One hundred and fifty years ago this July, President Lincoln, standing on a parapet at Fort Stevens, was ordered to take cover from Confederate fire. He had traveled north six miles to observe General Horatio Wright’s defense of the Nation’s Capital from Jubal A. Early’s Confederate army.
More remarkable than this was the fact that it wasn't the first time a U.S President had come under enemy fire during a battle. Fifty years before the Yankees discouraged Early from advancing on Washington during the Civil War, another U.S President found himself in dire straits.
The Battle of Bladensburg, fought during the War of 1812, will celebrate its bicentennial on August 24th . Only ten miles south of Fort Stevens, both of these conflicts were waged only a few miles from the White House. Accompanied by Secretary of State James Monroe, President James Madison made an unprecedented appearance at the Bladensburg battle grounds. The similarities between Lincoln’s visit to the front lines and Madison’s would end there.
Military scholars argue that the Battle of Fort Stevens was all but decided by the time General Early arrived in D.C on July 11th, 1864 via what is now referred to as Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill Road. A month before the battle, Early had been dispatched by Robert E. Lee to invade Maryland in the hope that pressure around Washington would force Ulysses S. Grant to reduce Union forces threatening Richmond.
After Early’s victory at Lynchburg, his Second Corps marched northward in early July towards Sharpsburg before heading East towards Frederick. On July 9th, 1864 a Yankee force nearly one third the size of Early’s, commanded by General Lew Wallace, met at Monocacy Junction. In defense of several bridges, Union soldiers under Wallace were able to occupy Early’s Confederates for an entire day before succumbing to defeat. The significance, however, was the amount of time it took Early to overcome Wallace. “Northern papers stated that, between Saturday and Monday, I could have entered [Washington] but on Saturday I was fighting at Monocacy… I did not arrive in [Fort Stevens] until Monday, and then my troops were exhausted”. On top of confederate fatigue, Wallace’s effort to stall allowed Grant to send support to Fort Stevens. It was evident to General Early by July 12th that an invasion of Washington would not materialize.
The Pittsburg Post-Gazette reporting on the event in 1914, described Lincoln as “unconscious of danger” and “absorbed in the significance of the situation”. It wasn't until a surgeon standing a few feet from the President was “grievously” wounded near Lincoln’s feet that General Wright ordered the President “to come down”. Lincoln evidently smiled at the General and took a seat behind the parapet “but frequently stood up, exposing his tall form to the fire”. Facing a tight election in only a few months, he probably figured he didn't have a ton to lose given the protection Grant's reinforcements would afford him.
The War of 1812, unlike the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, appears immaterial to one era that witnessed the creation of a country and another, it’s unraveling. The British, having captured Paris in March of 1814, were refocusing their efforts on North America. Unresolved, were a plethora of legacy trade and tariff disputes from the Revolutionary War. The British decided on a two pronged invasion through the Chesapeake Bay and Canada. The threat to Baltimore and Washington, defended almost entirely by militia units, was devised as a strategy to pull American forces from the war’s northern theater, clearing the path for an invasion into upstate New York.
Madison’s ride to the front at Bladensburg was poorly calculated. According to a hand written note by the President, his decision was based on the thought that if General William Winder (the commander in the field) should observe “any difficulty on the score of authority”, Madison would “be near at hand to remove it”. Distrust also extended into the President’s cabinet. Secretary of State James Monroe, having advised the President on August 23rd to British forces advancing towards the Capitol, accompanied Madison to Bladensburg where he fundamentally altered troop positioning. By moving nearly three thousand soldiers to safer ground, Monroe weakened the American position at the heart of the battle.
Shortly after 1pm on August 24th, British General Robert Ross, who earned worldwide recognition for his victory that day, crossed the eastern branch of the Potomac River to an onslaught of American artillery fire. He answered with Congreve Rockets, a newly minted form of rocket propelled technology adopted from the Mysore Wars. In addition to inspiring Francis Scott Key to include “rockets’ red glare” in his Star Spangled Banner, this earsplitting precursor to fireworks also motivated General Winder to encourage the President to flee Bladensburg.
In almost quixotic curiosity atop a bucking horse, Madison watched British Marines load their rockets into tripods. It wasn't until flames enveloped the sky that General Winder coolly reminded the President “not to present our troops with the sight of their commander in chief being wounded”. Madison, equally convinced, responded “as you wish”. In front of the fleeing party, a messenger was sent to Dolly Madison in the Capitol notifying her to “clear out!”
The aftermath of what became known as the “Bladensburg Races” ranks as one of the greatest American disgraces. Not only was Washington sacked and burned, but the city was left entirely defenseless. From the colonial period until the beginning of the 19th century, Americans saw permanent armies as imperialist and undemocratic. The silver lining of Bladensburg was a shift in American sentiment away from disjointed militia units towards an organized standing army.
More forgotten was a lesson President Lincoln should have heeded from his predecessor before deciding to visit Fort Stevens that Monday in July. For only fifty years before, Madison, after being bombarded by rocket fire and advised to retreat, informed James Monroe that it’d be best "to leave military matters to military men."