The Battle of Monocacy, 9 July 1864

By the summer of 1864, the future of the Confederate States of America was looking dim. During the previous year, the Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of GEN Robert E. Lee, had suffered a decisive defeat at Gettysburg. A day after that battle, Vicksburg, the Confederates’ last bastion on the Mississippi River, fell to Union forces under MG Ulysses S. Grant. By July 1864 MG William Tecumseh Sherman’s powerful Army of the Tennessee was quickly advancing on Atlanta. To make matters worse for the Confederates, the Union’s Army of the Potomac had Lee’s army under siege at Petersburg, Virginia. With these and other military setbacks, the end of the Confederacy seemed to be only a matter of time.

Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early commanded the Army of the Valley during the battle of Monocacy and the raid on Washington.  (Library of Congress)
Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early commanded the Army of the Valley during the battle of Monocacy and the raid on Washington. (Library of Congress)

In an effort to relieve the pressure on his besieged army in Petersburg, Lee ordered LTG Jubal A. Early to take his corps and advance up the Shenandoah Valley, cross the Potomac, then turn to the southeast to threaten Washington, D.C. After scattering the few Union units that lay in his path, Early was primed to march on Washington with little to impede him. News of the Confederates’ approach put Washington into a state of panic and required Grant to detach an entire corps from the forces besieging Petersburg to protect the capital.

The reinforcements sent by Grant needed time to reach Washington. In order to delay Early’s forces and buy time for the arrival of Union reinforcements, a scratch force of Union troops was assembled to meet the advancing Confederates near Frederick, Maryland. The two opposing forces met in what became known as the Battle of Monocacy.

While the battle involved a fairly modest number of troops and resulted in a relatively small number of casualties when compared to the carnage at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, Monocacy proved to be very important. Despite suffering a tactical defeat, the Union forces delayed the Confederates enough to allow reinforcements to reach Washington and repel the threat posed by Early’s army. Furthermore, the battle served as a means of redemption for the Union commander, MG Lew Wallace, who had lost the confidence of Grant after a disastrous performance at the Battle of Shiloh.

Major General Lew Wallace  (Library of Congress)
Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace (Library of Congress)

A native of Indiana, Lewis “Lew” Wallace had served as a 1LT with the 1st Indiana during the Mexican War though he never saw action. After the war, he returned to his home state to pursue a career in law and state politics. Upon the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Governor Oliver P. Morton appointed Wallace State Adjutant General. On 25 April 1861, Wallace was made colonel of the 11th Indiana, a three-month regiment that reenlisted in August for three years.

In early September 1861, Wallace was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. After seeing action in West Virginia, Wallace was ordered west to Tennessee, where he played a key role in the capture of Fort Donelson in February 1862. For his actions at Fort Donelson, Wallace was promoted to major general on 21 March and given command of a division. He was the youngest man at that time to hold that rank.

Wallace’s military good fortunes, however, were not to last. In April 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh, MG Ulysses S. Grant ordered Wallace to march his division upstream from Crump’s Landing to the battlefield. Through a combination of confusing orders and little knowledge of the terrain through which he was marching, Wallace lost his way and was forced to make a lengthy, circuitous countermarch. Instead of striking the Confederate left at a key point of the battle, Wallace and his division arrived too late to do anything more than assist in the Union counterattack the following day. As a result of his blunder at Shiloh, along with an unfortunate habit of criticizing many of his fellow officers, Wallace was relieved of command and his reputation as a military leader was severely damaged, particularly in the eyes of MG Grant.

Wallace spent the next two years attempting to revive his military career. In September 1862, Wallace played a key role in repelling a Confederate force under MG Kirby Smith that was threatening Cincinnati during MG Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky. On 12 March 1864 Wallace received orders from the War Department to report to Baltimore and to assume command f VIII Corps and the Middle Department, which included Delaware and Maryland west to the Monocacy River.

