151 years ago this weekend marks the only time a U.S. president ever came under enemy fire. It was in Washington, DC, during the Civil War and happened around 100 days before Abraham Lincoln would be reelected.

Confederate forces under General Jubal Early advanced upon Washington, DC, (from the NORTH!) actually entering the outskirts of the city on both sides of the valley formed by the Rock Creek, on July 11, 1864, They got as far as Fort Reno, which guarded the Rockville Pike approach on the west side, and Fort Stevens, which guarded the Piney Branch Road approach on the east side.

The city was in a state of mild panic. Ulysses S. Grant had ignored President Lincoln’s concerns about defending the capital in order to repeatedly hurl as many able-bodied men as he could at Robert E. Lee in battle after battle in the inexorable Overland Campaign. Thus despite having an abundance of defenses surrounding the capital, those defenses were not abundantly manned.nps-bettyreidsoskin-photoby-DOI

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As Confederate skirmishers advanced from the farms of nearby Kensington, the Fort Reno garrison was hastily bolstered with wounded soldiers from the nearby veterans’ hospital and a bunch of very nervous civilian government workers from down town. But one thing Fort Reno did have was an array of Parrott rifles – cannons – with at least one capable of firing a shot more than three miles. And it had the advantage of altitude. Fort Reno is the highest geographic point in the city.

fort_stevens_park_dc_lincoln_markerThe battle lasted two days, most of it swirling around Fort Stevens, as the Parrott rifles at Fort Reno apparently were considered more of a threat. Casualties on both sides are estimated to have totalled about 600, with the number of Confederate casualties outnumbering those of the Union defenders by a factor of 10 – 1.

The battle does not have the notoriety that Gettysburg has, or Antietam, or Chancellorsville, or even nearby First and Second Manassas, but perhaps it should have, at least, a little more. While less an attempt to capture the capital, and more an attempt to draw troops away from Grant’s forces harassing Richmond, it is also legendarily considered to be the only time in US history that a sitting president came under enemy fire.

President Lincoln, along with his wife Mary, was personally reviewing the defenses at Fort Stevens as the Confederates closed on the little fort and bullets began flying, even wounding a Union surgeon standing next to Lincoln on the Fort Stevens parapet. The future Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, then the President’s aide-de-camp, reportedly shouted at Lincoln, ”Get down, you fool!”

Lincoln-under fire plack-Battle of Fort Stevens

Had Lincoln been killed or captured, little more than 100 days before the upcoming election, who knows how American history would have turned out?

Fort Reno was dismantled shortly after the war, and little if anything remains to indicate its existence. But Fort Stevens has been partially restored and is maintained by the National Park Service.

To learn more about this unique incident and other Washington. DC stories, pick up a copy of Tenleytown: From Country Village to City Neighborhood.

– Originally published on, written by Jim Corbley, VP of National Programming, WETA-TV

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