Triumph in Defeat

The Civil War's Battle of Monocacy—now 150 Years old—Redefined the Meaning of Victory... and Possibly Saved the Nation's Capital

By James Rada Jr. | Posted on 07.08.14 – Feature, History

It could be argued that Frederick County saved the Union more than once during the Civil War. It was here that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” were found, giving the Union Army the opportunity to stop the rebels’ first invasion of the North at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. It was also here, 150 years ago, that the Battle of Monocacy was fought to thwart the Confederate Army’s last invasion of the North.

The Union soldiers retreated from the battlefield in defeat that day, but they achieved a greater victory. By the summer of 1864, the tides of war had turned against the Confederate Army. Lee had been forced to pull back his troops to protect Richmond and Petersburg in Virginia. Anxious to press his attack on the Southern cities, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant shifted idle troops from the defensive ring of 65 forts around Washington, D.C., to aid in his attack. This left the capital city and its chief occupant, President Abraham Lincoln, lightly defended. “The forts were left poorly manned with third-tier soldiers,” says Jack Sheriff, president of the Frederick County Civil War Roundtable. “They were invalids, one armed soldiers or poorly trained, but they did have a lot of ammunition and guns.”

Sensing an opportunity, Lee dispatched Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early and 15,000 troops west to secure the Shenandoah Valley before invading Maryland. Early wanted to use his men to threaten or even capture Washington. It was hoped that such an act would erode support for the war in an election year and relieve pressure on Richmond and Petersburg. “Morale in the North for the war was low. To have the capital taken would have been a huge blow,” says Tracy Evans, a ranger at Monocacy National Battlefield.

Early and his men arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 4. They crossed the Potomac River near Sharpsburg, and then moved east to Frederick, passing through Boonsboro and the South Mountain gaps. In addition to being on the way to Washington, Frederick held importance to both armies as a commercial and industrial center, as well as a converging point for many key transportation arteries, including the Georgetown Pike (Md. 355 today) and the National Road, the nation’s first interstate highway. In addition, the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad passed by town at Monocacy Junction, about a half mile southeast of what is now Francis Scott Key Mall near the Monocacy River.

A railroad telegrapher saw Early’s advancing Confederate troops and sent word to John Garrett, president of the B&O, who in turn, alerted Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace in Baltimore. Wallace assembled 3,200 raw soldiers and headed to Monocacy Junction. Wallace was unsure whether Early would be heading toward Washington or Baltimore and Monocacy Junction placed his troops in a good position to intercept the Confederates either way.

Wallace knew his small army would be outnumbered. His goal was to delay Early and allow whichever city Early was heading toward time to reinforce its defenses. On July 9, 3,400 additional Union troops, sent by Grant, arrived. Though this more than doubled Wallace’s men, it still left them outnumbered by the Confederates by more than two to one.

The Confederate forces began the battle in the morning with an attack on the river’s bridges, which the Union was defending. “The enemy in a very short time was completely routed by [Confederate Maj. Gen. John B.] Gordon, and left the field in great disorder and retreated in haste on Baltimore,” Early wrote in his official account of the battle. In reality, the two armies fought until late afternoon.

“One portion of the enemy’s second line extended along a branch [of the Monocacy River], from which he was driven, leaving many dead and wounded in the water and upon its banks,” Gordon wrote in his report. “This position was in turn occupied by a portion of [Confederate Brig. Gen. Clement] Evans’ brigade in the attack on the enemy’s third line. So profuse was the flow of blood from the killed and wounded of both these forces that it reddened the stream for more than 100 yards below. It has not been my fortune to witness on any battlefield a more commendable spirit and courage than was exhibited on this by both officers and men.”

When Wallace realized he could no longer hold his position, he fell back toward Baltimore, leaving 1,300 of his men behind as casualties. “It would be a difficult task to say too much in praise of the veterans who made this fight,” Wallace wrote in his report. “For their reputation and for the truth’s sake, I wish it distinctly understood that, though the appearance of the enemy’s fourth line of battle made their ultimate defeat certain, they were not whipped; on the contrary, they were fighting steadily in unbroken front when I ordered their retirement, all the shame of which, if shame there was, is mine, not theirs.”

Victorious but tired, Early’s troops rested that night. The next morning, they headed toward Washington and on July 12, fought newly reinforced troops at Fort Stevens. “The Battle of Monocacy had stopped the Confederate soldiers for one whole day and that gave Grant time to bring up reinforcements from Petersburg,” Sheriff says. “There’s no way the Confederates had enough men to break through.”

If Early had been able to fight his way through the ring of forts and attack Washington, the Confederate Army might have been able to cause some trouble—and perhaps lift morale in the South—but it still couldn’t have held the city, according to Sheriff. “They could probably have burned buildings, captured supplies and raided the Treasury, but they would have had to leave because Grant’s men were coming,” he says. Realizing he wouldn’t be able to enter Washington, Early took his troops back into Virginia under the cover of darkness on the evening of July 12, crossing the Potomac River at White’s Ferry. Still, he claimed some pleasure in his failed invasion, telling one of his officers, “Major, we didn’t take Washington but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell.”

Overall, the Battle of Monocacy was a relatively small battle, involving about 20,000 troops. As such, it often gets lost among the surrounding and larger battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam and Manassas. But its size doesn’t reveal the full story of its significance and role in the Civil War.

In his report, Wallace proposed that a memorial be built for the Union casualties with the following inscription: “These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.”

The Sesquicentennial

Thousands of visitors are expected to walk across Monocacy National Battlefield this month, retracing the steps of those who fought and died there.

The National Park Service will be holding the 150th Battle of Monocacy Commemoration from July 5 to 11. Events will run throughout the day, including living history encampments, military demonstrations, hikes, talks, concerts and more. About 200 re-enactors will also be camped around the battlefield—about six times more than the usual number of re-enactors during an anniversary. “We’ll be giving a tour of the basement of the Worthington House, which will be a unique experience because it’s not open to the public,” Evans said.

Another unique event will be a real-time hike beginning at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, July 9, on the actual anniversary date of the battle. Rangers will lead visitors over the battlefield, moving as the troops did throughout the day.

On July 12 and 13, a special commemoration of the Maryland Emancipation will also be held. Although the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 declared that slaves in Confederate states were free, Maryland was in the Union and did not emancipate its slaves until November

Visitors to the park can also view a special museum exhibit that includes the original map of the Battle of Monocacy by Jedediah Hotchkiss. The exhibit, on loan from the Library of Congress, was unveiled in June at the Monocacy Battlefield Visitors Center.

Did You Know?

•The Battle of Monocacy was the only Confederate victory on Union soil.

•William H. Seward, Jr., son of the Union Secretary of State, fought at the battle with the 9th New York Heavy Artillery.

•Confederate Pvt. Charles C. Tomkins, cousin of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, fought at the battle with the 14th Virginia Cavalry Regiment.

•The 14th New Jersey Regiment had 15 officers present at the battle. Only three escaped without injury. Four were killed in action, while eight were wounded.

•Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, commander of the Union forces at Monocacy, later served as a member of the military commission that tried those accused of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He also authored the classic novel Ben Hur.

•The last Union survivor of the Battle of Monocacy was Pvt. Horace (Harry) Alford Anderson of Baltimore, who died at age 94 in 1937.

For More Information

Monocacy National Battlefield:
The Official Records of the Battle of Monocacy:
Civil War Trust Battle of Monocacy Page: