THE BATTLE OF FORT STEVENS AND ITS AFTERMATH
Major-General Alexander McCook barked out desperate orders to the men who were barely soldiers that made up the Washington, DC defenses. Jubal Early’s corps was just on the other side of the battlements at Fort Stevens, and threatened the nation’s capital. McCook wished he had better men, but a commander always has to order the soldiers he has, not the ones he wished he had. When McCook heard the sounds of drunken singing from some of the Confederate throats, he took heart: it sounded like they had looted a whiskey store somewhere and were in no fit condition for battle. They’d sober up soon enough, but that time would be what McCook would need to get reinforcements to the critical area. Wright’s corps was on its way to the front, and those tough veterans would do the job of defense that the invalids and rag-tag troops of the regular garrison wouldn’t be fully capable of.
McCook studied the movements of the Confederates. It was clear that Early’s men were hesitant, unsure of Union numbers behind the breastworks. McCook knew that hesitation would buy him more time and he stood a good chance of not being remembered as “The General That Lost Washington.”
Timing was everything. Wallace’s corps had fought Early’s men at Monocacy, just up the road from Washington. Though Wallace didn’t keep the field, his action bought a day for McCook’s defense, giving Wright’s corps the time it needed to move up from Virginia to the capitol. Now the combination of disorder and hesitation looked set to give McCook the time he needed. McCook said a silent prayer of thanks. There was a chance that the Rebels wouldn’t even attempt an assault. If all they did was fire a few artillery pieces and put up a skirmish line, casualties would be light and Early would have to withdraw before even more Union forces arrived to crush him. Early depended upon mobility to survive, given his limited numbers. He would have to move soon. Again, timing was everything.
McCook heard a commotion coming from the rear area: no doubt, that was the first column of Wright’s force. McCook descended from the breastworks to greet them and give them direction on where to post first. They would go to the right bastion first, where McCook’s men were least reliable. That would keep that area shored up, just in case Early lived up to his reckless reputation and chose a suicide ride into death and glory to burn the capitol at all costs.
McCook went pale when he saw that the only soldiers in the group that was causing all the fuss were part of the President’s security detail. Abraham Lincoln himself at Fort Stevens! On today, of all days!
“I came here to see the progress of the defenses of the capital.” McCook didn’t know where to begin with his laconic Commander-in-Chief. Mary Lincoln was with her husband, even. And what would become of them if Early’s boys crested those battlements and rained musket balls on the spot where McCook met his President?
And what could McCook say to Lincoln? This was the man that had moved to have McCook court-martialed after the disaster at Chickamauga. This was the man that had put events into motion that blamed McCook for the crushing Union loss. Right or wrong, this man that doubted McCook so deeply was also the one that had placed him in charge of the Washington defenses for the current crisis. McCook wanted to serve his president, but he wanted to perform that service with his president at least 10 miles away from the front lines. This was insanity, inspecting the defenses on the day of their most earnest test under fire!
And that test had just begun.
McCook heard the report of cannon-fire and the whipping-by of musket balls. He turned to regard his men in the fortifications. They were returning fire, which was a comfort to McCook, who had feared that they would have broken and ran. Instead, they borrowed a little courage from the earth that rose between them and the enemy, and it did suffice them so long as they kept their heads low.
“Ah, the sound of battle! I shall see it myself!” Lincoln moved from behind McCook, through his peripheral vision, and was well on his way to the actual walls of the fort.
“Mr. President, I must advise you not to go up there!” McCook’s voice faltered slightly with fear on behalf of his president.
“Nonsense! I fear no battle!” Lincoln waved away McCook’s concerns and took to the battlements and stood upright, viewing the whole field of battle, just as soldiers did in 1861. It was 1864 now, however, and every soldier worth his pay had learned the very important lesson of securing cover in a battle.
“Mr. President, there are enemy snipers in that line! Please get down!” McCook realized he had been rooted to the spot where he stood, immobilized with the fear of what was to become of a very tall man in a highly recognizable stovepipe hat in front of a mass of armed men, eager for a choice target to train their weapons upon.
A surgeon next to Lincoln on the parapet tried to convince the president to duck low. McCook thought for the briefest of moments that the surgeon was, once again, a masterstroke of timing. Either he would prevail upon Mr. Lincoln or he would at least be there to tend to the President, if he were wounded by enemy action.
