07 Jul 2014

Lost Capitol Hill: July 7, 1864

Itnn less than a week, one of the more important D.C.-related Civil War sesquicentennial anniversaries (the 150th)  is coming up: The Battle of Fort Stevens, fought on July 11th and 12th in 1864. The story of the battle has been described in many books and articles over the years, but I was intrigued with how the citizens of the time experienced it. Last week, I gave the background, and this week I will be recounting this story from the perspective of the newspapers of the time.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Washington was threatened: A large army under the direction of Jubal Early had crossed the Potomac River near Harper’s Ferry and was plundering the countryside. Early had been sent here to scavenge for food, but also in hopes of drawing some of the troops that General Grant had near Richmond, as to decrease the pressure on the Confederate capital.

In Washington, news was difficult to come by. Rumors swept the populace, but their best hope for real information was from the newspapers of the day. D.C. had eight of them, but one – the Globe – was entirely for the records of Congress, two further were published weekly or less, and one had apparently ceased operation. The other four newspapers did their best to keep their reader’s informed, but often failed due to the paucity of actual, verifiable information. In short, what was printed in the papers was often no more or less a rumor than what one could hear on the streets.

Thursday July 7, 1864

It was not easy for the citizens of Washington D.C. to divine what was happening on the 7th of July. The two morning newspapers weren’t much help. The Daily National Intelligencer had as their latest information reports from 9:00 PM the previous evening, in which there was talk of a small skirmish the previous afternoon between Union pickets out in front of Frederick and the attacking rebels. They downplayed the whole raid, referring to them as “Exaggerated Reports.”

The Daily Morning Chronicle had its latest news from 6:00 PM: “the rebels are in Williamsport, Hagerstown, and other portions of the State, but not in any formidable body. They are plundering in all directions, stealing horses and securing supplies.” This information came from “reliable sources” with no attempt made to indicate why they should be given credence. Furthermore, the dispatch begins with “I now learn” but there is no mention of who the author might be.

In short, any hope of finding out what was really going on would have to wait for the afternoon and evening papers. Unfortunately, there was little to be gleaned from them. The front page of the Washington Evening Star had a large article about the public school examinations, and an ad for the sale of ‘confiscated property’ in Prince William and Fairfax counties as well as Alexandria. Locally, the issues facing the city were more prosaic: Which ‘entertainments’ were to be had that evening, as well as which citizens had been arrested for selling liquor to soldiers, and worse – without a license.

As far as the rebel incursion was concerned, they reported on “conflicting reports of [the raid’s] progress,” and made no guesses as to how many troops are involved, only that they are plundering the Middletown Valley – with that being their main objective – and that ‘consternation’ reigned in Frederick. However, all these reports were from the previous day – the latest, with a date of midnight on the 6th, stated that “there are reports … that the enemy are in large force on this side of the Potomac. Some estimates are as high as 30,000” However, it concluded that this “is thought to be very doubtful.” Inside, they seem to think that the “Rebel Raiders on the Retreat up the Valley to Escape from [General David] Hunter” and that none were in Maryland any more. This in spite of the fact that Hunter had effectively been demoted since his losing the Battle of Lynchburg on June 19.

General David Hunter (LOC)

General David Hunter (LOC)

In fact, the 3:30 report contradicted much of the earlier reports. Not at the top, where the headline was still “The Sensation Stories brought down by Boatmen Discredited,” but rather towards the end of the column where the writer began with “After careful inquiry, with a desire to sift out the truth as far as possible, with a view to avoid acting the part of the alarmist on one hand by overstating or encouraging false security by moderating the state of facts, I send you the following, which is deemed to be correct.” According to him, a force of “not far short of 30,000” had crossed the Potomac and was now busy skirmishing as well as “driving off cattle, horses &c., and plundering the farmers in the valley.” Furthermore, Hagerstown had been captured, “but in what force is not known.”

The latest – and also most disconcerting – of these messages came from about 12:30 PM. The Daily National Republican had as a latest report a story from 11:45 AM which begins with the same caveat beginning with “After careful inquiry,” which make you wonder about who was stealing from whom on this day.

Other than that, their message was the same as the Star‘s. The citizens of Washington could possibly take solace in the fact that there was no indication up to this point that the nation’s capital was the aim of the raid, but the fact that the rebels seemed to be able to roam western Maryland at will can hardly have ensured their undisturbed sleep.

This Friday at 11:00, I will be at Fort Stevens for my own personal 150th anniversary commemoration. You are invited to join me. Or come the following day for the official one.

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