battle of fort stevens
So far, the documentary research is moving ahead slowly but steadily. In the next few weeks we will be seeking out more detailed and more specific images that are connected to Fort Stevens, the battle and Early’s raid. Unlike more famous (and more bloody) battles, there are fewer sketches, photos, and even first-person reminisces of the event.
Right now, like the rest of America, we are bombarded by election information. One can’t say we are not in a tumultuous time. Of course, in 1865 it was equally tense. President Lincoln has been dead for less than a week. The North is furious; the South, uneasy. An entire nation mourns but during this time (April 15 to April 26), there is a desperate manhunt for the conspiracy of assassins. What does that have to do with this project and the Invalid Corps? You might be surprised.
It is the night of April 14, 1865. President and Mrs. Lincoln decide to visit Ford’s Theater and see a play, “Our American Cousin.” A little after 10:25, John Wilkes Booth moves into position outside the President’s box. At the line in the play where the lead character says, “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out.” John Wilkes Booth pulls out his derringer and fires a bullet into the back of the President’s head. He then leaps from the box to the stage, breaking his leg, but before he escapes through a back stage door, he delivers his last line from center stage: “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” (Thus always with tyrants!). Lincoln is dying, and his guard was nowhere to be seen.
Provost Marshal James Rowan O’Beirne of the Invalid Corps was responsible for the safety of the President and his family. The night of Friday April 14, O’Beirne acceded to Mrs. Lincoln request he assign John Parker, a soldier with a record of bad performance to guard the President’s box. When Parker left his post, it cleared the way for John Wilkes Booth to shoot the President. That decision would haunt James O’ Beirne for the rest of his days.
At the start of the Civil War James O’Beirne was a Captain in the Irish Rifles, or the 37th New York Volunteers. During a bayonet charge at the Battle of Chancellorsville he is wounded several times, shot in the head, leg, and chest, puncturing a lung and paralyzing his right arm from shock.
“Guardedly the long line[s] groped through the woods. Glimpses only of the midnight moon flitted through the tall and sentineled forest … and gave a silver, ghoul-like sheen to the battalions. … Occasionally a soldier stumbled and pitched forward. Up! Forward again! No detention, no hesitation! How could he halt? The rear rank and others were striding behind him at close distance.” And then, “It seemed for the moment as if the doors of a blast-furnace had opened upon us.” There was terrible fire from both friend and foe.
O’Beirne survived the Chancellorsville campaign but when he appeared before a Medical Board, he was pronounced unfit for field service. He asked for a transfer into the Invalid Corps. On July 22, 1863, he was commissioned Captain into the Invalid Corps.
“I was detailed on duty at the War Department here In Washington, in the provost marshal general’s bureau. I helped to organize the enlisted men of the Veteran Reserve Corps, composed of wounded soldiers and temporarily invalided men. There were twenty-two regiments of them. Then I was ordered by the Secretary of War to take charge of the provost marshal’s office of the District of Columbia.”
O’Beirne ended up playing a critical role in the defense of Washington during the Battle of Fort Stevens. He was the one who provided arms and equipment to soldiers, clerks, and any man willing to take arms to defend the city. He stood with Lincoln on the ramparts as sniper fire whizzed past them from Jubal Early’s Confederate troops. And when it was over, O’Beirne was the one who ensured care for the wounded and saw to the prisoners.
But even then his job wasn’t done. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, ordered him to chase down Early’s men as they retreated back through Maryland to Virginia. For his efforts, he was eventually promoted to Provost Marshal for the District of Columbia which put him in charge of the President’s safety on that fateful night. Saturday, April 15th, 1865 at 7:30 Abraham Lincoln died and from that moment on O’Beirne was committed to hunting down the President’s killers.
“When I went to get Vice President Johnson and bring him to the bedside of [dying] Lincoln, as I had been ordered to do, he lived at the Kirkwood House, on the spot where now stands the Raleigh Hotel. When I told Mr. Johnson that Lincoln had been shot he informed me his suspicions had been aroused that night at the Kirkwood House. Mr. Johnson had heard footsteps for hours in the room above him. In the morning I went to the hotel again, and in the room which had been let to George Atzerodt, I found Booth’s hank book, a large bowie knife, a Colt navy revolver, and a handkerchief with the initial H embroidered on it. This turned out to be evidence of the complicity of Booth, Herold and Atzerodt, and established the fact that there had been a plot.”
