The Battle That Saved Washington DC and Lincoln's Presidency

Painting of the Georgetown Pike Bridge in flames.

The Georgetown Pike bridge over the Monocacy River burns around 12 noon on July 9, 1864.  Confederate pressure had been relentless all morning.  As they closed in, rebel soldiers in captured Yankee uniforms stormed the bridge  in an unsuccessful attempt to capture it intact.   The Union commander, unable to hold the bridge any longer, ordered it torched.  In giving that order, he stranded hundreds of Union soldiers across the river.

In any war, there are battles which, with the benefit of hindsight, prove to be much more significant than the actual results of the fighting.  The Civil War Battle of Monocacy (muh-NOCK-uh-see) Junction on a stifling hot July 9, 1864 is such a battle.  Here in the lush corn and wheat fields just southeast of Frederick, MD,  a few thousand rag tag Union troops led by a disgraced General held off a battle-hardened Confederate army three times its size marching to attack a weakly defended Washington, D.C. By Civil War standards, it wasn't a  big battle and it didn't last very long.  In fact, it was a Confederate victory with Union troops retreating towards Baltimore before supper time.  But the Northern forces held long enough and fought hard enough to slow down the Confederate advance, buying time to reinforce Washington and stave off a disaster.  The last thing the Union needed at that time was an attack on their capital. They had enough problems already.

 

A Dark and Dangerous Time

June, 1864.  The American Civil War is in its fourth year with no end in sight.  Despite major Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga less than a year earlier, Abraham Lincoln's armies can't seem to finish the job.  These are among the Union's darkest days of the war both militarily and politically. The fighting has turned into a bloody stalemate and it is a presidential election year.

The situation on the ground reflected the strategic realities of the war. To win the Civil War and restore the United States, it was necessary for the Union to defeat the Confederate military in detail, occupy their territory and govern it until peace and unification were completed.  The strategy had two key components - destroy the rebel armies whenever and wherever they may be and capture  the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. 

The South on the other hand had a much simpler scenario for success - don't lose.  Don't occupy Northern territory.  Don't worry about Washington DC. Be offensive and decisive but pick your battles. Bloody and embarrass the Union army.   Protect your territory.  Enlist foreign allies and support.  Stay in the fight. String it out as long as you have to.  Eventually the North will get tired of fighting a bloody stalemate and negotiate a peace. 

Things had been looking up for Lincoln two months earlier when he made General Ulysses S. Grant commander of all the Union forces.  Grant immediately started his Overland Campaign to destroy Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and capture Richmond - and sent his men into a meat grinder. With Richmond at the center of a huge circle, Grant came at it from multiple directions and Lee was always there to stymie things.  In early May, they fought the Battle of the Wilderness north of Richmond.  A week later and a little further east, they fought at Spotsylvania Courthouse.  Both battles were inconclusive with tens of thousands of casualties on both sides.  Grant kept pushing and circling east and south towards Richmond.

Photo of dead soldiers at Cold Harbor.

Union dead at Cold Harbor three months after the battle.  Macabre scenes like this were commonplace during the Overland Campaign.  By the time Grant reached Petersburg,  he had almost destroyed his army, kindling revulsion and talk of negotiations with the South.  Undeterred, Grant pressed on, stripping other areas of troops to throw into the battle and leaving the capital almost defenseless.

Early June found them entangled at a little known crossroads 10 miles east of Richmond called Cold Harbor. It was so named because the Cold Harbor Tavern located there served no hot food.  Lee got there first and built seven miles of fortified trenches, which Grant promptly assaulted without success on June 1.  On June 3, Grant's army attacked what they thought was a weak sector in Lee's defenses.  Jumping off in the foggy, pre-dawn light, they immediately ran into massed rifle fire and double canister shot from artillery.  Twenty minutes later 7,000 Union soldiers were dead or wounded.  It was (and still is) the single most brutal and lopsided military loss in American history. 

Still, Grant kept pushing and circling ending up at Petersburg, just south of Richmond, on June 9.  Rather than continue the fruitless all-out frontal assaults, Grant decided on a siege strategy much like he employed at Vicksburg.  Both sides started digging in.  The face off would continue until March of 1865. The siege of Petersburg did accomplish part of the Union objectives. It took Lee's Army of Northern Virginia off the field.  Cooped up in trenches and surrounded by much larger forces, Lee wasn't going anywhere and he knew it.

The stalemate in Petersburg wasn't the only thing going awry for the Union.  Further south, General William Tecumseh Sherman was bogged down outside Atlanta while the Confederate cavalry devil General Nathan Bedford Forrest wreaked havoc on his long supply lines. On June 10, 1864,  Forrest decimated a Union force twice his size at the Battle of Brice's Crossroads near Tupelo, MS.

Further south still, Mobile, Alabama was fully operational and essentially untouched by the war.  Its factories were turning out weapons and its blockade runners dodged the Union Navy almost at will.  Admiral David Farragut commanding the naval squadron had been waiting in vain for two years for the order to attack Mobile.  He was still waiting.  There were no ground troops to spare for the land phase of the campaign.

Politically, President Lincoln was in big trouble. People were tired of the war.  The opposition candidate was  General George McClellan, who Lincoln had relieved in 1862 for failing to take Richmond and letting Lee off the hook at Antietam.  McClellan was a popular and charismatic figure and ran on a platform of a negotiated peace with the Confederacy.  The war strategy the South had envisioned from the beginning looked like it was unfolding - and Robert E. Lee hatched an audacious plan to help it along.

Grant's Overland Campaign had cost tens of thousands of casualties with little to show for it.  To replace his losses, Grant took manpower from where ever he could.  One big source was Washington, DC.  At the beginning of 1864, DC was encircled by 70 forts and batteries mounting 1,000 guns and manned by 30,000 troops. By late spring, the number of defenders was down to 9,000 and many of them were home guard and convalescing soldiers.  Confederate spies reported that the city was weakly defended.  General Lee saw a chance to break the siege he was under at Petersburg and take the war back to the north.

 

The Shenandoah Valley

Map of the Shenandoah Valley.

