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Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D. C., and Changed American History
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Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D. C., and Changed American History

by Marc Leepson

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The Battle of Monocacy, which took place on the blisteringly hot day of July 9, 1864, is one of the Civil War's most significant yet little-known battles. What played out that day in the corn and wheat fields four miles south of Frederick, Maryland., was a full-field engagement between some 12,000 battle-hardened Confederate troops led by the controversial Jubal


The Battle of Monocacy, which took place on the blisteringly hot day of July 9, 1864, is one of the Civil War's most significant yet little-known battles. What played out that day in the corn and wheat fields four miles south of Frederick, Maryland., was a full-field engagement between some 12,000 battle-hardened Confederate troops led by the controversial Jubal Anderson Early, and some 5,800 Union troops, many of them untested in battle, under the mercurial Lew Wallace, the future author of Ben-Hur. When the fighting ended, some 1,300 Union troops were dead, wounded or missing or had been taken prisoner, and Early—-who suffered some 800 casualties—-had routed Wallace in the northernmost Confederate victory of the war.

Two days later, on another brutally hot afternoon, Monday, July 11, 1864, the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Early sat astride his horse outside the gates of Fort Stevens in the upper northwestern fringe of Washington, D.C. He was about to make one of the war's most fateful, portentous decisions: whether or not to order his men to invade the nation's capital.

Early had been on the march since June 13, when Robert E. Lee ordered him to take an entire corps of men from their Richmond-area encampment and wreak havoc on Yankee troops in the Shenandoah Valley, then to move north and invade Maryland. If Early found the conditions right, Lee said, he was to take the war for the first time into President Lincoln's front yard. Also on Lee's agenda: forcing the Yankees to release a good number of troops from the stranglehold that Gen. U.S. Grant had built around Richmond.

Once manned by tens of thousands of experienced troops, Washington's ring of forts and fortifications that day were in the hands of a ragtag collection of walking wounded Union soldiers, the Veteran Reserve Corps, along with what were known as hundred days' men—-raw recruits who had joined the Union Army to serve as temporary, rear-echelon troops. It was with great shock, then, that the city received news of the impending rebel attack. With near panic filling the streets, Union leaders scrambled to coordinate a force of volunteers.

But Early did not pull the trigger. Because his men were exhausted from the fight at Monocacy and the ensuing march, Early paused before attacking the feebly manned Fort Stevens, giving Grant just enough time to bring thousands of veteran troops up from Richmond. The men arrived at the eleventh hour, just as Early was contemplating whether or not to move into Washington. No invasion was launched, but Early did engage Union forces outside Fort Stevens. During the fighting, President Lincoln paid a visit to the fort, becoming the only sitting president in American history to come under fire in a military engagement.

Historian Marc Leepson shows that had Early arrived in Washington one day earlier, the ensuing havoc easily could have brought about a different conclusion to the war. Leepson uses a vast amount of primary material, including memoirs, official records, newspaper accounts, diary entries and eyewitness reports in a reader-friendly and engaging description of the events surrounding what became known as "the Battle That Saved Washington."

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
As is usually the case when we enter the land of might have been, the most salubrious effect of the exercise is to remind us that in war nothing is foreordained and the line between victory and defeat almost always is incredibly thin…Desperate Engagement will (of course) be of interest to Civil War buffs, whose numbers remain legion nearly a century and a half after the war's end, and to many other readers as well. Wondering about what might have been is a game more than a study of history, but it is an instructive, useful game that deepens our understanding of history's uncertain, unpredictable path.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