Also included was a map showing Atzerodt’s escape route. O’Beirne followed and ensured his capture. One day passed, and then another, and another. The search for Booth through the countryside was proving fruitless. But O’Beirne followed his instincts and explored intelligence that Booth had crossed over to Virginia. Unfortunately, he was denied permission to search the Port Royal area and was recalled to Washington.
Although Colonel Lafayette Baker and his 16th New York Cavalry, who took over the search, garnered the praise and the place in history for eventually capturing Booth, it was James O’Beirne, Invalid Corps, and his detective work that lead them there.
Thanks for being a part of the Invalid Corps Team!
New York Times Magazine (December 7, 1930): Accounts of John Wilkes Booth’s Capture and Death – Major O’Beirne’s Diary, Recently Brought to Light, Describes The Difficulties of the Chase After Lincoln’s Assassin
*As stated previously, for the purposes of this project (and to keep confusion to a minimum) we will be using the term Invalid Corps throughout the time period of the corps commissioning rather than Veteran Reserve Corps.
Today is President’s Day, February 12 was Lincoln’s birthday, and this entire month is #BlackHistoryMonth. As such, it seems like a good time to post a quick update. We’ve been very busy! We’re currently putting together the segment-by-segment breakdown for our short film with preliminary language and quotes. The goal is to use this frame and outline to recognize gaps in our narrative and to better steer our research. In addition, we’re still scouring archives and records for stories from Invalid Corps members themselves.
On Saturday, we visited with the National Park Service who hosted a fantastic presentation on Elizabeth Thomas, the original owner of the property that became Fort Stevens, which of course, played such a critical role in our project. Although Elizabeth’s story is only tangentially connected, I wanted to share with you what we learned about this exceptional woman.
Elizabeth Proctor Thomas was born in the early 1800s. She lived in Brightwood, a community of free blacks in northwest Washington, D.C. (I believe it was then called Vinegar Hill). Elizabeth’s property was of a significant size and value (88 acres) with a barn, garden, orchard, and a two-story wooden house. And because of its location on a hill beside the Seventh Street Turnpike (now Georgia Avenue), they controlled the major tributary leading into Washington from the north.
As such, with the advent of the Civil War, Elizabeth would lose her farm to the Union army when they took the land to build what would eventually become Fort Stevens. As she later told a reporter, one day soldiers “began taking out my furniture and tearing down our house.” As the soldiers were German immigrants, they couldn’t understand Thomas, nor could she understand them.
“I was sitting under that sycamore tree with what furniture I had left around me. I was crying, as was my six months-old child, when a tall, slender man dressed in black came up and said to me, ‘It is hard, but you shall reap a great reward.’”
It was President Abraham Lincoln.
When Jubal Early’s Confederate army marched to Washington and stood at the very gates of Fort Stevens, Elizabeth Thomas did not flee with other refugees. She did not hide with civilians. She stayed. Affectionately nicknamed “Aunt Betty” by her soldiers, she continued to cook and do laundry for them. When battle was imminent, she carried ammunition back and forth on the walls of the fort itself. And as the President stood on the fortifications, she kept her old shotgun by her side to kill any “Rebs” who would try to harm her Lincoln.
Even after the war Elizabeth continued to be a civic leader doing much to shape the DC community. Her warmth and courage was respected by many. In fact, for many years after the war, when the Grand Army of the Republic held their reunions in the city, they would do so at her house – with the African American woman who was brave enough, who cared enough, to fight beside them to save the city.
Pretty powerful stuff and a great example of amazing stories of men and women that can and should be told before they are lost to history. And because of you we shall endeavor to capture similar stories about the Invalid Corps. Special thanks to National Park Service Ranger Kenya J. Finley and Patricia Tyson of the Military Road School Preservation Trust and Female RE-Enactors of Distinction.
A quick note this is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. NPS always has great programs – history, nature, culture – and they’ve been staunch supporters of our own Invalid Corps project with information and advice, so I have to give a shout out and encourage you to spend some time this year and #FindYourPark.