The assignment was not a glamorous one. Many of the men assigned to VIII Corps were raw recruits, garrison troops, unseasoned militia and convalescents. Since many of Maryland’s citizens sympathized with the rebel cause, Maryland had been placed under martial law. Wallace was forced to spend considerable time and effort suppressing secessionist activities. While carrying out his duties in the Middle Department with great success, Wallace was frustrated by the lack of action. He lamented that “Great battles are to be scented not far off; soon will be heard the thunder of the captains, the sound of the trumpet, and the shouting, and I not there.” Yet within a short period of time, Wallace’s request for action would be granted.

In June 1864, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was entrenched around Petersburg, facing overwhelming numbers of Union forces. In order to siphon off Union troops, Lee devised a plan in which LTG Jubal A. Early would take his II Corps, march north through the Shenandoah Valley, cross the Potomac River into Maryland, and possibly threaten either Baltimore or Washington, which Lee knew were relatively unprotected.

On 17-18 June Early’s corps, renamed the Army of the Valley, departed Petersburg by train to reinforce MG John Breckenridge’s forces defending the vital rail center of Lynchburg against Union forces under MG David Hunter. Upon learning of the larger Confederate force, Hunter quickly withdrew his forces into the mountains of West Virginia, leaving the Shenandoah Valley virtually clear for Early’s advance north.

By 4 July the Army of the Valley had reached the northern end of the Shenandoah. Early’s forces captured a large cache of Federal supplies at Martinsburg and additional supplies from abandoned Union camps around Harper’s Ferry. Over the next two days, the Army of the Valley crossed the Potomac into Union territory in Maryland. After ransoming Hagerstown for $20,000, the Confederates marched southeast towards Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Despite the obvious threat posed by Early’s forces, Union leaders still remained unclear as to the strength and intentions of the Confederates. The first warnings came on 2 July from John Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, whose agents reported that Confederates were destroying the tracks in western Maryland. Neither Army Chief of Staff MG Henry Halleck in Washington nor Wallace in Baltimore had any clear understanding of the situation or the size of the enemy force. Furthermore, Grant believed that Early’s corps had returned to Petersburg. While Halleck dismissed the rebel incursion as a minor raid, Wallace decided to travel west to Monocacy Junction and assess the situation firsthand. He left Baltimore and arrived at Monocacy Junction, about three miles southeast of Frederick, on 5 July with 2,500 men, most of whom were inexperienced soldiers of the Potomac Home Brigade and Ohio militia.

Upon his arrival at Monocacy Junction, Wallace quickly ascertained that he was facing a substantial Confederate force. He telegraphed Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia, asking for reinforcements. Grant immediately dispatched the VI Corps by transport ships, with two brigades of the Third Division under BG James B. Ricketts to arrive in Baltimore within a few days. Wallace also made contact with LTC David Clendenin, commander of a detachment of 8th Illinois Cavalry. Clendenin arrived at Monocacy Junction on 6 July and provided invaluable veteran reinforcements to Wallace’s command. With the 8th Illinois cavalrymen, Wallace was better able to determine what he was facing. He ordered Clendenin to take two artillery pieces and reconnoiter the mountains west of Frederick to gauge the size and location of the Confederate force.

On the morning of 7 July, cannon fire echoed from the mountains around Frederick. An hour later, Wallace received a message from Clendenin that he had been pushed back by a superior force at Catoctin Pass and that he would be in Frederick within two hours.

Still uncertain as to whether the Confederates’ objective was Baltimore or Washington, Wallace decided to make a stand at Monocacy Junction. The junction was the logical defense point for both cities. The Georgetown Pike to Washington and the National Road to Baltimore both crossed the Monocacy River there, as did the B&O Railroad. Wallace’s small force, however, would be stretched thin covering the road and rail bridges and several fords.

monocacyHeavy skirmishing occurred on 7 and 8 July as the Confederates advanced through Frederick, which they ransomed for $200,000. Intelligence gathered from the fighting and Confederate troop movements convinced Wallace that Early’s forces numbered somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 men, and that the Confederate objective was Washington. Wallace then received news that the Third Division, VI Corps, under BG James B. Ricketts, had arrived at Baltimore. The first elements of the division arrived by train at Monocacy in the early morning hours of 8 July with the rest of the division arriving later in the day.