The Shenandoah Valley was a pipeline deep into the territory of both sides.  The American Civil War was probably one of the few wars in history where the enemy capitals  were within walking distance of each other.  While Richmond was a constant target for the North, the South never much bothered with DC - until now.

If Richmond was the heart of the Confederacy, the Shenandoah Valley was its soul.  Often called the "bread basket of the South" this fertile protected valley is named for the river that flows through it. The valley runs 200 miles southwest to northeast starting at Roanoke, VA and ending in Harpers Ferry, WV where the Shenandoah River empties into the Potomac. The valley's western boundary is the Appalachian Mountains. The eastern boundary is the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form a solid wall of rock that is impassable to large ground forces except for where a few natural gaps exist. It was much easier to defend than attack.

In addition to the food and coal that came out of the valley, its geographical orientation was of enormous strategic importance. Its northern end was well into Union territory.  In fact, it was north of Washington, DC.  Earlier in the war, General Lee launched his two northern attacks via that route, ending at Antietam and Gettysburg. Likewise, a force popping out of the southern end of the valley would be deep in the Confederacy. 

Fighting here was continuous throughout the war.  The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Association has documented at least 325 separate engagements.  This doesn't include guerilla and partisan activity, such as Mosby's Rangers.   The South tenaciously defended their valley against Union incursions and the cities of the Shenandoah bore much of the brunt of this.  Harpers Ferry changed hands nine times during the war.  Winchester, VA changed hands an incredible 78 times. So even though the Union Army was within walking distance of the valley for the entire war, it remained in the South's backyard. At this late point in the war, the Union was content to bottle up the valley by occupying the natural gaps and chokepoints in and out of it.

 

Monocacy Junction

Photo of the Monocacy Railroad Junction as it looks today.

Monocacy Junction as it looks today from the Georgetown Pike (Maryland 355).   The river is to the right.  The railroad bridge is just around the bend off the top right hand corner.  This area was heavily built up at the time of the war, including defensive fortifications to protect this vital transportation link.  Today, there is little sign that anything was ever here except track.  The junction was the first of its kind built in the US.  It and the bridge are still in use today by the CSX Line.

The town of Frederick, MD sat at the crossroads of several key highway and rail routes.  The Georgetown Pike to Washington, the National Road to Baltimore and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad all converged here.  As a result, it was the scene of constant military activity by both sides during the war - but no serious fighting.  Just south of Frederick is the Monocacy River, a tributary of the Potomac.  Running north to south, it name comes from the Shawnee language for "river of many bends."  At that time, it had steep banks and was much deeper than it is now.  It could only be crossed by bridge or at one of several fording sites. 

The "junction" part of the battle name refers to the B&O railroad switching junction built on the west side of the river.  Here, the track was laid in a triangle with switches at each point.  By backing up and switching tracks, a locomotive can change directions or turn around without a roundhouse.  The junction itself was not an objective in this battle, however, it did see some of the heaviest fighting and was under fire and/or attack all day.  That junction and the nearby bridge are still in use today.

 

The Raiders Move Out

At the beginning of June, Grant was putting a hammerlock on Lee's army at Petersburg.  Grant threw everything he had into the battle stripping units in other areas down to bare bones. As the lines firmed up,  Grant outnumbered Lee by three to one.  Lee knew if he were to have any chance at all of breaking the siege, he needed to create a situation that would cause Grant to react and shift troops away from Petersburg.  What better way to do it than threaten the lightly defended Union capital using the Shenandoah Valley as a conduit?

Photo of Monocacy Railroad Junction during the Civil War.

     Monocacy Junction as it appeared during the war.

To lead this raid/economy of force operation, Lee called upon one of his most experienced and aggressive commanders - General Jubal Early.  Although not without his faults, Early had been in the thick of the fighting for the whole war and lived to tell about it, earning Lee's trust and confidence in the process.  To pull this one off, "Old Jube" would have to fight his way into the valley and overcome any resistance he encountered as he moved north.  After emerging from the valley, he would turn southeast and move rapidly to threaten Washington. From start to finish, he was to wreak as much havoc as possible - and he did.

Early's army left Richmond on June 15.  On June 18, they pummeled Union forces at Lynchburg who were guarding the entrance to the Shenandoah.  At Harper's Ferry, they tangled with Union defenders on Maryland Heights.  Once they crossed the Potomac River at Shepherdstown on July 5, there was only 60 miles of thin air between them and Washington D.C.

 

Washington D.C. Panics

As soon as Early's force got into the Shenandoah, the rumors started in D.C. fed by a steady supply of information from railroad workers on the B&O. When the Confederates emerged from the valley and turned southeast, the cities of Washington and Baltimore went into wholesale panic mode.  Among the emergency measures taken was to moor a ship at the Washington Navy Yard as an escape route for President Lincoln.

Especially concerned by all this was the President of the B&O Railroad, John Garrett.  A staunch Union supporter, his railroad was being plundered by Early's raiders.  Alarmed at the turn of events, he short-circuited the monolithic War Department and appealed for action personally to Abraham Lincoln, General Grant and General Lew Wallace.  Headquartered in Baltimore, Wallace commanded what amounted to a training and convalescent command far removed from the fighting.  This was penance for screwing up at Shiloh two years earlier and being relieved by Grant.  Now his sleepy little backwater command was about to become the focal point of the war.

 

General Wallace Takes Charge

Google Earth overhead view of Monocacy Battlefield.

A Google Earth view of the entire Monocacy battlefield with all the key areas highlighted.  Three farms bore the brunt of the fighting .  The Best Farm on the west bank was where the battle started around 0700 and continued all day.  The Worthington Farm was the launch point for the Confederate flanking attack at midday.  The Thomas Farm saw the heaviest and closest fighting in mid to late afternoon.  By 1700, it was all over. In the end, Early won the day and the Federals retreated through Gambrill Mill and on to Baltimore. The battlefield is not very big.  The distance from the Worthington Farm to the railroad bridge is 1800 yards.  From the Best Farm to the Thomas Farm is 1500 yards.  The whole area was within artillery range of both sides. The bridge on the National Pike is 3,000 yards upriver from the railroad bridge. The trees that line the roads and surround the fields were not there in 1864. Neither was Interstate 270.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Wallace moved to intercept the Confederate column without waiting for the chain of command to sanction it.   He had no idea what he was facing.  The rumor mill projections were up to 50,000. From the numbers in the railroad agent reports, Wallace knew this was no ordinary raid but he didn't know if Early's objective was Washington or Baltimore - or both.  

