward Washington, and soon a column of the enemy filed into them on the right and left, and skirmishers were thrown out in front, while an artillery fire was opened on us from a number of batteries. This defeated our hopes of getting possession of the works by surprise, and it became necessary to reconnoiter.

Rodes's skirmishers were thrown to the front, driving those of the enemy to the cover of the works, and we proceeded to examine the fortifications in order to ascertain if it was practicable to carry them by assault. They were found to be exceedingly strong, and consisted of what appeared to be inclosed forts for heavy artillery, with a tier of lower works in front of each, pierced for an immense number of guns, the whole being connected by curtains with ditches in front, and strengthened by palisades and abatis. The timber had been felled within cannon range all around and left on the ground, making a formidable obstacle, and every possible approach was raked by artillery. On the right was Rock Creek, running through a deep ravine which had been rendered impassable by the felling of the timber on each side, and beyond were the works on the Georgetown pike which had been reported to be the strongest of all. On the left, as far as the eye could reach, the works appeared to be of the same [498] impregnable character.6 This reconnoissance consumed the balance of the day.

The rapid marching and the losses at Harper's Ferry, Maryland Heights, and Monocacy had reduced my infantry to about 8000 muskets.7 Of these a very large number were greatly exhausted by the last two days marching, some having fallen by sunstroke, and not more than one-third of my force could have been carried into action. I had about forty pieces of artillery, of which the largest were 12-pounder Napoleons, besides a few pieces of horse-artillery with the cavalry. McCausland reported the works on the Georgetown pike too strongly manned for him to assault. After dark on the 11th I held a consultation with Major-Generals Breckinridge, Rodes, Gordon, and Ramseur, in which I stated to them the necessity of doing something immediately, as the passes of South Mountain and the fords of the Upper Potomac would soon be closed against us. After interchanging views with them, I determined to make an assault on the enemy's works at daylight next morning. But during the night a dispatch was received from General Bradley T. Johnson from near Baltimore, that two corps had arrived from General Grant's army, and that his whole army was probably in motion. As soon as it was light enough to see, I rode to the front, and found the parapet lined with troops. I had, therefore, reluctantly to give up all hopes of capturing Washington, after I had arrived in sight of the dome of the Capitol, and given the Federal authorities a terrible fright.

Some of the Northern papers stated that, between Saturday and Monday, I could have entered the city; but on Saturday I was fighting at Monocacy, thirty-five miles from Washington, a force which I could not leave in my rear; and after disposing of that force and moving as rapidly as it was possible for me to move, I did not arrive in front of the fortifications until after noon on Monday, and then my troops were exhausted, and it required time to bring them up into line. I had then made a march, over the circuitous route by Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and Salem, down the valley and through the passes of the South Mountain, which, notwithstanding the delays in dealing with Hunter's, Sigel's, and Wallace's forces, is, for its length and rapidity, I believe, without a parallel in this or any other modern war. My small force had been thrown up to the very walls of the Federal capital, north of a river which could not be forded at any point within forty miles, and with a heavy force and the South Mountain in my rear — the passes through which mountain could be held by a small number of troops. A glance at the map, when it is recollected that the Potomac is a wide river, and navigable to Washington for the largest vessels, will cause the intelligent reader to wonder, not why I failed to take Washington, but why I had the audacity to approach it as I did, with the small force under my command. It was supposed by some, who were not informed of the facts, that I delayed in the lower valley longer than was necessary; but an examination of the foregoing narrative will show that not one moment was spent in idleness. I could not move across the Potomac and through the passes of the South Mountain, with any safety, until Sigel was driven from, or safely housed in, the fortifications at Maryland Heights.

