In early July 1864 Washington was in something of a panic. Jubal Early fresh from his victories in the Shenandoah Valley was driving north towards Washington. The extensive fortifications of Washington had been stripped of men, sent south to participate in Grant’s Overland Campaign. Grant on July 6, ordered two veteran brigades of the VI Corps to be shipped to Baltimore by sea. Until they arrived, all that stood between early was Major General Lew Wallace and 6300 Union troops, many of them recently recruited 100 day men, short term enlistees mustered into service in the Spring of 1864. Few of Wallace’s men had ever seen combat.
The future author of the block buster novel Ben Hur, the West Point trained Wallace had not had a good war up to this point. Unfairly made a scape goat after Shiloh, Wallace had been shunted aside to non-combat assignments, his most notable achievement being his preparation of Cincinnati for a Confederate attack that never came during Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky in 1862.
Now the commander of the Mid-Atlantic region, the War had come to him.
Wallace decided to stand and fight at Monocacy Junction three miles south of Frederick, Maryland. At Monocacy the Georgetown Pike to Washington and the National Road to Baltimore both crossed the Monocacy River there as did the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Delaying Early here would give at least one more day for reinforcements to get to Washington. Wallace was in luck and VI Corps troops from Baltimore reached him before the battle. The odds were still long however, 5800 Union troops facing 14000 Confederates, with Wallace’s men defending a six mile front to guard the Georgetown Pike, the National Road and the Baltimore and Ohio.
The Union beat off two attacks by Confederate divisions attacking along both the Georgetown Pike and the National Road. An attack by Gordon’s division on the left forced a retreat of Wallace to Baltimore beginning in the late afternoon. However, he and his men succeeded in delaying Early just long enough to save Washington, as Early noted in his memoirs:
Some of the Northern papers stated that, between Saturday and Monday, I could have entered the city; but on Saturday I was fighting at Monocacy, thirty-five miles from Washington, a force which I could not leave in my rear; and after disposing of that force and moving as rapidly as it was possible for me to move, I did not arrive in front of the fortifications until after noon on Monday, and then my troops were exhausted…
Union casualties were 1294 to some 700-900 Confederate.
Wallace proposed that a memorial should be built at Monocacy to the Union troops who died there stating:
“These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.”
Such a memorial has never been built, but it should be. The report of Lew Wallace on the battle:
I made up my mind to fight, and accordingly telegraphed General Halleck:
I shall withdraw immediately from Frederick City, and put myself in position to cover road to Washington, if necessary.
This was done by marching in the night to the railroad bridge, where Brigadier-General Ricketts was in waiting. I had then the following regiments of his division:
First Brigade, Col. W. S. Truex commanding, 1,750 strong–One hundred and sixth New York. Captain Paine commanding; One hundred and fifty-first New York, Colonel Emerson; Fourteenth New Jersey, Lieutenant-Colonel Hall: Tenth Vermont, Colonel Henry; Eighty-seventh Pennsylvania, Lieutenant-Colonel Stahle.
Second Brigade, 1,600 men, Colonel McClennan commanding–One hundred and thirty-eighth Pennsylvania ;Ninth New York, Colonel Seward; One hundred and twenty-sixth Ohio, Lieutenant-Colonel Ebright; One hundred and tenth Ohio, Lieutenant-Colonel Binkley.
The residue of the division, it was reported, would be up next day. Early in the morning of the 9th disposition for battle was made. The right, forming an extended line from the railroad, was given General Tyler, who, by direction, had left Colonel Brown at the stone bridge on the Baltimore pike with his command, and the company of mounted infantry. Upon the holding of that bridge depended the security of my right flank, and the line of retreat to Baltimore. Three companies of Colonel Gilpin’s regiment were posted to defend Crum’s Ford–midway the stone bridge and railroad. Landstreet and Gilpin were held in reserve at the railroad. The battery was divided–Ricketts and Tyler each received three guns. On the left, as it was likely to be the main point of attack, I directed General Ricketts to form his command in two lines across the Washington pike, so as to hold the rising ground south of it and the wooden bridge across the river. Still farther to the left, Colonel Clendenin took post to watch that flank and guard the lower fords with such detachments as he could spare. On the western bank of the river, Captain Brown’s detachment of the First Regiment Potomac Home Brigade was deployed as skirmishers, in a line three quarters of a mile to the front. A 24-pounder howitzer was left in a rude earthwork near the block-house by the railroad, where it could be used to defend the two bridges and cover the retirement and crossing of the skirmishers. While this disposition was going on, the railroad agent informed me that two more troop trains were on the road, and would arrive by 1 o’clock. These were the residue of General Ricketts’ division, three regiments making a very important re-enforcement. About 8 a.m. the enemy marched by the pike from Frederick, and threw out skirmishers, behind whom he put his guns in position, and began the engagement. His columns followed a little after 9 o’clock. Passing through the fields, just out of range of my pieces, without attempting to drive in my skirmishers, they moved rapidly around to the left, and forced a passage of the river at a ford