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Washington under attack 1864.

July 11, 2014


Today is the 152nd anniversary of the Confederate attack on Washington.  Led by General Jubal Early, this was not a serious attempt to capture the capital of the Union but rather an attempt to scare the Union into withdrawing reinforcements from their main efforts in the Eastern theatre.

Sometimes called the Battle of Fort Stevens, this bit of fighting is renowned for being the closest Abraham Lincoln came to actual fighting during the Civil War, although more accurately, the fighting came to him.  But he wandered rather disconcertingly close to the front line and it is reported that he was ordered in no uncertain terms to get his conspicuously tall person out of danger.  (A young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr is sometimes credited with this brusque command.)

The spectacle of fighting on the outskirts of Washington helps give an impression of contingency to a great conflict – what if Washington had fallen – what if Atlanta had not fallen – what if either of these events had secured the election of George McClellan.

This sort of counterfactualism always tends to obscure (deliberately) grand historical narratives – or rather undermine any sort of ambition to look for larger structural explanations for events.  But sometimes the telling of history is the making of it.  Part of the larger historical legacy of the attack on Washington was the additional celebrity it gave to Early who postbellum became one of the chief “Lost Cause” apologists.  The attack on Washington did not materially impact upon the outcome of the war but it greatly added to the romanticisation of the Confederate war effort.

This very romanticism assisted the ideological consolidation of the political notion of the South as a place that should be immune from too much Federal scrutiny, a distinct society with its own values.  In the wake of the messy Tilden-Hayes election of 1876 and the end of reconstruction, figures like Early helped to create a southern mythology that served to frustrate the progress of civil rights for nearly a century.


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