In early July, 1864, Major General Lew Wallace, commander of the Federal Middle Department with his headquarters in Baltimore, faced a difficult situation. A Confederate army of 15,000 men under General Jubal Early had moved north out of Virginia and was marching east across Maryland. Early would soon be threatening Washington D.C. The Union Capitol had extensive defensive fortifications, but few soldiers to man them as many of the troops had been sent to Virginia as reinforcements in the Overland Campaign. Wallace had to figure out a way to delay Early and buy time for Washington to organize a defense based on the available manpower in the area.
Wallace would have to piece together a defensive force consisting of some regiments of 100 days men (100 day enlistments), some artillery and cavalry, including the veteran 8th Illinois Cavalry, as well as one division of the Union 6th Corps commanded by General James B. Ricketts that had been hastily sent north from the battlefields in Virginia to lend a hand. Even with the reinforcements from the 6th Corps, Wallace only had about 5800 soldiers available to him.
With Early closing in from the west, Wallace set up his defensive line on the east bank of the Monocacy River, a little east of Frederick, Maryland. The Union force would contest any
attempts by Early’s confederates to cross the river on the bridges and fords in the area. On the morning of July 9th, the battle opened with a cavalry clash on the Union left flank. It would take nearly the entire day and multiple Confederate assaults before the Federals were forced to retreat eastward. But Wallace had delayed Early’s advance a full day, giving the Federals enough time to put together a defense and for the rest of the 6th Corps to arrive from Virginia. Though Early would test the Union defenses at Washington, he ultimately retreated back into Virginia on July 14th.
Wallace filed this detailed report on the Battle of Monoacy:
HDQRS. MIDDLE DEPARTMENT, EIGHTH ARMY CORPS,
Baltimore, August –, 1864.
COLONEL: I beg leave to furnish the War Department with the following report in full of the operations of my command in the vicinity of Frederick City, Md., which resulted in the battle of Monocacy, fought 9th July last. The informal report telegraphed Major-General Halleck from Ellicott’s Mills, during the retreat, is appended hereto, and will serve to make the record complete:
The situation in the Department of West Virginia, about the beginning of July, was very uncertain. Major-General Hunter had retreated westwardly from Lynchburg, leaving open the Shenandoah Valley, up which a column of rebels of unknown strength had marched and thrown General Sigel back from Martinsburg to Williamsport, thence down the left bank of the Potomac to Maryland Heights, where, with his command, he was supposed to be besieged.
The strength of the invading column, by whom it was commanded, what its objects were, the means provided to rebel it, everything in fact connected with it, were, on my part, purely conjectural. All that I was certain of was that my own department was seriously threatened.
July 5, information was brought to my headquarters in Baltimore that a column of rebel cavalry, the same that had been raiding in the border counties of Pennsylvania, was in the Middletown Valley, moving eastwardly. Taking this report as true, the enemy had turned his back upon the department of Major-General Couch, and reduced his probable objectives to Washington, Baltimore, or Maryland Heights. In this situation I felt it my duty to concentrate that portion of my scanty command available for field operations at some point on the Monocacy River, the western limit of the Middle Department. With an enemy north of the Potomac, and approaching from the west, having in view any or all the objectives mentioned, the importance of the position on which I ultimately gave battle cannot be overestimated. There, within the space of two miles, converge the pikes to Washington and Baltimore, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad; there also is the iron bridge over the Monocacy, upon which depends railroad communication to Harper’s Ferry. Moreover, as a defensive position for an army seeking to cover the cities above named against a force marching from the direction I was threatened, the point is very strong; the river covers its entire front. In a low stage of water the fords are few, and particularly difficult for artillery, and the commanding heights are all on the eastern bank, while the ground on the opposite side is level and almost without obstructions. At all events, I was confident of ability to repel any ordinary column of cavalry that might be bold enough to attack me there, and if the position should be turned on the right, I was not necessarily disabled from defending Baltimore. In that contingency I had only to take care of the railroad and use it at the right time. Accordingly, I went out and joined General Tyler at the railroad bridge. The information received in Baltimore was confirmed. Rebel cavalry had seized Middletown. Their scouting parties had even advanced to within three miles of Frederick City. By the evening of the 6th all my available troops were concentrated under General Tyler, making a force of scant 2,500 men of all arms, and composed as follows: Third Regiment Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, Col. Charles Gilpin; Eleventh Maryland Infantry, Colonel Landstreet; seven companies of the One hundred and forty-ninth and three companies of the One hundred and forty-fourth Ohio National Guard, consolidated temporarily, under Col. A. L. Brown; Captain Alexander’s (Maryland) battery and 100 men of the One hundred and fifty-ninth Ohio National Guards, serving as mounted infantry, and commanded by Capt. E. H. Leib, Fifth U.S. Cavalry, and Capt. H. S. Allen In addition, I had the services of Lieutenant-Colonel Clendenin’s squadron of cavalry, 250 men, and four companies: :he First Regiment Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, about 200 strong, under Captain Brown. Of this force, it is proper to add, the Eleventh Maryland and all the Ohio troops were 100-days’ men.
