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American Civil War: Battle of Monocacy

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American Civil War: Battle of Monocacy

Major General Lew Wallace

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Monocacy - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Monocacy was fought July 9, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

  • Major General Lew Wallace
  • 5,800 men

    Confederate

  • Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early
  • 14,000 men

  • Battle of Monocacy - Background:

    In May 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant commenced his Overland Campaign with the goal of destroying General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and advancing on Richmond. The month saw heavy and bloody fighting at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor as Grant pushed the Confederates south. In June, the two sides became engaged in the Siege of Petersburg as Grant attempted to cut off Richmond from the south. In an attempt to relieve pressure on the beleaguered city and to draw off some of Grant's troops, Lee detached Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early's Second Corps and directed it to operate against Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley. It was Lee's hope that Early could deal with Major General David Hunter's command which was disrupting key railroads in the area as well as move north to threaten Washington, DC.

    Battle of Monocacy - Early Moves North:

    Reaching the valley, Early joined with Confederate forces there and halted Hunter's offensive at Lynchburg on June 17-18. In the wake of the fighting, Hunter retreated into West Virginia leaving the path north open for Early. Quickly advancing, he bypassed the Union garrison at Harper's Ferry and began crossing into Maryland in early July. Reports of the Confederate movements began to reach Grant and leaders in Washington but were largely dismissed as it was believed the enemy force was cavalry or partisans. As Early began moving east, President John Garrett of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad began to suspect that a larger Confederate force was nearing based on reports from along his line. Lobbying Major General Lew Wallace, commander of the Middle Atlantic Department, Garrett sought a Union response. Though short on troops, Wallace began concentrating his forces along the Monocacy River to block the roads and railroad east.

    A veteran of the Battle of Shiloh, Wallace had been scape-goated for the high Union losses on the first day of fighting as vague orders had led to a delay in bringing his men forward. As a result, he had spent much of the previous two years in backwater commands. As the threat posed by Early began to clarify, Grant started dispatching troops from the veteran VI Corps north on July 6. The lead elements of these forces were overseen by Brigadier General James Ricketts. After skirmishing with Union cavalry on July 7 and 8, Early occupied Frederick, MD and demanded $200,000 in ransom from the city's leadership. While the Confederates delayed over collecting this money, Wallace's command increased to around 5,800 men with the arrival of two brigades under Ricketts. Though still badly outnumbered, the troops along the Monocacy represented the largest Union force between Early and the thinly-manned defenses of Washington.

    Battle of Monocacy - Wallace Prepares:

    To block Early's path and protect Baltimore and Washington, Wallace split his command to cover the likely crossings over the Monocacy. While a small force defended the Jug Bridge on the turnpike to Baltimore in the north, he formed the bulk of his men to the south to protect the B&O Railroad bridge and the covered bridge that carried the Georgetown Pike. On the west bank of the river, Wallace placed elements of the 10th Vermont Infantry and 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade to cover the bridge approaches. This position was supported by two blockhouses and Union artillery across the Monocacy. To the south of the bridges, Ricketts' two brigades were formed with Colonel Matthew McClennan's men on the right and Colonel William Truex's on the left. McClennan's right was anchored on the river while the Union line extended southeast (Map).

    Battle of Monocacy - Early Advances:

    Advancing from Frederick on July 9, Early directed Major General Robert Rodes' division to demonstrate against the Union forces at Jug Bridge while the remainder, led by Major General John Breckinridge, pushed southeast towards Wallace's position at Monocacy Junction. Advancing against the bridges, Major General Stephen D. Ramseur's division became engaged in a protracted firefight with the Union defenders. Arriving on the scene, Early directed Brigadier General John McCausland's cavalry to move south, cross the river at Worthington-McKinney Ford, then attack the left flank of the bridge defenders. Crossing the ford, McCausland's men pushed back a Union cavalry screen and advanced north. Failing to notice Ricketts' men, which had assumed a position behind a fence on the Thomas Farm, the Confederate cavalrymen closed to approximately 125 yards before the Union line opened fire. Taking heavy losses, McCausland's men fell back after two attacks failed.

    Battle of Monocacy - Wallace Overwhelmed:

    As Ricketts' men were repulsing the Confederate cavalry, Ramseur increased pressure on the bridges. Concerned, Wallace ordered the covered bridge burned. Angered by McCausland's failure and realizing that a more sizable Union force was across the river, Early directed Major General John B. Gordon's division to cross and dislodge Ricketts. In position around 3:30 PM, Gordon sent Brigadier General Clement Evans' brigade forward. Striking Truex's line, Evans' Georgians failed to breakthrough. When Evans fell wounded the attack began to falter. As Evans' efforts slowed, Gordon committed Brigadier General Zebulon York's brigade which attacked the Union center and left.

    Under the combined pressure of the two Confederate brigades, Ricketts began falling back to the Georgetown Pike. Reforming his line, his troops used the road embankment as a makeshift breastwork. Able to hold this position, the Union troops stopped the Confederate advance. Seeking to break the deadlock, Gordon ordered Brigadier General William Terry's brigade against the Union right. They succeeded in pushing back McClennan's men a short distance before being halted. With the fighting raging, Terry detached part of his brigade and ordered it to move along the river to enfilade McClennan's brigade. Already weakened by Confederate artillery fire from across the river, the Union right began to disintegrate as Terry's men opened fire. With the situation collapsing and his men low on ammunition, Wallace ordered his men to retreat north then east towards Baltimore.

    Battle of Monocacy - Aftermath:

    In the fighting at the Battle of Monocacy, Wallace's command suffered 1,294 casualties while Early incurred between 700 and 900. Delayed by a day due to the fighting, the Confederates spent the night on the battlefield. Pushing on, Early approached the outskirts of Washington on July 11, the same day that the bulk of Major General Horatio Wright's VI Corps arrived from Petersburg. Thus, Wallace's delaying action at Monocacy had purchased valuable time for the Washington defenses to be reinforced. Had Early reached the capital a day earlier, he may have been able to overwhelm the defenders and break into the city. Such a victory most likely would have cost President Abraham Lincoln the election that fall. Though Early probed the capital's defenses near Fort Stevens on July 11 and 12, he lacked the forces to mount a major attack and instead began withdrawing back towards the Shenandoah Valley. Early would continue to operate in the valley until that fall when his command was crushed at Cedar Creek by Union forces under Major General Philip Sheridan.

    Learning of Wallace's defeat, but lacking further information, Grant relieved him of his command in the days after the battle. As reports of the action and its significance reached Petersburg, Grant promptly reinstated Wallace and later commented in his memoirs that, "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." Wallace would achieve fame after the war for authoring the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

    Selected Sources

  • NPS: Monocacy National Battlefield
  • Civil War Trust: Battle of Monocacy
  • CWSAC Battle Summaries: Battle of Monocacy

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