He also didn't know what Early's intentions were.  Raid?  Decoy? Reconnaissance-in-force? Full scale attack?  There was no telling at this point. He needed a place where he could defend the approaches to both cities, ascertain Early's objectives and delay him until reinforcements arrived.  It also had to be a place that Early couldn't just go around, forcing him into the fight. That place was Monocacy Junction.

Wallace moved there on July 6 and got to work. Along the way, he scooped up about 2500 men.  The vast majority of them had never seen combat but they would have to do.  To support him, Grant dispatched an under-strength division from Petersburg.  General James Ricketts and his 3,300 men left Petersburg on July 6 and arrived just in time for the battle three days later, courtesy of the B&O Railroad.  Meanwhile, Grant was disengaging his entire 6th Corps at Petersburg and sending them north to reinforce the capital.

The railroad junction itself had two strong defensive blockhouses, rifle pits and artillery support. This would be the center of the Union line. Lt. Davis and his 300 men formed a semi-circular perimeter from the Georgetown Pike to the railroad bridge.

The National Road Bridge was two miles upstream (north). Called the "Jug Bridge" after its distinctive monument on the eastern end, it was a four arch stone bridge.  Wallace outposted it in strength to protect his right flank and secure his escape route to Baltimore should it come to that.

Photo of the Best Farm.

The 425 acre Best Farm as it may have looked on the morning of the battle as seen from the Georgetown Pike.  Frederick is off to the right. The Union defenses at the rail junction and the covered bridge are off to the left.  These fields saw lots of cavalry and infantry skirmishing at the start of the battle around 7:00 AM.  Confederate artillery lined up in front of the house and zeroed in on the Union defenses less than 1,000 yards away.  The Confederates launched attacks and fired artillery from here all day. By the end of the day, the Best farm was in ruins, although the house survived and the six family members were unharmed.   There were no civilian casualties in the entire battle.

The wooden covered Georgetown Pike Bridge was 300 yards downstream (south) of the railroad junction and bridge.  One of the defensive blockhouses was near the northwest corner. Wallace figured this would be the main battle area and placed his strongest positions here.  Certain that the enemy would attempt to ford the river and flank him, Wallace had cavalry units screening his flanks and watching the known fords. 

Altogether, Wallace had 5,800 men to defend a line of river bank six miles long against a force of 15,000.  Many of his troops were inexperienced untrained home guard called Hundred Days Men.  The real sitting ducks were the troops defending the junction.  Commanded by 1st LT. George Davis, they were the only defenders that had to stand their ground on the west bank of the river.  This would make for some very desperate times for his 300 men and earn him the Medal of Honor.

Furthermore, this was  one of the few times in the war that the Confederates had more artillery than the Union.  Wallace had one battery of six Napoleons on the line and a 24 pound howitzer at the blockhouse.  Early had 40 guns, probably southern manufactured Napoleons which were made at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.

On July 8, Early's advance guard arrived in Frederick and skirmished with Union cavalry.  The Union troops withdrew to their lines and work feverishly all night to prepare for the attack they knew was coming.  There was no moon that night and it was pitch black. Ricketts' men arrived after midnight and were placed in position in complete darkness - one of the most difficult tactical maneuvers a ground commander can undertake. At 4:00 A.M., the eastern sky began to lighten into another blazing hot summer day. As attackers and defenders made ready, farm families were waking up and roosters were crowing. The 200 Union cavalry skirmishers positioned a mile away on the enemy side of the river strained to see what was in front of them.  Their job was to draw first blood then bug out before they got overrun.  At the farm of David Best, the daily chores had already begun when the firing started.

 

The Battle

A National Park Service schematic drawing of the battle.

A good schematic summary of the battle which aligns nicely with the Google Earth view above.

Jubal Early had not planned to fight here - especially a pitched battle - but he had no choice.  Wallace was astride his main approach route and had cobbled together a good defensive plan. Anchored on the river, Wallace had strong positions at the bridges and a strong point at the railroad junction itself. His limited artillery was at the center of the line to support the entire defense. Cavalry screened his flanks and were scouting as far forward as the town.  Some of Ricketts' veteran troops were kept in reserve.  Wallace himself was as far forward as he dared get.  He positioned his command element at Gambrill Mill which was just east of the covered bridge. He stationed himself on the east bank of the river between the railroad and Georgetown Pike bridges. This greatly increased his ability to assess the situation and communicate orders.  In anticipation of the worst, the wooden Georgetown Pike bridge was made ready to burn and an escape route planned. Wallace had done all he could.

The farmers around Frederick were used to soldiers.  There had never been any serious fighting here but seeing soldiers moving and setting up camp was a daily occurrence.  Even  though troops walked over crops, broke fences and stared at the women-folk, the farmers maintained a peaceful co-existence with both sides.  As a result, farm life had been pretty normal despite the war.

This had been a good year for crops.  The wheat harvest was underway  and the corn was chest-high.   But as the dawn broke on Saturday, July 9,  farmers could tell today was going to be different.  The gray soldiers were unlimbering artillery.  Snipers were climbing into attics and hay lofts.  Blue soldiers were taking cover along the river and occupying the blockhouses at the rail junction.  Blue and gray cavalry rode all over the place. There was shooting back towards the town and down by the river.  Then the artillery fire started. Families rushed into basements.  Horses and livestock were cut loose to fend for themselves.  And it was about to become a very bad year for crops.

The farm house of the Best family.

This replica brass Napoleon sits on the knoll in front of the Best farm house.  This was the location and direction of fire of the artillery set up here.  The battle started with skirmishing where the far tree line is in the background but quickly swept over the knoll and down to the river.  The Best farm was no stranger to military operations.  Robert E. Lee had his headquarters here during the Antietam campaign.  It was here he wrote and dispatched his infamous General Order 190.  Today was different. Attacks and artillery fire went all day.  At the end of the day, the farm was in ruins and the crops destroyed .  The house survived as did all six family members who spent a harrowing day in the basement.  All were unharmed.

