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Confederate 1864 Raid on Washington — General Jubal A. Early Tells His Story

May 16, 2010

THE CONFEDERATE 1864 CIVIL WAR RAID ON WASHINGTON – Gen. Jubal A. Early Again Tells His Story. The force he claims to have had – Why no assault was made on the Federal Capital – The burning of the Montgomery Balir’s House.

Gen. Jubal A. Early, of Virginia, has repeated, in a long letter, printed by the Washington National Republican, of Thursday, his story of his advance upon Washington in July we quote:

“My advance, a small body of cavalry, arrived for the first time in front of the defenses about noon of July 11, and I followed this advance in person, arriving in sight of the defenses a little afternoon. The main body of my command did not get up until some two or three hours later. I was in command of the whole force, and my command consisted of what was left of the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, with two battalions of artillery, of three batteries each, attached to it; Breckinridge’s division of infantry of three small] brigades, four small brigades of cavalry, and small battalion of artillery attached to Breckinridge’s command. According to the field returns of the Army of Northern Virginia of April 20, 1864, the latest before the commencement of the campaign from the Wilderness to James River, the Second Corps (Ewell’s) had present for duty 1,374 officers and 15,705 enlisted men, making an aggregate of 17,079, as shown by a statement copied from the returns in the Archive Office at Washington by Col. Walter H. Taylor, and given in his Four Years with Gen. Lee, (page 176.) That corps had been engaged in the heaviest of the fighting from the Wilderness to James River, and on the 12th of May nearly one entire division (Johnston’s) had been captured. The other divisions had suffered very heavy losses, and there had been no accessions to the corps, except in the return of a small brigade of my own division and two regiments of Rodes’s, which had been detached. When I was detached

from Gen. Lee’s army the whole corps did not amount to 9,000 effectives. At Lynchburg 3 found Breckinridge with his small division of infantry, with which was serving a small part of a brigade of cavalry which had been dismounted. There were also with him four small brigades of cavalry and a battalion of artillery. The greater part of the cavalry had been with W. E. Jones in his defeat by Hunter at Piedmont, in the Valley, and was very much disorganized and demoralized. None of it belonged to the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, but it had been for the most part on service in Western Virginia and East Tennessee. It was not armed as cavalry proper, but had for its armament almost exclusively Enfield rifles. It was, in fact, nothing more than mounted infantry. My very rapid march from Lynchburg In pursuit of Hunter, and then down the Valley and across the Potomac, had caused a considerable number of the infantry to be left behind from inability to keep up, as my men were very badly shod. I had left an officer with a small command at Win* Chester to collect the stragglers, and on my return to the Valley, after the advance on Washington. I found that something over 1,500 stragglers had been collected at Winchester. Moreover, I had sustained a loss of some 700 or 800 men in killed and wounded in some slight actions in the Valley before crossing the Potomac and in the fight at the Monocacy. The force of infantry with which I moved on Washington din not, therefore, exceed 8,000 muskets, if it reached that number. In the three battalions of artillery I had nine batteries, neither of which had more than four field-pieces, and some of them not that many. Besides these there were one or two battalions of horse artillery with the cavalry, the entire number of field-pieces in all the artillery not exceeding 40. Much the largest brigade of cavalry had been detached at Frederick on the expedition that threatened Baltimore and cut the railroads and telegraph between that city and Washington and Philadelphia. Some* idea of my strength at the time of the advance on Washington may be formed from the return for the 3lst of August, 1864. Given by Col. Taylor In his book, page 178. This, I presume, is the earliest return on file in the Archive Once after I was detached, and is as follows:

Breckinridge’s division (total elective)…………2.104
Rodes’s division (total elective)………………..3.013
Gordon’s division (total elective)………………2.544
Ramseur’s division (total elective)……………..1,909
Aggregate…………………………………..9,570

The strength of the cavalry and artillery is not given, but both could not have exceeded 3,000. By this time all the stragglers had rejoined me, and some of those wounded in the campaign from the Wilderness had returned to their regiments.

