Three Days in July
The Confederates' daring march on Washington brought death and destruction to Montgomery County soil.
They marched with audacity down the old Rockville pike, a contingency of gray-clad cavalry and infantry under the command of Confederate Brig. Gen. John McCausland—and the advance guard of more than 20,000 rebel troops that had invaded Montgomery County. The bulk of the army on that dry, dusty morning of July 11, 1864, was tramping down the Seventh Street pike—now Georgia Avenue—toward the District line. McCausland and his command would be approaching the city by way of the Georgetown road, today’s Wisconsin Avenue. All were part of one of the South’s most ambitious missions of the Civil War: the capture of the Union capital, Washington, D.C.
It was the desperate act of an army slowly dying by attrition. Down in Virginia, the superior forces of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee pinned near Petersburg, pummeling his men mercilessly. To sustain the attack, Grant had removed the majority of the forces protecting Washington, leaving behind a patchwork group of about 9,000 soldiers. Lee needed a diversion to draw Grant’s attention from his besieged Southern forces and, alerted of the District’s weakened defenses, formulated a daring plan. An army headed by Gen. Jubal Early would cross the upper Potomac, push through Frederick and Montgomery counties, then attempt to break through the fortifications surrounding Washington. In so doing, they would send Federal troops running and triumphantly raise the Stars and Bars above the recently completed Capitol dome.
Breeching the city’s defenses would be a daunting challenge. Construction of the extensive line of fortifications ringing the District had begun in 1861, and within three years included more than 150 enclosed forts and gun batteries connected by miles of earthworks, trenches and new-cut roads—today’s aptly named Military Road, built at the time to carry men and supplies between the forts. At the westernmost boundary of the line was Fort Sumner, just across the District line in Montgomery County overlooking the Aqueduct Road—MacArthur Boulevard. Together with adjoining batteries, the fort protected the reservoir of the city’s water system, as well as the shoreline of the Potomac. Remnants of one of those batteries, Battery Bailey, still stand in Westmoreland Hills Local Park in Bethesda, the only surviving fortification in Montgomery County today.
To the east, near Tenleytown, was Fort Reno, guarding the entrance to Washington from the old Georgetown road (today’s Wisconsin Avenue). And defending the approach from the Seventh Street pike, running south into the city, was Fort Stevens, near the present-day D.C. neighborhood of Brightwood.
Although Montgomery County—indeed, all of Maryland—was controlled by the Union, the sympathies of its citizens were openly divided. The county’s numerous pro-Southerners, ready to abet the Confederate cause, were a source of constant concern for Northern forces; its location just across the Potomac from secessionist Virginia made it particularly vulnerable to attack, and its position as a gateway to Washington, D.C., made it imperative to hold.
Union troops had begun arriving in the county in numbers in June of 1861, just two months after the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina signaled the beginning of the war. Gen. Winfield Scott ordered one of the first Federal offensives of the war when he sent a 2,500-man force under Col. Charles P. Stone to secure the county along the Potomac. Scott intended to cut off the flow of supplies into Virginia, reopen the blocked Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and “give countenance to our friends in Maryland and Virginia.”
By June 11, Stone had established his headquarters in Rockville and dispatched troops to nearby river towns and crossings. The sudden appearance of blue-coated soldiers alarmed local Confederates who, on June 14, engaged a Federal detachment at Seneca Mills, where Seneca Creek meets the Potomac River, marking the first skirmish between the two armies on Northern soil. Stone’s men eventually secured Edwards Ferry and Conrad’s Ferry along the Potomac, two strategic river crossings, their artillery beating back the Confederates as they attempted to ford the river from Virginia.
Union troops would come and go in staggering numbers throughout the war. At one time, an estimated 38,000 Federal forces were encamped between Darnestown and Poolesville. Blockhouses were built on the bluffs of the Potomac, telegraph lines strung cross-county, signal towers raised. And during the four years of conflict, more than 30 skirmishes and battles would be fought on Montgomery soil. Many were engendered by Southern troops using the county as a pivot point for maneuvers northward. Other encounters came from raiders replenishing supplies—often at the expense of Union-boosting citizens.
Despite their conspicuous presence, Federal forces were often ineffective in stemming the rebel tide rolling through the county. Lee and 35,000 men crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford, west of Poolesville, between Sept. 4 and 7, 1862, sweeping northward through the county. They met only slight resistance, with three Confederates and two Union men killed in a brief encounter near Poolesville. Four days later, the two armies would meet at Antietam, near Sharpsburg in Washington County, resulting in the bloodiest single day of the war, with combined casualties of more than 23,000 men.
Although nowhere as brutal, Rockville experienced its share of fighting, too. Confederate Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart invaded the county seat on June 28, 1863, marching brashly into town, capturing some 125 Union wagons filled with much-needed provisions, and taking, by one account, 400 prisoners as they lumbered along the Rockville pike, near today’s Veirs Mill Road.
Dora Higgins, wife of Rockville town commissioner John Higgins, who was seized by the invaders along with other pro-Unionists, described the fighting in a letter to her mother: “A brigade of Federals came up as far as the Poor House [near the Falls Road interchange on I-270] and though too feeble to oppose the whole force, yet skirmished on the outskirts of the village,” Higgins wrote. “There were three brigades of rebels in all, about 8,000. One brigade went charging down the [Rockville] turnpike. They skirmished down as far as the stone tavern” —a familiar old landmark standing at the intersection of the Rockville pike and the old Georgetown road—today’s corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road in what would become the heart of present-day Bethesda.