You can visit the Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick just about any day of the year, where some of the most beautiful farmland in Maryland remembers the day these same fields were covered with the wounded and dying from the North and the South. But I think it likely that most Southerners have never even heard of the Battle of Monocacy. The battle itself was a Confederate victory—the northernmost victory at that—but its actual result may have been the loss of a potentially greater victory that might have changed the course of the Civil War and its outcome.
The time was early July 1864, almost a year to the day after the watershed Battle of Gettysburg that occurred only a few miles to the north across the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line. Confederate General Jubal Early had one mission: take a fighting force of well over ten thousand men (some historians believe the numbers to be much higher), cross the Potomac, raid Maryland, do some damage, and threaten the Union capital of Washington itself. The hope was not only to distract the North from their focus on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, but to help “motivate” a United States already tired of war to reject Lincoln in the upcoming election in favor of new leadership more disposed to a settlement of peace. Such was the strategy and the outcome hoped for.
July 4 Early slipped into Maryland almost entirely unnoticed—emphasis on almost. Union General Ulysses S. Grant, dug in at Petersburg, Virginia, disbelieved reports of a “massive invasion” and ignored them; authorities in Washington followed suit. But there were others with other interests who showed a bit more concern—not the President of the United States but a president nonetheless—President John Garrett of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Garrett also had received reports: telegraph operators at various points along the railroad were communicating “acts of pillory and plunder” in western Maryland, and something had better be done to protect the interests of the railroad. Dollar signs were enough to motivate this president to action. He immediately called upon the powers that be to send the Union commander at Baltimore, Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace—of later Ben Hur fame—to investigate the matter up to the boundary of his jurisdiction: the Monocacy River and the vital railroad bridge that crossed it at Frederick.
Meanwhile, Early and his force crossed the Catoctin Mountains and marched steadily toward Frederick, collecting “tribute” from various towns along the way, as well as livestock and produce enough to feed an army. Wallace quickly got the information he needed—the Confederate invasion was on Frederick’s doorstep—but there was no time to send for further orders regarding engaging the enemy. Wallace, who had been blamed and censured for not showing up on time at Shiloh two years earlier, decided to act without authorization, gathered as many troops as he could from the surrounding area (additionally a division of the Sixth Army Corps had been sent following him “just in case”), and with a defensive force of about 6,000 men, prepared to make a stand at the Monocacy.
Frederick, Baltimore, and Washington are the three points of an inverted triangle, Frederick the westernmost, Baltimore thirty miles to its east, Washington the southern apex. The question before Wallace was whether the invading Confederate force meant to make an attack on Baltimore or march south towards Washington. He decided to cover all his bases and posted men at each of three bridges, guarding the roads to both cities.
The truth is, Early had received new orders from General Robert E. Lee the night before, ordering him to send a division of cavalry toward Baltimore, wreaking as much havoc along the way as they might, and then on down to a major POW camp at the mouth of the Potomac (100 miles away) to help free thousands of Confederate prisoners who could then return to Washington, joining Early’s main force in an attack on that city. That was the plan anyway.
When he reached Frederick the morning of July 9, Early enjoyed the generous hospitality of the local supporters of the South’s cause and simultaneously demanded a king’s ransom from the city before he would leave them alone. They paid up—an unbelievable $200,000—and Early prepared to depart. His plan was to send Frederick native Bradley Johnson to lead the adventure to help free the prisoners, additional cavalry along the Baltimore Turnpike, and his main force, under the command of future Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, down the road to Washington. Everybody had to cross the Monocacy River.
Needless to say, it was at this point that they ran into Wallace. At first Early thought it was only a handful of local militia, come out to “protect the home front.” He sent some of his cavalry round to find a ford across the river that might enable them to outflank the “minor” problem. When the three to four hundred horsemen came back bloodied from some of the most intense musket-fire they had ever seen, Early decided this was more than local militia—they instead were opposed by a large veteran fighting force that meant business.
Early, through Breckinridge, poured it on. The fight for the bridges lasted all afternoon until the stronger Confederate numbers and artillery won the day. Victory had its price, though. Early lost nearly a thousand men in this unexpected battle (Wallace a devastating 1,300) in what was, according to its participants, as fierce and bloody a fight as an Antietam or Gettysburg. But, what was potentially worse, the Confederate general had lost a day in his march to Washington.
Since neither Grant nor Washington had taken the reports of the invasion seriously at first, Washington lay relatively unprepared and unprotected for a major confrontation since most of the Union army was with Grant at the siege of Petersburg. The thought, of course, is that if Early had been able to descend on Washington before Grant was able to send the necessary troops to defend her, the Union capital might have fallen into its enemies’ hands and the war possibly brought to a different conclusion entirely.
Early did indeed descend on Washington, but the day lost to the Battle of Monocacy had given the awakened Union leadership ample time to send the necessary reinforcements pouring into the nation’s capital. By the time Early’s battered and bedraggled troops were finally recovered enough to give battle two days later, Washington was fully prepared and waiting. One Union soldier quipped, “Early was late.”
Apparently that’s the conclusion to which the audacious Confederate general came as well. Commenting that they hadn’t “taken Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell,” Early decided to retreat back across the Potomoc, ending the third and final Confederate invasion of the North before war’s end the following year.
After you visit Frederick and the Monocacy Battlefield, you can drive down and cross the Potomoc yourself at nearly the same spot as the Confederate retreat, at White’s Ferry, on a barge appropriately dubbed the “Jubal Early.”