18 September 2008 by Published in: General musings 18 comments

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.

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  1. Thu 18th Sep 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Interesting. Would it have been physically possible for his men to do a forced march into DC in early July? Would it be worth the numbers of men who would have dropped out during the march?


    Were the dawdles at Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry deliberately done to raise the alarm that there were Confderates north of Petersburg? The resulting panic would force the War Department to send those troops north from Petersburg to address the threat to the supply lines. (as it actually did) Kind of like a bank robber deliberately tripping the alarm to measure police response time.

  2. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 6:54 am


    Why not? They had already done so in marching north from Lynchburg.

    I’m rather certain that the dawdles at Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry were deliberately done to raise the alarm that the Confederates were heading north of the Potomac River in an attempt to draw forces away from Petersburg.

    I think it was trying to be a replay of Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862, where precisely the same thing occurred, with great success.


  3. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 10:38 am

    Hmmm…I’ll have to go back and check, but what about the dawdles being built in to the schedule to allow the really hare-brained part of the scheme to work? Namely the proposed amphibious liberation of the prisoners at Pt. Lookout. He’d have to match his schedule with that of the ship carrying the arms and CS Marines to meet up with his cavalry forces at the proper moment. Or was that part of the operation blown well before Early entered the lower Shenandoah Valley.

  4. Brooks Simpson
    Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 11:29 am

    In terms of troop diversion, recall Early’s offensive did divert 19th Corps, too.

    Of course, Grant reacted late to Early. 🙂 As Bill Feis points out, intelligence failure.

  5. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 11:54 am


    The only problem with your theory is that the Johnson-Gilmor Raid did not commence until July 9, while the guns were booming at Monocacy.


  6. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 11:56 am


    I mentioned the arrival of a division of the 19th Corps in the third paragraph above. You are, of course, correct, and so is Bill Feis.

    That failure of intelligence is one of a number of things that I want to focus upon in my take on this campaign.


  7. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 4:23 pm

    I’d like to add my two cents to this interesting discussion.

    My thesis in Desperate Engagement was not that Wallace’s stand at Monocacy saved Washington from falling to Early. Like you, I don’t believe Early could have taken the city. But consider what eight thousand lean and mean Confederate troops loose in the streets of Washington could have done. Plenty of damage, I’d say.

    Remember that the Navy had a ship provisioned for Lincoln to get out of town if Early had breached the defenses. At the very least, even if his troops had slashed and burned and then gotten out of Washington somehow, this would have been a humiliating experience for Lincoln and the Union, at a time when his popularity was very, very low.

    I believe that what Wallace did at Monocacy held Early up enough to give Grant time to get those two Sixth Corps Divisions to Washington before Early could attack. Early was at the gates of the city with the Capitol dome in his sights at around noon time on July 11. At just about that hour, the Sixth Corps troops were landing at the Potomac.

    Early decided not to invade then, he said, because his men were exhausted and were strung out for miles and miles behind him on the 7th Street Pike.

    Grant and Halleck had relieved Wallace of his command after they found out that Early prevailed at Monocacy. But two weeks later, Grant re-instated Wallace, and Grant says in his memoir that had Wallace not done what he did at Monocacy–hold Early up for at least a day, probably two–he (Grant) would not have had time to get the Sixth Corps men up to Washington, nor the Nineteenth Corps, which came soon thereafter.

    Like you, I believe that what was uppermost in Lee’s mind when he sent Early to the Valley and into Maryland was to force Grant to take troops away from Richmond and Petersburg. Grant seems to have realized that, too, and he waited until the last minute before ordering the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps northward.

  8. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 5:00 pm


    Thanks for chiming in. I appreciate it.

    I agree with most of your interpretation. The only thing I disagree with is the significance of Monocacy in the big scheme of things. Yes, it did delay Early for a day, but had Early not dawdled at Harpers Ferry, Martinsburg, Hagerstown and then Frederick, there never would have been a Battle of Monocacy, or, if there was, it would have been an insignificant skirmish.


  9. Brooks Simpson
    Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 5:30 pm

    I know you mentioned thr 19th Corps starting to arrive, but the larger point is that Early did achieve something rather important in detaining a far larger number of soldiers than should have been merited by his numbers … and sent Halleck in a tizzy to boot.

    Had the 19th Corps been at Petersburg later that month, perhaps Lee’s stretched way too thin at the time of the Crater.

