1864: “No Force Here Fit To Go To The Field”


War Department – Washington City

July 10 – 2 P.M. 1864

Lieut. Gen. Grant – City Point, Va.

Your dispatch to Gen. Halleck, referring to what I may think in the present emergency, is shown to me. Gen. Halleck says we have absolutely no force here fit to go to the field. He thinks that with the hundred day-men, and invalids we have here, we can defend Washington, and scarcely Baltimore.

Besides these, there are about eight thousand not very reliable, under Howe at Harper’s Ferry, with Hunter approaching that point very slowly, with what number I suppose you know better than I. Wallace with some odds and ends, and part of what came up with Ricketts, was so badly beaten yesterday at Monocacy, that what is left can attempt no more than to defend Baltimore. What we shall get in from Penn. & N.Y. will scarcely be worth counting, I fear. Now what I think is that you should provide to retain your hold where you are certainly, and bring the rest with you personally, and make a vigorous effort to destroy the enemie’s force in this vicinity. I think there is really a fair chance to do this if the movement is prompt. This is what I think, upon your suggestion, and is not an order.

[A. Lincoln]

(Source: A. Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865. Published in 1989. Page 607).

General Lew Wallace

Washington City Threatened!

The Federal capitol had a big problem in July 1864. Confederate General Jubal Early and a force of about 14,000 soldiers headed for Washington City. Though ringed by strong forts, the city’s fortifications were severely undermanned, leading to valid concerns that the Confederates might capture the prize city.

On July 9, the Battle of Monocacy (see below) occurred and delayed Early’s advance. Days later on July 11 and 12, the Confederates fired on Fort Stevens, one of the protective forts for Washington. However, this attack did not unfold into a major battle and is usually viewed as heavy skirmishing. President Lincoln visited the fort during the firing and was nearly shot, marking the first and only time in U.S. history that a serving president was on an active battlefield and shot at. Yikes!

Early and his generals prowled outside Washington, but realized the fortifications were too strong for their force and the arrival of two divisions from Grant’s forces near Petersburg sealed the need to retreat. The Confederates pulled back, but still threatened points north in the coming weeks.

This campaign and threat to Washington D.C. had farther reaching repercussions that scaring the city since it signaled to Europe that the Confederacy was not defeated yet. But no intervention or major aid would occur. Europe decided stuck to its neutrality stance.

Battle of Monocacy

Fought on July 9, 1864, this battle delayed Early’s advance, resulting in a tactical Confederate victory, but strategic Union victory. About 5,800 Union boys under General Lew Wallace ensured that Early had to fight for his forward march and gave time for the divisions Grant had sent from the Petersburg area to arrive in Washington.

Sketched map of the Battle of Monocacy (By Andrei nacu at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4336984)

Wallace had been monitoring the Rebel advance along and attacks on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line for days. He positioned his troops on high ground and also had his troops dig in near the bridges on the Monocacy River. The Confederates tried to outflank the Union troops, but Wallace had men hidden and waiting to turn back that attempt.

In all the Union soldiers endured five attacks – including a three prong attack from John Gordon’s troops – before retreating.

The day’s fighting along the river resulted in about 2,000 casualties – total for both sides. When Grant heard about Wallace’s retreat, he ordered General E.C. Ord to take command. However, when other authorities realized the importance of Wallace’s fight and retreat, they restored him to command on July 28th.

(Random Fun Fact: After the Civil War, Lew Wallace wrote the popular novel Ben-Hur. His war experiences and feelings of personal injustice influenced his main character who is often falsely accused or implicated before the truth is really known.)

Historical Musings

“Cypher.” That’s written at the top of this primary source. So what’s up with that? Well, that means this message was originally written in cipher code. During the Civil War, Union authorities used a dial with letters and numbers to scramble their messages and (hopefully) keep them secret.

Here’s an example of one since a photo is worth a thousand words. The numbers would be written in place of the letters to put the message in code.

Civil War Union Cipher (Photo credit: CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=679686)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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