In July of 1864, most of the 8th Illinois Cavalry was stationed in the Washington D.C. area and was involved in guard duty and patrols against Colonel John F. Mosby’s guerillas. This regiment of veteran cavalrymen had been involved in most of the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac since the spring of 1862, seeing action in several major battles and countless minor skirmishes. On July 4th, five companies of the 8th Illinois Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel David L. Clendenin were sent out from Washington with orders to find out who had cut the telegraph lines between the city and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, as well as the number and location of the enemy, presumed to be Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Corps. Early had been sent to the Shenandoah Valley to drive out Major General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah. Early defeated Hunter at the Battle of Lynchburg on June 17th to 18th, and Hunter retreated into West Virginia. Early then marched north into Maryland on a mission to threaten Washington and force the Federal command to send reinforcements north and relieve some of the pressure on the Confederates under siege at Petersburg, Virginia.
After skirmishing with Mosby’s Rangers on the 5th and 6th, the Illinois horsemen entered Frederick, Maryland on the evening of the 6th. At Frederick, Clendenin met with Major General Lew Wallace, who was organizing a defense against Early, who was approaching from the west. Wallace had his hands full trying to put together a fighting force from the few troops available to him, many of whom were inexperienced in battle and had short term enlistments. Reinforcements from the 6th Corps were on their way from Petersburg, but it was not certain when they’d arrive, and Wallace needed all the help he could get in the meantime. Wallace asked Clendenin to scout Early’s Confederates instead of proceeding to Harpers Ferry, and Clendenin agreed.
Early in the morning of July 7th, the 8th Illinois Cavalry along with two artillery pieces headed west in search of Confederates. They found them later that same morning at Middletown, Maryland, in the form of Brigadier General Bradley Johnson’s cavalry brigade, part of Major General John B. Gordon’s division. Though greatly outnumbered, the Federals held off the Confederates for several hours before retiring to Frederick.
The next day, Clendenin received additional cavalry, which was placed under his command. This included a group of 256 cavalrymen cobbled together from various regiments under the command of Major Levi Wells of the 1st New York Cavalry; a portion of the 159th Ohio Infantry that was operating as mounted infantry under the command of Captain Edward H. Leib of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, a mustering officer pressed into service in the field; and two companies of the Loudoun Rangers, an independent unit of Virginians who were loyal to the Union. The Federal cavalry, now joined by some 6th Corps infantry reinforcements, engaged the Confederates just to the west of Frederick. More of Early’s men began arriving in the Frederick area, and Union forces retreated east out of the town the night of the 8th and early morning of the 9th.
It was apparent that Early’s objective was Washington D.C. Wallace set up his defense with emphasis on guarding the bridges and fords of the Monocacy River. Even with reinforcements from the 6th Corps, the Union troops were still outnumbered but capable of slowing down Early’s advance. With reinforcements from the 6th and 19th Corps arriving in Washington, a delaying action would buy the city additional time to prepare a formidable defense.
As the Battle of Monocacy opened on July 9th, the 8th Illinois Cavalry was deployed on the Union left. Clendenin split up his troopers, sending some to burn bridges further down the Monocacy River while others contested Confederate forces crossing at a ford. The 8th was often cut off from Wallace’s main defensive lines, and individual companies were cut off from each other.
After holding out as long as he could, Wallace retreated toward Baltimore, with three companies of the 8th Illinois providing rear guard support. At the town of Urbana, Maryland, the 8th Illinois battled the pursuing 17th Virginia Cavalry, killing it’s commanding officer, Major Frederick F. Smith, and capturing the flag and flag bearer of Company F of that regiment. This portion of the 8th covered the retreat to Baltimore, while two other companies of the regiment that had been cut off from Wallace retreated to Washington. These two companies, plus the others from the 8th that had remained in Washington, were in action against Early’s Corps as it reached the northwest corner of the city at Fort Stevens.
Here’s Lt. Col. Clendenin’s Official Report on the 8th Illinois Cavalry’s action at the Battle of Monocacy and the events leading up to it:
HEADQUARTERS EIGHTH ILLINOIS CAVALRY,
Baltimore, Md., July 14, 1864.
SIR: I have the honor to report that I left Washington, D.C., July 4, at 7 p.m., with 230 officers and men of the Eighth Regiment Illinois Cavalry, and arrived at Point of Rocks at 2 p.m. July 5, where I found Mosby with two pieces of artillery and about 200 men posted on the south bank of the Potomac. Dismounting one-half of my command, I skirmished with him for an hour and a half, killing 1 of his men and wounding 2 others, when he retired down the river. He fired but six shots from his artillery. I lost no men. Hearing that he was crossing at Noland’s Ferry, I moved down and drove him back about 10 p.m., and went into camp for three hours.
I returned to Point of Rocks by sunrise the next morning, and sent one squadron to Berlin and Sandy Hook to protect the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. At 11.30 a.m. I received a telegram from General Howe to repair to Frederick and ascertain the force of the enemy reported in the vicinity of Boonsborough. Calling in my forces, I arrived at Frederick at 8 p.m., where I received orders to report in person to Major-General Wallace, at Monocacy Junction, and by him was ordered to take two pieces of Alexander’s battery and move forward by the way of Middletown and find the enemy.
