Colonel Wisewell, commanding the defences of the city, realised the nature of his problem. He had got to hold the lines of Washington, cost what it might, until the arrival of the troops from Grant. He took the bold step of placing on the picket line that night every man within reach, or at least every loyal man within reach (for plenty of the men in Washington were looking and hoping for the success of the South). The instructions usually given to pickets were in this instance reversed. The men were ordered, in place of keeping their positions hidden and of maintaining absolute quiet, to move from post to post along the whole line, and they were also ordered, without any reference to the saving of ammunition, to shoot off their carbines on the least possible pretext and without pretext. The armories were then beginning to send to the front Sharp’s repeating carbines. The invention of breech-loading rifles came too late to be of service to the infantry on either side, but during the last year of the War, certain brigades of cavalry were armed with Sharp’s breech-loaders. The infantry weapon used through the War by the armies of the North as by those of the South was the muzzle-loading rifle which bore the name on our side of the Springfield and on the Confederate side of the Enfield. The larger portion of the Northern rifles were manufactured in Springfield, Massachusetts, while the Southern rifles, in great part imported from England, took their name from the English factory. It was of convenience for both sides that the two rifles were practically identical so that captured pieces and captured ammunition could be interchanged without difficulty.
Early’s skirmish line was instructed early in the night to “feel” the Federal pickets, an instruction which resulted in a perfect blaze of carbine fire from Wisewell’s men. The report that went to Early was that the picket line must be about six thousand strong. The conclusion on the part of the old Confederate commander was that the troops from the army of the Potomac must have reached the city. If that were true, there was, of course, no chance that on the following day he could break through the entrenchments, while there was considerable risk that his retreat to the Shenandoah might be cut off. Early the next morning, therefore, the disappointed Early led his men back to Falling Waters.
I happened during the following winter, when in prison in Danville, to meet a Confederate lieutenant who had been on Early’s staff and who had lost an arm in this little campaign. He reported that when Early, on recrossing the Potomac, learned that he had had Washington in his grasp and that the divisions marching to its relief did not arrive and could not have arrived for another twenty-four hours, he was about the maddest Early that the lieutenant had ever seen. “And,” added the lieutenant, “when Early was angry, the atmosphere became blue.”