Monocacy River: The battle that saved Washington

On July 8, 1864, Confederate troops under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early — about 15,000 in numbers — were marching through Frederick County, Maryland. A veteran of many Civil War battles, Early was known as one of General Robert E. Lee’s top officers.

Early’s contingent was looking to make a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., further to the south of the nation’s capital. He intended to capture the city. Early had formed his army near Richmond, Va, then routed it along the Shenandoah Valley and crossed the Potomac River, via Sharpsburg, to invade Maryland first.

On July 9, Early’s forces were temporarily delayed at three bridges that crossed the Monocacy River, and in other areas south of Frederick, by Union troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace. The Union general, meanwhile, had about 3,400 men with him — later increased to about 6,000/7,000 at the time of the clashes. Check out this site.

Although, the Confederates prevailed in this brief, but intense encounters, Wallace’s efforts were enough to delay the Confederates’ offensive thrust. After the bloody contest, the Union troops were forced to retreat towards Baltimore, leaving behind “1,300 of their men — dead, wounded, missing or captured,” according to the program notes at the “Monocacy Battlefield.”

Wallace’s strong defensive tactics allowed Lt. Gen. Ulysses.S. Grant, commander of the Union Army, enough time to send two divisions to reinforce the then very vulnerable Union garrisons at Washington. Early had lost “900 men wounded or killed” with his intense engagements with Wallace’s severely outnumbered forces. Wallace reported that from “every point of view there was heroism.”

Early and Grant’s troops battled on July 12th near Washington. Early couldn’t make any headway and eventually retreated back into Virginia. This marked the last Confederate invasion of the North.

The other two earlier Confederate attempts to invade the North, at Antietam and Gettysburg, had also failed, but with a heavy loss of life on both sides. In fact, on September 17, 1862, at Antietam, there were 22,000 casualties — the bloodiest single day in American history.

The story of the three-day historic Battle of Gettysburg can be found here.

The Monocacy National Battlefield program records: “Wallace’s troops had lost the battle but saved Washington.” The battlefield is located at 5201 Urbana Pike, Frederick, Maryland. It is part of the “Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area.” It is maintained by the National Park Service.

The day of my visit, Saturday, July 8, 2017, was the celebration of the “153rd Anniversary of the Battle of the Monocacy,” by the National Park Service. It provided an event-filled program for both the 8th and 9th of July, including infantry and artillery firings by volunteer reenactors, along with “battlefield orientation talks.”

So many of the Civil War sites are within driving distance of each other. After my visit to the Monocacy National Battlefield, I took a short thirty minute ride west to Harper’s Ferry, WV. I’ll leave that story for another day.

More of my photos can be found on my Facebook Page.