With the addition of Rickett’s men, Wallace now had approximately 6,000 men to hold the line against Early’s army. Knowing that he had virtually no chance to defeat such overwhelming enemy numbers, Wallace hoped to delay Early long enough for the rest of VI Corps to reach Washington. He deployed his forces along a three-mile line along the east bank of the Monocacy River. The higher elevation of the east bank formed a natural breastwork for many of Wallace’s men. Other Union troops occupied two blockhouses and trenches along the riverbank. Wallace assigned the inexperienced Maryland and Ohio units to his right from the Baltimore Pike south to an iron railroad bridge to thwart a Confederate flanking movement and guard a Union retreat. Wallace believed the Confederates would concentrate their attack on the left because it presented the most direct path to Washington via the Georgetown Pike. To cover his left, Wallace ordered Rickett’s veterans from Third Division to hold a line from a covered wooden bridge south to Worthington’s Farm.

The battle began at sunrise on the morning of 9 July. By 0800 MG Stephen Ramseur’s division had pushed Federal skirmishers of the 10th Vermont slowly down Georgetown Pike towards the covered bridge. On the Union right, MG Robert Rode’s division clashed with Federals on the National Road (Baltimore Pike). LTG Early soon arrived from Frederick to survey the battlefield and assess the situation. Quickly realizing a frontal assault across the Monocacy would incur heavy losses, Early sent BG John McCausland’s cavalry down Buckeystown Road to find a ford for a flanking attack on the Union left.

McCausland’s men found a ford around 1100 approximately one mile south of the covered wooden bridge at the Worthington Farm and crossed the Monocacy to attack the Union left. The dismounted Confederates, expecting to face inexperienced troops, advanced at a run through a cornfield, only to be cut down by the veterans of Rickett’s division, who held their fire until the Rebels were 125 yards away. McCausland made two more assaults on the Federal left, but was driven back with heavy losses and was forced to wait for reinforcements.

At around 1430 MG John C. Breckenridge ordered MG John B. Gordon to attack the Union left with three brigades of his division. Gordon’s division forded the Monocacy and advanced in echelon towards the Union lines. Attacks by BG Clement A. Evans’ brigade and the Consolidated Louisiana brigade under BG Zebulon York hammered the Union left and threw the Federal lines into confusion. Despite the Rebel assaults, Rickett’s men held and inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking Confederates. As a result, Gordon was forced to pull back his forces and reorganize them before he could attack the Union lines again. At around 1530 Gordon launched a third assault, led by BG William Terry’s Brigade, which finally broke the Union line. Gordon’s attacks, however, came at a heavy price. One-third of his division was killed or wounded. Both colonels of the 61st Georgia were killed and BG Evans was badly wounded when a bullet struck him in the side, piercing a sewing kit in his pocket and driving several pins into his side.

The covered bridge over the Monocacy River.
The covered bridge over the Monocacy River.

With his forces outnumbered and running low on ammunition, Wallace ordered a withdrawal between 1630 and 1700 after determining he had held Early’s Confederates long enough for reinforcements to arrive in Washington. Abandoning a disabled twenty-four pound howitzer, the only formidable piece of artillery possessed by the Federals at Monocacy, Wallace’s forces withdrew towards Baltimore in a semblance of order. During the retreat, Clendenin’s 8th Illinois Cavalry raced through the village of Urbana and took up positions on a hill outside of the town. From there, they witnessed Confederate troopers pillaging Urbana. Clendenin’s men quickly raced back into the hamlet, surprising the Confederates, capturing the regimental colors of the 17th Virginia Cavalry, and mortally wounding the commanding officer of the regiment’s Company F.

