Civil War Defenses of Washington & the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens

July 10, 2014

Gettysburg, Manassas, and Antietam are famous Civil War battles remembered for President Lincoln’s address, the turning point of the war, and the bloodiest battle of the war. They are also battles that took place in states surrounding Washington, DC – within 100 miles of the nation’s capital. This week marks the 150th anniversary of the only and relatively unknown battle that took place in Washington, DC, the Battle of Fort Stevens.

024-005-01232-0[1]A Historic Resources Study: The Civil War Defenses of Washington by the Department of Interior’s National Park Service follows the history of efforts to defend Washington, DC from the city’s conception in the 1790s to the Civil War and the Battle of Fort Stevens. This publication is very descriptive painting a clear picture of what Washington, DC was like during the Civil War. The Union constructed a fortification system to protect Washington, DC that by the end of the war consisted of 68 enclosed forts and batteries, emplacements for 1,120 guns, and 20 miles of rifle-trenches. Because the city was the capital and the location of war departments and bureaus it had the largest collection of supplies, equipment, and materials. In the Foggy Bottom area where the Kennedy Center, George Washington University, and the Department of State currently sit, there was a depot of 30,000 horses and mules and the Washington Monument grounds housed an Army cattle-slaughtering yard.

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Company F, 3d Regiment Massachusetts Heavy Artillery assembled at Fort Stevens. Photo by William Morris Smith, courtesy Library of Congress.

The Battle of Fort Stevens is the grand finale of the publication. After establishing the condition and role of the Washington, DC during the war, the book goes into step-by-step detail of the battle. Here is my perceived synopsis of the Battle of Fort Stevens: General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate army gave orders to Lieutenant General Jubal Early to threaten Washington, DC, which had remained largely untouched during the war. Early led his troops through Virginia and Maryland, taking part in different skirmishes along the way. On July 9 at the Battle of Monocacy near present-day Frederick, Maryland, Early defeated the Union army, thereby opening up the route to Washington, DC. The Battle of Monocacy temporarily stalled Early, giving General Ulysses Grant more time to send reinforcement troops to defend the capital – ultimately derailing Early’s efforts. The Battle of Fort Stevens started on July 11 and ended with Early withdrawing his troops by July 13. The Confederate troops moved towards the Capitol along Georgetown Pike and Rockville Pike culminating in the Battle of Fort Stevens, which took place with the Capitol dome in sight – six miles away – on what was mostly open farm area around present-day Georgia Avenue near Rock Creek Park. The reinforcements sent by Grant and reports suggesting more Union troops were coming caused Early to retreat and end his pursuit of the city.

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Battle of Fort Stevens Map courtesy Civil War Preservation Trust

GPO’s early history is intertwined with the Civil War. One of GPO’s most significant print jobs was the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation produced in September 1862. Aside from production work done by the agency as part of the war effort, some GPO employees were part of the Interior Department Regiment organized to protect the city. With the threat of General Early closing in on Washington, employees were called on to defend the city but not needed when the reinforcement troops sent by General Grant arrived.

During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, think beyond the famous battles of the war and remember the skirmishes and other important battles like the Battle of Fort Stevens that may be unknown but are just as important.

HOW DO I OBTAIN THIS PUBLICATION?

Shop Online Anytime: You can buy these and other publications (with FREE Standard Shipping worldwide) from the U.S. Government Online Bookstore website at http://bookstore.gpo.gov:

Shop our Retail Store: Buy a copy of any print editions from this collection at GPO’s retail bookstore at 710 North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC 20401, open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Federal holidays, Call (202) 512-0132 for information or to arrange in-store pick-up.

Order by Phone: Call our Customer Contact Center Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5:30 pm Eastern (except US Federal holidays). From US and Canada, call toll-free 1.866.512.1800. DC or International customers call +1.202.512.1800.

Visit a Federal Depository Library: Search for these in a nearby Federal depository library.

About the author: Our guest blogger is Emma Wojtowicz, Public Relations Specialist in GPO’s Office of Public Affairs.


Gettysburg, America’s Bloodiest Battle

July 2, 2013

Maybe you’ve been to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to tour the battlefield and visitor’s center. Maybe you’ve even gone to one of the annual battle anniversaries, where men and women with Civil War-era clothes and weaponry reenact the battle details with great verve. Lasting three days in 1863, from July 1-3, Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, with up to 10,000 Union and Confederate troops dead and another 30,000 wounded. But surprisingly, this tremendous battle was a purely unplanned accident that grew out of a desperate need for soldiers’ shoes!