After abandoning the idea of capturing Washington I determined to remain in front of the fortifications during the 12th, and retire at night. Johnson had burned the bridges over the Gunpowder, on the Harrisburg and Philadelphia roads, threatened Baltimore, and started for Point Lookout; but the attempt to release the prisoners was not made, as the enemy had received notice of it in some way. On the afternoon of the 12th a heavy reconnoitering force was sent out by the [499] enemy, which, after severe skirmishing, was driven back by Rodes's division with but slight loss to us.8 About dark we commenced retiring, and did so without molestation. Passing through Rockville and Poolesville, we crossed the Potomac at White's Ford, above Leesburg, in Loudoun County, on the morning of the 14th, bringing off the prisoners captured at Monocacy, and our captured beef cattle and horses, and everything else, in safety.9

1 condensed from General Early's Memoir of the last year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America. Lynchburg: published by Charles W. Button for the Virginia Memorial association, 1867; here printed by permission of the author.

2 See p. 485, et seq.

3 In a letter to the editors under date of November 23d, 1888, General Early says: “General Lee did not expect me to be able to enter Washington. His orders were merely to threaten the city, and when I suggested to him the idea of capturing it he said it would be impossible.”

4 Grant, in his report, says “General Hunter, owing to a want of ammunition to give battle, retired from before the place” [Lynchburg]. This is a little remarkable, as it appears that this expedition had been long contemplated and was one of the prominent features of the campaign of 1864. Sheridan, with his cavalry, was to have united with Hunter at Lynchburg, and the two together were to have destroyed Lee's communications and depots of supplies, and then have joined Grant. Can it be believed that Hunter set out on so important an expedition with an insufficient supply of ammunition? Had Sheridan defeated Hampton at Trevilian's, he would have reached Lynchburg after destroying the railroad on the way, and I could not have reached there in time to do any good. But Hampton defeated Sheridan. Had Hunter moved on Lynchburg with energy, that place would have fallen before it was possible for ne to get there.--J. A. E.

The notification of Secretary Stanton to General Stahel on the subject was as follows: “General Sheridan, who was sent by General Grant to open commnunication with General Hunter by way of Charlottesville, has just returned to York River without effecting his object. It is therefore very probable that General Hunter will be compelled to fall back into West Virginia.”--editors.

5 In his “Personal memoirs” (Vol. II., pp. 304-6), General Grant writes as follows of the battle of Monocacy and its effect:

In the absence of Hunter, General Lew Wallace, with headquarters at Baltimore, commanded the department in which the Shenandoah lay. His surplus of troops with which to move against the enemy was small in number. Most of these were raw, and, consequently, very much inferior to our veterans and to the veterans which Early had with him; but, the situation of Washington was precarious, and Wallace moved with commendable promptitude to meet the enemy at the Monocacy. He could hardly have expected to defeat, lim badly, but he hoped to cripple and delay him until Washington could be put into a state of preparation for his reception. I had previously ordered General Meade to send a division to Baltimore for the purpose of adding to the defenses of Washington, and he had sent Ricketts's division of the Sixth Corps (Wright's), which arrived in Baltimore on the 8th of July. Finding that Wallace had gone to the front with his command, Ricketts immediately took the cars and followed him to the Monocacy with his entire division. They met the enemy, and, as might have been expected, were defeated; but they succeeded in stopping him for the day on which the battle took place. The next morning Early started on his march to the capital of the nation, arriving before it on the 11th.

Learning of the gravity of the situation, I had directed General Meade to also order Wright, with tle rest of his corps, directly to Washington for tlie relief of that place, and the latter reached there tle very day that Early arrived, before it. The Nineteenth Corps, which had been stationed in Louisiana, having been ordered up to reenforce the armies about Richmond, had about this time arrived at Fortress Monroe, on their way to join us. I diverted them,from that point to Washington, which place they reached almost simultaneously with Wright, on the 11th. The Nineteenth Corps was commanded by Major-General Emory.

Early made his reconnoissance with a view of attacking on the following morning, the 12th: but the next mourning he found our intrenchments, which were very strong, fully manned. He at once( commenced to retreat, Wright following. [The retreat began on the night of the 12th. See quotation from General Grant's report (in relation to the time of Early's withdrawal), foot-note, p. 499.--editors.] There is no telling how much this result was contributed to by General Lew Wallace's leading what might well be considered almost a forlorn-hope. If Early had been but one day earlier, lie might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reenforcements I had sent. Whether the delay caused by the battle amounted to a day or not, General Wallace contributed on this occasion, by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory.