I left Frederick City at 5.30 a.m. July 7, and met the enemy’s cavalry in equal force approaching from Middletown, and immediately engaged and drove them back, when they were heavily re-enforced and I retired slowly to Catoctin Mountain and placed the artillery in position from which it was able to shell the enemy’s skirmish line with effect. The enemy had used two guns of longer range and heavier metal than those of Alexander’s battery, but we had the advantage in position. After five hours’ skirmishing, the enemy being heavily re-enforced and flanking me, I was compelled to fall back on Frederick. For three hours I had been fighting at least 1,000 men and I could see additional re-enforcements moving up from Middletown, The enemy pressed me closely as I retired on Frederick, where I found an additional gun and ammunition. Placing the guns rapidly in position I cleared the road of cavalry and opened on the head of the approaching column, which fell back and deployed to our left bringing up artillery, which was posted south of the Hagerstown pike in a commanding position. At this time Colonel Gilpin with the Third Maryland Regiment, Potomac Home Brigade, came up, and being senior officer, took command of all the forces. I moved to our left and with my cavalry dismounted engaged the enemy, fighting continually until dark, repulsing them effectually. My loss this day was 1 officer, Lieutenant Gilbert, mortally wounded, 2 men killed, and 7 wounded; the enemy retired to Catoctin Mountain during the night.
The next morning I sent forward a portion of my regiment to find the enemy, and skirmished with them the greater part of the day, repulsing several charges and driving their skirmishers into the mountain. Captain Leib, Fifth U.S. Cavalry, with 96 mounted infantry; Major Wells, First New York Veteran Cavalry, with 256 cavalry of various regiments, and the Independent Loudoun Rangers were ordered to report to me that day, all of whom I had supporting the men of my own regiment, or on the flanks watching the movements of the enemy. The loss in the Eighth Illinois Cavalry was Capt. John V. Morris and 1 man killed, and 7 men wounded. The infantry having fallen back I called in my forces, covering the rear of the column.
Leaving Frederick City about 2 a.m. on the morning of the 9th of July, I arrived at Monocacy Junction, via Baltimore turnpike, about daylight. After two hours’ rest I deployed a squadron, Eighth Illinois Cavalry, on the Georgetown pike between the Junction and Frederick; sent Captain Leib with the mounted infantry to hold a ford above the bridge where the Baltimore pike crosses the Monocacy, and one company Eighth Illinois Cavalry down the Monocacy to move well round on the enemy’s right flank. The squadron on the Georgetown pike met the enemy’s skirmishers within a mile of the Junction and held them in check until compelled to retire before vastly superior numbers, which they did in good order. I moved with all the available force I had to our left, where I had been informed the enemy were making demonstrations with their cavalry. I had posted one company on the left of the infantry to cover a ford across the Monocacy and was down between the river and the road to Buckeystown, which was the line I designed taking up when the enemy charged across the river with a brigade of cavalry upon the company I had just posted. Lieutenant Corbit, in command of the company, drove the advance back and for a few minutes held his ground, then retired in good order to the Buckeystown road, which he held until the infantry came to his support. The enemy dismounted their cavalry and engaged the left of our infantry. During this time I was cut off from the main body of our forces, having three orderlies with me and directly in rear of the rebel cavalry. Two squadrons of my regiment were also cut off, but farther down the river. One squadron I directed to accomplish the work of destroying bridges and obstructions, crossing over the Monocacy and making circuit of the enemy’s right to join me on the Georgetown pike near Monocacy Junction. The other squadron I brought around the enemy’s flank and took a position on the left of the infantry. During this time I had scouts and patrols on the Georgetown pike as far as Urbana and fifty men of Major Wells’ command at the latter place patrolling toward Buckeystown. When the rebel infantry charged upon our left and our forces had fallen back, I retired toward Urbana, skirmishing with the enemy’s cavalry. They pressed me closely and made several charges. At Urbana the Seventeenth Virginia Cavalry charged me with desperation, but were repulsed with the loss of their colors, their major, color bearer, and several men killed and a number wounded. The force pursuing me was McCausland’s brigade. I had eighty men of my own regiment and thirty-five men of Stahel’s cavalry with which to oppose McCausland’s brigade. Stahel’s cavalry I could not bring into action, and ordered them to the rear to enable me to keep a clear road in my rear. Deploying my eighty men as skirmishers and making a show of having received re-enforcements, the enemy dismounted their advance regiment to fight me on foot, sending their horses to the rear and blocking up the road. I immediately called back my skirmishers over a hill and fell back to Monrovia, where I found trains loaded with wounded and stragglers moving off. Crossing to the Baltimore turnpike I covered the rear of our retreating forces until they arrived at Ellicott’s Mills. My loss this day was 1 man killed; Lieut. J. A. Kinley and 5 men wounded. Companies C and I, Eighth Illinois Cavalry, Captain Wells commanding, were entirely cut off and fell back on Washington. Captain Leib’s men behaved well and fell back in good order from our extreme right, forming part of the rear guard. The Loudoun Rangers are worthless as cavalry.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
D. R. CLENDENIN,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Comdg. Eighth Illinois Cavalry.
Lieut. Col. SAMUEL B. LAWRENCE,
Early’s March to Washington in 1864 by Jubal A. Early. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Vol. 4, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.
History of the Eighth Cavalry Regiment Illinois Volunteers by Abner Hard
Monocacy: The Battle That Saved Washington
by Benjamin Franklin Cooling
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XXXVII, Part 1.