In the night of the 6th Colonel Clendenin received my orders to take the pike to Middletown and follow it until he found the enemy, and ascertained the strength and composition of his column. Leaving Frederick City at
daybreak next morning (the 7th), with his cavalry, and a section of Alexander’s battery he drove in a rebel outpost stationed in the mountain pass, and gained Middletown, where he was stopped by a body of cavalry largely superior to his own, commanded by General Bradley T. Johnson. After a smart skirmish, in which both sides used artillery, Clendenin was forced back by movements on his flanks. About 10 o’clock he reported the rebels, 1,000 strong, pushing him slowly to Frederick City, which they would reach in two hours, unless I intended its defense. Though out of my department, it had become my duty to save the town, if possible, and as it was but three miles distant, I thought that could be done without jeopardizing the position at the railroad bridge. By direction, therefore, General Tyler sent Colonel Gilpin with his regiment and another gun to support Clendenin and engage the enemy. The company of mounted infantry also went forward. In this movement the railroad was very useful. Colonel Gilpin reached the town in good time, and deployed his command in skirmish order across the Hagerstown pike, half a mile west of the suburbs. Clendenin fell back and joined him. About 4 p.m. the enemy opened the fight with three pieces of artillery. The lines engaged shortly after. At 6 o’clock Captain Alexander personally in charge of his pieces, dismounted one of Johnson’s guns. A little before dark Gilpin charged and drove the rebels, who, under cover of night, finally withdrew to the mountain. You will find the locality of this action indicated on the map herewith forwarded.
The forces opposed, it is worthy remark, were about equal in number, yet Johnson had the advantage: his men were veterans, while Gilpin’s, with the exception of Clendenin’s squadron, had not before been under fire, a circumstance much enhancing the credit gained, by them.
Relying upon intelligence received the evening the above affair took place that a division of veterans of the Sixth Corps was coming by rail to my re-enforcement, about midnight General Tyler was sent to Frederick City with Colonel Brown’s command to prepare for what might occur in the morning. About daybreak a portion of the First Brigade of the veterans arrived under Colonel Henry, which was also sent to Frederick. The reports of the enemy continued conflicting as before; some stated that Johnson’s cavalry, already whipped by Colonel Gilpin, were all the rebels north of the Potomac; others that McCausland, with a like column, was marching to join Johnson; others, again, represented Early and Breckin-ridge behind the Catoctin Mountain, with 30,000 men, moving upon Frederick City. In short, the most reliable intelligence was of a character that reduced the defense of that town to a secondary consideration. If the enemy’s force was correctly reported, his designs were upon Washington or Baltimore. In the hope of evolving something definite out of the confusion of news, I went in person to Frederick City, leaving my inspector-general, Lieutenant-Colonel Catlin, at the railroad bridge, to stop such of the veteran regiments as arrived there. The Eleventh Maryland remained with him. My purpose was to conduct a reconnaissance over the mountain, to brush aside, if possible, the curtain that seemed to overhang it. In the midst of preparation for this movement, a telegram from Major-General Sigel reached me, stating that the enemy had that morning retired from before Maryland Heights, and was marching with his main body up the Middletown Valley toward Boonsborough. The question then was, Were the rebels marching for Pennsylvania or coming eastward by the Jefferson or Middletown pikes? I concluded to await events in Frederick City, satisfied they would not be long delayed.
As Johnson still held the mountain pass to Middletown, the day 8th) was spent in trying to draw him into the valley with such re-enforcement as he might have received. A feigned retreat from the town was but partially successful; he came down, but, under fire of Alexander’s guns, galloped back again. About 6 o’clock in the afternoon Colonel Catlin telegraphed me that a heavy force of rebel infantry was moving toward Urbana by the Buckeystown road. This threatened my lines of retreat and the position at Monocacy bridge. What was more serious, it seemed to disclose a purpose to obtain the pike to Washington, important to the enemy for several causes, but especially so if his designs embraced that city, then in no condition, as I understood it, to resist an army like that attributed to Early by General Sigel. I claim no credit for understanding my duty in such a situation; it was self-apparent. There was no force that could be thrown in time between the capital and the rebels but mine, which was probably too small to defeat them, but certainly strong enough to gain time and compel them to expose their strength. If they were weak, by going back to the bridge I could keep open the communication with General Sigel; on the other hand, if they were ever so strong it was not possible to drive me from that position, except by turning one of my flanks; if my right, retreat was open by the Washington pike; if my left, the retirement could be by the pike to Baltimore. I made up my mind to fight, and accordingly telegraphed General Halleck:
I shall withdraw immediately from Frederick City, and put myself in position to cover road to Washington, if necessary.
This was done by marching in the night to the railroad bridge, where Brigadier-General Ricketts was in waiting. I had then the following regiments of his division:
First Brigade, Col. W. S. Truex commanding, 1,750 strong–One hundred and sixth New York. Captain Paine commanding; One hundred and fifty-first New York, Colonel Emerson; Fourteenth New Jersey, Lieutenant-Colonel Hall: Tenth Vermont, Colonel Henry; Eighty-seventh Pennsylvania, Lieutenant-Colonel Stahle.
Second Brigade, 1,600 men, Colonel McClennan commanding–One hundred and thirty-eighth Pennsylvania ;Ninth New York, Colonel Seward; One hundred and twenty-sixth Ohio, Lieutenant-Colonel Ebright; One hundred and tenth Ohio, Lieutenant-Colonel Binkley.
The residue of the division, it was reported, would be up next day. Early in the morning of the 9th disposition for battle was made. The right, forming an extended line from the railroad, was given General Tyler, who, by direction, had left Colonel Brown at the stone bridge on the Baltimore pike with his command, and the company of mounted infantry. Upon the holding of that bridge depended the security of my right flank, and the line of retreat to Baltimore. Three companies of Colonel Gilpin’s regiment were posted to defend Crum’s Ford–midway the stone bridge and railroad. Landstreet and Gilpin were held in reserve at the railroad. The battery was divided–Ricketts and Tyler each received three guns. On the left, as it was likely to be the main point of attack, I directed General Ricketts to form his command in two lines across the Washington pike, so as to hold the rising ground south of it and the wooden bridge across the river. Still farther to the left, Colonel Clendenin took post to watch that flank and guard the lower fords with such detachments as he could spare. On the western bank of the river, Captain Brown’s detachment of the First Regiment Potomac Home Brigade was deployed as skirmishers, in a line three quarters of a mile to the front. A 24-pounder howitzer was left in a rude earthwork near the block-house by the railroad, where it could be used to defend the two bridges and cover the retirement and crossing of the skirmishers. While this disposition was going on, the railroad agent informed me that two more troop trains were on the road, and would arrive by 1 o’clock. These were the residue of General Ricketts’ division, three regiments making a very important re-enforcement. About 8 a.m. the enemy marched by the pike from Frederick, and threw out skirmishers, behind whom he put his guns in position, and began the engagement. His columns followed a little after 9 o’clock. Passing through the fields, just out of range of my pieces, without attempting to drive in my skirmishers, they moved rapidly around to the left, and forced a passage of the river at a ford about one mile below Ricketts. From 9 o’clock to 10.30 the action was little more than a warm skirmish and experimental cannonading, in which, however, the enemy’s superiority in the number and caIiber of his guns was fully shown. Against my six 3-inch rifles, he opposed not less than sixteen Napoleons. In this time, also, the fighting at the stone bridge assumed serious proportions; Colonel Brown held his position with great difficulty. About 10.30 o’clock the enemy’s first line of battle made its appearance, and moved against Ricketts, who, mean time, had changed front to the left, so that his right rested upon the river-bank. This change unavoidably subjected his regiments to an unintermitted enfilading fire from the batteries across the stream. So great was the rebel front, also, that I was compelled to order the whole division into one line, thus leaving it without reserves. Still the enemy’s front was greatest. Two more guns were sent to Ricketts. Finally, by burning the wooden bridge and the block-house at its further end, thus releasing the force left to defend them, I put into the engagement every available man except Tyler’s reserves, which, from the messages arriving, I expected momentarily to have to dispatch to Colonel Brown’s assistance. The enemy’s first line was badly defeated. His second line then advanced, and was repulsed, but after a fierce and continuous struggle. In the time thus occupied I could probably have retired without much trouble, as the rebels were badly punished. The main objects of the battle, however, were unaccomplished, the rebel strength was not yet developed. At 1 o’clock the three re-enforcing regiments of veterans would be on the ground, and then the splendid behavior of Ricketts and his men inspired me with confidence. One o’clock came, but not the re-enforcements; and it was impossible to get an order to them. My telegraph operator, and the railroad agent, with both his trains, had run away. An hour and a half later I saw the third line of rebels move out of the woods and down the hill, behind which they made their formation; right after it came the fourth. It was time to get away. Accordingly, I ordered General Ricketts to make preparations and retire to the Baltimore pike. About 4 o’clock he began the execution of the order. The stone bridge held by Colonel Brown now became all important; its loss was the loss of my line of retreat, and I had reason to believe that the enemy, successful on my left, would redouble his efforts against the right. General Tyler had already marched with his reserves to Brown’s assistance; but on receipt of notice of my intention, without waiting for Gilpin and Landstreet, he galloped to the bridge and took the command in person. After the disengagement of Ricketts’ line, when the head of the retreating column reached the pike, I rode to the bridge, and ordered it to be held at all hazards by the force then there, until the enemy should be found in its rear, at least until the last regiment had cleared the country road by which the retreat was being effected. This order General Tyler obeyed. A little after 5 o’clock, when my column was well on the march toward New Market, an attack on his rear convinced him of the impracticability of longer maintaining his post. Many of his men then took to the woods, but by his direction the greater part kept their ranks, and manfully fought their way through. In this way Colonel Brown escaped. General Tyler, finding himself cut off, dashed into the woods, with the officers of his staff, and was happily saved. His gallantry and self-sacrificing devotion are above all commendation of words.
The enemy seemed to have stopped pursuit at the stone bridge. A few cavalry followed my rear guard to within a couple of miles of New Market, where they established a picket-post. The explanation of their failure to harass my column lies in facts that have since come to my knowledge, viz, Johnson’s cavalry was marching at the time of the battle toward Baltimore via the Liberty road, while McCausland’s was too badly cut up in the fight for anything like immediate and vigorous action after it. To have cut my column off at New Market the rebels had only to move their cavalry round my right by way of Urbana and Monrovia. Expecting such was his plan I used the utmost expedition to pass the command beyond that point. The danger proved imaginary. The re-enforcements for which I waited so anxiously the last two hours of the engagement reaching Monrovia in good time to have joined me, halted there–a singular proceeding, for which no explanation has as yet been furnished me. Monrovia is but eight miles from the battle-ground. The commanding officer at that place must, therefore, have heard the guns. But besides this Colonel Clendenin was effectually contesting the road which offered the enemy the advantage I have mentioned. That gallant officer–as true a cavalry soldier as ever mounted a horse–while fighting on Ricketts’ extreme left, found himself cut off from the main body at the time the retreat began. Throwing himself into the village of Urbana he repeatedly repulsed the pursuing rebels, and in one bold charge, saber in hand, captured the battle-flag of the Seventeenth Virginia. The three regiments in Monrovia joined me at New Market and afterward served a good purpose in covering the march of the weary column, which bivouacked for the night about twelve miles from the battle-field.
It would be a difficult task to say too much in praise of the veterans who made this fight. For their reputation and for the truth’s sake, I wish it distinctly understood that, though the appearance of the enemy’s fourth line of battle made their ultimate defeat certain, they were not whipped; on the contrary, they were fighting steadily in unbroken front when I ordered their retirement, all the shame of which, if shame there was, is mine, not theirs. The nine regiments enumerated as those participating in the action represented but 3,350 men, of whom over 1,600 were missing three days after, killed, wounded, or prisoners–lost on the field. The fact speaks for itself. “Monocacy” on their flags cannot be a word of dishonor.