General Early's lead elements ran into the Union cavalry screen before they had even cleared the town limits.  He deployed his command and went into the attack, hoping to make short work of things. His initial plan was simple - go straight at them. Artillery and cavalry thundered right through the corn fields of the Best farm.  The rebels lined up their 12 pound Napoleons on the knoll where the farm house and barns were located.  Snipers took over the barn, which was full of farm tools and the recently harvested wheat crop.  They all opened fire on the Georgetown Pike bridge and the railroad junction, both of which were well within direct fire range.

The Union defenses took a frightful pounding but their artillery responded in kind.  Seeing the sniper activity in the barn, they poured rounds into it until it was burning brightly. No more snipers. No more wheat or farm tools either.  Meanwhile, underneath this canopy of artillery fire, the ground battle began in earnest.

The Union cavalry had done its job.  They drew blood, forced Early to deploy tactically before he wanted to and gave ample early warning to the defenders.  They withdrew across the river to continue their missions on the flanks.

Early launched frontal assaults right down the National Road and the Georgetown Pike at their respective bridges, throwing a 3,000 man division against each one.  The Union lines bent but didn't break. 

Confederate General Rodes attacked the Jug Bridge and also attempted to ford the river at known points, such as Reich's Ford.  Everywhere they probed, they ran into determined resistance. Rodes, apparently thinking he was facing a much larger force, reported to Early that he would need reinforcements.  Early couldn't afford to have his army split up by several miles. The fighting was deadlocked there until the very end of the battle.

Early's main effort was led by General Dodson Ramseur, the youngest General in the Confederate Army. Although only 27, he had already led brigades at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and The Wilderness.  Now he was in command of Early's old division and in the attack down the Georgetown Pike.  Union resistance was ferocious but Ramseur kept coming with repeated attacks.  Slowly, they were making gains but were paying a tremendous price for them.

 

A photo of the Worthington-McKinney Ford.

The Worthington-McKinney Ford taken from the east bank.  The Worthington farm is off to the left about 1/4 of a mile and up a steep hill.  There were several fords on the river.  The Union cavalry had them all covered.

By mid-morning, Early realized that the frontal assaults would be too costly and adjusted his attack plan.  He ordered his cavalry, commanded by General John McCausland, to find a ford downstream, cross the river and flank the Union line -  just like Wallace figured he would.  They found one called the Worthington McKinney Ford.  McCausland's horse soldiers crossed the river at 1000 and ran right into Union cavalry.  A brief skirmish ensued before the heavily outnumbered Federals pulled back to warn Wallace.  The Confederate cavalry roared up the hill to the farm house of John Worthington.  From there, they could see the whole battlefield and attack downhill against an apparently unwary Union position. McCausland sent word back to Early and soon General John Gordon's infantry division was on its way to exploit the crossing. Early's entire corps was now fully involved in the battle. McCausland, concerned that a delay would give the Union time to adjust their defenses, prepared to attack.

Meanwhile the direct assault on the Georgetown Pike bridge was closing in.  Around noon, Confederates in captured Union uniforms stormed the bridge but were unsuccessful in taking it.  Wallace realized they couldn't hold out any longer and ordered it burned.  The bridge had been prepped earlier with wheat sheaves and kerosene and was ablaze in seconds.  In giving that order, Wallace had stranded the junction defenders across the river.  As Confederate cavalry gathered on Worthington Hill,  Ramseur's infantry turned their fury on the shrinking Monocacy Junction perimeter.  It was Medal of Honor time for Lt. Davis. These two actions - the flanking attack and the assaults on the junction - would continue for the rest of the battle and ultimately overcome the Union defenders. 

 

A photo of the Worthington farm house.   A photo of the battlefield taken from the porch of the Worthington farm house.

The Worthington farm house. John Worthington purchased the 300 acre farm in 1862, naming it "Riverside".  It was in the Worthington family until 1953. The ford used by McCausland is behind the house and down the hill. There is a walking loop down to it. The cannon, another 12 pound Napoleon, is located and pointed the same way as they were in the battle.  This was the most strategic piece of ground on the battlefield. From here there were fields of observation and fire across the entire area.  The Worthington farm lost much of their crops but the structures and family survived.

 

The view of Worthington Hill from the front porch of their house.  The entire area was one big cornfield the day of the battle with no trees.  McCausland and Gordon started their attacks from here . The direction of attack was towards the top right hand corner of the picture.  Going straight down the hill goes down to the river. From a basement window underneath this porch, six year old Glenn Worthington watched the battle.  When he grew up, he was a teacher, a lawyer and a judge.  He formed the  Monocacy Battlefield Association to advocate for a national battlefield park. That became a reality in 1934.  He also wrote the book Fighting for Time, which is considered one of the definitive accounts of the battle. Judge Worthington died in 1934 at the age of 77.

The ground between the Worthington farm house and the Thomas farm house was one big cornfield on the day of the battle.  The boundary between the two farms was a split rail fence in the corn that followed the track of today's Interstate 270. To take advantage of the cover and surprise he thought he had, McCausland had his men fight as dismounted infantry and stepped off in the attack, thinking he would catch the Union off guard.  The rebel force moved steadily downhill through Worthington's cornfield.  At the same time, General Ricketts' veteran troops, warned by their cavalry,  were sneaking through Thomas' corn to the fence.  Using it as a makeshift defensive line, they stayed low and quiet, loaded their rifles with double shot and waited. The Confederates continued to advance on line and in good order.  It looked like they were going to jump the Yankees good.  When they were 50 yards away from the fence, Ricketts' men stood up as one and fired a massive volley into  the Confederate ranks.  The attack disintegrated. 

A photo of the Thomas Farm.