By driving Wallace’s Federals off the field of battle, Early won a tactical victory, but at a heavy cost. He had lost approximately 900 men killed and wounded, but more important, he had lost precious time.

Early was forced to rest his battered and weary men and could not continue the march towards Washington until the next morning. By 1000 the Confederates were once again on the move, slowly marching towards Washington. By the evening of 10 July Early reached Rockville, twenty miles from Washington. The following day, the advance cavalry of Early’s army reached the outer defenses of Washington at Fort Stevens. By then, however, the remainder of MG Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps and three additional brigades had reached Washington to reinforce the defenses. Early quickly realized that any attempt to capture the city was futile. After some brief skirmishing around Fort Stevens, where President Abraham Lincoln came under fire while trying to view the fighting, Early retreated back through Maryland and crossed the Potomac at White’s Ferry. Within a few months, Early was decisively defeated at Winchester by MG Philip Sheridan, who relentlessly pursued the Rebels and effectively ended any Confederate threat in the Shenandoah Valley.

At the cost of 1,294 dead, wounded, and missing, Wallace had lost the battle, but achieved the primary goal that he had set out accomplish. His meager forces delayed Early long enough to allow reinforcements to reach the defenses of Washington. Two men, LT George Davis and CPL Alexander Scott, both of the 10th Vermont, received the Medal of Honor for their bravery under fire. While the Battle of Monocacy later became known as “the battle that saved Washington,” Wallace was originally chastised for not defeating Early. MG Halleck and Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton unfairly criticized him for failing to achieve victory, and President Lincoln sent a chilly dispatch to Grant describing Wallace’s defeat. Once the threat to Washington passed, however, closer examination of the battle demonstrated that Wallace’s actions at Monocacy probably saved the capital. Various newspapers praised Wallace’s stand. In the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley proclaimed that “Wallace held out four hours longer than honor required.” In September Wallace and Grant had a cordial meeting, and years later, Grant later commended Wallace for his stand at Monocacy in his memoirs. On 23 September 1864 Wallace wrote to his brother that “a defeat did more for me than the victories I’ve been engaged in.”

Thirty-five years after the Battle of Monocacy, Wallace, who had become a literary figure with the publication of his novel Ben-Hur in 1882, met MG Gordon, then a U.S. Senator from Georgia, in Washington. As the two reminisced about the battle, Gordon stated that he had always wished to make the acquaintance of “the only person who had whipped me during the war.” When Wallace reminded him that the Confederates were the ones left holding the field, Gordon declared that Wallace’s stand along the Monocacy “snatched Washington out of our hands-there was the defeat.”

While the engagement along the Monocacy River in the summer of 1864 amounted to a large skirmish when compared to many of the other battles that occurred that same year, the importance of the Battle of Monocacy cannot be disputed. Wallace’s valiant stand at Monocacy saved Washington from capture by Jubal Early’s Confederates. The Rebel capture of the nation’s capital would have presented the Confederacy with an invaluable materiel and psychological victory and would have had far reaching effects on the entire war. Instead, Wallace’s men bravely held their ground against overwhelming numbers of enemy troops and bought time for reinforcements to man the defenses of Washington. Moreover, Wallace redeemed himself for his costly blunder two years before at Shiloh.

After the battle, Wallace gave orders to collect the bodies of the dead for burial on the battlefield. One of the monuments on the battlefield includes a simple inscription written by Wallace that sums up the battle: “These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.”

For more information on MG Lew Wallace and the Battle of Monocacy, read:

Robert E. and Katherine M. Mosberger, Lew Wallace: Militant Romantic;

Tracy Shives, “Monocacy: The Battle that Saved Washington,” in Battlefield Journal (July 1999);

Glenn H. Worthington, Fighting for Time: The Battle of Monocacy;

B. Franklin Cooling, Monocacy: The Battle that Saved Washington; and

J. Tracy Powers, Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox

Also, visit the Monocacy National Battlefield Home Page at