Authors: Peter G. Tsouras
FORT BERRY, VIRGINIA, THE DEFENSES OF WASHINGTON,
4:00 AM, OCTOBER 28, 1863
The whispered command crept from man to man across the line of Confederate engineers lying on the cold ground in front of the infantry parapet just south of Fort Berry. They rose, stiff from the chill, but moved forward quickly to drag off the ahattis. Other men rushed through the gaps
to find the stout gate in the parapet. To their amazement, it swung in at a
touch on well-oiled hinges. The rescue party that had saved the screaming man had forgotten to secure it. Battles are won by such accidents.
They rushed through without a second thought.
The infantry stood up in a mass to follow, when a shot rang outthen another and another. The alarm was given, but it was too latethere were too few Union infantry to make much difference. In minutes,
the 2nd Virginia had followed the engineers through, then the 4th, 27th,
33rd, and 5th Virginia like a downpour through a spout. Guns from Fort
Berry fired laterally down the front of the parapet but missed most of the
men who had scrambled into the ditch in front of the position waiting
to get through the gate. Once inside the defenses, the regiments peeled
left and right, trying to overrun the forts on either side. Berry was one
of the few unenclosed forts and fell quickly to the 2nd Virginia in a rush
of bayonets. There they found a medical wagon and tent; a plain-faced,
dark-haired woman was standing by a man on a stretcher. As they
passed, each man doffed his cap, saying, "Thank you kindly, ma'am," or
"God bless you, ma'am." Once the fort was secured, the colonel came up
to her, took off his hat, and bowed. "On behalf of my men, ma'am, I wish to thank you for your Christian charity in helping this poor man. I have
ordered my regimental surgeon to your assistance."
"Thank you, Colonel," she replied. "I'm afraid he will have more
than one patient today."
"Fortunes of war, ma'am. Fortunes of war." Then he paused and
asked, "May I know your name, ma'am? The men would like to know if
this angel of mercy has a name."
"Barton, Colonel. My name is Clara Barton."
HEADQUARTERS, ARMY OF THE HUDSON, FIVE MILES SOUTH
OF LINLITHGO MILLS, NEW YORK, 6:05 AM, OCTOBER 28, 1863
Few men had gone through the soul-searching ordeal that Joe Hooker
had put himself through after his failure at Chancellorsville last May.
What had made it so bitter was to realize that Sharpe's intelligence effort had put Lee in his hand. That hand had flinched and let Lee not only
escape the trap but turn it around on him. So when Sharpe's man, Captain McEntee, briefed him on the reports of his scouts, Hooker, not normally a religious man, instinctively thanked God for giving him a second
chance. It was up to him.
McEntee, with the big chief of scouts Judson Knight standing behind him, quickly drew the enemy situation. Paulet's forces were rapidly
assembling at Hudson, brought down by steamer and railroad from Albany. The scouts estimated that at least ten thousand or more were already at Hudson, but there could be more. Canadian cavalry had pushed
up the road to Claverack barely two hours ago and were driven back by
Custer. The young brigadier had sent a regiment of his Michigan cavalry
off to cut the railroad about five miles above Hudson. He had sent back
a half dozen Canadian prisoners whom McEntee had personally interrogated. From them he was able to tell Hooker that at least three of the big
enemy brigades, each almost the size of a Union division, were already
concentrated in Hudson. The Guards and some cavalry were there, too.
He concluded by presenting Hooker with a nickel-plated dragoon helmet. "Courtesy of Private Hogan, General. He and Knight found a pair
of enemy scouts in the woods outside your headquarters. Unfortunately,
they declined to be taken prisoner."1
Hooker took the helmet and turned it over, evidently pleased. It
would make a fine mantel trophy. McEntee added, "We can't place this unit, sir. The uniform is not quite the same as the rest of the Canadian
"Well, we are all peacocks, you know," Hooker said. "And most
of the time it means absolutely nothing but vanity. Though why a scout
would wear something this shiny, I don't know."
"If there's one thing Colonel Sharpe taught me, General, it's to look
for patterns and their absence. This helmet is an aberration. And Sergeant Knight said he could tell good scouts when he saw them. It was
only luck that he and Hogan stumbled on them."
Another variable, thought Hooker. "Get your scouts out, Captain.
Let's see if we can catch any more of them. I expect Knight and Hogan
can make a pretty penny selling these things as souvenirs."