The Thomas farm, where the decisive assaults in late afternoon occurred.  This picture was taken in the area of the first cornfield attack.  Ricketts' outnumbered men were pushed back relentlessly. The Georgetown Pike and Gambrill Mill are about 800 yards directly behind the barn and the afternoon fighting encompassed that entire area.  The barns, out buildings and crops were destroyed.  The stately brick farm house, which is off to the right, was heavily damaged.  Though now owned by the Park Service, it is not open to the public.

McCausland re-grouped his men and immediately attacked again.  This time, they reached the fence, where the fighting was hand-to-hand.   Ricketts pulled his men back towards the Georgetown Pike. The sunken road there would be the best place to make a final stand, but until then, Ricketts' men were giving up ground one inch at a time. Once again, the Union line bent, but didn't break. The Confederates retreated back up to the Worthington farm house. 

By this time, General Gordon was there.  He was one of the most aggressive and successful generals in the Confederate Army.  He was not about to launch another piecemeal attack at the Union.  He meant to finish it now.  He put his entire division of three brigades on the line spread across a front too big for the Union to cover.

At 1530, the third and final attack began. Gordon's brigades attacked in echelon.  His right-side brigade went first.  They swung wide around the Union left, forcing Ricketts to string out his line to avoid being flanked.  He successfully stymied the Confederate advance but was forced to weaken his line in other places to do it.  That is exactly what echelon attacks are designed to do.

Then the center brigade hit the now weakened Union center.  Ricketts had to further thin his line to meet that threat.  When Gordon's left-side brigade hit the Union right, there was not enough left to stop them.  The Union position was breached, split and flanked.  They were taking fire from everywhere and in danger of being encircled.  There were no additional reserves,  almost no ammo and no way to salvage the situation.  It was time to get out of Dodge.

 

A photo of Gambrill's Mill.

Gambrill Mill as it appears today.  Built in 1830, it was operational until 1890.  Instead of a water wheel to turn the millstones, it used water rushing through a sluice inside the mill. The was Wallace's HQ and also a field hospital.  When the Union retreat was ordered, the troops flowed past the mill on their way to Baltimore. The park has preserved some unique and creative milling technology in and around the building which is worth seeing.  There's also a boardwalk trail that goes down to the river and the bridges. This was the old visitor's center for the park.

Wallace gave the order.  His men streamed through Gambrill Mill on their way to the National Road and the relative safety of Baltimore 45 miles away.  Several Union cannon at the mill kept the rebel pursuit at bay.  The defenders of the Jug Bridge on the National Road had held it all day under fire for just this scenario.

While all this was going on, Lt. Davis and the defenders of Monocacy Junction fought off multiple assaults. Ramseur's division kept the pressure on to pin down the center of the Union line and prevent them from helping elsewhere.  It worked.  Davis and his men were hanging on by their fingernails and were powerless to influence the furious action taking place just several hundred yards away from them. 

Davis kept shrinking his perimeter, trading space for time.  He still had the railroad bridge as an escape route but escape was a relative term here.  That same bridge could also serve as a Confederate approach deep into the Union position and cut off the planned route of retreat.  It had to be defended until the last possible moment.  He anchored the right side of his perimeter on the bridge and contracted his position back towards it. The Confederates were working their way around his line with an eye towards getting to the bridge and cutting off the Union force.  Lt George Davis, the store clerk from Vermont, was desperately trying to judge how and when to disengage under close enemy fire - the single most difficult and dangerous maneuver in ground warfare.

 

A sketch of Lt. Davis' men escaping across the railroad bridge.

A National Park Service sketch of Lt. Davis' men making a run for it across the railroad bridge.

General Wallace made the decision for him.  When Davis saw the Union retreating on the other side of the river,  timing and tactics went out the window.  He got his troops on the bridge and they made a run for it with rebel soldiers in hot pursuit.   Footing on the bridge was shaky and the wide gaps between ties slowed them down. They must have felt like they were running in slow motion. The bridge was well within range of Confederate artillery at the Best farm.  For reasons known only to them, the gunners didn't fire upon the escaping Yankees. Some of his men were picked off or dragged down by the pursuing soldiers while others fell off the bridge. But most of them made it, including Lt Davis. 

This shifted the focus to the Jug Bridge.  History doesn't talk much about what happened here but it's really what didn't happen that makes it important.  The bridge was defended by an ad-hoc unit of 750 men commanded by Colonel Allison Brown.  Most of them, including Colonel Brown, were "100 Days Men."  These were home guard and militia recruited to perform routine duties in secure areas to free the regulars to fight elsewhere.  Brown's unit, the 149th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, had only formed up in early May and was assigned to guard duty in Baltimore.  They were not organized, trained or equipped to fight in a major action like Monocacy - but they did and more than held their own.

Brown had several artillery pieces which he kept on the east side of the bridge.  He set up a series of delay positions on the west bank at Reich's Farm and the tollhouse.  The plan was to fight and fall back until they were pushed back to the east side of the bridge.  If and when that happened, there would be no more ground given.

There were several usable fords in this section of the river and Brown's cavalry patrolled them all.

A photo of the Jug Bridge.

A photo from the Library of Congress shows the Jug Bridge in 1933, essentially unchanged since the Civil War.   It's not hard to see how it got its name. Built in 1808, it lasted until 1942, when it collapsed.  The Jug is on the Union side of the river, although the defenders carried the fight to the other side.  The Reich Farm in the distance and the tollhouse on the west end were the sites of significant action as the 100 Days Men gave a good account of themselves. The Jug Bridge and the road it carried are gone.  The only thing left of the bridge is part of the eastern abutment. The Jug is in a nearby park.

Facing them were four brigades of battle hardened Confederate regulars led by General Robert Rodes.  This was the guy who held the center of "Bloody Lane" at Antietam and led "Stonewall" Jackson's flank attack at Chancellorsville. So what was he doing tip-toeing around all day with a bunch of militia men at the Jug Bridge?  Nobody knows.  What we do know is that when he finally mounted a full attack around 1600, he took the bridge with relative ease. Why didn't he do that earlier in the day?  Nobody knows. If he had done it in the morning, Early's army would have been in DC before dark. Even just an hour earlier would have cut off the Union retreat and completely changed the outcome of the battle. 

