Monocacy: The Battle That Saved The Capitol

In the farms and fields outside of Frederick, Maryland sits a quiet visitor’s center and museum for a battle that could have completely changed the American Civil War. In an effort to lower the pressure on Confederate forces in the siege at Petersburg, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee dispatched Lt. General Jubal Early up the Shenandoah Valley and across the Potomac River to threaten the nation’s Capitol, Washington D.C. Lt. Gen. Early and his corps made quick work of the Union units that stood in his way and made his way to the Potomac. They troops bypassed Union Forces at Harper’s Ferry  and crossed the Potomac River at Sheperdstown, WV.

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Just outside of Frederick, MD, the Confederate troops were spotted destroying tracks by Baltimore and Ohio Railroad personnel who telegraphed the news to DC which was delivered to Union Commanders. Major General Lew Wallace, commander of the Union Army 8th Corps had no idea of the size of the Confederate force that was approaching. Union Army Chief of Staff, Major General Henry Halleck believed that the Confederate troops were a minor incursion and messages from General Grant who was still directing the siege of Petersburg felt that Early’s Corp had returned.

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General Wallace chose to leave Baltimore and assess the situation himself. Upon his arrival at Monocacy Junction on July 5, 1864, Wallace realized that he was facing a significant Confederate force. Wallace had arrived at Monacacy with 2,500 inexperienced soldiers mainly Ohio Militia and Potomac Home Guard (Local Militia). Wallace sent a telegraph to General Grant for reinforcements. Grant sent the 6th Corps and two brigades of the Third Division under Brigadier General James Ricketts by boat to Batltimore to assist Wallace. General Wallace also made contact with Lt. Colonel Clendenin who led a detachment of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, Clendenin and his men arrived in Monacacy on the morning of July 6th. Clendenin’s unit was dispatched alomng with two artillery pieces to the ridges west of Frederick. Their job was to determine the size of the Confederate Forces and their location and report back to Wallace.

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In the early morning hours of  July 7th, artillery fire rocked through the mountains surrounding Frederick, MD. Word was quickly sent from Clendenin to Wallace that his troops had been pushed back to the Catoctin Pass by a superior Confederate force. Clendenin would be in Frederick within two hours.

Throughout July 7th and 8th, skirmishes between Confederate and Union forces continued as the Confederates advanced towards Frederick. General Early and his men took Frederick and set a ransom of $20,000. General Wallace knew that Early would continue to advance towards Washington or Baltimore, intelligence gathered for Wallace estimated the Confederate force stood between 15,000 and 18,000. Wallace needed reinforcements, and he needed them soon. Wallace also felt certain that the Confederate objective was Washington.

On the morning of July 8th, Wallace’s luck began to turn. Wallace received a message stating the Brigadier General Ricketts and the 3rd Division of the Union 6th Corps had arrived in Baltimore and the first troops were arriving at Monocacy Junction that morning and the rest of the division would arrive later in the day. With the arrival of Ricketts men, the Union forces would now number around 6,000, while the Union forces were still greatly outnumbered they had a better chance at holding the line here at Monocacy. Wallace’s Plan was to hold Early at Monocacy and delay a Confederate arrival at the Capitol, allowing the 6th Corps to arrive and assist in the defense.

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Wallace decided that he and the inexperienced troops with him would make a stand at Monocacy Junction.  More experienced troops would be placed in areas where they were more likely to encounter Confederate forces. Men were also placed in block houses and trenches near the river crossings. Wallace felt Monacacy was a good defensible place with the number of men he had, Wallace had too try to block Early’s forces from getting to Baltimore and Washington DC. Wallace could try to hold the Confederate forces from advancing down the National Road or the Georgetown Pike. Wallace would stretch his troops out in a very thin line along the Monacacy river, where the National Road and Georgetown Pike crossed the river and where the B&O Railroad crossed the river.

As the sun rose over the fields and valleys of Monocacy on July 9th, the battle commenced in earnest. Forces of the 10th Vermont were being pushed down the Georgetown Pike towards a covered bridge that crossed the Monocacy River. Confederate Brigadier General McCausland’s Cavalry Troops forded the river about a mile south of the covered bridge hoping to flank Union forces. McCausland’s troops dismounted and advanced quickly through a cornfield towards what they assumed were inexperienced Union troops. The Confederate troops were surprised to find veteran soldiers from Rickett’s division as they exited the cornfield. The Union forces held their fire until the Confederates were 125 yards away, and then began cutting them down with rifle fire. McCausland attempted to attack through the cornfield twice more, but after taking heavy losses, he had to wait until his unit was reinforced.

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In the afternoon, Confederate infantry began to advance across the river on the Union left and began to attack Union forces heavily. This advance caused confusion in the Union lines but did not deter Rickett’s men from causing heavy casualties on the Confederate side. Confederate Brigadier General Gordon and his men broke through the Union lines in the mid-afternoon but the cost of the breakthrough was heavy. Gordon had lost roughly a 3rd of his division including two colonels from his command staff.

The Union forces were running low on ammunition, and began to withdraw in the late afternoon. They had slowed Early’s advance towards Washington and giving time for the 6th Corps to get into place. General Lew Wallace stated,  “These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.” 1,294 Union soldiers died on these fields, and approximately 900 Confederate soldiers as well.

“If Early had been but one day earlier he might have entered
the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent.
Whether the delay caused by the battle amounted to a day or
not, General Wallace contributed on this occasion, by the defeat
of the troops under him a greater benefit to the cause than often
falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by
means of a victory.”General U.S. Grant

Author:

Greetings! I am Shawn MacIntyre, and I grew up with a love of history. When most kids were watching cartoons I was watching documentaries. After a long career in public safety, I chose to return to college to seek a new career path bringing history to the public. In April 2019. I graduated from Point Park University with a Bachelor's Degree in History, Magna Cum Laude. My new path is to make learning history fun, exciting and accessible to everyone. I invite you to join me on my journeys to historic destinations, learn interesting facts about the past, and spark a love for history!

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