When Lincoln Came Under Enemy Fire

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Monday, July 11, 2022


Washington, DC’s Fort Stevens was the site of the only Civil War battle that occurred within the boundaries of the Nation’s Capital. “Fort Stevens Day,” which commemorates the battle, will take place this year on Saturday, July 16, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. This is a free event, open to the public, and held annually on a Saturday near the anniversary of the battle, July 11-12. The event is being co-sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Alliance to Preserve the Civil War Defenses of Washington.


Fort Stevens too is known as the battle where President Lincoln came under direct enemy fire, the only sitting president to do so. The illustration shown above is entitled, “President Lincoln at Fort Stevens,” and is by cartoonist Clifford Berryman. The graphic appeared in The Washington Post on October 7, 1902, and shows the immediate danger Lincoln faced as he stood on a rampart to view the fighting. Note the shells bursting in the air.


In the summer of 1864 the city of Washington was not well defended. The year before Union troops in the area had numbered over 23,000. Now only about 9,000 troops remained and those were mostly reserves, and poorly trained ones at that. Most Union troops were in the Petersburg area, engaged in siege operations. Meanwhile, in June of that year, General Jubal A. “Old Jube” Early began marching 20,000 troops north, aimed at Washington. On July 9, Early was the victor at the Battle of Monocacy; however, Union General Lew Wallace was able to delay the Confederate advance for a day. By July 10, the rebels’ encampment was only 10 miles from Fort Stevens.


Monocacy is often called “The Battle That Saved Washington”– and for good reason. The Union’s success in delaying the advance of the Confederate troops facilitated the timely arrival of veteran troops in blue to Washington and Fort Stevens. The Confederates never mounted a full scale attack. Washington was saved!


Meanwhile, Lincoln himself had a close call. What’s a commander in chief to do when the war arrives so close to home? Lincoln chose to travel to Fort Stevens to view the action against Early’s invading army. Observing from the ramparts, Lincoln came under fire (a Union surgeon next to him was wounded) and was 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. That monument, originally located in the parade ground area, now sits on the parapet.


This year’s commemorative program will include a different twist: the stories of the women who were connected to the defenses of Washington. Expect to see and engage in conversation with many reenactors (both military and civilian). Historical figures represented will include Clara Barton, Angelina Grimke, Elizabeth Keckley, Elizabeth Thomas, Lew Wallace (fresh from the Battle of Monocacy) and others in period costume. Grimke, a women’s rights activist and among the first of her gender to speak out against slavery, should have plenty to say.

While at the fort, be sure to seek out the reenactor portraying Elizabeth (Aunt Betty) Thomas. That is a photo of Aunt Betty herself on the right. 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 opening ceremony of the commemoration will take place in the main shaded tent at 10 a.m. In addition to the speakers and living history portrayals, the day will include music, children’s activities, food and on-site bathroom facilities. In the event visitors need to cool off a bit, the Emory Building will provide them the opportunity to do so.


This year marks the 158th anniversary of the battle. Other Civil War defense locations - Forts Reno, Bayard, DeRussy, Slocum, Totten and Bunker Hill – also were involved in the action that July day. Battleground National Cemetery, a few blocks north of Fort Stevens on Georgia Ave., holds the remains of 41 of the Union soldiers who died at Fort Stevens.


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.


(Graphic/photo credit: "Lincoln at Fort Stevens:" The Washington Post; Clifford Kennedy Berryman, artist. "Aunt Betty" Thomas: Historical Society of Washington, DC)