Rodes, who successfully and dependably commanded in many battles, had done something similarly inexplicable on the first day of Gettysburg.  He was assigned to attack an entrenched Union force astride the Mummasburg Road northwest of town.  His attack was poorly timed and coordinated.  As a result, his four brigades were torn to pieces - one at a time.  One of them was commanded by General Ramseur. His division sat out the rest of the battle. Some say Rodes was sick that day.  Others say he was drunk.  Maybe he was just being super cautious in a very fluid situation.  Whatever the reason, Rodes hesitated at Gettysburg.  He did it again at the Jug Bridge.

By the time he took the bridge, the Union main body was already past.  Colonel Brown's troopers joined the every-man-for-himself Baltimore bugout, which was described by Private Sam McClain of the Ohio Volunteers in a letter to his wife.

"July 11: We arrived in Baltimore or part of us ... We march all night and until 2 o'clock the next day... We have had a hard march... My feet are all raw ... I am well but sore feet ... We had to [throw] all our baggage away and guns...We got no sleep for three nights."

The Battle of Monocacy Junction was over but the fallout was just beginning.

 

The Aftermath

General Early's window of opportunity to attack a lightly defended Washington DC was closing fast.  All day during the battle, veteran Union troops were arriving in the capital from Petersburg and marching through the streets to take up defensive positions.  The Union needed time to get ready.  Wallace bought them one day with 1,300 casualties.  Early would donate another.

Early's army, for the moment at least, had ceased to be an effective fighting force.  In addition to almost 1,000 battle casualties, both men and horses were dead on their feet from exhaustion, dehydration and heat.  In Early's estimation, they were in no shape to turn around and march 30 miles to Washington - so they didn't.  They spent July 10 in Frederick re-grouping.

A photo of Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration.

Lincoln's second inauguration on March 4, 1865.   By election day 1864, the Union situation had improved dramatically following a string of victories at Atlanta, Mobile and the Shenandoah Valley.  Proving that nothing succeeds like success, the North got behind the war effort again.  Lincoln cruised to re-election, winning 55% of the popular vote and 213 out of 233 electoral votes.  This picture from the Library of Congress is the only one known of Lincoln giving a speech. He is under the blue arrow.  Under the red arrow, clearly visible in the top gallery, is John Wilkes Booth.  He had a gun on him and planned to kill Lincoln if he got a clear shot.  He  didn't but stalked Lincoln relentlessly until April 14 at Ford's Theater.  Lincoln's second term lasted only 41 days.  He didn't live to see the end of the war.

Early resumed his march on July 11. By the end of the day they engaged Union troops at Fort Stevens, just south of Silver Spring, MD and inside the city limits of Washington. The field of battle in front of Fort Stevens later became the site of Walter Reed Hospital.

They skirmished and exchanged artillery fire for two days as Early probed for a weakness.  During that time, President Lincoln rode out to the fort to watch the action himself. Legend has it that his entourage was engaged by Confederate snipers and the President had to be forcibly dragged to a safer position. Another story goes that Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes yelled at Lincoln "Get down, you idiot."  Maybe, maybe not. Lincoln was definitely there, though, and Fort Stevens Park has a plaque to commemorate the occasion.  He became the second (and last) POTUS to be under enemy fire while in office.  The first was James Madison during the War of 1812 when the British burned Washington.

Jubal Early could see the dome of the capitol building when he broke off the attack and started back to the Shenandoah Valley.  Monocacy Junction was the Confederates' biggest win in the north and the closest they came to the Union capital.  It was a hollow victory though. If they had gotten to Fort Stevens on the 9th as planned, they would have found it defended by old men, young boys and wounded soldiers - not 13,000 battle hardened regulars. The outcome likely would have been very different and a very bad Union summer would have turned into a catastrophe.  Early didn't have enough combat power to capture Washington on his own but he could have caused enough damage to dramatically change the course of the war and our nation's history. It's hard to envision how Lincoln could have been re-elected following a successful rebel looting of Washington, DC.  He was already facing long odds. The country was tired of the war. Pictures such as Confederate cavalry on the White House lawn likely would have ended Lincoln's presidency. General Early later wrote in his journals "We didn't take Washington, but we scared the Hell out of Abe Lincoln".  Yes they had.

 

Exploring Monocacy Battlefield

A photo of the new Visitor Center at the Monocacy Battlefield.

The new Monocacy Battlefield Visitors Center. You can take in the whole battlefield park in 2-3 hours.  You could do once around the block with the auto tour in about half that.  It's easy to fit into a day trip or if you're just passing through.

Frederick, MD is not in itself a travel destination (sorry guys) but it is on the way to just about anywhere in the mid-Atlantic corridor.  The battlefield is fascinating.  It definitely qualifies as off the beaten path, which is interesting since it is so close to DC. This is a unique battle in that its strategic impact far exceeded the fighting that occurred here.  Battlefield addicts like me still analyze and argue about it today.  Yet most people have never heard of this historical gem in Washington's backyard.

The federal government authorized a national park in 1934 commemorating the Battle of Monocacy Junction, due in large part to the efforts of Judge Worthington. It was a park in name only until 1980, when land purchases and restoration began.

The park as it is now is a relatively recent development, opening to the public in 1991.   Before that, it was private land for 130 years.  Urban encroachment was inevitable, highlighted by Interstate 270 going right through the middle of the battlefield.  It was (and still is) on the top 10 list of endangered battlefield sites. The National Park Service and private conservancies have done a remarkable job of purchasing land and preserving the structure and heritage of the battle area.  The park size is 1,647 acres.  More acquisition is planned as budgets will allow. Last year, there were over 30,000 visitors and that number increases every year.

The park has a new visitor's center which is just north of the Best farm on Georgetown Pike (now officially Maryland 355; it is also called Urbana Pike).  From the second floor observation deck, you can see almost the whole battlefield.  There are walking loops (all under 1 mile), seasonal Ranger talks and a 6 mile self-guided auto tour.

The Baltimore Sun recently reported on another preservation hazard involving the battlefield.  In early 2011, the Frederick County Commissioners voted to build a huge plant that converts waste to energy just outside the boundary of the park along the Monocacy River. The primary site will be at the Worthington-McKinney Ford site directly down the hill from the Worthington farm house.  The plant will be 150 feet high and have a 270 foot smoke stack, overpowering the pristine views currently enjoyed there.  Despite vigorous objections, it appears to be a done deal.  Here's your link to the article.