Find out more about Elizabeth Proctor Thomas from the National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/cultural_landscapes/People-Thomas.html
A wonderful detailed article about Elizabeth Thomas from the Civil War Round Table of Washington DC: http://files.cwrtdc.org/62-1-Newsletter-September2012.pdf
You can also read more about her and how she was thought of from the Afro-American, a local newspaper (August 30th, 1952): https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2211&dat=19520830&id=uOklAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ffYFAAAAIBAJ&pg=3002,632358&hl=en
The Kickstarter is officially over!
This it! We’re down to the last 24 hours of the Kickstarter for the “Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens,” if you haven’t, please take a moment to go donate. If you have, thank you for helping us bring this amazing story to the screen.
For these last few hours we’re asking you to please pass along word of this project – Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…even just word-of-mouth. We’d love to have as many people as possible be aware of this; not just because of the crowdfunding but because of the many stories out there that still haven’t been heard.
The Civil War is the story of our country’s first major internal challenge and it is a history of our country’s people. It is that latter that both surprises and elates us. It captures the imagination of historians, genealogists, reenactors, and families. This isn’t just a story about long ago battles and famous generals, but a story about families and individual people and their choices of how to live, and what they were willing to die for. The Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens documentary film has been couched as a lost disability and veterans’ history but it is more than that. It could be your family history too.
I had a discussion with author and musician Shawn Humphrey about this project and out of the blue he says, “I think one of my ancestors may have been a part of that.” After a bit of research it comes to light that James Mulvaney was listed as “absent/sick” in Washington, DC on March, 16, 1864. Mulvaney was not formally mustered for the 9th Veterans Reserve Corp. until August 16, 1864, but what is clear is that he was present in Washington, DC when the attack occurred. Now Shawn is on a hunt to discover what his ancestor may have been doing at the time. Was he a part of the defense of the city? Was James Mulvaney actually on the walls at Fort Stevens?
Perhaps the biggest surprise came last week when a family member, my uncle and his wife, sent me a package with information about her great great grandfather:
Meet Jonathan Lyman of Company K of the 8th Regiment of the Invalid Corps (Veteran Reserve Corps).*
So yes, even I, who was born more than 10,000 miles away, on a different continent, have a connection to the Invalid Corps. 🙂
This documentary is called, The Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens, but in truth, it is about the men themselves and all of our connections to this history. Veterans’ stories and disability history seem sanitized, academic terms for what this really is: family history.
So today, this last day of our crowdfunding, please help share the message and spread the word this one last time and ask people, “Who is in your family?”
The answer may surprise you.
*Special Thanks to Uncle Gary and Aunt Erma for sending such wonderful detailed information about Jonathan Lyman!
It was Day who first told me of the Invalid Corps. I had never heard of it before. I remember listening with rapt attention as she painted a picture of the night when members of the Invalid Corps defended the Capitol against a Confederate army of 15,000. It was a classic, incredible story epic.
Intrigued, I went and did more research. It began to boggle my mind the pure numbers of soldiers injured during the war — we all know that in theory, but in literal, stark numbers … approximately 17,300 Union casualties at the Battle of Chancellorsville alone (the one where Stonewall Jackson was injured, later dying from his wounds), with almost 10,000 of those being wounded, rather than killed or missing. Ten-thousand. Ten-thousand bodies, strewn about, amongst those who have already perished. How do you even know which ones are still alive?
“Near by, the ambulances are now arriving in clusters, and one after another is call’d to back up and take its load. Extreme cases are sent off on stretchers. The men generally make little or no ado, whatever their sufferings. A few groans that cannot be suppress’d, and occasionally a scream of pain as they lift a man into the ambulance. To-day, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and to-morrow and the next day more, and so on for many days. Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.” – Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, Ch. 33
With so many soldiers and varieties of injuries, I began looking into the army surgeons who had to navigate this chaos — the ones who had to determine how to triage the patients, who ultimately had to “wield the saw.” One particular surgeon stood out.
Mary Walker’s story unfolded in front of me as I flipped through the virtual pages of the internet, piecing together information about her career. She was clearly a “disruptive” person — the only woman at the time enrolled in her medical degree program at Syracuse, the first woman surgeon ever to be employed by the US Army.