How small can a Civil War battle be and still claim the mantle of war-changing decisiveness? That proposition is tested in this engaging account of the 1864 Battle of Monocacy Junction, in which some 16,000 Confederate troops trounced 5,800 bluecoats on a Maryland field. Not a surprising outcome, but Leepson (Flag: An American Biography) contends that Union Gen. Lew Wallace's doomed stand held up Confederate Gen. Jubal Early's surprise lunge at Washington, D.C.-which was held only by a hapless force of invalids, militia and government clerks-by one crucial day. The result was a photo finish, with Union reinforcements arriving in the nick of time to save the capital from capture (hence the decisiveness). Leepson lucidly narrates the campaign, adding color commentary about Early's "panoply of abhorrent personal traits" and the incompetence, apathy and possible drunkenness that prevailed among Union commanders, along with plenty of vignettes of the horror and pathos of war. He also debunks the campaign's premier anecdote, which has Lincoln coming under rebel fire while looking out from Washington's ramparts (true, he finds) and getting chewed out-"Get down, you fool"-by a young Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (false). Gettysburg it ain't, but it's still a hard-fought, dramatic episode that Leepson brings vividly to life. Photos. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Sharp assessment of the single Confederate victory north of the Mason-Dixon line, the only military engagement during which a sitting U.S. president came under hostile fire. In an efficient narrative, journalist Leepson (Flag, 2005, etc.) describes all principals engaged in the Battle of Monocacy and offers useful mini-portraits of subsidiary characters. It was July, 1864. Ulysses Grant had every able-bodied, experienced Union soldier with him outside Richmond and Petersburg, where he was pounding the Confederates. Under severe pressure, Robert E. Lee ordered his "Bad Old Man," General Jubal Early, to move through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and invade under-defended Washington, D.C. Forty miles outside the capital, Union General Lew Wallace, blamed by his superiors for malfeasance at Shiloh (and better known later as the author of Ben-Hur), forced Early's hand at Monocacy. Wallace's valiant stand ended in defeat, but it left Confederate troops depleted and exhausted as they marched on to Ft. Stevens, within sight of the Capitol dome. Unable to immediately go into battle, Early paused for a fateful day, time enough for Grant's veteran Sixth Corps reinforcements to arrive and man the parapets. From there, Lincoln himself watched some minor skirmishing before Early decided to retreat. In the tradition of James McPherson's study of Antietam, Crossroads of Freedom (2002), Leepson offers not only military details, but also the political consequences of the failed invasion. Had Early succeeded, the spectacle of Confederate forces rampaging through Washington would surely have deflated Northern morale, added to Dixie's almost empty coffers, sunk Lincoln's hopes for the 1864 election andwon over foreign powers to the flagging Southern cause. A smart consideration for the general reader of one of the many intriguing what-ifs that can be asked about the Civil War. Agent: Joseph Brendan Vallely/Flaming Star Literary Enterprises

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St. Martin's Press
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Chapter 1

The Monocacy River begins near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border just west of the small town of Harney, Maryland, six miles due south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The river, the largest Maryland tributary to the Potomac, meanders southeast for about sixty miles. It flows a few miles east of the city of Frederick before emptying out into the Potomac about fifty miles northwest of Washington, D.C. The sixty-odd-mile swath of gently rolling woodlands and fertile farm fields surrounding the river in the western Maryland Piedmont Plateau is known as the Monocacy Valley.

Archaeologists have found evidence that bands of nomadic Native American hunters inhabited the Monocacy Valley as early as the year 2000 BC. While there seem to have been few, if any, permanent Indian settlements, the valley was a favorite hunting ground for several tribes, including the Algonquian-language Piscataway and Nanticokes, which had settled in Maryland and Virginia’s eastern coastal regions. The Monocacy River became an important source of transportation for the Indians, who also cut a series of trails through the densely wooded valley.

When the first Europeans came to western Maryland in the 1630s, they found the warlike Susquehannock living in settlements in the valley and to the north and east. During the next ninety years several other tribes—the Algonkian Shawnee, the Delaware, the Catawba, and the Tuscarora—either set up settlements or traveled through the area on hunting expeditions.

The settlers and Indians were drawn by a pristine river valley just east of the two-thousand-foot Catoctin Mountain (and current-day U.S. Route 15) overflowing with chestnut, hickory, and oak forests abounding with deer, buffalo, black bears, muskrats, elk, caribou, and turkey—along with extremely fertile soil. The river itself and its tributaries teemed with fish, turtles, and terrapins.

By the late 1720s, however, the Indian tribes were gone. They had fled west in the wake of a flood of European settlers, mainly Scots/Irish from Northern Ireland, English land speculators, and emigrants from the Palatinate region of the Rhine in Germany. Many of the latter arrived from heavily German Pennsylvania via what was known as the Monocacy Road. That road began near York, cut southwesterly through Pennsylvania into Maryland through the Monocacy Valley, and then crossed the Potomac River and into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

The Indians who lived in the Monocacy Valley may have disappeared by the late 1720s, but they left behind their name for the river and its surrounding area. The Seneca called the river Cheneoow-quoquey. The earliest European settlers in the 1720s called it Quattaro and Coturki, names that also were sometimes given to the nearby Potomac. The name that stuck, Monocacy, is a variant of the Shawnee word “Monnockkesey,” roughly translated as “river with many bends.”

There may have been a village called Monocacy established by German-speaking settlers from Pennsylvania around 1729 located about fifteen miles north of Frederick, near the current-day town of Creagerstown. It is the site of the first German church, known as the Log Church, erected in Maryland. Archaeological and historical evidence that the little village did, in fact, exist, however, is inconclusive.

