By David J. Kent
Sunday, September 17, 2023
In 1864, Abraham Lincoln visited Fort Stevens, one of the many installations protecting the capital from Confederate insurrection. In 2023, Abraham Lincoln returned in the form of Phil Collins. But the real stars of the day were Elizabeth Thomas and Dr. Richard Bell.
I have an affinity for Fort Stevens. I was the keynote speaker for the annual event in 2019, speaking on Lincoln's long road to emancipation. In addition, the fort, which was originally called Fort Massachusetts after my home state, was renamed Fort Stevens to honor the death of General Isaac Stevens. General Stevens came to his unfortunate end in the Battle of Ox Hill only a short walk from my new home. On almost a daily basis as I walk through the small battlefield park, I commune with the stones marking where Stevens and fellow General Kearny fell. It was with great pleasure that I joined the celebration today.
The land where Fort Stevens sits was taken by eminent domain from a freeborn African American woman named Elizabeth Proctor Thomas. She would later tell the story of how it was Abraham Lincoln himself who consoled her as soldiers tore down her house. She remained living on part of the property throughout the war. According to Thomas, Lincoln told her that a great reward would come her way for her sacrifice. She was never compensated for the loss of her property.
Lincoln came to the fort in 1864 when Confederate General Jubal Early was attacking Washington from the north. He had been delayed by Union forces at Monocacy near Frederick, Maryland, just long enough for a ragtag Union army to rush to Washington's defense. Famously, Lincoln stood on the earthworks and narrowly missed being shot. Stories have it that someone, perhaps future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., yelled up at him, "Get down you fool." [Spoiler: He got down.]
The 2023 keynote speaker was Richard Bell, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. I had heard Bell give a talk on his book, Stolen, during the pandemic a couple of years ago, and was eager to hear him speak. Bell's British accent mesmerized the crowd as he dug into the actions of Lincoln and Congress to end slavery, but even more so, the actions of the enslaved people themselves. Those escaping behind Union lines helped force the issue of what to do with them, which, according to Bell, directly encouraged (or perhaps compelled) the necessary political acts. Sabotage by those enslaved in the deep South and thus unable to escape to Union lines helped limit the Confederacy's effectiveness. Bell's presentation was exceptional in both content and liveliness. Afterward, the audience kept him answering questions for nearly another half hour.
This year was the 99th anniversary of the commemoration of Lincoln-Thomas Day. It had been initiated by the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, who were represented this year by both the DC area and the National presidents. They joined old friends of the Lincoln Group of DC such as Pat Tyson, Loretta Neumann, Bryan Cheeseboro, and many others in honoring the sacrifices of both Lincoln and Thomas.
Next year is the 100th anniversary, so put it on your calendar now because the event is sure to be even more spectacular.
[Photos by David J. Kent. The top is a photo of a photo, originally taken in 1911 with Mrs. Thomas present at the unveiling of the stone showing where Lincoln stood. The bottom is Dr. Richard Bell, the 2023 keynote speaker.]