It took several hours to bring my infantry into line, as it was moving by Bank on a narrow road, with the trains and artillery interspersed at intervals on the line of march for the purposes of protection, one division being in rear of the whole. Before even the first brigade of the leading division was brought into line I saw a cloud of dust from the direction of Washington, showing that troops were moving up. and. a portion of them having Bled into the trenches, a large body of skirmishers were sent to the front, which drove back my cavalry skirmishers, about 200 strong, and burned a number of houses in front of the works. This affair is thus given by Gen. Barnard: Upon the arrival of dismounted men of the Second Division Cavalry Corps. Army of the Potomac, 600 of them, under command of Major G. Briggs. advanced at 1:30 P. M.. and drove the enemy’s skirmishers back about 1,000 yards, and thus restored in some degree confidence to the defenders.’ I witnessed this affair, and at that time the leading brigade of my command had not come up, but soon after came up. formed line, and sent forward skirmishers, who drove those of the enemy back to the cover of his works. It took some time to get the remainder of the leading division into line, and it was much later when the rest of my command was brought up. The whole command had then marched fully 15 miles in very hot, dry weather and over exceedingly dusty roads, and was, of course, very much exhausted, many of the men having fallen by the way from the heat and sheer exhaustion. I may here remark, in reference to alleged statements by my men as to my strength and purposes, that it was a very poor Confederate soldier who would acknowledge to citizens of the enemy’s country through which he was marching the weakness of the army to which he belonged, or any doubt of the success of the expedition. I recollect very well an incident which occurred with myself on that morning. As I was riding in rear of my cavalry advance I got some distance ahead of my infantry column, and, seeing a shady grove by the road-side, with a neat house in it, I halted to rest under the shade of the trees while waiting for my infantry. The gentleman of the house came out to speak to me, and I soon found a sympathizer with our cause in him. Finding this, I asked him about the character and strength of the works around Washington, and he said that they were not very strong. as they were nothing but ‘earth-works/ I then asked Mm about the strength of the troops inside of those works, and he stated that there was not a large force in them—not more, he thought, than 20.000 men. Knowing that earthworks in the then state of the science of war were regarded as the strongest that could be made, and that such works, defended by 20,000 men. would be impregnable as against my force, and not feeling very much encouraged by the information given me. I nevertheless replied to my informant that if that was all they had to oppose to us we would not mind that. I have no doubt that some of my men, even after they were made prisoners, did what is called some * very tall talking’ about my strength and purposes, and doubtless such boasting on their part contributed in no small degree to the state of bewilderment of my opponent in the subsequent campaign as to my strength and the success of my efforts to battle him for so long a period. Washington was indebted for its safety not alone to the strength of its defenses and the troops that were in them before my arrival, but two divisions of the Sixth Corps from Grant’s army and a portion of the Nineteenth Corps arrived before or simultaneously with my arrival in front of the works. When I speak here of my arrival I mean, of course, the arrival of the main body of my force.

“My troops did not all get up and Into line before 4 o’clock, and my leading brigade was not in line before 2 o’clock: so that, In addition to the troops already in Washington before my arrival, I would have had to encounter the two divisions of the Sixth Corps and the part of the Nineteenth Corps that had arrived if I had attempted to enter Washington. The proposition, therefore, that I could have successfully made the attempt at any time after my arrival is simply preposterous. If I had been able to reach Washington sooner, Grant would have sent troops to its rescue sooner, and hence there was never any prospect of my capturing that city. It was not Gen. Lee’s orders or expectation that I should take Washington. His order was that I should threaten that city, and when I suggested to him the probability of my being able to capture it he said that would be Impossible. It was my own conception, that of undertaking the capture, but the feasibility of that depended upon my finding the city very insufficiently defended. On the night of the 11th, being unwilling to surrender the idea of capturing the Federal capital. I gave an order for the assault at dawn on the 12th, but a dispatch received during the night, stating the arrival of two corps from Grant’s army, caused me to examine the works at the earliest dawn of the 12th, when I found them so strongly manned as to preclude all hope of carrying them, and I therefore countermanded the order for assault, I remained In front of the works, however, during the 12th, with the purpose of retiring at night, and gave orders accordingly. All my movements during the day were mere demonstrations to amuse the enemy until the time for withdrawal arrived. I had ascertained that Hunter had arrived at Harper’s Ferry with his forces, which I knew to be much larger than my own, and my position was therefore exceedingly critical, as there was but one way for escaping across the Potomac, and that was by a ford above Leesburg. in Loudon County, over which I did retire successfully. If the Federal commanders in Washington and Gen. Hunter had been possessed of the requisite enterprise and daring it would have been impossible for me to have escaped the capture of my entire command. All my movements were based on the presumed want of enterprise on the part of the enemy, and it seems that Federal commanders cannot understand the audacity that caused their capital to be threatened by so small a force. The article of the writer in the Republican contains a number of statements on subjects of minor interest which are wholly without foundation in fact. Among them is the statement that Francis P Blair,