As I read more about Mary, I found her story incredibly modern. Mary wore men’s clothes. She surely faced discrimination and ridicule for this choice — and indeed on more than one occasion she was arrested for “impersonating a man.” It strikes me as incredible that she existed so long ago, but that she could just as easily be a next door neighbor of mine, who faces similar concerns and judgments about her identity today. We are divided by centuries of time, but when I look at her, I see a saturated, piercing image of the modern world staring back.
Mary’s story as well as the stories of the members of the Invalid Corps inspired me to write my own short fiction film inspired by both historical narratives, for which I am now beginning the pre-production process. I felt that Mary’s role in disrupting the status quo of women, but also in standing on her own as an influential person regardless of her gender, paralleled so beautifully with the story of these men of the Invalid Corps, who defied not only their labels as “cowards” and “cripples,” but who rose up to show that they mattered, fully and fundamentally, as people.
It has been a great pleasure intertwining these stories together in a creative way, and it has been a perfect complement to my working with Day on her documentary on the Invalid Corps. Every day, we are learning more and more, and it only makes me more excited to share what we have discovered, and what we are creating, with you.
Don’t forget to visit our “The Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens” Kickstarter:
Please share widely. We need you to help get the word out about this documentary!
A quick Update from our Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens Kickstarter. We’ve reached 90%! We are thrilled and humbled by the support we’ve received. And now we have 13 more days to reach the full amount. Considering the closeness to our goal, we thought it prudent to unveil our first Stretch Goal.
Our first Stretch Goal is a simple one, and one we hope is in relatively easy reach: $8,000. We hope to entice more people to support this project and/or to consider backing at a higher level. Why? Because at its heart, the Invalid Corps documentary is about the content and the stories of these men. Additional funding will allow us to begin to pay for direct production and have higher production values – To get this done right.
It means being able to afford things like a professional sound editor; some compensation for musicians (we have a composer so this project will have an original score but musicians have to eat too); and being able to send a full crew out for additional interviews with historians and descendants of Invalid Corps members. As for those who may be wondering, what additional reward that may entail, I give you the paragraphs below. 🙂
Mail has always been very important to soldiers. During the Civil War, these fragile notes are what connected families and in many ways have continued to connect military families, even today. These letters tell a much more intimate story than our textbooks of generals and battles. And of course, as we know, many soldiers carried letters in their pockets, to be forwarded to loved ones if they were killed in action.
About 45,000 pieces of mail per day were sent through Washington D. C. from the eastern theater of the war, and about double that in the west, through Louisville. According to Bell Wiley’s “Billy Yank,” a civilian worker with the U. S. Sanitary Commission, who visited a number of units, reported that many regiments sent out an average of 600 letters per day, adding up to more than 8 million letters travelling through the postal system per month. Franklin Bailey wrote to his parents in 1861, that getting a letter from home was more important to him than “getting a gold watch.” (via Dave Gorski at CivilWarTalk.com)
In recognition of the role that letters played, with this first stretch goal, we will send each backer (at the $25 and up level) an actual piece of PHYSICAL mail. They’ll receive a custom postcard of Invalid Corps imagery via the US Postal Service. Sent the same way families mailed letters more than 150 years ago, this is our “letter,” in thanks.
Don’t forget to visit our Kickstarter! We need your to help get the word out about this documentary.
Just a quick update. We’re thrilled to announce that we were just selected as a Kickstarter Staff Pick! I had to take a quick screencap of the email because I didn’t believe it for myself. Thanks for all the support folks! Let’s keep going! Please continue to spread the word: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dayalmohamed/the-civil-war-invalid-corps-and-the-battle-of-fort
And yes, I had to post a Kickstarter Staff Pick Logo!
For William Durgin of Maine, April 20, 1865 was a typical day. He was garrisoned at the Camp Frye Barracks in Washington, D.C., assigned with the 10th Veterans Reserve Corps. His typical duties with the regiment consisted of nothing more than garrison duty after suffering from rheumatism in his arms and being struck in the ankle with a cannonball during the amphibious landing at Fernadina, Florida in 1862. Yet, when he received his orders for that day, they looked far different from his daily duties. The order read as follows:
Special Order No. 88
Pursuant to orders from Headquarters, 1st Brigade Veteran Reserve Corps requiring four First Sergeants should be selected with reference to their age, length of service and good soldierly conduct for escort duty to the remains of President Lincoln to Springfield, Illinois.
