On this day, Confederate General Jubal Early’s troops cross the Potomac River and capture Hagerstown, Maryland. Early had sought to threaten Washington, D.C., and thereby relieve pressure on General Robert E. Lee, who was fighting to keep Ulysses S. Grant out of Richmond, Virginia.
During the brutal six-week campaign against Grant in June 1864, Lee was under tremendous pressure. On June 12, he dispatched Jubal Early to Lynchburg, in western Virginia, to hold off a Union attack by General David Hunter. After defeating Hunter, Early was ordered to head down the Shenandoah Valley to the Potomac. Lee hoped that this threat to Washington would force Grant to return part of his army to the capital and protect it from an embarrassing capture by the Confederates. Lee was inspired by a similar Shenandoah campaign by Stonewall Jackson in 1862, in which Jackson occupied three Federal armies in a brilliant military show. However, the circumstances were different in 1864. Grant now had plenty of men, and Lee was stretched thin around the Richmond-Petersburg perimeter.
Still, the first part of Early’s raid was successful. His force crossed the Potomac on July 6, and a cavalry brigade under John McCausland rode into Hagerstown. Early instructed McCausland to demand $200,000 from the city officials of Hagerstown for damages caused by Hunter in the Shenandoah Valley, but McCausland felt the amount was too large, so he asked for $20,000. After receiving the money, Early’s army turned southeast toward Washington. The Confederates reached the outskirts of the city before being turned away by troops from Grant’s army.