Gettysburg-Reenactment

Image: Battle of Gettysburg Reenactors at “the Wall”. Image source: Breitbart.com

Visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park

Having witnessed the activities of scores of reenactors who visited the park during the years I lived near the town, I know that people invest themselves very deeply in the Civil War in general, and in the Gettysburg battle in particular. You don’t have to be an extreme fan to appreciate the silence of the rolling battlefield landscape. Imagining the July heat, the stench of sweat, horse, wool clothing and blood, the cries of pain and death, is easy to do when you’re standing there on that “consecrated ground” as Lincoln said in his famous Gettysburg Address after the battle.

Park officials and enthusiasts always commemorate the battle days in Gettysburg, as is happening this week, and it’s a great event for those who can attend in person. When you want to actually (or mentally) place yourself in specific skirmishes in the battle on specific points on the field, you will need a guide. You can hire a guide to ride with your group and interpret the tour for you. That kind of activity is excellent, but is pricey and requires advance planning.

But if you haven’t visited the battlefield, this sesquicentennial anniversary year is a good time to make a virtual trip, if not a real one. (There are over 12,000 reenactors, with 300 foreign reenactors from 16 different countries, and tens of thousands of visitors anticipated for this year’s 150th anniversary reenactment!)

Starting with these guide and history books below is a great beginning to what could be a life-long interest.

The Best of Guides

To fully understand the Gettysburg Campaign and its significance as the pivotal point in the American Civil War, you need to learn from experts. Fortunately, GPO has publications from the two best sources: the US Army Center of Military History and the National Park Service.

The Gettysburg Campaign: June–July 1863 and Gettysburg National Military Park Handbook

   Gettysburg-Campaign-from-GPOThird in “The U.S. Army Campaigns of the Civil War” series  of campaign brochures from the U.S. Army Center of Military History that commemorate our national sacrifices during the American Civil War, The Gettysburg Campaign: June–July 1863 describes the turning point in the “Battle Between the States.” Authors Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler examine the military operations and strategies along with the somewhat accidental circumstances that culminated in the pivotal and devastating three-day Battle of Gettysburg. With many maps and illustrations, this helps provide some back story and military strategy, as it goes into the various skirmishes leading up to the battle starting back in June and up to the battle itself.

As General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army said,

“It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such a distance from our base, unless attacked by the enemy, but finding ourselves unexpectedly confronted by the Federal Army, it became a matter of difficulty to withdraw through the mountains with our large trains. . . . A battle thus became in a measure unavoidable (Campaign, p. 31).”

Gettysburg-National-Park-Handbook

The National Park Service’s publication, Gettysburg National Military Park Handbook, delves into the history of the battleground itself, that “consecrated ground” and provides a detailed guide of all the amenities of the park along with the on-field maneuvers and results, as well as insight into the personalities and anecdotes that such an epic event always generates. It also covers post-battle events, such as the establishment of a cemetery at Gettysburg and the genesis of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as well as reproductions of 12 battle paintings by F. D. Briscoe. It’s like having a National Park ranger pointing out key aspects and giving you insights about this important national landmark.

Hooker out, Black Hats in

Through both of these excellent publications, you can come to know a bit about the personnel of the Gettysburg Campaign, such as the story of the last-minute, last-ditch replacement of General Hooker as Commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac by General George G. Meade. Commander of the U.S. Army General Halleck replaced Hooker at his own demand, and Hooker left his command in a great hurry. Meade arrived at Gettysburg knowing little of the status of his troops and even less about Lee’s troops. You can also read all the details of General Daniel Sickles’ unauthorized movements from Cemetery Hill.

Michigan-soldier-iron-brigade-Civil-WarDon’t forget to study the awe-inspiring story of the Iron Brigade, also known as the Black Hat Brigade. Some Confederates called them “them Black Hat Fellers” because of the black Hardee hats they wore that were different from the standard-issue Union blue kepi hats. Made up of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiments, the 19th Indiana, and the 24th Michigan, the Iron Brigade was famous for its fierceness on the field. The Iron Brigade made a tremendous impact during the Gettysburg Campaign, and they suffered dire casualties as a result. Their bravery in fighting on Herbst’s Woodlot and against the 26th North Carolina had a strong effect on the outcome of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Image: Gochy Charles. Company F, 24th Michigan (Iron Brigade). Image Source: WaterfordHistory.org

How can I obtain these Gettysburg publications?

The more you read about these and other stories of the battle, the more easily you can get drawn in to the story of all the human bravery, pathos and drama that was part of the Gettysburg Campaign and the American Civil War. Immerse yourself in the history of The Gettysburg Campaign: June–July 1863 and familiarize yourself with the park through the Gettysburg National Military Park Handbook. You’re likely to be endlessly fascinated.