about one mile below Ricketts. From 9 o’clock to 10.30 the action was little more than a warm skirmish and experimental cannonading, in which, however, the enemy’s superiority in the number and caIiber of his guns was fully shown. Against my six 3-inch rifles, he opposed not less than sixteen Napoleons. In this time, also, the fighting at the stone bridge assumed serious proportions; Colonel Brown held his position with great difficulty. About 10.30 o’clock the enemy’s first line of battle made its appearance, and moved against Ricketts, who, mean time, had changed front to the left, so that his right rested upon the river-bank. This change unavoidably subjected his regiments to an unintermitted enfilading fire from the batteries across the stream. So great was the rebel front, also, that I was compelled to order the whole division into one line, thus leaving it without reserves. Still the enemy’s front was greatest. Two more guns were sent to Ricketts. Finally, by burning the wooden bridge and the block-house at its further end, thus releasing the force left to defend them, I put into the engagement every available man except Tyler’s reserves, which, from the messages arriving, I expected momentarily to have to dispatch to Colonel Brown’s assistance. The enemy’s first line was badly defeated. His second line then advanced, and was repulsed, but after a fierce and continuous struggle. In the time thus occupied I could probably have retired without much trouble, as the rebels were badly punished. The main objects of the battle, however, were unaccomplished, the rebel strength was not yet developed. At 1 o’clock the three re-enforcing regiments of veterans would be on the ground, and then the splendid behavior of Ricketts and his men inspired me with confidence. One o’clock came, but not the re-enforcements; and it was impossible to get an order to them. My telegraph operator, and the railroad agent, with both his trains, had run away. An hour and a half later I saw the third line of rebels move out of the woods and down the hill, behind which they made their formation; right after it came the fourth. It was time to get away. Accordingly, I ordered General Ricketts to make preparations and retire to the Baltimore pike. About 4 o’clock he began the execution of the order. The stone bridge held by Colonel Brown now became all important; its loss was the loss of my line of retreat, and I had reason to believe that the enemy, successful on my left, would redouble his efforts against the right. General Tyler had already marched with his reserves to Brown’s assistance; but on receipt of notice of my intention, without waiting for Gilpin and Landstreet, he galloped to the bridge and took the command in person. After the disengagement of Ricketts’ line, when the head of the retreating column reached the pike, I rode to the bridge, and ordered it to be held at all hazards by the force then there, until the enemy should be found in its rear, at least until the last regiment had cleared the country road by which the retreat was being effected. This order General Tyler obeyed. A little after 5 o’clock, when my column was well on the march toward New Market, an attack on his rear convinced him of the impracticability of longer maintaining his post. Many of his men then took to the woods, but by his direction the greater part kept their ranks, and manfully fought their way through. In this way Colonel Brown escaped. General Tyler, finding himself cut off, dashed into the woods, with the officers of his staff, and was happily saved. His gallantry and self-sacrificing devotion are above all commendation of words.
The enemy seemed to have stopped pursuit at the stone bridge. A few cavalry followed my rear guard to within a couple of miles of New Market, where they established a picket-post. The explanation of their failure to harass my column lies in facts that have since come to my knowledge, viz, Johnson s cavalry was marching at the time of the battle toward Baltimore via the Liberty road, while Mc-Causland’s was too badly cut up in the fight for anything like immediate and vigorous action after it. To have cut my column off at New Market the rebels had only to move their cavalry round my right by way of Urbana and Monrovia. Expecting such was his plan I used the utmost expedition to pass the command beyond that point. The danger proved imaginary. The re-enforcements for which I waited so anxiously the last two hours of the engagement reaching Monrovia in good time to have joined me, halted there–a singular proceeding, for which no explanation has as yet been furnished me. Monrovia is but eight miles from the battle-ground. The commanding officer at that place must, therefore, have heard the guns. But besides this Colonel Clendenin was effectually contesting the road which offered the enemy the advantage I have mentioned. That gallant officer–as true a cavalry soldier as ever mounted a horse–while fighting on Ricketts’ extreme left, found himself cut off from the main body at the time the retreat began. Throwing himself into the village of Urbana he repeatedly repulsed the pursuing rebels, and in one bold charge, saber in hand, captured the battle-flag of the Seventeenth Virginia. The three regiments in Monrovia joined me at New Market and afterward served a good purpose in covering the march of the weary column, which bivouacked for the night about twelve miles from the battle-field.
It would be a difficult task to say too much in praise of the veterans who made this fight. 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. The nine regiments enumerated as those participating in the action represented but 3,350 men, of whom over 1,600 were missing three days after, killed, wounded, or prisoners–lost on the field. The fact speaks for itself. “Monocacy” on their flags cannot be a word of dishonor.