08 Jul 2014

Lost Capitol Hill: July 8, 1864

tnWe continue to look at the runup to the attack on Washington D.C. on July 11, 1864 today. As the week leading up to the Battle of Fort Stevens progressed, the news became more and more unclear. Some of this was due to the lack of solid information, but it was partly also due to the local newspaper’s desire not to alarm the populace. This was not easy to do when the news was, frankly, quite alarming. On July 8, Frederick managed to avoid capture and sacking by the enemy by the simple expedient of paying them off. Unsurprisingly, none of this was reported in the newspapers of the day.

Any hope that the 8th’s news would bring clarity to what had happened on the 7th were dashed when the residents of D.C. reached for their morning newspapers. The Chronicle downplayed the raid: “The railroad is still unobstructed as far as Sandy Hook. At the last [report] it was believed that there was only a small force of guerillas on the Virginia shore, opposite Point of Rocks.” Furthermore, it said that the Union was at work as well. Under the headline “Movements of Union Troops.” they wrote that “Active movements of troops are going on which it is not proper, for prudential reasons, to particularize.” While this may have helped to soothe the more nervous among them, it did little to clarify the situation.

View from Harper's Ferry across the Potomac to Sandy Hook. Detail of 1865 print from Harper's Weekly (sonofthesouth.net)

View from Harper’s Ferry across the Potomac to Sandy Hook. Detail of 1865 print from Harper’s Weekly (sonofthesouth.net)

The Intelligencer simply reprinted some short pieces from the Baltimore American, “whose editors state that it was prepared after careful inquiry, and with a desire to sift out the truth and to avoid acting the part of alarmists, or, on the other hand, encouraging a false security by underrating the state of affairs.” There was mention of a skirmish near Frederick, but, probably most portentously, the fact that General Wallace was “directing operations for guarding the lower fords” of the Monocacy river.
Once again, the citizens of Washington would have to wait for the afternoon papers.
When that afternoon’s first edition of the Evening Star came out, any hope for good news seemed shattered. According to them a prisoner had reported that “the present raid is not only to procure horses, but crops and provisions: that it is headed by Lee, and composed of Ewell’s and Longstreet’s corps, and is an effort to invade Pennsylvania and other Northern States. The capture of Baltimore and the destruction of the national capital are also aimed at” This was alarming, to say the least. They did not mention (and, in their defense, did not know) that Ewell was assigned to Richmond, Longstreet was recovering from wounds, while Lee was in charge in Richmond; in short, the prisoner quoted was simply making things up.
However, inside the news was quite different and much more hopeful: “The Enemy Retreat From Before Frederick – General Wallace Pursuing” Similarly, Harper’s Ferry was being effectively defended.
Even more likely to alleviate the nervousness of the reader was how the paper chose to fill its space. The Star spilled much more ink on the salacious details of the case of Cornelius Tuell and Peter Gooden, each of whom had been convicted of murder, and who were to be hung, than on the raid.
Over at the National Republican, they managed to avoid quoting any prisoners. Here, the front page correctly states that the number of rebels to be at least 30,000. They also wrote of the first, failed, attempts to cross the Monocacy on the 7th, when, from 4 to 8 PM, the rebels attempted to cross three times, and were repulsed each time. General Wallace was quoted as saying that Frederick was safe, and that reinforcements were on their way. In short, things are looking good for the Union.
The inside was even more hopeful: “The Rebel Raid Played Out” cried the headline, and it claimed that as of 12:30 on the 8th there were no more rebels in the area. The story given by the prisoner (possibly that one from the Star) was “probably mere boast. At all events, no very large force of the enemy has yet been discovered by our scouts or reconnoitering parties”
The most accurate sentence in all of these papers probably came from the Intelligencer. Deep on page three, after enormous amount of detail about the Battle of Cherbourg, there comes this: “There can no longer be any doubt that Gen. Lee has sent a considerable portion of his army this direction.”
What this would mean for the citizens of Washington was still unclear.


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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