What we do know for certain is that John Thomas Schley (1712–89), the leader of a group of some one hundred Palatinate Germans, founded the city of Frederick (then called Frederick Town) near the midpoint of the Monocacy Valley in 1745. Schley, historians believe, chose the name in honor of Frederick Calvert (1731–71), the sixth (and last) Lord Baltimore, who had inherited (but never set foot in) the English province of Maryland in 1751. The city of Frederick, standing as it did as a crossroads between the growing cities of the east and the frontier to the west, soon blossomed and became the largest city in western Maryland.

It was here in 1755, a year after the start of the French and Indian War, that British major general Edward Braddock, the commander in chief of all British forces in North America, met with Benjamin Franklin (then a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly) and Braddock’s trusted military aide George Washington. They came to Frederick to plan Braddock’s next move—what turned out to be a disastrous expedition to try to take the French-held Fort Duquesne in what today is downtown Pittsburgh.

Ten years later, in 1765, Frederick was the scene of a heated protest over the British Stamp Act. Twelve Frederick County judges issued a statement on November 23, condemning that much reviled taxation-without-representation legislation.

One of the judges, Thomas Johnson (1732–1819), became the state of Maryland’s first elected governor and later an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Two other famed early American lawyers also called Frederick home: Francis Scott Key (1779–1843), best known as the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and his brother-in-law, Roger Brooke Taney (1777–1864), the fifth chief justice of the United States, best known for issuing the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, which denied citizenship to all African Americans, whether they were slaves or freemen.

By 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the city of Frederick’s population reached 8,143, and the surrounding Frederick County was home to some 40,000 people. Frederick grew, in large part, because of its geographic location as a natural east-west and north-south transportation hub and crossroads. The Baltimore Pike (also known as the National Road) connected Frederick with Maryland’s largest port city to the east. The Georgetown Pike linked Frederick to the nation’s capital some forty miles to the southeast.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), the nation’s first chartered passenger and freight railway, began construction in Baltimore in 1828. It reached the outskirts of Frederick in 1831. Like the Monocacy River, the B&O skirted Frederick about four miles to the southeast of the city. After protests from the city’s fathers, the B&O laid tracks from a spot at the western bank of the Monocacy River and built a 3.5-mile spur into the city.

The triangular piece of land, officially known as Frederick Junction, was commonly referred to as Monocacy Junction. The B&O erected a wooden bridge to span the Monocacy at the junction, then replaced it with a more-sturdy (and expensive) iron suspension bridge.

Maryland, sitting as it does below the Mason-Dixon line, was a slave state. But it was also a geographically and socially divided border state. Tobacco plantations, which depended heavily on slave labor, dominated southern Maryland. The state’s northern and western regions, on the other hand, had few slave-holding families and, in fact, were home to many freed blacks.

When Fort Sumter fell on April 13, 1861, and the Civil War began, Maryland’s citizens were nearly equally divided among those who supported the Union and those whose sympathies lay with the Confederate States of America (CSA). When troops of the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteers arrived in Baltimore by train on April 19 on the way to Washington, a prosecessionist mob attacked them. That urban skirmish resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and twelve civilians. Fearing that unrest would spread throughout Maryland, President Lincoln sent Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler to occupy the capital of Annapolis on April 22.

On that day Gov. Thomas Holliday Hicks called a special session of the Maryland General Assembly to discuss where the state’s loyalty would go. Instead of meeting in Annapolis, which was strongly pro-Confederate, Hicks, a member of the Native American Party (known as the Know-Nothings), took the legislature to Frederick, where sympathies strongly favored the Union. The General Assembly did not vote to secede, nor did it strongly support the Union. The legislators’ goal seemed to be neutrality.

On September 17, when the General Assembly gathered after a six-week adjournment, federal troops and Baltimore police officers arrived in Frederick to arrest prosecessionist members. That act ended the official movement in Maryland to align the state with the Confederacy. But it did not end Maryland’s direct involvement in the war. Much of that involvement centered on Frederick because of its location as both a north-south and an east-west crossroads.

Contingents of Union troops bivouacked in the city and its surrounding areas, including Monocacy Junction, beginning in the summer of 1861. These included units assigned to guard the Monocacy Bridge and the railroad throughout much of the next four years. There were also large bands of Union and Confederate forces that moved into and out of Frederick and its environs during the war. Most of that action took place during the South’s three invasions of the North: in September 1862, in July 1863, and in July 1864.

