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History repeats. The city of Washington, D.C., has come under hostile attack three times. The most recent was on Sept. 11, 2001. The earliest was when British troops burned the capital in 1814. Then there was the attack that is the subject of journalist and historian Marc Leepson’s new book, Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C., and Changed American History. On July 11, 1864, Confederate Gen. Jubal Early led a force of 15,000 men to the gates of a city in panic before letting better judgment take over and marching away. Leepson’s uncluttered account of what was at the time called an invasion, yet is better considered a raid, is elegantly simple. He provides the background of events and characters and avoids getting bogged down in the details of battles. By the early summer of 1864, the Confederacy was on the ropes. President Abraham Lincoln had finally found in Ulysses Grant a general who would fight. Grant led the Union army south on May 4, 1864, and by June 12 had the Confederate army of Gen. Robert E. Lee penned up at Richmond, Va. Hoping to break the stranglehold, Lee entrusted about a quarter of his 60,000 men to Jubal Early’s care and sent them looping through the Shenandoah Valley with orders to threaten Washington. Lee believed Early would find the city undefended and Grant would be forced to return with his army. Lee was half right: Washington was surrounded by a formidable 37-mile-long beltway of 68 forts with few defenders. The situation was not so different from Sept. 11, 2001, when the Air Force had plenty of pilots and planes, just none over the capital. What saved the city in 1864, according to Leepson, was Union Gen. Lew Wallace’s unilateral decision to lead a small contingent of men from Baltimore and place himself in harm’s way on the banks of the Monocacy River, east of Frederick, Md., thus blocking Early’s path to Washington. Wallace, who later in life penned the novel Ben-Hur, knew he couldn’t defeat Early’s larger force but thought he might delay it long enough for Grant to send help. Wallace was right. Grant had so many men that he could both continue the siege of Richmond and dispatch troops to Washington. Thus, we have Lew Wallace to thank, Leepson argues, for saving the city from rampage and the Union, perhaps, from a negotiated settlement of the Civil War. Desperate Engagement, sprinkled with firsthand accounts, pulses with the sense of being there. For example, future novelist Wallace recalled the morning of the battle at the Monocacy: “Behind me little columns of smoke were slowly rising; the same indications across the river told me where our pickets were in post and wide awake. … Everywhere friends and foes alike were at coffee or making it. The smell of new mown hay from the yellowing stubble-fields was lost in the sooty perfume of the many fires.” Jubal Early was a 48-year-old, cantankerous, misogynistic, arthritic bachelor with four children. He stood six feet tall and dressed in an ankle-length white coat and white hat topped with a dark feather. He was the epitome of the unreconstructed rebel and fled the country at the end of the war, hoping to fight Yankees somewhere else. Later, he settled down to practice law in Lynchburg, Va., where he lived in a hotel and spent time lecturing and writing about the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. During the war, Early and his men seemed more brigands than soldiers. A captured Union soldier recalled the first words of his captor: “Let’s have your money — and damned quick too.” A wounded Union soldier wrote about how he was lying there, dying of thirst but ignored by the Confederates except for those that took his shoes, watch, wallet, knife, and picture album. Early himself demanded and received a $200,000 ransom from the city of Frederick for not setting the town afire. Leepson concludes by asking: What if Lew Wallace hadn’t gone to the Monocacy, and what if Jubal Early had pressed ahead? These questions, of course, give plenty of ammunition to those who like to refight the Civil War. Might Washington have fallen and the war ended in stalemate? Readers may come away with a feeling of d�j� vu. Except for Wallace, Lincoln’s generals seemed no more worried about Early before July 11, 1864, than later generals were with Osama bin Laden before Sept. 11, 2001. And there may be modern parallels with Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ decision to loose his generals to waste so many lives on both sides in a desperate engagement in an already lost cause.
James H. Johnston is a D.C. lawyer who looked at Confederate Gen. John McCausland’s role in the raid in “The Man Who (Almost) Conquered Washington” for The Washington Post on March 18, 2001.

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