    Monocacy’s an interesting battle and a nice park, but I tend to agree that much too much has been made of it.

  10. Todd Berkoff
    Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 7:11 pm

    Eric — what do you make of Early’s own account of the campaign that he submitted 14 July 1864? I agree that Early never planned on HOLDING Washington but I’ve always assessed he planned a quick foray into the capital. Sending his cavalry or a small infantry strike force on a quick raid into the heart of the city would have shown the complete ineptness of the Lincoln administation during an election year, not to mention the utter chaos of CS forces galloping down Pennsylvania Avenue.

    “I am sorry I did not succeed in capturing Washington and releasing our prisoners at Point Lookout, but the latter was impracticable after I determined to retire from before Washington. There was intense excitement and alarm in Washington and Baltimore and all over the North, and my force was very greatly exaggerated, it being reported that you were in command, having left Beauregard at Petersburg. Washington can never be taken by our troops unless surprised when without a force to defend it. Please send me orders by telegraph to Winchester.” – Jubal Early

  11. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 7:47 pm

    A useful augment to your take on this campaign and the question of Early’s priorities in the Valley in 1864 are, if memory serves, Lee’s orders to him at the outset. Though I can’t recall the text verbatim, and am at work without access to my library, I believe the substance was for Early to press Union troops and clear the Valley, but I think explicitely mentioned was diverting Union troops into the Valley as well. Moreover, I don’t recall any mention of Lee ordering Early to push into Washington

  12. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 7:47 pm

    A useful augmentation to your take on this campaign and the question of Early’s priorities in the Valley in 1864 are, if memory serves, Lee’s orders to him at the outset. Though I can’t recall the text verbatim, and am at work without access to my library, I believe the substance was for Early to press Union troops and clear the Valley, but I think explicitely mentioned was diverting Union troops into the Valley as well. Moreover, I don’t recall any mention of Lee ordering Early to push into Washington

  13. Fri 19th Sep 2008 at 10:16 pm

    As for what Lee ordered Early to do vis-a-vis Washington, this is how Early described the mission in his autobiography:

    “I was directed to move,” he said, “for the Valley.” The object: “to strike Hunter’s force in the rear, and if possible, destroy it, then to move down the Valley, cross the Potomac” and “threaten Washington City.”

  14. Gail Stephens
    Sun 28th Sep 2008 at 1:13 pm


    The files at Monocacy contain two dispatches from Early to Lee, one dated 6/28/64 and one dated 7/7/64. One of the interpreters from Monocacy and I found them at the Huntington Library in 2001. In the first dispatch Early positively states that he intends to proceed according to Lee’s instructions, “to threaten Washington and if I find an opportunity — to take it.” He also states his intention to cross the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry, and send cavalry to cut the railroads between Washington & Harrisburg and Baltimore and Philadephia “while I am moving on Washington.” He wanted to drive the Federal forces out of Harper’s Ferry in order to move along the river roads, making any necessary retreat to Virginia easier. In the second dispatch on 7/7, he states that he had found MD Heights so “thoroughly fortified” that he would not attempt to take them. Therefore, he has decided to move by Boonsboro and Frederick City, adding “I then move on Washington.” If Jubal Early didn’t intend to take Washington, he certainly talked a good game.

  15. Andrew Ballard
    Wed 20th May 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I agree that Early’s primary mission was to relieve pressure on Lee by drawing fed forces from Petersburg/Richmond…

    However, if Early had no intention of taking Washington, why did he head that way- why not up into PA or towards Baltimore? why not set up a solid defensive position somewhere and wait for the arrival of federal forces?

    I also continue to believe that taking DC was possible- obviously holding it for too long would have been difficult…it also would have resulted in a political and strategic victory (obviously a large federal force would have descended on the capital- the bulk of it likely from Grant’s forces, providing Lee with the relief he sought).

  16. Tue 26th Oct 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I agree with Marc… IF Early gets INTO Washington City on the morning of the 12th and can cause any mayhem, forcing Lincoln to flee, the South has a chance . If Old Jube sacks the Capitol, and Lee can hold off Grant until Election time, Old McClellan signs a peace treaty, Confederates win. It was a great last ditch effort that just fell short.

    John Lund (G-G-Grandson of Charles Haggerty Pvt. 14th New Jersey Vol. Inf.)

