In of June 1864 the Union Army of the Potomac had pushed the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia back to the Richmond and Petersburg area after the extremely costly Overland Campaign. As the Federals prepared for siege operations, General Robert E. Lee decided to make a move to threaten the north and force Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to remove some his troops and ease some of the pressure on his army. Lee authorized Lt. Gen. Jubal Early to take his 15,000 man corps and head west to the Shenandoah Valley, then turn north and enter Maryland. From there he was to turn east and attack Washington DC.
Washington was surrounded by forts and artillery, but there were few troops to man the defenses. Grant had taken the heavy artillery regiments that normally manned the ramparts out of Washington and turned them into infantrymen to replace those lost during the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. This left the Capitol vulnerable to attack.
Early crossed the Potomac into Maryland on July 4th and turned to the east. Notified of the presence of the invaders, Major General Lew Wallace, the Federal commander in Baltimore, rapidly put together a defensive force of some 2,800 troops. With the depletion of the Washington defenses, Wallace had little to chose from; most of his men were from regiments composed of 100 days volunteers and home guard rear echelon units from Maryland and Ohio, although he did have five companies of veterans from the 8th Illinois Cavalry. Nonetheless, Wallace hurried to Monocacy Junction outside of Frederick, Maryland to guard the road and rail bridges that crossed the Monocacy River there.
Grant sent elements of the Sixth Corps to Washington from Petersburg to aid Wallace and reinforce the Washington defenses. Two brigades totaling about 3000 men reached Monocacy Junction early in the morning of July 9th. Wallace knew he couldn’t defeat Early’s much larger force, but he was determined to fight a delaying action and slow the Confederates down long enough for Washington to be reinforced.
The Confederates attacked about 8 a.m. on the 9th. Wallace had placed his limited number of men well. An attempt to attack the Union left with cavalry was stopped by union riflemen concealed in a fencerow between farm fields. Attacks and counterattacks were fought across the farmland. Union troops burned a wooden covered bridge to prevent its use by the enemy. Later in the afternoon, Early attacked with an entire division that finally forced Wallace to retreat. Wallace lost the battle, but his delaying tactics bought Washington a full day and the other Sixth Corps reinforcements arrived in time to garrison the forts. Early arrived at Washington late on July 11th and engaged the Federals at Fort Stevens, but withdrew on July 12th when he realized he could not capture the city. The very important but often times overlooked battle at Monocacy Junction has been justifiably called The Battle that Saved Washington.
Monocacy National Battlefield is located just to the southeast of Frederick. The Visitor Center, the best place to start a tour of the battlefield, is located at 5201 Urbana Pike, which is also busy Highway 355. The Visitor Center is open 8:30 to 5 p.m. year round; the park is open only during daylight hours, and there is no admission fee.
Much of the land within the battlefield park is agricultural land, as it was in 1864, and several historic buildings from that time are present today, giving the visitor a reasonably accurate view of the field as the soldiers saw it. Some of the historic buildings, such as the Worthington farmhouse located near where the fighting started, and the Gambrill Mill, a grist mill used as a field hospital by union soldiers, can be reached by road or gravel driveways.
Unlike some of the larger and more well known battlefields, there are only a few monuments on the battlefield at Monocacy. One of these is dedicated to the 14th New Jersey Infantry. This regiment was stationed at Monocacy Junction to protect the railroad bridge and wye. The wye, a track arrangement that allowed trains to turn around and travel in three different directions, was the completed in 1830 and was the first one in the U.S. It is still present and in use today. The 14th New Jersey was at Monocacy Junction from late 1862 to the beginning of June 1863. The regiment returned at the end of the month to guard the junction during the Gettysburg Campaign. The regiment returned as part of the Sixth Corps in July 1864 and fought in the battle, suffering 24 killed, 87 wounded, and 29 missing or captured for a total of 140 casualties. This was the second most casualties suffered by any Union regiment in the battle. The 9th New York Heavy Artillery, ironically one of those Heavy Artillery regiments that had been pulled out of the Washington defenses and made the Capitol an inviting target, had 201 total casualties, almost half of whom were missing.
The Monocacy Junction area had been visited by the armies earlier in the war. During the Antietam Campaign in September 1862, a copy of General Robert E. Lee’s Special Order No. 191 was found by Union soldiers on the Best Farm (near the modern day Visitor Center ). This order described the Confederate Army’s movements during the campaign. If this intelligence had been fully utilized by Union commander General George McClellan, the campaign could have ended with a decisive Union victory and the destruction of Lee’s army.
Frederick is also home to another Civil War related site that is well worth a visit. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine, located in the city at 48 East Patrick Street, has extensive exhibits dealing with all aspects of the treatment of the sick and wounded in the war.
For more information visit the National Park Service’s Monocacy National Battlefield Website.