Prelude to the Battle
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions. Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three Federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Battle of Lynchburg
As Grant pressed Robert E. Lee in eastern Virginia during the spring and summer, Lee devised a plan to divert Union forces away from his army. Lee designated Lieutenant General Jubal Early and his corps as the Army of the Valley and, in June, ordered Early to leave Petersburg, Virginia and to re-deploy his army to the Shenandoah Valley. On June 17 and 18, Early’s army defeated Union forces under the command of Major General David Hunter at the Battle of Lynchburg, leaving control of the valley in Confederate hands.
Early’s Valley Campaign
After driving Federal forces out of the Shenandoah Valley, Early launched his own offensive. His operations got off to a good start as he marched his 14,000-man army north through the valley unimpeded. Federal leaders were unclear about the size of Early’s army and about his intentions.
Grant Sends Reinforcements
On July 2, John Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, warned Union officials in Washington about a large Rebel army headed toward Maryland. Major General Lew Wallace, commander of the Middle Department (which included Maryland west to the Monocacy River), marched west with approximately 2,500 soldiers to investigate. Most of Wallace’s troops were inexperienced soldiers of the Potomac Home Brigade and the Ohio National Guard. Wallace quickly determined that Early commanded a substantial army, and he telegraphed Grant requesting reinforcements. Grant immediately dispatched a 5,000-man division commanded by Brigadier General James B. Ricketts to Maryland to bolster Wallace’s forces. A few days later, Grant sent an additional corps commanded by Major General Horatio G. Wright.
Wallace Deploys Along the Monocacy River
Unsure if Early’s destination was Baltimore or Washington, Wallace deployed his troops along a three-mile stretch of the Monocacy River near Monocacy Junction on July 5. The Georgetown Pike to Washington, the National Road to Baltimore, and the B&O Railroad all crossed the river in that vicinity. Wallace reasoned that, by defending the three bridges, that he could stall the Rebel advance until reinforcements arrived, regardless of Early’s ambitions.
Early Moves into Maryland
On July 5 and 6, Early moved his Army of the Valley across the Potomac River into Maryland at Shepherdstown. Heavy skirmishing took place on July 7 and 8, as Early advanced toward Frederick. On July 8, Ricketts’ division arrived at Monocacy Junction, enlarging Wallace’s force to approximately 5,800 soldiers. Wallace deployed Ricketts’ men on the left end of his line, where he expected a Confederate flanking movement.
Battle of Monocacy Begins
At sunrise on the morning of July 9, the Battle of Monocacy began, when a Rebel division encountered Federal skirmishers as they advanced along the Georgetown Pike toward the bridge over the Monocacy River. On the Union right, another Confederate division clashed with Federals on the National Road. Recognizing the strength of Wallace’s defenses around the bridges, Early sought a place to ford the river and to attack the Union left flank, as Wallace had expected.
Federals Repel First Rebel Assault
The Rebels found a ford approximately one mile to the south, and by 11 a.m., they had crossed the river. The Confederates expected to face inexperienced soldiers. Instead, Ricketts’ veteran division withstood three assaults and inflicted heavy casualties on the Rebels.
Federals Repel Second Rebel Assault
At around 2:30 p.m., the Confederates, reinforced by three brigades from Major General John B. Gordon’s division, launched another assault on Ricketts’ division. Once more, the Federals held.
Third Rebel Assault Breaches Union Line
Finally, at 3:30, Gordon ordered another attack that broke the Union left. With Gordon on his left and his troops running low on ammunition, Wallace ordered a general retreat between 4:30 and 5 o’clock.
Aftermath of the Battle
Grant Relieves Wallace and Then Reinstates Him
Wallace reached Baltimore on July 11 to learn that Grant had relieved him of his command for retreating. To Grant’s credit, however, he realized his mistake and re-instated Wallace two weeks later.
Tactical Rebel Victory
The Battle of Monocacy was a tactical victory for Early because he forced Wallace’s soldiers from the field. The victory was costly, however. Gordon lost one-third of his division during the attacks on Ricketts’ division, and somewhere between 700 and 900 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured in the battle. The Federals suffered 1,294 casualties, a high total, given the number of Union soldiers in the conflict.
Strategic Federal Victory
Despite suffering heavier losses and being forced to retreat, however, Wallace enjoyed a strategic victory. His makeshift force stalled Early’s advance on the nation’s capital for one vital day, buying time for Grant’s reinforcements to arrive and to prevent the Rebels from occupying Washington.
There is little doubt that Early intended to assault the nation’s capital. In a dispatch to Robert E. Lee, dated June 28, Early stated that he was proceeding “to threaten Washington and if I find the opportunity – to take it.” On July 7, after capturing Frederick, Early informed Lee that “I move on Washington.” A successful assault on Washington might have been catastrophic for President Lincoln’s re-election bid in November and the Union war effort. Coupled with Grant’s mounting casualty totals in eastern Virginia, Southerners had good reason to hope that the Northern electorate might opt for a peace candidate and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy to end the war.
Battle that Saved Washington
When Early entered the District of Columbia on July 11, he discovered that Grant had reinforced the Union garrison at Fort Stevens. After a few skirmishes and artillery barrages that day and the next, Early realized that the Federal defenders had dashed his hopes to capture Washington, and he retreated into the Shenandoah Valley. In his memoirs, Grant acknowledged that:
If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent. … 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.
Because Wallace’s small force held back the Confederate advance for one crucial day, the Battle of Monocacy became known as the “Battle that Saved Washington.”