A pair of modest plaques on the Walter Reed Army Hospital are all that’s left of an infamous tree that almost brought down a presidency. During the Civil War, Confederate sharpshooters hid among its poplar branches and tried to shoot Abraham Lincoln, the first and only time that a sitting president has come under battlefield fire.
Confederate General Jubal A. Early lead a surprise blitz against the Northern capital on July 11, 1864, in an effort to snatch a surprise victory while the majority of Union Forces were arrayed elsewhere against the cities of Petersburg and Richmond. The ensuing Battle of Fort Stevens pitted exhausted Confederate pickets against a rag tag bunch of inexperienced and convalescent defenders in the Circle Forts around Washington.
President Lincoln rode up to the hilltop Fort Stevens to observe the skirmishing that afternoon and was very nearly hit by a lucky shot. A Confederate sharpshooter had hidden himself atop a towering 150 foot poplar near the fort and began popping off shots at Lincoln’s immediately recognizable stovetop hat. Lincoln emerged unscathed, but one of the rounds hit an Army surgeon next to him, causing Mrs. Lincoln to faint and a young future supreme court justice to advise Lincoln to “Get down, you damn fool!”
The sharpshooter’s tree was actually hit by a cannon ball during the battle, which it miraculously survived. The sharpshooter, however, was less lucky: Mary W. Standlee’s history of the Walter Reed Medical Center notes that he was “wounded by an equally good Union marksman of his kind, [and] died on the grounds of the Beall farm.”
Day one of the Battle of Fort Stevens was a draw, but masses of Union reinforcements were pouring into the city by that evening, which flipped the battlefield math in their favor. Confederate General Early later recalled that the morning of the 12th he awoke to find “the parapet lined with troops” and “decided to give up all hopes of capturing Washington.”
The Sharpshooter’s Tree lived on for another 60 years until it was struck by lightning in December of 1920. A boulder and plaque were erected to mark the hallowed ground, and in 1963 two battlefield cannon balls were added to the monument, along with a second plaque.
Besides one extant Fort Stevens parapet, little remains of the battlefield amidst 20th-century suburban development. The present-day location of the Sharpshooter’s Tree inside an army hospital campus makes for a fitting historical bookend to the violence of 1864.
Know Before You Go
The historical marker is right in front of the Provost Marshal's Building. Call ahead to check hours of availability (301) 295-4000.