Robert E. Lee’s forty-five-thousand-man Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac near Leesburg, Virginia, on September 4, 1862, in the South’s first invasion of the North. Three days later Lee’s troops marched into Frederick. They promptly took possession of the city without a shot being fired. Lee had hoped that he would be warmly greeted by pro-Confederates in Frederick. But his reception was lukewarm at best, a state of affairs memorialized in the (most likely apocryphal) poem “Barbara Frietschie” by John Greenleaf Whittier.

In that much-recited poem, Whittier describes how the townspeople of Frederick had taken down their American flags just before Lee’s army marched through the city. The patriotic Frietschie, then ninety-five years old, according to Whittier (who heard the story secondhand), bravely flew the flag from her dormer window. When famed Confederate general Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson rode by, he ordered his men to shoot the flag down.

The determined Barbara Frietschie responded by saying, “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country’s flag.” Her outspokenness shamed Jackson, who then told his men not to touch “a hair of yon gray head.”

That story may not be true, but it illustrates the pro-Union sentiment in the city, and gives the flavor of the reception that greeted Lee’s men.

Following the march through Frederick, Lee made his headquarters at what was then known as South Hermitage Farm, three miles south of the city and a stone’s throw from Monocacy Junction and the Georgetown Pike (today’s Route 355). Lee’s troops arrived just after the departure of the recently formed Fourteenth New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which had been sent to the junction to guard the B&O Railroad Bridge over the Monocacy River. Lee’s army pitched tents in the fields, and Confederate soldiers used the river to bathe and wash their uniforms.

It was at that spot on September 8 that Lee drew up his “Proclamation to the People of Maryland,” a plea for Marylanders to join the Confederacy. It had little effect in pro-Union western Maryland. Lee abandoned his camp and moved his troops west of Frederick on September 10.

The day before Lee had written—and his assistant adjutant general Robert Chilton drew up—Special Orders No. 191, a ten-part document outlining the operational details of Lee’s plan. The order provided specific instructions to Lee’s lieutenants, including Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, J. E. B. Stuart, and Daniel Harvey Hill.

Chilton made copies of the order and sent them to each of Lee’s generals, including Hill. When he received his copy of the order, Stuart had another copy made and sent to Hill because he had been under Jackson’s command. That copy—or the original—never made it to Hill, probably because the courier carrying the document somehow lost it. Hill, of course, did not realize that fact since he had received one copy of the order and was not expecting another.

On September 13 troops from the Union army’s Twelfth Corps set up camp on the same site where Hill had camped a few days earlier. That day two soldiers of the Twenty-seventh Indiana—accounts differ as to their identity—happened upon a strange package sitting in the tall grass: three cigars wrapped in paper. When the men looked at the paper wrapper, they were startled to see the label “Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, Special Orders, No. 191,” signed by Robert Chilton. They had stumbled upon one of the copies of the order that was supposed to go to Hill.

The Union troops turned the order over to their superiors, and it made its way to Gen. George B. McClellan at his headquarters nearby. McClellan realized the value of the order; but, true to his usual method of operations, was slow to act on the startling intelligence, delaying his march from Frederick. Meanwhile, Lee learned through a Confederate sympathizer who happened to be in McClellan’s camp when the order arrived that the enemy knew his battle plan.

The day before, on September 12, McClellan’s troops had crossed the Monocacy and followed Lee into Frederick, where the populace greeted his army enthusiastically. “Our troops were wildly welcomed,” the pro-Union Harper’s Weekly reported the following week. “The three stone bridges across the Monocacy were found uninjured, though the fine iron railroad bridge was destroyed.”

Troops from the Fourteenth New Jersey, which would return to Monocacy to fight in the big July 9, 1864, battle there, joined railroad workers who had begun replacing the bridge on September 17, the same day that the infamous slaughter took place at the Battle of Antietam just outside Sharpsburg, Maryland, about fifteen miles west of Frederick.

At Antietam, McClellan’s 80,000-man Army of the Potomac went head-to-head with Lee’s army in what has the unhappy distinction of being the bloodiest one day in American history. Nearly 22,000 Americans were killed, wounded, or went missing in that day of fighting. That included 2,100 dead and 9,550 wounded Union troops and 1,550 dead and 7,750 wounded Confederate soldiers. The Battle of Antietam ended in a stalemate, but one that forced Lee to retreat to Virginia.