Federal Depository Librarians: You can find the records for these titles in the CGP.

About the author(s): Our co-bloggers include: guest blogger Jennifer K. Davis from GPO’s Library Services & Content Management Division that supports the Federal Depository Libraries Program (FDLP) and Government Book Talk Editor, Michele Bartram, GPO Promotions & Ecommerce Manager.


“A Great Thing for the Cause”: Black Soldiers in the Civil War

September 1, 2011

Of the writing and publishing of books about the Civil War, there shall be no end – especially since this year marks the beginning of the sesquicentennial of that most violent and consequential conflict. I’m a bit of a Civil War buff myself and just finished reading Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, which was fought in Arkansas – one of the forgotten fronts of the war. In discussing the subsequent military career of Union General James G. Blunt, it mentioned his victory at Honey Springs in Indian Territory the following year. Now I’ve learned that Honey Springs “marked the first time in the war that black soldiers in regimental strength had carried out a successful offensive operation against Confederate troops.” I’ve also learned that the 54th Massachusetts, made famous by its gallant but unsuccessful attack on Confederate Fort Wagner, as depicted in the film Glory, later steadied Union forces at a crucial juncture of the battle of Olustee – the largest Civil War battle fought inFlorida.

How did I learn all of this? By reading a new book that I predict will become a classic – Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867. I’ve been waiting for this book ever since I learned that the Army’s Center of Military History was working on it. Although the use of black troops by the Union has been studied from many angles, this is the most thorough operational history I’ve seen – in other words, this is a detailed account, by region, of the actual military activities in which these troops engaged. For every heroic charge, these soldiers, like any soldiers in war, spent lots of time patrolling, garrisoning, and guarding. As someone once noted, army life in wartime is made up of long stretches of boredom punctuated by short periods of extreme fear. In addition, poorly managed logistics and spotty (to say the least) medical services created their own special negatives, especially for troops that did not always receive adequate (or any) training. Reading about these gritty details is an excellent corrective to the romantic take on war so prevalent among Civil War soldiers before they “saw the elephant,” a colloquialism of the day for engaging in combat.

Freedom by the Sword also addresses problems unique to black soldiers – the possibility of re-enslavement or massacre if captured. After the notorious slaughter of black soldiers by Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates at Fort Pillow, which soon was recognized by the South as “a propaganda weapon they had handed their opponents,” retaliatory actions and counteractions were succeeded by a mutual realization that such crimes cut both ways. In these cases, fighting for freedom had a steep price, but one that ex-slaves and free blacks alike were prepared to pay.

Freedom by the Sword is an important scholarly resource based on wide-ranging research, as well as a compelling account of men whose real accomplishment, beyond military victory, was “to assert their right to full citizenship and, by extension, that of all their kin.” Serious students of the Civil War will be using this book for many years to come. You can browse through Freedom by the Sword here, get your own copy in either paperback or hardcover, or page through it at a library.


A Civil War Battle of the Books and the Battle for Washington DC

March 18, 2011

For the third year in a row, GPO is doing its own version of the NCAA basketball playoffs. This year’s theme, appropriately enough, given that GPO opened for business shortly before Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, is the Civil War. Since I’m a minor Civil War buff myself, I’ve blogged about several of the “competitors,” including Clara Barton: Clara Barton National Historic Site, Battle of Ball’s Bluff and, just a week or so ago, Abraham Lincoln’s Journey to Greatness.

A couple of the books in this year’s tournament are National Park Service Cultural Resources Studies, which are detailed assessments of a particular park’s history, cultural landscape, and historical materials. Monocacy National Battlefield: Cultural Resources Study is meaningful to me because I’ve visited that Maryland park a number of times over the years, beginning when it first opened to the public. As a GPO employee, references to Jubal Early’s 1864 raid, which actually penetrated as far as Fort Stevens in Northwest Washington, DC, remind me that GPO employees actually were mustered into service for a day or two to help defend the city. If Early’s force had arrived a day earlier, it could have been a disaster for the Union, but the hastily assembled force at Monocacy commanded by General Lew Wallace provided just enough delay to ensure the safety of the capital. Wallace, who was criticized, not altogether fairly, for his generalship at Shiloh in 1862, was credited by General Grant for blocking Early at Monocacy. Later, Wallace had the last laugh by writing what is arguably one of the bestselling novels of his century – Ben Hur. To add to his fame, during his post-war career as governor of the New Mexico Territory, Wallace met Billy the Kid, which ensured his regular appearance in movies and TV westerns – giving him a great deal more fame than many more successful Civil War generals.

