Monday, April 4, 2011

The Defense of Washington City and the Importance of National Capitals

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

During the war, Washington City was the most heavily fortified city in the United States or the Confederacy. Indeed it was. What's more, according to the Civil War Trust website, the city was more than likely the most fortified in the world.

Surrounding the capital, there were 68 enclosed forts with 807 mounted cannon, 93 mortars and over 20 miles of rifle trenches. There were military roads, telegraph lines, storehouses, and all kinds of camps - all of which ringed the city.

But did the Rebs ever really consider taking Washington? Not likely. Sure there were a few shot at the city - such as Jubal Early's famous raid in July 1864 - but that was merely a threat, meant to relieve the pressure on Lee's army in Virginia. Other Confederates considered trying to get between Washington and the Army of the Potomac - Longstreet's famous plea to Lee during the Gettysburg campaign was exactly that sort of plan. But nothing came of it.

Any threats on Washington were really only that - threats. Meant more to make the people of the North nervous or to draw Union troops away from the principal Rebel Army operating in the East.

In wartime, taking your opponent's capital seems like a good idea. Remember the Union's early war cry...On to Richmond!!!! But there was no equivalent - On to Washington! resonating in the South. They didn't need to capture the United States capital - the Rebs only needed to wear the northern fighting spirit down to a nub - which they almost did....almost.

The truth is, the Union army didn't really need to go after Richmond, either. U.S. Grant surely knew this. He saw the Army of Northern Virginia as the life blood of the Confederacy. Destroy the army, he thought, the rest will fall in to place. Richmond was evacuated in the last days of the war when Grant began the final chase to Appomattox  -  it was not taken by force. What do you know...he was right.




  1. I think Secretary of War Stanton's paranoia had quite a bit to do with this. In addition to the huge system of fortifications, the capitol was at various times guarded by a whole army corps--the 22nd. One of the defending units was the 1st D.C. Cavalry, which was subject only to the orders of the War Department and was armed with state-of-the-art Henry repeating rifles--the only regiment so equipped by the Federal government, and at a time when the guns could have done good service in the field.

  2. It is true that the Civil War Defense of Washington was a costly affair in terms of money spent and manpower allocated. The final cost was calculated at $1.4 million, a tidy sum at the time. Manpower at the defenses averaged between 20,000 and 30,000 men, the equivalent of several corps. The fact remains, however, that the defenses worked as a deterrent. They were never seriously tested precisely because they were so formidable. It is easy to claim that paranoia was the driving force and that the defenses were an overreaction to the threat when looking back in hindsight, but at the time the threat was perceived as very real. Remember, it had been only 41 years since the British sacked Washington during the War of 1812.

  3. Oops! Math has always been my weakest subject. It was 47 years between the British invasion of 1814 and the outbreak of the Civil War.