 

A photo of the house at the Thomas Farm.

The stately farm house of the 260 acre Christian Thomas farm known as "Araby".  The red barn and out buildings are behind it.  The Georgetown Pike is several hundred yards to the right. Fighting swirled in and around the house as the family hid in the basement.  It changed hands four times in the afternoon fighting and was heavily damaged.  Both sides posted snipers in the dormers and both sides used artillery to take them out. The damage was repaired and soon it was a bustling farm house again and was for many decades.  General Grant stayed here in August 1864 and held a council of war.  At that meeting, he ordered General Sheridan to scorch the Shenandoah.  Although the Park Service now owns the home, it is subject to a life estate agreement and is not open to the public.

If you go in the summer, be prepared for brutal heat and humidity.

We took our bikes along, figuring we could do the auto tour on them.  We didn't.  The area is not bike friendly.  The local roads are narrow and the traffic is fast.  The park roads on the farms are unpaved.  There's almost no drinking water out in the park, either.  Better plan on driving. There are a number of walking loops at various stops on the driving tour.

Since this is a national park, there are no geocaches on the battlefield.  However, there are dozens of them in the surrounding area. The entire region is heavily developed, so plan on urban caching.

There is an interesting letterbox on the riverbank called  "Keeping a Watchful Eye on Ewe".   If you enjoy letterboxing or want to try it out, this is a good little stash.

Additionally, there are a number of benchmarks in the area.  Many of them are on bridges, which are not real accommodating of pedestrian traffic.  So be careful. 

A photo of the Worthington farm house as it appeared before restoration.

This is the Worthington farm house in 1982 when it was purchased by the Park Service. It had sat empty and untended for 50 years.  It was restored to its current state through the Park Service and private groups.  They have done a superb job of rescuing and restoring this important and fascinating American battlefield.

 

 

 

 

 

The GPS coordinates to the Visitor Center are: N39.377237 W77.394934

Here's a link to the National Park Service Monocacy Battlefield website.  Admission is free but donations are always appreciated.

 Enjoy your visit.

 

 

Whatever Happened to...?


General U.S. Grant

General Ulysses Grant rewarded General Wallace by relieving him of command for incompetence for the second time in the war.  Grant reflexively assumed that Wallace had lost Monocacy and endangered the capital.  Two weeks later, he reinstated Wallace when it became clear that he (Wallace) had probably prevented a Union disaster.  Grant was no brilliant tactician but as Lincoln once said of him, "He fights."  After Monocacy and Fort Stevens, Grant sent General Phil Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley to neutralize the ongoing threat to the capital.  In a two month scorched earth campaign, Sheridan broke, burned and killed everything in the valley, including Jubal Early's army. Grant saw the war through to the end.  He went on to become the 18th President of the United States in 1868.  He served two terms and ran unsuccessfully for a third.  He died of throat cancer in 1885 and is buried in Morningside Heights, Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River. The famous Grant's Tomb is a National Memorial maintained by the Park Service.




General Robert E. Lee.General Robert E. Lee may have been the ultimate victor at Monocacy.  Lee knew Grant and he knew that Grant wasn't going to remain in siege positions forever.  Grant was massing troops and getting ready to do something.  It's quite possible that Union forces would have moved on Richmond that summer and the war could have been over by election day.  The only way to stall that was to draw troops away from the siege.  Early's long range raid accomplished that and more.  He threatened the Union capital, imperiled their President, wrecked their main railroad and collected untold amounts of money, weapons and supplies.  Grant was forced to remain in siege mode for nine months. In this writer's humble opinion, the Early Raid lengthened the war by six months - which is exactly what the South wanted.  Their "bleed them until they quit" strategy almost worked. After the war, Lee became the President of Washington College (now called Washington and Lee) in Lexington, Virginia and put it on the path from a sleepy southern school to a major regional university.  He was still there when he died of a stroke in 1870 and is entombed at the college.




General Lew Wallace. History has not been kind to General Lew Wallace. Neither was Grant. A lawyer from Indiana by trade, Wallace was appointed a Brigadier General and given command of a brigade just in time for the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862.  He performed well there but then came Shiloh, where history remembers him as the commander of the "Lost Division". Relieved by Grant for incompetence, he languished in his backwater command in Baltimore until Monocacy Junction, after which he was relieved again by Grant. He resigned from the army in November 1865 and began a successful career in politics and writing.  While the Governor of New Mexico in 1885, he wrote Ben Hur.  It became the best selling American novel of the 19th century and has never been out of print.  Wallace was a competent officer and a better tactician than Grant. He was personally devastated by Grant's treatment of him and spent the rest of his life trying to restore his honor.  It is thought by some that Ben Hur, a story of forgiveness and redemption, was inspired by his own personal demons.  He died of natural causes in Crawfordsville, Indiana on February 15, 1905 and is buried in the town's Oak Hill Cemetery.

 




General Jubal Early

A native Virginian and West Point graduate, General Jubal Early fought in almost every major battle that the Army of Northern Virginia was in. He was one of Lee's most trusted and dependable commanders. Without a doubt, though, the highlight of his career in the Confederate Army was the long range raid to the outskirts of Washington DC. The strategic impact of that operation is still studied and debated today. The conventional wisdom that Monocacy Junction was a tactical victory but a strategic loss belies the fact that even after he retreated from Washington, he remained a threat to the city.  Grant had to dedicate considerable resources to contain and neutralize Early - resources that he would rather have had at Petersburg.  Early was thoroughly whipped by General Phil Sheridan in the Valley Campaign of 1864 but remained in the valley with a small surviving force. That force was wiped out by General George Armstrong Custer at Waynesboro in March of 1865. That was Early's last battle.  After the war, Early returned to the practice of law in Virginia. He was unrepentant to the end and an ardent supporter of the "Lost Cause."  After surviving Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg, The Wilderness and much more, Jubal Early was killed when he fell down a flight of steps on March 2, 1894.  He is buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Lynchburg, VA.