  17. Peter MacNeill
    Fri 25th Feb 2011 at 12:37 am

    Well I didn’t know this site was here. A bit dated perhaps but interestesting.
    I have a number of points. I think Wallace fought a lousy battle and Leepson needs to change the title of his book.

    1. If Marc Leepson wants to present himself as a historian then he does history a sad disservice by promulgating the mythic fable of “The Battle That Saved Washington”. The battle saved nothing, except perhaps for a renewal of Wallace’s reputation. Common sense will tell you that probably the last thing Jubal Early wanted to do with his army was to “capture” Washington, D.C. But I will return to this later.

    2. Next point Wallace fought a lousy battle, strategically and also tactically. I have no doubt that had he rearranged his force in a different manner he might even have delayed Early’s armyfor another day or even two, instead of just a half a day. What were his mistakes? I think among the most stupidest was to put some of his infantry on the WRONG SIDE of the river. Pretty dumb. At the Georgetown Pike bridge he put the 14th NJ north of the bridge to face the rebels. Why do that? There is a very high alluvial ridge on the south side of the Moncacy river there. The 14th, although being used as garrison troops for Monocacy Junction were veterans. And to split them up putting some of them on the wrong side of the river was a waste. If the purpose was for them to delay the rebs by positioning them along the B&O RR cut they could have done a far better delaying job back south of the river high along the ridge. Then Wallace or one of his officers fires the wooden covered ridge over the river. Well the 14th is stuck on the wrong side. They were forced to retreat across the iron RR bridge over the river with many getting shot. Pretty stupid. How many casualties could have been prevented had they been up on the ridge under cover instead of exposed on the bridge?
    Then at the Jug Bridge at the National Pike- what is now a golf driving range at the time was a ridge north of the river. But to 100-day troops were sent out to occupy it! How stupid can you get? Why are these guys ALSO on the wrong side of the river with water at their backs and an exposed bridge to have to cross. On top of that these were 100-day Ohio national Guard- aka- militia, not usually known for bravery in precarious situations. One has to consider that they may have had some ex-veterans who had reenlisted as their performance was far better than what is normally the performance of militia. When they were forced to retreat- with the Confederates up on the ridge they had formally occupied they also took high- and needless, casualties.

    Pretty dumb of Wallace. [See following submissions]

  18. Peter MacNeill
    Fri 25th Feb 2011 at 5:50 pm

    COMMENTS Part 2. So what SHOULD have Wallace done?

    First, a personal recconaisence from north of the Jug Bridge to Baker Hill west of the Worthington Farm. Apparently all he did was a foray in Frederick on the afternoon of July 8th.

    There was unused topograhy, high ground, that he ignored. He misused his battery of rifled guns regardig advantages of high ground, such as at Jug Bridge on the east side the ground rises up a hundred feet or more. On the west end Baker Hill is a quite imposing rise & immediately he should have had axmen clearing artillery position to cover the several fords within artillery range from up there. Had the McKinney-Worthington ford been covered by accurate artillery firs it would have been extremely difficult for the Confederates to get across there at all. South of the Georgetown Pike battlefield there is a hig ridge. It is so ideal for observation that I-70 has a lookout point up there. excellent artillery position

    Instead Wallace misused Alexander’s rifled battery by keeeping them in the vicinity of the RR bridge. Pretty stupid.

    Wallace had 3 units of 100-day militia. The 2 Ohio battalions and the 11th MD. They should not have been put in frontline positions. The veterans of the Potomac Home Brigade and the VI Corp should not have been bunched up.

    Wallace’s cavalry for the most part was the best you can get. The 8th Illinois had been fight Confederate guerillas in the Blue Ridge for months. It was Lt Marcellus Jones who fired the first Uniion shot at Gettysburg. There were elements of the Loudon Rangers who were basically Union guerillas in Loudon county in the Blue Ridge.

    Wallace misused the cavalry also.

    (I am no fan of Wallace.)

    Here’s what Wallace should have done. The Monocacy road bridge being basically the center of the battlefield there are about a dozen fords stretching over a couple of miles on the river to the south and the same to the north of the bridge. At any point in between the fords the Monocacy was unfordable. Furthermore, all along the river on both sides there are high banks & bluffs. This means the Union line was vulnerable by these fords in some two dozen spots.