McCook hoped against hope that he would be an anonymous name, little remembered in the annals of the great war between the states. Other generals would write their memoirs: let them. McCook had already been in command of soldiers that were overwhelmed by the enemy in three other battles, so he had nothing glorifying to offer the public other than apologia, which he preferred to not write. History was written not just by the victors, but by the victors that were lucky enough to have good public relations people working for them and a few victories under their belts.
A shot rang out. Suddenly, McCook experienced every moment as if it was a revolution around the sun. With complete clarity, he saw the darkness pass inches away from the surgeon, slamming directly into the right temple of the sixteenth President of the United States.
The red told a terrible story – even as the President fell, the surgeon leaped to catch him. McCook, released from the spell of fear by the shock of reality, ran to make his way to Lincoln’s side.
By the time McCook was there, the surgeon was already in tears, shaking his head in disbelief. McCook fell to his knees and saw the awful entry wound in the President’s head. A pool of blood beneath the President’s left side indicated the severity of the exit wound.
Why couldn’t the ball had been just two inches to the right? It would have hit the surgeon’s shoulder. Why couldn’t the President have taken off his hat and lowered himself? Why couldn’t the President have inspected the defenses after the action was over? Why couldn’t the President have left for a campaign stop up in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, or – better still, further still – Bangor, Maine? Why now, of all moments, did the timing have to favor the Rebel and not the Union?
Tears broke out of McCook’s eyes, involuntarily. This fateful day, 11 July 1864, would be forever known as the day Lincoln fell to the bullet of an enemy soldier, the first and hopefully only President to die in battle. McCook no longer worried or wondered about himself. A soldier through and through, he ordered his men to continue holding the line while a few officers carried the corpse of their Captain, their Captain to the rear.
Hannibal Hamlin pounded the table in the Oval Office. “No! Absolutely not! Not one more word of this talk will trouble me! Every one of them needs to be hung as a traitor to the United States of America, if possible! I want Grant removed from command for even suggesting we accept a surrender from those butchers! Put Burnside in charge, he’ll know what to do!”
The seventeenth President of the United States had no intention of going easy on the officers and generals of Slave Power. They had had their chance with the lenient-minded Lincoln, but that chance had died with Lincoln. Hamlin was of one mind with the hard-line Republicans, dead set upon destroying the Confederate Army along with any vestige of the society of enslavement.
Scorched earth is what won him the election in 1864. Grant’s bumbling around Richmond was no help. Sheridan’s razing of the Shenandoah Valley provided the boost in popularity Hamlin needed to defeat McClellan. Now, Union columns were burning all in their path. Officers had orders to re-deed plantation lands to the freed slaves that once worked those lands without hope of owning them. Those that resisted were shot, making the disposition of their lands all the easier.
Andrew Johnson railed against the despoiling of the South, but the Constitution had no bearing on lands or people that had divorced themselves from it. Johnson could say all he wanted and Hamlin would not care, for it was a trivial matter to jail any editor that dared to agree with his sentiments. Hamlin had promised blood for blood in his inaugural speech, and Jeff Davis would be swinging from a tree before any talk of peace would be entertained.
And while the Confederate field armies had dissolved after the spring of 1865, their confounded bandit gangs continued to plague the Union occupation armies. 1866 had been a bloody enough year, and 1867 had begun much in the same manner. Hamlin took some cold comfort in reports that much of the violence of this year was not connected to resistance against the Union, but were most likely the final, violent climaxes to feuds that had broken out in the course of the recent rebellion. 1867 would see a tapering to the violence and, in the peace of 1868, hopefully the last of the Confederacy’s leaders would be rounded up and hung, which would practically guarantee Hamlin’s re-election in 1868.
As the officer left the Oval Office to relieve Grant of his command, Hamlin gazed out the window. He looked upon a land that would soon have the cancer of slavery completely exorcised from it. As he watched the trees swaying in the breezes of early summer, he contemplated the thought that it might be necessary, after winning election in 1868, to carry forward the fight against slavery to Cuba. That would mean a war with Spain, but Hamlin was confident his nation would be ready for the crusade. After that, Brazil needed a lesson in the rights of man.
The United States of America would stand astride the whole of the Western Hemisphere as a beacon of civilization and an eternal champion in the war against barbarism. Hamlin did not flinch from the thought of a war against not only soldiers, but ideas and practices. That was the American thing to do.