 




General James Ricketts

A native of New York City, General James Ricketts graduated from West Point in 1839.  An artillery officer, he saw considerable action in the Mexican War and the Third Seminole War. Ricketts spent much of the Civil War wounded, ill or incapacitated.  He was wounded four times and captured at First Manassas.  Held as a P.O.W. in Richmond, his wife joined him in prison to care for him. He was released six months later. At Antietam, he was seriously injured when his horse was killed and fell on him.  He didn't return to the field until the spring of 1864.  Now a Brigadier General, he commanded a division in the Overland Campaign before being dispatched to Monocacy Junction.  He and his troops performed heroically there. He led his division in Sheridan's Valley Campaign before being shot through the chest at Cedar Creek.  He retired after the war but never fully recovered from his injuries. He lived quietly in Washington DC until his death on September 22, 1887 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

 




General Dodson Ramseur

General Dodson Ramseur was a native of North Carolina and an 1860 graduate of West Point.  He joined the Confederate Army in early 1861.  At the Battle of Malvern Hill, he sustained severe wounds to his right arm, leaving it partially paralyzed, hence the pose in the picture. Ramseur was courageous to the point of recklessness.  During battles, he was usually at the front and usually on horseback no matter what.  He was wounded several times and had many horses killed under him. He  distinguished himself in several major campaigns and became the youngest General in the Confederate Army despite the fact that he missed many battles while recovering from wounds.  After Monocacy Junction, he stayed with Early's corps in the Shenandoah Valley and was in the thick of the fight against General Sheridan's scorched earth campaign. Ramseur was killed in action at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864 at the age of 27.  He is buried in St. Luke's Episcopal Cemetery in his hometown of Lincolnton, NC.

 




General Robert Rodes

General Robert Rodes was a native Virginian and 1848 graduate of VMI, where he studied civil engineering.  He went to work for the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad, rising to chief engineer.  When the war started, he joined the Confederate Army and was appointed a Colonel in command of an Alabama regiment.  Rodes saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war.  He defended "Bloody Lane" at Antietam and led Stonewall Jackson's devastating flank attack at Chancellorsville.  When Jackson was killed,  Rodes took over his corps but later relinquished it to a senior officer and went back to division command.  His failure to press the attack at the Jug Bridge cost the Confederates dearly. After Monocacy Junction, Rodes fought with Early in the fall Valley Campaign against Sheridan.  He was killed in action at the Third Battle of Winchester on September 19, 1864 and is buried in Presbyterian Cemetery, Lynchburg, VA.

 




General John Gordon

General John Gordon was a successful businessman and attorney in his native Georgia when the war started.  He joined the Confederate Army and was commissioned a Captain.  Within a year, he was a General.  Gordon was bold and audacious in battle and was mentioned in dispatches many times.  He was also the most wounded General in the CSA, requiring months of recuperation.  In between wounds, he defended "Bloody Lane" at Antietam and held the line at the "Bloody Angle" at Spotsylvania Courthouse.  He was at Appomattox Courthouse at the end.  After the war, Gordon became involved in politics.  He was elected  Governor of Georgia and served two terms as a U.S. Senator.  Deep down, though, he was an unrepentant rebel and a staunch opponent of Reconstruction.  In his later years,  he was a writer, public speaker and advocate for Confederate veterans.  He died of natural causes on January 9, 1904 and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, GA.  Over 75,000 people attended viewings, wakes and memorials in his honor.

 




General John McCausland

 General John McCausland was born in St. Louis. Orphaned very young he was raised by relatives in Point Pleasant VA (now WV).  An 1857 graduate of VMI, he subsequently served as a mathematics professor there.  One of his colleagues was Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.  McCausland was commissioned a Confederate Colonel in July 1861.  He spent his first two years in the western theater of the war but by 1864 was a General in the Army of Northern Virginia.  He commanded Jubal Early's cavalry brigade throughout the valley campaigns.  On July 30, 1864, on orders from General Early, McCausland's unit rode into Chambersburg, PA and demanded ransom.  When they didn't get it, they burned the town to the ground.  It was one of the most wanton and infamous acts of the war.  After the war, he left the country, fearing retribution as a war criminal for Chambersburg. He was pardoned by President Grant in 1868.  Upon his return, McCausland bought 6,000 acres in Point Pleasant and lived the life of a gentleman farmer for over 50 years.  He died on January 22, 1927 and was buried in Henderson, WV.  He was the last Confederate General to die. 

 




Lt. George Davis

Vermont native Lt. George Davis joined the 10th Vermont Infantry as a private in July 1862.  By January 1863, he was a Lieutenant.  The 10th Vermont saw limited action for its first two years and spent a lot of time guarding captured territory.  That changed in the Overland Campaign.  The regiment's first real battle was Cold Harbor, then Petersburg.  Lt. Davis and his men were detached to Monocacy Junction as that situation developed.  His defense of the rail junction was one of the great defensive stands of the war.  This is especially true in light of the fact that this was his first - and possibly only - independent command in a combat situation.  Not only that, he was up against Dodson Ramseur, one of the real tigers of the Confederate Army. Davis survived the battle and fought with his regiment in Sheridan's Valley Campaign that fall. He was promoted to Captain.  After the Valley Campaign, the 10th Vermont went back to Petersburg. While there, Davis' bunker collapsed.  He was seriously injured and discharged.  He went back to being a store clerk in his hometown of Dunstable, VT.  He didn't receive his Medal of Honor until May 27, 1892. He died in the Vermont Soldier's Home on January 28, 1926 and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery, Burlington, VT. 

If you are interested in more information about the Battle of Monocacy Junction or anything else about the Civil War, here are some excellent web sites.

Civil War Preservation Trust - maps, history, photos, multi-media, iPhone battle apps, the Civil War Discovery Trail

Civil War Landscapes - extensive information, many pictures and lots of detail

Civil War Cavalry -  information and analysis by a fellow battlefield addict

Civil War Album - great pictures and more links

I hope you enjoyed the page and welcome your feedback.

Semper Fi and Da svidanya ... Boris and Natasha