1st Sergeant William W. Durgin of Company F 10th Regiment V.R.C. is hereby detailed for that duty and will report to Capt. McCamly 9th Regiment Vet. Res. Corps at Camp Frye at 9:00 o’clock A.M. this day.
By command of
Major George Bowers Commanding Regiment
From his clerical duties at Camp Frye Barracks, Durgin’s place in history rose greatly as he became one of Lincoln’s pallbearers, traveling across the nation with the casket. His war-record carries on his roll call for April 1865 “Absent – on escort duty with remains of President Lincoln.”
While Durgin seems to be a typical soldier offered the honor as a token of great luck, in many ways the assignment was and did boost the prestige of one of the most neglected regiments in the U.S. Army: the Veterans Reserve Corps (VRC).
Created in 1863, the VRC started as the Invalids Corps, and began as a project to give disabled veterans like Durgin a second chance at active service. Yet their corps did not go unscathed. Other soldiers derided the corps as a group of cowards and rejects; the initials of the Invalids Corps matched a stamp of the Quartermaster’s Department that stood for “Inspected – Condemned.” Soon after, to boost the morale of recruits and entice more volunteers, it was renamed “Veterans Reserve Corps.” The disabled veterans that re-enlisted were assigned various rear-echelon duties, ranging from guard duty to censoring mail.
To honor one of the corps members as a pallbearer presented in a greater sense a place for disabled soldiers in American military history alongside regular soldiers in memorializing the Civil War, and recognizes the potential of disabled veterans, or civilians, as capable individuals that can still contribute despite their sacrifice.
Enlistment in the corps did not always entail monotonous, clerical duties. For Sergeant William Wray, fate would lead to a reprisal of his combat duties. After losing his right eye and parts of his nose at Fredericksburg, Wray joined the 1st Veterans Reserve Corps. While stationed at Fort Stevens, he miraculously found himself at the center of a surprise attack by a corps of 10,000 men led by Jubal Early. In the midst of battle, while a number of his VRC comrades were confused and scattered, Wray rallied his men to the defenses during a critical attack, and helped prevent the fort from falling. Although his actions did not go recognized until much later, with some speculation regarding the fact that he was a member of the undesirable VRC, Wray was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.
After the Civil War, programs for injured soldiers and disabled veterans returned around World War I, when the massive amounts of casualties and disabling injuries permitted for the resurrection of the Veterans Reserve Corps. In the age of modern warfare, disabled veterans have been able to carve a niche for themselves with the Continuation on Active Duty program, allowing wounded soldiers to serve their country within the limits of their abilities. Thus, heroes like Sergeants Durgin and Wray show what makes a soldier a great leader and a hero is not how well or straight a soldier stands, but what a soldier stands for in fighting for their country.
Jonathan van Harmelen is currently studying American History at Pomona College, and has conducted research with Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He also works at Pomona College as manager for the Orchestra and as assistant to the History Department. He enjoys collecting military antiques, playing drums, and attempting to learn French, German, and Dutch all at once.
Please don’t forget we are in the middle of our Kickstarter to raise funds to tell the story of the Invalid Corps; of soldiers with disabilities who continued to serve:
I first wrote about the uniform of the corps in March but did not really include any images. Today, after visiting the 151st Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Stevens and special Thanks to David Welker, below I’m posting some images of what an Invalid Corps soldier would look like in uniform.
As we know from Captain J.W. De Forest’s description [the uniform]: for enlisted men it consisted of a dark blue forage cap and sky blue trousers according to the present regulation and of a sky blue kersey jacket trimmed with dark blue and cut long in the waist like that of the U.S. cavalry. Officers were directed to wear a sky blue frock coat with collar cuffs and shoulder strap grounds of dark blue velvet and sky blue trousers with a double stripe of dark blue down the outer seam the stripes half an inch wide and three quarters of an inch apart.
Also, if you get a chance, check out Dave’s Civil War books. His next one will actually be about the Invalid Corps!