    In light of this fact, Wallace first should have taken his 100-day men & stretched them out in a long picket lines on the south side of the river, concentrated nearest the fords- which were usually pretty obvious. This line should have run from Baker Hill north to at least a half mile north of Jug Bridge. Thus there would have been some element of an early wanring system which could have spread the alarm to concentrate the veterans at the point of crossing.

    I think by doing that it might have been possible to prevent a Confederate crossing of the Monocacy on July 9.

    Wallace had the battery of 6 rifled guns and a 24-pounder emplaced beside the tracks at the RR bridge. The battery should have been used as flying artillery, given notice that they should be ready to move rapidly at any point on the battlefield. They should have been broken up in 3 sections of 2 guns each. At the Jug bridge the west bank hill would have been wonderful killing ground for propery used by artillery on the east bank supported by veteran troops. There is every reaon why Jug Bridge should have been uncrossable for the rebels brought up to assualt it. The only way it could be vulnerable would be by a flank crossing upstream but if Wallace was any kind of a general at all he could have stopped it- probably with great loss to the Rebs.

    At the RR bridge the 24 pounder should have been more than adequate in defending the iron truss RR bridge. The wooden bridge should have been fired on the morning of of July 9, as should the blockhouse nearby. The RR bridge would have been very difficult to destroy. The 24lb firing cannister should have been able to obliterate any attempts of the rebs to cross. The river is deep and unfordable at this location with high bluffs on both banks. The Confederates easily could have been stoppd there.

    The two remaining secvtions of rifles should have had different assignments. One section should have been put at the top of Baker Hill with a wide field of fire. This could have prevented the Cnfederate getting closer than one half a mile from the river. They should have been supported by both 8th Illinois and VI Corps.

    The other section could have been maintained around the RR bridge as needed but have been ready to reenforce at Baker Hill or Jug Bridge as needed. Or even placed where the I-270 lookout is. They should have been ready to rush to the Crums Ford/Reich’s Ford area if the Confederates did anything there (Which they never did).

    So artillery: 24 pounder- excellent use. Section on Baker Hill, Section on ridge above Jug Bridge. Section in reserve as needed

    Cavalry: Two large units at either end of the line for reconnaisence. 8th on west side of Baker Hill and Loudon Rangers north of Jug Bridge. The rest held in center as reserve as needed.

    Infantry: What an idiot Wallace was. OK you got the 100-day guys- not known to be reliable fighters acting as early warning picketts at any point of crossing.
    The Potomac Home Brigade. Put a battalion in rifle pits 100 feet east of Jug Bridge. Breachloading weapons would have been quite useful in the event of a run across Jug bridge. (Actually there are remnants of rifle pits extant there today.) The rest of the Brigade with one half in rifle pits halfway up the bluff, the rest at the top. There should be no way the Rebs should have gotten across there.

    The VIth Corp- Ah, there’s the rub. The first two brigades were on the battlefield by early morning on the 9th. What did Wallace do Bunch them up by the bridges.

    Then INCREDULOUSLY the 3rd Brigade was left sitting on trains down at Monrovia miles away!!!! Do you think Stonewal Jackson or Phil Sheridan, being outnumbered 3-to-1, would have left a WHOLE BRIGADE doing nothing in Monrovia? No! Either would have gotten on a horse and made sure they came up and got into line.

    That stupid idiot Wallace!

    You got 3 brigades of the best veterans in the Unin army and youy leave 1/3 brewing coffee miles away. Incredible!

    Here’s what he should have done- One brigade east of the RR bridge ready to rush to Crums Ford or Jug Bridge. Another arrayed in rifle pits from the west of Baker Hill around to the Worthington Farm. The largest regiment from the remaining brigade in rifle pits overlooking the river at Georgetown Pike. The rest of the brigade up on the ridge at the I-270 lookout. With his forces arranged like this I dob’t see the Rebels crossing the Moncacy anywhere near the Union positions.

    The only feasible crossing for the Confederates would have been a couple of miles south down the river. Had that happen on the 9th he would have had the 8th Illi, the third reserve brigade he could move down and the center section of the rifles could have been moved down to augment the section on Baker Hill. Plus the cavalry held in reserve. The mounted rifles wuld have been useful.

    Clearly Wallace could have delayed the Confederates by most of a second day if not half of a third day.

    So, yes, I think he fought a lousy battle.

    More comments to come.

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