War at their front doorstep.

Robert Todd Lincoln was the eldest of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four sons. When his father was elected President in 1860, Robert was in college at Harvard. He participated in some of the inaugural celebrations but returned to his studies and for the next several years visited the White House and his family. One newspaper correspondent noted that Robert was “. . .a young man of modest and agreeable manners, quiet, and with a very good share of his father’s sagacity and kindness.”

In the summer of 1864, Washington, D.C. was in the midst of one of its worst heat waves. It suffered 47 days without rain and temperatures routinely exceeding 90 degrees. Many members of Congress and prominent residents left the city to escape the heat. Even President Lincoln and his family, including Robert who was visiting, removed themselves to their summer residence at the Soldier’s Home in Northwest Washington. While the Lincoln family was at the Soldier’s Home, word of a Confederate army approaching the city began to circulate. Some of the people who had left the city began fleeing back to the perceived safety of Washington.

Although Washington was perhaps the best fortified city in the world at this time, the fortifications were of little use as they were poorly manned. The Confederate approach to Washington began in June of 1864, when Lt. Gen. Jubal Early and the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was dispatched by Confederate General Robert E. Lee; releasing them from the Confederate lines protecting Richmond, Virginia. General Early moved north through the Shenandoah Valley clearing it of federal troops with the goal of invading Maryland, disrupting the B&O Railroad, and threatening Washington. The Confederate hope was that a movement threatening Maryland would force General Grant to send troops to Washington reducing the threat to Richmond and perhaps embarrassing President Lincoln who was campaigning for a second term as President.

Moving up the Shenandoah Valley for a month, the Confederates entered Maryland on July 5 and turned toward Frederick, Maryland on July 7. On July 9, as Jubal Early’s Second Corps prepared to move on Washington, Major General Lew Wallace created a small Union force composed of some garrison troops and, at the last minute, two brigades of VI Corps who had been sent up from Richmond. Acting without orders but following his instincts, Wallace engaged Jubal Early at Monocacy in a battle that has come to be known as the Battle That Saved Washington. It was, perhaps, Lew Wallace’s most significant military contribution to the Civil War.

The battle on July 9 lasted from about 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. but Early’s men ultimately drove Wallace and his troops from the field. One of the men fighting with Wallace was Colonel William Seward, the son of Secretary of State, William Henry Seward. With Wallace’s men forced off the field toward Baltimore, the road to Washington was basically left clear and undefended. The battle cost Jubal Early significant time and energy in the 90 degree heat. As he marched the 40 miles toward Washington, the city was thrown into chaos. A boat was brought up the Potomac River to rescue the President, who refused to leave. In a letter after the battle, Susan Wallace described first-hand the chaos and panic that ran rampant as the Confederates approached while she waited for Lew Wallace to come and get her.

As the Confederates neared the city, Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton recalled the Lincoln family to the White House from the Soldier’s Home on the night of July 10 where he felt he could better protect the President and his family. John Hay, one of Lincoln’s favorite aides, remembered Robert Lincoln arriving at his room in the White House shortly after midnight, explaining the situation to him.

By the noon of July 11, Early was at the northeast border of the city. Because of the battle he fought against Lew Wallace, the long march and the heat, Early decided to delay his attack of the Union fortifications—especially Fort Stevens—for a day to allow his men to rest. It was a crucial decision as Grant, responding to alarms raised by Lew Wallace, dispatched the rest of the VI Corps and XIX Corps in steamships that began arriving with thousands of men on July 11 and immediately began filling the fortifications with troops. President Lincoln and his wife, Mary, rode out to observe the attack at Fort Stevens with some officers. At one point Lincoln and his party came under enemy fire that wounded a Union surgeon standing next to the President. This was the last time a President of the United States was allowed to personally observe a battle front.

Jubal Early was not able to break the Union defenses and late on July 12, he began to withdraw his forces. Immediately after the battle concluded and the threat to Washington was over citizens from Washington visited the battlefield. Included in these visitors was John Hay and Robert Lincoln who walked about the battlefield and spoke to soldiers still stationed nearby.

Those few days in July 1864, tested Lew Wallace and his men, challenged General Grant and the Union Army, likely saved the Lincoln administration great embarrassment, and changed the course of the war. Thanks to Lew Wallace’s delay of the Confederate army, The Battle That Saved Washington also offered members of the Lincoln family an opportunity to observe the war on their front doorstep.

Source: White House Historical Association, Robert Todd Lincoln at the White House, Evan Pfifer, Research Historian

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