Hooker went back to his maps. He had spent much time studying
the maps of this region of Upstate and questioning locals. Now, with
McEntee's fine work, the pieces were falling into place. Yet, as he stared
at the shiny souvenir, he worried about the two men Knight and Hogan
had killed. He did not want some fancy dan in a shiny helmet giving
Paulet the same sort of information about him that Knight had just given
him about Paulet.2
FORT WASHINGTON, MARYLAND, 6:15 AM, OCTOBER 28, 1863
The Royal Marine captain had hoped to bounce into the fort just as Capt.
George Bazalgette, whose fame had already spread through the fleet,
had taken Fort Gorges at Portland. Hoped but not expected. His company was part of the battalion brought over with the ships of the Channel Fleet. Guiding them were Confederate soldiers, Marylanders native
to this shore, provided by Lee. The guides were completely at home on
the small roads they traveled after landing a few miles south of the fort.
Nevertheless, it had taken more than three hours, in the last darkness
before dawn, to get where they were concealed behind a small rise just
in front of the main gate on its north side with the river on their right. He
was worried that he was cutting it too fine. He had less than an hour before dawn. It had been impressed upon him that his flares must go up at
least an hour before dawn to give the flotilla time to run the guns of the
fort in the darkness. Already he was late, and being late was the greatest
sin an officer could commit.
The captain admitted that the description of the fort had been correct -strong masonry structure, much like the larger forts in Europe. A moat girdled the landward sides of the fort and a bastion covered the
gate on the river side. Amazingly, the drawbridge was down, though the
gate remained closed. He ordered two men with the signal rockets to position themselves just behind the hill.
His men wore their dark blue overcoats as had the Marines at Fort
Gorges. The Marylanders were game for his gambit. He marched them
straight up to the bridge. They were challenged smartly. One of the
Marylanders in a blue Yankee greatcoat replied, in what the Americans
had the temerity to describe as English, that they were the 27th Maine,
come to reinforce the garrison. Lee's current intelligence indicated that
this regiment was assigned to the defenses of Washington.
A man from the wall announced he was officer of the guard and
asked them to repeat themselves. The Marylander officer shouted up
again that they were the 27th Maine come to reinforce the garrison.
On the wall, the officer of the guard muttered to his sergeant, "I'll be
damned if they're the 27th Maine. I served with them, and they were a
nine-month regiment, mustered out in July. That man speaks just like the
locals around here, too. Call the colonel." He looked over the wall at the
column by the drawbridge and said to himself. "Maine men-my Massachusetts ass if they're Maine men."
The Royal Marine officer was getting nervous. Fifteen minutes had
passed since they had hailed the fort. There was barely a half hour of
darkness left. He was more than nervous-alarmed would be a better
word, for he saw time slipping away. He shouldn't be, he told himself.
In every army, things went up and then down the chain of command, a
time-consuming process. Ten more minutes went by. He did not see or
hear the men of the garrison filing slowly up the walls to hide behind
the parapet, nor the cannon being pushed through the inside of the gate
house. The Marylander officer said to him quietly, "I think they have not
taken the bait. Best get out of this as soon as we can."
"No, we wait."
The Marylander was about to say something rude when the small
door in the gate opened, and an officer stepped out. "Come on in," he
beckoned. "Sure glad to see you. We need all the help we can get. The
cooks have put breakfast and coffee on for you." Then he stepped back
inside the door.
The RM officer nodded to the Marylander who just shrugged. They were halfway across the bridge when the great double doors of the gate
began to open, creaking on their hinges. In the lamplight that flooded
through the opening doors, they saw the muzzle of a cannon. The last
thing they heard was the command, "Fire!"
Double canister swept everyone off the bridge. The doors slammed
shut, and the men on the parapet jumped up and began to fire into the
recoiling survivors. On the rise behind, the two Marines with the rockets
followed their orders. Two red rockets shot up into the air.
THE POTOMAC RIVER, JUST BELOW FORT WASHINGTON,
6:35 AM, OCTOBER 28, 1863
The British ships had been waiting for that signal, moving slowly up
riverline ahead, the sloops first, then the gunvessels. The infantry-laden
boats and barges would be escorted up the distant Virginia shore by the
two small gunboats, Nettle and Onyx, where their shallow draft would
allow them to go where the larger British ships could not.
Commodore Dunlop had had no great faith that the fort would fall,
but he had hoped that the attempt would be enough of a distraction to
enable him to run the fort before the defender's attention could refocus. It would be a damned tricky business whatever happened. He was
leading his flotilla up the river two hours after the low tide had ebbed.
The main channel made a sudden angle from the center of the river to
starboard as it approached the fort and then swerved to parallel the fort,
running right under its guns. The remaining broad expanse of the river
was extremely shallow. If they stuck to the main channel, they could
speed through. It was then that the operation would sink or swim, the
outcome depending upon the pilots supplied by Lee.