D.C. Fort Was The Site Of Lincoln's Close Call

The Battle of Fort Stevens took place 150 years ago in Washington, D.C. It's mostly forgotten now, but it was a crucial battle for the Union, and President Lincoln was almost killed by enemy fire.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Our next stop is a Civil War battlefield hidden in plain view in Washington, D.C.. It's called Fort Stevens and was the site of a very close call 150 years ago today.

CRAIG HOWELL: As you can see where that marker is, that is where President Lincoln stood when he was nearly killed.

KEITH: OK. You're getting ahead of me. (Laughing) Craig Howell is a licensed D.C. tour guide who grew up near Fort Stevens. We met Howell at the site of this battle, now surrounded by churches and low-rise apartment buildings and asked him to describe what it looked like 150 years ago.

HOWELL: There were five gun platforms - canon platforms - facing the enemy. The enemy got as close as half a mile from where we are.

KEITH: And the enemy being...

HOWELL: The Confederates. 12,000 troops - give or take - under Confederate Commander Jubal Early.

KEITH: And he had 12,000 troops?

HOWELL: More or less.

KEITH: Amassed right over - up the street, basically?

HOWELL: Up the street.

KEITH: And how many Union?

HOWELL: That's - the good news and the bad news - there were lots of them but most of them on the 11ths were amateurs.

KEITH: General Ulysses S. Grant had diverted Union troops from D.C. to make an assault on Richmond. Meanwhile, the Confederates were headed for D.C.. So, Howell says, the union quickly recruited anyone they could find.

HOWELL: They were government clerks. I mean, if you could imagine, you know, going down and emptying out all the government offices and telling them, grab your musket and come out and fight off professional confederates - that was the situation on the 11th - not very good for the Yankees. But General Grant, down in Richmond, who thought Jubal Early was down there in Richmond...

KEITH: Whoops.

HOWELL: Whoops is right. At the last minute he discovers Jubal Early is here at the gates of Washington. He sends up reinforcements and the professional troops from the Army of the Potomac arrive here in the nick of time.

KEITH: Otherwise, it was going to be like people from the DMV versus...

HOWELL: Yes. Exactly right.

KEITH: Now to give a sense of the what if's...

HOWELL: Yes.

KEITH: We are, what, maybe five miles - less than five miles away from the Capital?

HOWELL: At the most.

KEITH: The White House.

HOWELL: Yes.

KEITH: They got very close.

HOWELL: Yeah. They got way too close. It would've been an absolute disaster, politically, politically - never mind anything else - for Mr. Lincoln if the Confederates had just marched into Washington, you know, burned Washington. And that could have very easily had happened. Grant would have been disgraced. Lincoln might have lost the election in November because this would be such an embarrassment, psychological impact would've been incalculable.

KEITH: I want to talk about Lincoln and I think that there's a monument up there to Lincoln's role in this battle.

HOWELL: Yes, yes.

KEITH: So let's walk up there.

HOWELL: He was very much a hands-on commander. He wanted to be at the scene of the action. So he came out here both July 11 and 12 to see what was going on. And on the 12th, things got so interesting he stood up on this parapet. Now he's a tall man - 6'4".

KEITH: That is a tall man.

HOWELL: Not to mention the...

KEITH: Hat.

HOWELL: Hat.

KEITH: And was he wearing the hat?

HOWELL: Yes, yes. And he stood up here and if you can see over in the distance you can see a copula - that's where the Confederates were. That's only a half a mile away. Some sharpshooters go up here, shooting at anything that moved along here. So somebody took a shot, and as you can see from this monument here, the guy standing next to Lincoln was hit and he was wounded. Imagine that that sharpshooter back there had been just a little bit more accurate. He could've very easily have killed the president. And then what? I mean, you know, can anybody name who would've become president? I don't think so. It would've been the Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.

KEITH: Whoa.

HOWELL: Has anybody ever heard of a Hannibal Hamlin?

KEITH: It sounds like a burger place.

HOWELL: But it could've been very, very different. I mean, you have two big what if's. What if Lincoln had been killed here? And what if the Confederates had occupied or destroyed Washington?

KEITH: Now I hear that there is some lore that...

HOWELL: Lore, yes.

KEITH: That there's a famous quote.

HOWELL: Yes. While the president was up here, a Lieutenant grabs President Lincoln and says, get down you fool. That Lieutenant was a guy named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was the son of a very famous poet and he went on to become a very, very long serving Supreme Court Justice. So everybody knows this story, you know, that Lincoln was told, get down you fool. Historians doubt that story. We tour guides call that kind of story too good to check.

KEITH: Craig Howell, a D.C. licensed guide and Civil War junkie. Thanks for taking us out here.

HOWELL: It's been my pleasure.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: