The title of the recent book by Marc Leepson, Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C., and Changed American History, clearly states the book’s thesis: that the Battle of Monocacy saved the Federal capital at Washington, D.C. from falling to Jubal Early’s Confederate army. That’s the conventional wisdom, and there’s certainly absolutely nothing new about that interpretation.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this important and fascinating battle, and I have likewise spent a fair amount of time talking about it with old friend Scott Patchan. In fact, Scott deserves a major tip of the hat, as he’s the one who really got me thinking along these lines. Scott’s point is that while the fight by Lew Wallace’s men at Monocacy was valiant, brave, and worthy of praise, it really didn’t save Washington. Scott’s point, which I have come to accept as being correct, is that Monocacy really could not have saved Washington, because Early never really intended to go there and take it.
As Scott points out, Early lingered in front of Harpers Ferry for several days on his way north, and then he likewise dawdled at Martinsburg, Hagerstown, and then Frederick, ransoming each. Had Early been serious about taking Washington, he would have headed straight there without delay, and he would have found the place almost undefended. For one thing, Wallace would not have had Ricketts’ division at Monocacy Junction, and the rest of the Sixth Corps and elements of the Nineteenth Corps would not have arrived in Washington in time to persuade Early not to launch an all-out assault on Fort Stevens on July 12. Instead, the city would have been lightly defended, and Early could have dashed into the city and raised havoc.
The fact that he dawdled suggests that the real intention was to draw Union forces away from Petersburg and not taking the Union capital. Had he entered Washington, Early would not have been able to hold it, so other than the embarrassment and chaos factors, entering Washington would not have gained much for the objectives of the Confederacy, whereas if could draw forces away from Petersburg and enable Robert E. Lee to break the Federal hammerlock there, his foray north of the Potomac River would have had real, tangible benefits for the Confederacy, justifying any casualties, diverted resources, weakening of the Army of Northern Virginia, etc.
Therefore, while I certainly don’t want to take anything away from Wallace’s fine fight at Monocacy–it was a tough, hard fight wherein the severely outnumbered Federals more than held their own against a greatly superior force of Early’s veterans–I have come to the conclusion that Scott is right, and that perhaps saying that Monocacy saved Washington, D. C. overstates the case.
In a comment to this blog, Benjamin Franklin Cooling snidely asked me what I thought I could add to the body of knowledge about Monocacy in light of his work, Fred Ray’s work, and Leepson’s book. There you go, Dr. Cooling: I’m going to argue an analytic outcome that directly contradicts the conventional wisdom.Scridb filter