Three Days in July
The Confederates' daring march on Washington brought death and destruction to Montgomery County soil.
Rockville essentially was held hostage by the Confederates for the entire day. Unionists were rooted out and captured while Southern sympathizers hailed the conquerors. At a female academy in Rockville, the students were reported to be acting in very unladylike fashion, according to one Confederate account, “showing strong sympathy for our cause and cutting off all the buttons they could get hold of from our uniforms for souvenirs.” The Confederates vacated the town on their way to a fateful meeting with the Union army at Gettysburg, Pa., leaving the town to be reoccupied by Northern forces.
Rebel raiders were a constant problem for county residents. Col. Elijah Viers White, from a prosperous Poolesville family, made repeated forays, plundering farms and once capturing a Union supply train, including 43 horses, and destroying what couldn’t be carried across the Potomac. Federal officials accused White’s family and friends of aiding the raiders by firing off signal rockets to warn of approaching forces. In 1864, White’s wife, Elizabeth, and three female friends were arrested while visiting relatives in the county and sent to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., where they were incarcerated for weeks before being released.
Walter Bowie, from a distinguished Prince George’s County family, was a member of an infamous Confederate guerrilla group led by cavalryman Col. John S. Mosby, known as the “Gray Ghost” for his ability to move stealthily behind Union lines. On the night of Oct. 7, 1864, Bowie and a band of raiders rode into the Quaker town of Sandy Spring and robbed at gunpoint the general store of Alban Gilpin. The normally peace-loving Friends took up arms and pursued the raiders to a grove of trees north of Rockville, not far from the present intersection of Reland Road and Somerville Drive. The posse caught the Confederates unaware, and in the brief exchange that ensued, Bowie was blown from his horse by a shotgun blast to the face, delivered by local carriage maker William Ent. Bowie was the only fatality of the skirmish that became celebrated locally as the “Battle of Rickett’s Run,” for a small creek running nearby. The Quakers who took part were later sanctioned by a church council for their un-Friendlike “impudence.”
But the brashest invasion by far came with that desperate raid on Washington, engineered by Lee and spearheaded by Jubal Early in Frederick and Montgomery counties. By July 9, 1864, the general and his men had passed through Frederick—after extracting a ransom of $200,000—and were on the move toward Washington. Union Gen. Lew Wallace, who would achieve fame after the war as the author of Ben-Hur, engaged Early’s troops at the Monocacy River in Frederick County, but was quickly subdued. An estimated 700 Confederates were killed or wounded, with Union casualties even grimmer—nearly 1,300 killed, wounded, captured or missing in the Battle of Monocacy.
McCausland’s cavalrymen led the way through Montgomery County, sparring with Union forces that were failing to slow their progress. Skirmishing lasted all the way to Rockville, where the Confederate forces encamped for the night on July 10. More than 20,000 rebel troops were strung out for miles between Gaithersburg and Rockville. Meanwhile, every available soldier in the city of Washington, including government clerks, convalescents from hospitals and newly recruited “hundred-day men” (so named because they enlisted for just a short period of time), was pressed into duty and awaiting the rebels’ arrival.
On the morning of July 11, Early broke camp. McCausland moved his forces down the Rockville pike, headed for Fort Reno. The bulk of the troops turned left at Veirs Mill, then headed down Georgia Avenue toward Fort Stevens. “Families with a few of their choicest articles of household furniture loaded into wagons were hastening to the city,” one witness said in a later memoir, “reporting that their houses were burned or that they had made their escape, leaving the greater part of their goods to the mercy of the Rebel.”
Not far south of Rockville, McCausland was met by an advance guard of Union troops. Cpl. Valorus Dearborn of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry recalled the encounter in his journal: “Our forces being small we fell back to the Old Stone Tavern [located at the intersection of today’s Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue]. Checked the enemy here and held him for the day notwithstanding they used their artillery and sharpshooters. It was rather warm but the boys soon got used to their fire and took things cool.” Thus, the first skirmish of what became known as “the Battle of Fort Stevens” took place in the heart of present-day Bethesda.
Shortly after noon, Early came into full view of Fort Stevens. Scouts reported that the fortifications were feebly manned. The haggard Confederate forces gathered for attack, but just as the advance began, Union reinforcements arrived, dispatched by Grant from the Virginia campaign. The sight of so many seasoned men forming pickets before the fortifications caused Early to hesitate before ordering a full-out attack. Throughout the afternoon he tried to find a weak spot in the lines, sending his men against the fortifications, but everywhere meeting rifle and artillery fire. That evening, he pulled his forces back across the District line to regroup. The abandoned houses of the Blair family on either side of the Seventh Street pike were conscripted for use as barracks and headquarters, including Falkland, the summer home of President Lincoln’s postmaster general, Montgomery Blair; The Moorings, the summer home of his sister, Mary; and the 20-room summer house of Francis Preston Blair, the family patriarch. Blair, who had named his estate Silver Spring after a mica-flecked stream on the property that sparkled in the sunlight, would later note that his house had been thoroughly looted and his wine cellar emptied by the occupying forces, yet the house itself was spared from destruction.
At daylight on July 12, Early reconnoitered the line of fortifications around Fort Stevens only to find the parapet lined with troops. Meanwhile, more Union reinforcements were marching out of the capital city. Bolstered by the fresh forces, the Federal officers began preparing for assaults against the entrenched Confederate lines. A detachment of men sent out of Fort Reno marched up River Road under the darkness of early morning, then turned and attacked the right flank of McCausland’s troops. At the same time, Union troops attacked the Confederates’ front, compelling the rebels to drop farther back along the Rockville pike, toward the Bethesda Presbyterian Meeting House, which McCausland’s men had converted into barracks.
Meanwhile, at Fort Stevens, Union troops under the command of Maj. Frank Wheaton moved out of the fortifications, forcing the Confederates out of the Blairs’ Silver Spring estates, up Georgia Avenue and through the town of Leesborough. Residents of the small community would later honor the general by renaming their town Wheaton.
By evening, with hopes of capturing the capital diminishing, Early’s army gathered whatever dead and wounded they could and withdrew, heading northwest over roads, fields and forests toward White’s Ferry, where they intended to cross the Potomac back into Virginia. Col. Charles Lowell of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry reported that the Confederates’ “rear guards left the Bethesda Church about 4 a.m.” on July 13. Union forces caught up with the tail of the rebel line as it moved through Rockville. Fighting raged through the streets, and more than 90 Confederates were taken prisoner, but the pursuit was soon called off, the commanding Union officers not wishing to ignite another engagement. The South had clearly lost. When the dust of the retreating Confederates had settled, the casualties for the Battle of Fort Stevens totaled 573 Union and 500 Confederate forces killed or wounded, according to one report.
The damage to land and property, meanwhile, was considerable. Montgomery Blair’s house, Falkland, was burned to the ground—although one report suggested the blaze was caused by Union mortar fire, not by rebel troops. All across the front of the fortifications, hundreds of acres of woodland were leveled, leaving the land naked and scarred. And the task of collecting corpses and caring for the wounded fell to the townsfolk and the remaining Federal troops. Forty-one Union dead were buried in a small graveyard near Fort Stevens. In Silver Spring, 17 Confederate soldiers were buried in a row in the Grace Episcopal Church cemetery. They would be reburied in 1896 in a common grave, a monument constructed over top with the word “Confederate” chiseled across its base and an inscription reading, “To the memory of seventeen unknown Confederate dead, who fell in front of Washington, D.C. July 12, 1864. By their Comrades.”