McClellan famously did not pursue Lee into Virginia, a tactical error of such magnitude that Lincoln would strip him of his command on November 5. In early October Lee took advantage of McClellan’s inaction by ordering some eighteen hundred Confederate cavalry troops with four pieces of horse artillery under Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart to go back across the Potomac. At daylight on October 10, Stuart and his raiding party crossed the river near Williamsport, Maryland, and proceeded to raid the nearby Pennsylvania cities of Mercersburg and Chambersburg. Stuart’s men then moved southeast into Maryland, through Emmittsburg, Liberty, New Market, Hyattstown, and Barnesville.

When he reached White’s Ford, below the mouth of the Monocacy, Lee later reported, Stuart had made “a complete circuit of the enemy’s position.” After a short rest at Urbana, just south of Monocacy Junction, Stuart headed back to Virginia. “On approaching the Potomac he was opposed by the enemy’s cavalry, under General Stoneman, but drove them back, and put to flight the infantry stationed on the bluff at White’s Ford,” Lee noted. Stuart then returned to Virginia. The “expedition,” Lee said, “was eminently successful, and accomplished without other loss than the wounding of 1 man.”

Stuart’s evaluation of the raid was even more laudatory. “The results of this expedition, in a moral and political point of view, can hardly be estimated,” he said a week later, “and the consternation among property holders in Pennsylvania beggars description.”

Eight months later, Lee launched his second invasion of the North. Following up on his smashing victory at Chancellorsville early in May of 1863, Lee devised a plan to take his seventy-five-thousand-man Army of Northern Virginia northward again. The aim this time was to resupply his troops; get the Union army to leave Virginia; and perhaps threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the national capital in Washington.

After victories at Winchester and Martinsburg, Virginia, Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps crossed the Potomac on June 15. By June 20 Ewell’s forces had reached South Mountain to the west of Frederick. By the end of June, some seventy-five thousand Confederate troops were scattered throughout southeastern Pennsylvania in an arc to the north and west of the small town of Gettysburg.

The Union army soon met the challenge, moving the nearly one-hundred-thousand-man-strong Army of the Potomac from Virginia into Maryland. On June 28, when Gen. George G. Meade took over as commander of the Army of the Potomac, a large percentage of his troops had set up camp in the area around Monocacy Junction. Those men began moving out at 6:00 a.m. on June 29. They marched east across the Monocacy River bridges, and the next day moved north, crossing the Pennsylvania line into Gettysburg. There the Union and Confederate forces engaged in what many consider the turning point of the Civil War.

The battle began on July 1 and lasted for three long days. When it was over, an astounding fifty-one thousand men had been killed or wounded, making Gettysburg the bloodiest battle in American history. At great cost the Union army held off Lee’s troops, forcing them to retreat on the afternoon of July 4. Meade, although victorious, emulated the disgraced McClellan and did not pursue Lee’s defeated army into Virginia.

By bringing the war into Pennsylvania, Lee had hoped to intimidate Union political leaders into negotiating for peace. That dream shattered after his army was decimated and forced to retreat from Gettysburg.

Meade’s failure to capitalize also cost him. On the same day, July 4, 1863, that Lee retreated to Virginia, Union major general Ulysses S. Grant marched triumphantly into the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant had just won a hard-fought victory that cost the Confederacy its last important stronghold on the Mississippi River. As Meade’s star plummeted, Grant’s rose.

Early in March of 1864, Abraham Lincoln summoned Grant to Washington, where the embattled president conferred upon Grant the rank of lieutenant general in a White House ceremony. That rank, which had been authorized by Congress, made Grant the highest-ranking Union commander and gave him command of all Union armies, including Meade’s Army of the Potomac.

On March 10 Grant met Meade at his winter camp near Brandy Station in Virginia’s Culpeper County, some sixty-five miles south of Washington and about eighty miles north of Richmond. It was there that Grant unveiled his strategy for ending the war—a strategy that put in motion the events that would lead to the third Confederate invasion of the North in July, the Battle of Monocacy, and Jubal Early’s march on Washington.

That sequence of events had a direct impact on the course of the Civil War, beginning when Grant put his plan into place in the early spring. If all went according to plan, Grant’s strategy was designed to end the war, perhaps in a matter of months. As we are about to see, all did not go according to plan.

Copyright © 2007 by Marc Leepson. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Journalist and historian Marc Leepson has written for many newspapers and magazines, including Smithsonian, Preservation, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Military History. He is a contributor to the Encyclopedia Americana and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. A former staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, he has been interviewed on The Today Show, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, All Things Considered, and Morning Edition. He is the author of six books, including Saving Monticello and Flag: An American Biography, and teaches U.S. history at Lord Fairfax Community College in Warrenton, Virginia.

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