As to General Ricketts, attention is respectfully called to the mention made of him in the telegraph report subjoined. Every word of it is as deserved as it was bravely earned. If we had had intrenching tools in time no doubt the
losses of the veterans would have been greatly lessened. Another deficiency existed in the want of ambulances and wagons, but this I designed remedying by the use of the cars. That the dead and so many of the wounded were left suffering on the field and in the hands of the enemy is justly attributable to the base desertion by the railroad agent. I will also add that my dispatches would have reached the War Office several hours sooner if the telegraph operator had remained at his post or within calling distance. My intention upon leaving the battle-field was to march the troops directly to Baltimore, which, by the concentration at Monocacy, had been left almost defenseless. Had this purpose been carried out they would have reached the city on the evening of the 10th in time to have driven off the marauders who, under Johnson, had moved by the Liberty road from Frederick City and taken post in the vicinity of Cockeysville. Such a result would very probably have saved the bridges on the Philadelphia railroad. But under an order received while en route to Ellicott’s Mills, directing me to “rally my forces and make every possible effort to retard the enemy’s march on Baltimore,” I thought it my duty to halt Ricketts’ division with the cavalry and battery at the Mills, that being the first point on the pike at which it was possible to resupply the men with rations and ammunition. In doing this, however, I was careful to leave General Ricketts trains sufficient to bring his whole force away at a moment’s notice, and as soon as it was certainly known that the enemy had marched against Washington I ordered him to Baltimore. Before he arrived, however, I was temporarily superseded in the command of the troops by Major-General Ord.
The evening of the 10th I returned to Baltimore, and found the city very naturally in a state of alarm, occasioned by the approach of Johnson’s cavalry. Thanks, however, to the energy of Lieut. Col. S. B. Lawrence, assistant adjutant-general, and Lieut. Col. John Woolley, provost-marshal, every measure of safety had been taken that intelligence could suggest. The railroad communications north had been the subject of the former’s special care. The means of defense for the city, as already remarked, were very meager, but the <ar70_199> direction of them had, as soon as intelligence of the result on the Monocacy was received, very properly been assumed by Brigadier-Generals Lockwood and Morris, whose military experience was of very great value. To the former I feel particularly grateful. Loyal citizens took up arms by the thousand were organized, manned the works, and did soldier duty nobly.
Besides the officers mentioned in my informal report of loth of July, the following deserve similar notice for their excellent behavior in action, and the services they rendered: Lieut. Col. Lynde Carlin, assistant inspector-general; Maj. Max. V. Z. Woodhull, acting assistant adjutant-general; and Maj. James R. Ross, senior aide-de-camp, all of my staff; also Capt. W. H. Wiegel, assistant adjutant: general to General Tyler; Capt. Adam E. King, assistant adjutant-general to General Ricketts; Captain Brown, First Maryland Potomac Home Brigade, and Capt. H. S. Allen, of the company serving as mounted infantry.
General Ricketts has not yet forwarded his official report. When received I shall promptly transmit it to the War Office. It will doubtless disclose many other officers properly entitled to special mention. At this time I can only speak of commandants of brigades and regiments whose names have been already given, and repeat the commendation they have won from commanding officers in many a former battle. They are of the soldiers whose skill and courage have ennobled not merely themselves, but the army they have belonged to so long. The subjoined report contains my opinion of the rebel strength forwarded by telegram the day after the battle. Information since obtained corroborates that opinion. It is now well assured that General Early attacked me with one whole corps, not less than 18,000 strong, while Breckinridge, with two divisions, remained during the battle in quiet occupancy of Frederick City. It is also certain, as one of the results, that notwithstanding the disparity of forces, the enemy was not able to move from the battle-field, in prosecution of his march upon Washington, until the next day about noon.
As to the casualties, I regret that the speedy movement of some regiments of General Tyler’s brigade made it impossible for him to perfect his report as he himself desired. The following table, however, embraces the returns from that officer and from General Ricketts as accurately as was possible under the circumstances: [Wallace listed his casualties as 99 killed, 579 wounded, and 1290 missing or captured for a total of 1968 casualties.]
The aggregate shows a heavy loss, illustrating the obstinate valor of the command. I am satisfied, however, that the casualties of the rebels exceeded mine. To reach this conclusion one has only to make a calculation based upon the fact, that the day after the battle over 400 men, too seriously wounded to be carried away, were captured in the hospital at Frederick City.
Orders have been given to collect the bodies of our dead in one burial ground on the battle-field, suitable for a monument upon which I propose to write: “These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.”
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Col. E. D. TOWNSEND,
The Federal casualty figures would later be revised to 98 killed, 594 wounded, and 1188 captured or missing, for a total of 1880. Early estimated his losses at Monocacy and in his attacks on the Washington defenses as between 600 and 700.
“Early’s March to Washington in 1864” by Jubal Early. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV, edited by Robert U. Underwood and Clarence C. Buel.
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.