Monocacy is also a beautiful park, with a walking trail near the Monocacy River and a neat little visitor’s center. Now that spring is on the way, I’m ready to walk those trails again. You can read more about the park itself here, browse the cultural resources study here, or get your own copy via GPO. The study is also available in libraries.

Above all, don’t forget to vote for your favorites at the Civil War Super 16 Tournament. After 150 years, it’s time for a rematch!


Ball’s Bluff: A Little Battle with Lasting Consequences

September 20, 2010

A few Veterans Days ago, my wife and I made a day trip to Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park  in Loudon County, Virginia. You’d never know it was there, tucked away as it is behind a suburban housing development. Once you step out of your car and into the park, you’re in another place altogether. For one thing, Ball’s Bluff is really two sites in one.  Just inside the park is a small National Cemetery, containing the remains of 54 soldiers in 25 graves, all killed during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. We were there on a cold, cloudy day, the kind of day that really made us think somberly about that long-ago battle near the beginning of the Civil War. Given that it was a small engagement, we were able to walk most of the battlefield, up to the edge of the high bluff where the inexperienced Union soldiers made their last stand. 

This battle was relatively inconsequential militarily, but it had a larger impact politically. An overly ambitious reconnaissance in force that resulted in the death of Abraham Lincoln’s friend Colonel and Senator Edward D. Baker, it cost Union General Charles Stone his career and was the impetus for the establishment of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which became long-term Radical Republican thorn in the side of Lincoln’s Administration.

The U.S. Army’s Center of Military History has a neat little booklet on the battle that I wish we’d had that day. Battle of Ball’s Bluff was developed as a staff ride guide for Army personnel so they can “learn from the past by analyzing the battle through the eyes of the men who were there.” The best part of the booklet is the blow-by-blow account of the battle, accompanied by a number of detailed maps. As I said, the battlefield is relatively small, so you can really get a sense of what happened in just an hour or two.

What sticks in my mind is the fearful predicament of the Union troops, unfamiliar with the area and forced back to that steep bluff above the Potomac.  Many of them jumped to their deaths or died on the narrow little strip of land beneath under a rain of Confederate musket fire (left). I’m not that crazy about heights, so looking down from the top of that cliff really brought at least a bit of the grim reality of that day home to me.

You can read about this little battle with lasting consequences here, get your own copy here, or find a library that has a copy here.


A Book about the Civil War – and a Mystery

May 3, 2010

I was at a book sale last week and, lover of obscure historical topics that I am, picked up a book on the Civil War in Maine. Yes, there was a naval battle in Maine in 1863: the battle of Portland Harbor, when Confederate raiders seized the revenue cutter Caleb Cushing and, after pursuit by Federal forces, set it afire. Seeing this incident mentioned in the table of contents reminded me that the vast Government Book Talk vaults (AKA my office) held a copy of U.S. Revenue Cutters of the Civil War – a Government book published years ago and a perfect subject for blogging.

Things got mysterious after I unearthed it, though. Upon examination, I couldn’t find any indication that it was a Government publication. In fact, the publisher seemed to be “Alised Enterprises.” Had I been deluding myself all these years? On the other hand, the book also stated that it was “A U.S. Coast Guard Bicentennial Publication” and had a foreword by the Coast Guard’s official historian.

After a quick perusal of the Internet, I relaxed. It had a SuDocs classification number – TD 5.30: C49, to be exact – which means GPO had cataloged it as a Government book. I then learned that, according to WorldCat, which bills itself as “the world’s largest library catalog”, U.S. Revenue Cutters of the Civil War was published in 1988 by Alised Enterprises and again in 1990 by the Coast Guard. I couldn’t find a publication date in my copy, but my guess is that it’s a Coast Guard printing and that the author, Florence Kern, may have done the book under contract. (If anyone can add to the solution of this bibliographic mystery, please let me know.)

Florence Kern wrote a number of short pamphlets about various revenue cutters, mostly of the Revolutionary era. This book does something similar for Civil war cutters but also covers which ships went North or South at the beginning of the war, their work as blockaders for the Union, and much more, including the battle of Portland Harbor. It’s based on extensive archival research and provides a good introduction to a little-known aspect of the war. I wouldn’t mind delving into some research on this topic myself – maybe once I finish reading that book about the Civil War in Maine…

I couldn’t find an online version of U.S. Revenue Cutters of the Civil War, which is long out of print, but used copies do seem to be available at reasonable prices – and through Federal depository libraries, of course.

GPO does have other, more recent books about the Civil War that are well worth reading, so feel free to take a look.


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