Sr. was driven from his residence by my troops, Mr. Blair was not at home at the time, but was, as I was informed, absent with his family in Pennsylvania, leaving his house in charge of some woman who Red on our approach. If Mr. Blair had been at home his property and his privacy would have been respected as was that of all citizens who remained in their houses. When I found that his house was abandoned, and had been plundered of some valuables, I placed a guard over it with orders that no one should enter it without permission, and that the property should be protected. Most, if not all. the valuables that had been taken were recovered and placed in the charge of some neighbor for the purpose of being restored to Mr. Blair on his return. His cattle, which was at for beeves, were taken by my orders, as were the cattle of other citizens, it being necessary that my troops should be supplied with provisions from the country. His house was not used for a hospital, and If any wounded men were found in it they were men who had been wounded in the affair which occurred late in the afternoon of the 12th between some troops sent out from the works and a portion of the troops on my front line, who would not be transported and found their way to the house after I retired. If the writer is to be understood as Intimating that Montgomery Blair’s house was burned by my orders then the statement is incorrect. I had placed a guard over that house also, and it was not burned by my orders,but was Bred after my guard had been withdrawn. I have never been able to ascertain who did the burning. Gen. Rodes, whose division occupied my front line and furnished the guard for the house, was of opinion -that it was burned by some resident of the neighborhood, who took advantage of our presence to commit the act. It is not impossible that the burning was by some of my men, but it was without my authority. It was my policy to prohibit everything like marauding on the part of my troops, and I was especially determined to prevent the destruction of the property of the Blairs, for it was understood that both the father and the son were opposed to the policy pursued by some Federal commanders in the South in the destruction of private property and the imprisonment of non-combatant citizens. In fact, it was understood by us that Montgomery Blair had lost caste with the extreme Radicals of the party to which he was attached at that time, and it was not a great while before he retired from the Cabinet. There is a citizen of one of the upper counties of the Valley, who is stilt living, who had followed my command into Maryland, and who came to me while I was in front of Washington with the request that I would permit him to burn the house of Montgomery Blair, in retaliation for the burning of many houses in the Valley by Gen. Hunter’s orders. This permission I refused, with a statement of my reasons therefore. Judge Blair, however, as I understand, has never been able to believe that I did not have his house burned, and he bases his conviction on a conversation I had with some gentlemen from Hagerstown. in which I stated that if the house had been burned by some of my men the act would have been fully justified by the burning in their own counties of many private residences by Gen. Hunter, whose ruins they had seen when marching down the Valley. This expression seems to have been misconstrued into an admission that the act was my own. I have no disposition to evade the responsibility for any of my acts during the war, and I certainly did have the iron-works of Mr. Thaddeus Stevens burned in 1803. and the town of Chambersburg was burned by my orders in 1864 as an act of retaliation, after a refusal to comply with a demand upon the town for compensation for some burning that Gen. Hunter had done within the limits of my command. I also levied contributions on the towns of York. Penn.. in 1863. and Frederick, Md., in 1864. All these acts were in accordance with the laws of war, and if I had ordered the burning of Blair’s house I would not now seek to evade the responsibility.

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