How the Navy won the Battle of Fort Stevens

Taken from the booklet:
"George Washington Getty" by his granddaughter Mildred Newbold Getty
published by Mildred Newbold Getty
Copyright, 1961, by Mildred Newbold Getty

In 1958 Mildred Getty wrote a series of letters to her young nephew, George Getty, about the life and career of her grandfather (his great-grandfather), George Washington Getty, a Union major general during the Civil War. The following is the letter she wrote concerning the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 12, 1864. Notes have been added by this editor to clarify some points and have been encased in square braces [].

Silver Spring, MD
June 9, 1958

Dear George,

While Grandpa was escorting the wagon train of supplies to Grant, Lee decided to send an army into Maryland by way of the Shenandoah, hoping thereby to capture Washington. On June 27th, Jubal Early began this movement with an army of poorly equipped, poorly clothed men, many barely in their teens, some barefooted, and all underfed. The Northern forces paid not much attention to this operation for all felt that Early was quite far away, but the rebel general covered ground more swiftly than was expected, and on July 4th, actually invaded Maryland. General Lew Wallace [later author of "Ben Hur"] had a small force of Federal troops at Monocacy. Early came upon them unexpectedly, and a skirmish ensued July 9th in which Wallace was defeated. This seemed at the time relatively unimportant, but it later proved to be of the utmost importance for the action delayed the rebel leader a day. Had General Wallace not met him here the results for the nations's capital might have been disastrous.

Early had gone through Frederick, Maryland, on the 8th, met Lew Wallace at Monocacy on the 9th, defeated him, then proceeded on through Gaithersburg on the 10th. To the half-starved Southerners the rich crops and full barns of Maryland seemed a promised land of plenty. They pillaged whatever food they could to ease the pangs of hunger, bayoneting chickens, turkeys and ducks from the barnyards, raiding the spring houses for milk and butter or partaking ravenously of bread, cake and pies offered them by the housewives sympathetic to the Confederate cause.

Down through Rockville marched the rebels, and over to the 7th Street Pike, or Union Turnpike as it was called then [now called Georgia Avenue]. Ten miles down this highway lay Fort Stevens, one of the defenses for Washington. Our big house was on this line of march [Forest Glen near Georgia Avenue and the Beltway]. At that time it was owned by a family named Batchellor. Across the pike from it was the Eccleston farm. When I was a little girl, Mrs. Eccleston told me that she remembered, as a child, playing in the yard of her home on the hot July day when the Confederates came past her dwelling. She said many of them broke out of ranks and ran into their yard. She could remember the chickens squawking, the ducks quacking and the turkeys gobbling, as the hungry troopers chased the fowls around the poultry yard, stabbing them with their bayonets to carry them off to cook when they struck their evening camp. The enemy then burned down the Eccleston house, but for some reason the Batchellors' wasn't harmed.

The rebel army went on to Silver Spring, two miles south of where we live. The farm owned by Admiral Lee was named Silver Spring. There they pitched camp for the night, but before doing so broke into a country store at Sligo, whose cellar was well-stocked with barrels of rum. The rum had been bought by the storekeeper from the Navy at a reduced rate. The home of Admiral Samuel P. Lee was nearby. Admiral Lee was the naval officer who had worked with Grandpa at Suffolk. Some time in the 1850's the Navy had stopped its daily issue of rum to the sailors, and had sold its supply of good liquor. The rum had been bought by the storekeeper from the Navy at a reduced rate. The home of Admiral Lee had stocked his cellar with it, and had also enabled the storekeeper to do the same. The thirsty invading army fell upon these full barrels with glee. Then, spying the Lee Mansion, from which the family had fled into Washington for safety, they discovered its well-filled cellar. There followed a revel in the Confederate ranks, on the eve of the Battle of Fort Stevens, which was long remembered by those who partook in it as well as those residents of the neighborhood who saw it. The drunken soldiers entered the home of Montgomery Blair, Postmaster General in Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, and thoroughly ransacked it, dressing up in Mrs. Blair's dresses, and finally setting fire to the house and burning it to the ground. The Lee Mansion wasn't molested. It was used as the headquarters of the Generals Early and Breckenridge. General Breckenridge is said to have been a friend of the family which may account for its being saved.

While General Early was marching through Maryland, Washington was in a state of nerves, The forces commanding the series of forts around it were meager and untrained. A few hundred-day regiments, the scrapings of the convalescent camps, and some civilian government clerks comprised the defending forces. Word was hastily sent to Grant to send troops to defend the city. The Corps he chose to do this work was the Sixth, commanded now by General H. G. Wright. Among these troops were three regiments of Grandpa's Second Division. [General G. W. Getty commanded this Division earlier in the war, until he was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness.]

The Sixth Corps took ship at City Point on the 10th of July. [This corps had been part of the force besieging Petersburg, Virginia.] They reached Wahington on the evening of the following day, and disembarked at the 7th Street wharves to the music of Early's artillery on the morning of the 12th of July. When the people of Washington saw the seasoned veterans of many battles marching up Seventh Street, there were prayers of thanksgiving in all hearts that some protection was coming their way. The citizens had feared the worst, the capture of Washington by the Confederates.

It wasn't long before these stalwart men took their positions behind the fortifications of Fort Stevens [on Thirteenth Street NW, near the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Piney Branch Road]. When their guns roared out, General Early's attack was repulsed. Thus the Capital City of the United States was saved, and General Getty's troops did their share in saving it.

Though his record states he was in the battle, Papa alway said Grandpa wasn't there. The reason for his absence isn't clear. Papa said he was still in the hospital recovering from his wound. It's possible he had to go back for a short time, or it's possible he was still escorting supplies to the Army of the Potomac, and hadn't had time to rejoin his forces. They had had to leave in a great hurry.

Brigadier General Frank Wheaton, U.S. Volunteers, took his place. He headed the three regiments of the third brigade of the Second Division of the Sixth Army Corps in the battle. He acquitted himself with such glory in this encounter, that Mitchell's Crossroads, a crossroads just above where we live, changed its named to Wheaton in his honor. Had your great-grandfather been in the engagement we probably would have had a town in Maryland named Getty. Wheaton is now growing by leaps and bounds, and some people prophesy that it will surpass Silver Spring before long.

When the battle was over, General Early retreated by way of Tennallytown up the Rockville Pike, and finally crossed the Potomac River into the safety of Virginia, leaving his dead behind him. Some of these were picked up by the Southern sympathizers and buried in the cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church. There is a Confederate monument to their memory there today. The Union soldiers who fell were buried in a plot of ground around the battlefield. It's now a small national cemetery maintained by our government [located on the eastern side of Georgia Avenue just above Piney Branch Road]. If you go through it and look at the inscriptions on the grave stones, you will find the names of some of the brave men who were in the Sixth Army Corps, those three regiments belonging to the division of your great-grandfather, General George W. Getty. Now you can see why the delaying action by General Wallace was so important. It gave the Sixth Corps time to reach Washington and repulse General Early. After the war, when Grandpa met Admiral Lee and came to know him personally, they liked to talk over the fighting together. Admiral Lee said to Grandpa with a twinkle in his eyes, "General, it wasn't the army that won the Battle of Fort Stevens. It was the Navy. I was responsible for having the rum placed in a strategic spot."

With Love,

Aunt Mildred