6 General Barnard, in his “Defences of Washington,” thus describes the works (see map, p. 496):

Every prominent point. at intervals of eight hundred to one thousand yards, was occupied by an inclosed field-fort; every important approach or depression of ground, unseen from the forts, swept by a battery for field-guns; and the whole connected by rifle-trenches which were in fact lines of infantry parapets, furnishing emplacement for two ranks of men, and affording covered communication along the line, while roads were opened wherever necessary, so that troops and artillery could be moved rapidly from one point of the immense periphery to another, or, under cover, from point to point along tlhe lie. The counterscarps were surrounded by abatis; bomb-proofs were provided in nearly all the forts; all guns not solely intended for distant fire placed in embrasures and well traversed. All commanding points on which an enemy would be likely to concentrate artillery to overpower that of one or two of our forts or batteries were subjected not only to the fire, direct and cross, of many points along the line, but also from heavy rifled guns from distant points unattainable by the enemy's field-guns. With all these velopments, the lines certainly approximated to the maximum degree of strength which can be attained from unrevetted earth-works. Inadequately manned as they were, the fortifications compelled at least a concentration and an arraying of force on tlhe part of the assailants, and thus gave time for the arrival of succor.

General Barnard gives this account of the local forces prior to the arrival of the Sixth and Nineteenth corps:

The effective forces were 1819 infantry, 1834 artillery, and 63 cavalry north of the Potomac, and 4064 infantry, 1772 artillery, and 51 cavalry south thereof. There were besides, in Washington and Alexandria, about 3900 effectives and about 4400 (six regiments) of Veteran Reserves. The foregoing constitute a total of about 20,400 men. Of that number, however, but 9600, mostly perfectly raw troops, constituted the garrison of the defenses. Of the other troops, a considerable portion were unavailable, and the whole would form but an inefficient force for service on the lines.

Of the troops sent by Grant, Ricketts's division of the Sixth Corps was with Wallace at Baltimore; the other two divisions, under General Wright, and the first steamer-load, amounting to 800 men, of the Nineteenth Corps, reached Washington before 2 P. M. of the 11th. At 4:10 P. M. of that day Wright sent this dispatch to General Augur from Fort Stevens: “The head of my column has nearly reached the front.” That night the Sixth Corps relieved the provisional forces on the picket line. The remainder of Emory's division of the Nineteenth Corps continued to come by installments.--editors.

7 Writing on November 23d, 1888, General Early adds:

“A considerable number of my men had broken down on the march, from exhaustion and want of shoes, and on my return to the Valley I found some 1800 or 2000 collected at Winchester by Colonel Goodwin, and others who had been temporarily disabled in tlhe campaign from the Wilderness to Richmond also returned.” editors.

8 Grant says: “On the 12th a reconnoissance was thrown out in front of Fort Stevens to ascertain the enemy's position and force. A severe skirmish ensued, in which we lost 280 in killed and wounded. The enemy's loss was probably greater. He commenced retiring during the night.” The above is correct, with the exception of the estimate placed on our loss.--J. A. E.

9 General Wright, with about 15,000 men of the Sixth and Nineteenth corps, followed by several thousand more, under Ricketts and Kenly, pursued General Early, who, however, after resting on the 14th and 15th at Lees-burg, reached the Shenandoah Valley safely through Snicker's Gap, losing some loaded wagons at Purcellville to the cavalry of Hunter's field forces. These latter had returned from the Kanawha Valley to Harper's Ferry, and moved out under Crook against the flank of Early's column. Thoburn's division of Crook's command, crossing at Snicker's Gap, was repulsed by Early with a loss of 422 on the 18th of July. On the 20th Averell, with a mixed infantry and cavalry force, 2350 strong, attacked and defeated Ramseur's division near Winchester, inflicting a loss of about 400, and suffering a loss of 214. On July 22d General Early established himself at Strasburg.--editors.

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