The Civil War Connections Blog

Defending D.C.

The National lines before Washington : a map exhibiting the defences of the national capital and positions of the several divisions of the grand Union Army : supplement to the New-York times : New York, Saturday, December 7, 1861. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

The National lines before Washington : a map exhibiting the defences of the national capital and positions of the several divisions of the grand Union Army : supplement to the New-York times : New York, Saturday, December 7, 1861. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 

Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Washington D.C. stood largely undefended. With the exception of Fort Washington, located south of the capitol on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, the population of 63,000 in Washington was exceptionally vulnerable. With the secession of Virginia from the Union, and Maryland as an unsteady border state, it became increasingly imperative that Washington do something to increase its security. As a result, a 37 mile long ring of fortifications was built surrounding the city. These fortifications included 68 forts that were attached through 20 miles of trenches, and include 93 artillery posts with about 800 cannons.[1]

 

The construction of these fortifications began in the winter of 1861, following the First Battle of Bull Run and designed by Brigadier General John Gross Barnard. The Confederate victory took place out at Manassas, a little more than 30 miles outside of D.C., and scared many inhabitants of the city at how close the fighting had come. Specifically, with the Union withdrawal, the Confederate Army continued to fire on the Union soldiers, resulting in an embarrassing retreat and Union loss.[2] Following First Bull Run, and the realization that the war would not be a quick Union victory, Congress supported the construction of forts surrounding the city.

 

Fort Stevens, 1864. Accessed through Library of Congress Online.

Fort Stevens, 1864. Accessed through Library of Congress Online.

 

In the summer of 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent Lieutenant General Jubal Early on an attempt to capture Washington D.C. without alerting the Union Army. Early was almost successful in his attempt, winning a battle at the Monocacy River, but losing serious amounts of troops. Early continued to press towards Washington, despite a depleted and exhausted number of soldiers. Within Washington, soldiers prepared the fortifications around the city, and President Lincoln went, in person, to Fort Stevens to supervise the engagement between the two armies (it was the only time in American history in which a sitting president came under direct fire from an enemy combatant).[3] The Union army returned attacks, but the battle proved to be a majority stalemate. Early had not been able to execute the surprise attack as he had wished, and the fortifications of Washington had held strong.

 

The population of the city also increased hugely during the war, doubling in less than five years.[4] With an influx of soldiers, government officials, escaped slaves, journalists and even Confederate Army deserters among others, the population grew to almost 200,000 people at times. However, much of the population was also made up of wounded soldiers, and those who died were buried in the Soldiers’ Home Cemetery until the opening of Arlington Cemetery in 1863.

 

Plan of the Rebel attack on Washington, D.C., July 11th and 12th, 1864. Accessed through Library of Congress online.

Plan of the Rebel attack on Washington, D.C., July 11th and 12th, 1864. Accessed through Library of Congress online.

 

 


[1] “Washington, the Strategic Capital,” Civil War Washington, Accessed February 5, 2013. http://civilwardc.org/interpretations/narrative/essay.php

[2] “Defeat at Manassas Leads to Fortification of Washington,” Civil War Washington, Accessed February 5, 2013. http://civilwardc.org/interpretations/narrative/essay.php

[3] “Washington’s Civil War Defenses and the Battle of Fort Stevens,” Civil War Trust, Accessed February 5, 2013. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/fortstevens/fort-stevens-history-articles/washingtons-civil-war.html

[4] “Civil War Defenses of Washington: History and Culture,” National Park Service, Accessed February 5, 2013. http://www.nps.gov/cwdw/historyculture/index.htm