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Remembering the Day Lincoln Went to Watch the War...

By Wendy Swanson

Washington D.C.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

And Came under Fire! The National Park Service (NPS) annually commemorates the Battle of Fort Stevens (July 11-12, 1864) on the weekend nearest the anniversary of that conflict. This coming weekend will mark the 157th anniversary of the battle – the only one of the Civil War to occur within the boundaries of the Nation’s Capital and remembered too as the conflict where the commander-in-chief came under fire.

As the story goes, Lincoln traveled to Fort Stevens for an up close and personal view of the action against Jubal Early’s invading army. Observing from the ramparts, Lincoln came under fire (a Union surgeon next to him was wounded) and pulled to safety. The NPS describes the event as “the only time in American history in which a sitting president came under direct fire from an enemy combatant.” Veterans of the battle dedicated a monument commemorating the incident on July 12, 1920. (See above photo.) Originally placed in the area of the parade ground, the monument was resituated on the parapet at the conclusion of the reconstruction of the fort and powder magazine by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Unlike last year - when commemorative festivities were provided virtually – the event this year will be in-person (although some virtual programs will be available), on-site and two-pronged:

On Friday evening, July 9, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., NPS Ranger Steve Phan will give an interpretative program beginning at Fort Stevens and ending with a walk to Battleground National Cemetery for a candlelight luminary and Taps to honor the U.S. soldiers buried there. The cemetery, a few blocks north of the fort on Georgia Avenue, is the resting place for the remains of 41 Union soldiers who died in defense of the capital at Fort Stevens.

On Saturday, July 10, the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington

(Alliance), under permit with the Park Service, will present a commemorative program at the Fort from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., featuring period music; reenactors (both civilian and military), talks on the history of the battle and wartime Washington, and children’s activities. NPS Ranger Kenya Finely will describe the battle and historian Frank Cooling, “Fort Stevens and America’s ‘History Wars.’” Other talks will explore Civil War Washington including historic Georgia Avenue as well as letters from soldiers at Fort Stevens.

While at the fort, be sure to seek out the reenactor portraying Elizabeth (Aunt Betty) Thomas (she’ll be located near the magazine) to learn her story. She too is part of the Lincoln legend at Fort Stevens. A free black woman, her property was seized by the Union to build a fort. As she was watching her home demolished – babe in arms and weeping beneath a sycamore tree - a tall man, dressed in black, approached her and said “It is hard, but you shall reap a great reward.” She believed him to be Abraham Lincoln and told of this meeting the rest of her life.

The fort is located at 13th and Quackenbos Streets NW in Washington. Just seven miles from the White House, the fort was built in 1861 after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run on land that had been home to free African Americans who had lived there since the 1820s. Its purpose: defend the Seventh Street Turnpike that led directly to downtown Washington. Originally called Fort Massachusetts, the site was renamed Fort Stevens in honor of Brigadier General Isaac I. Stevens who was killed at the Battle of Chantilly in September 1862.

For additional information on the events this weekend, including to access for virtual programs provided on July 10 by both the Alliance and the NPS, click here.

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