The Day Lincoln Was Almost Shot: The Fort Stevens Story
by Benjamin Franklin Cooling III
The Scarecrow Press
Most people would put the high water mark of the Confederacy at a copse of trees near the crest of Cemetery Hill just outside of Gettysburg, PA, on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. In his new book author B.F. Cooling places it just north of Washington D.C. almost exactly a year later on July 11, 1864 at a little-known bastion called Fort Stevens, one of the ring of 68 forts that protected the capitol. On that day Rebel sharpshooters lay within 50 yards of the fort, manned at the time by only a company of seventy-eight green hundred-days men from the Ohio National Guard, some fifty-two convalescents, and a seventy-nine-man battery of Michigan artillerymen, their fire driving the men from their guns. Just over five miles away lay the White House and Congress, the possession or destruction of which might drive Abe Lincoln from office and win them the war. Why they failed to take it has been hotly debated ever since.
The book’s title harks back to a fifties best seller, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, a somewhat breathless minute by minute quasi-journalistic account of the day of the president’s assassination. Cooling’s book is quite different in perspective, being a careful scholarly work examining the construction and importance of Fort Stevens and its associated redoubts, the campaign leading up to its near capture, the fighting around it and especially the day — July 12th, 1864 — that a Confederate sharpshooter almost cut short the 16th president’s term.
Cooling looks closely at the various accounts of the events surrounding Lincoln’s near miss and concludes that even now there is no completely satisfactory chronicle of exactly what happened. He even dug up a previously unpublished reminiscence by Surgeon Cornelius Crawford, the man who actually was shot on that day, supposedly by the president’s side. I will not spoil it for you, but Crawford’s account (and map) differs substantially from the generally accepted version.
As for the failure of Jubal Early’s men to arrive early enough take the fort or the capitol, Cooling lists a multitude of causes, including General Lee’s often confusing and contradictory orders (in addition to threatening or taking Washington, Early was supposed to tear up railroad tracks and free the prisoners at Point Lookout – a tall order for such a small force, and one that ate up valuable time), his delay at Harper’s Ferry on July 4th enjoying the generous repast left by Sigel’s Yankees, the heat and straggling, and of course Lew Wallace’s stand at Monocacy. Once outside the fort Early had to balance success against his probable losses, the imminent arrival of Union reinforcements, and the very real possibility that his army might disintegrate into a drunken mob once in the city. Although Old Jube was aided by Grant’s almost unbelievably obtuse sloth in dispatching troops to protect the capitol as well as Federal intelligence failures that located Early’s Corps in Petersburg until it actually crossed the Potomac, it was not quite enough.
Speaking of sources, if you are interested in this subject area, the book is a gold mine of source material and worth the rather steep cover price for that alone. The copious footnotes and appendices cover not only the battle but give detailed information about all the forts in the sector as well as the rather complex Union order of battle and command structure. A nice bonus is a driving tour of the battle, which as it is now completely in an urban area requires some imagination to see as it was.
Cooling has written several Civil War books and has established himself as an authority on the defenses of Washington (Mr. Lincoln’s Forts) and Jubal Early’s 1864 campaign against the city. A Professor of National Security Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, Cooling is at his best when looking at the big picture rather than the tactical situation. He sprinkles the narrative with Clausewitzian terms of art and locates Washington as the center of gravity of the Union, meaning that its capture might have decided the conflict. Although the events of July 11 and 12 lend themselves to a great deal of speculation, Cooling plays the even-handed historian and avoids constructing alternative histories.
As mentioned the entire area is now urbanized and much of the battlefield of 1864 has been lost or altered forever. Cooling has been active in preserving what little is left, especially since the recent closing of Walter Reed hospital (scene of the hardest fighting on July 12), but it’s been an uphill fight against the developers. Today only part of Fort Stevens remains and that is in danger of being crowded out by the expansion of a nearby church.
The book is well produced but the copy editing could have been better (e.g. fortress guns are sometimes described as en embrasure and sometimes as in embrasure). It is better suited to the serious scholar rather than the casual Civil War reader, but for anyone interested in this important and unjustly neglected part of that conflict’s history (not to mention Lincoln scholars) I highly recommend it.