The Battle That Saved Washington, The Battle of Monocacy

Union Major General Lew Wallace
Union Major General Lew Wallace

As the sun began to rise on July 9, 1864, Union Major General Lew Wallace knew that there would be a major contest just south of Frederick, MD. Major General Wallace had a total force of about 6,500 men. His command of the Middle Department consisted of mostly militia, and national guardsmen, with very little veteran experience. However, he was reinforced by two veteran brigades of Major General James Ricketts’ division of the VI Corps.

Major General Wallace had established a six mile defensive line along the eastern river banks of the Monocacy River that ran northeast to Hugh’s Ford and Jug Bridge on the Baltimore Pike, to the Southwest near the Worthington Farm, with Monocacy Junction in the center. The only obstacle standing in the way of L.t Gen. Early and his Confederate army and Washington was Maj. Gen. Wallace and the Monocacy River.

Area where the Ohio National Guard was deployed looking from the Confederate main position east of Jug Bridge.
Area where the Ohio National Guard was deployed looking from the Confederate main position west of Jug Bridge.

While the Union forces waited, in Frederick city Lt. Gen. Early began moving portions of his 15,000 man army. He was under the impression that he would be up against a Union force that lacked combat experience. Lieutenant General Early ordered Major General Robert Rodes’ division to march down the Baltimore Pike to Jug Bridge, relieving a brigade of Ramseur’s division, and attack the bridge in order to draw the attention of the Union troops away from Monocacy Junction.

Earlier, Major General Wallace had ordered Brigadier General Erastus Tyler to protect Jug Bridge. Brigadier General Tyler ordered the 144th and the 149th Ohio National Guard regiments to hold the bridge. By daylight, the 149th Ohio National Guard had deployed on the western side of river and waited. By 10:00 a.m., Maj. Gen. Rodes came in contact with the Ohioans under the command of Colonel Allison Brown. For several hours, Maj. Gen. Rodes’ skirmished with the Union force in his front.

At the center of the Union line, Lt. Gen. Early ordered Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s division down the Georgetown Pike to secure the covered bridge that spanned the Monocacy River. For easy crossing of the river, the bridge needed to fall into Confederate hands. The Union defense at the junction and the bridge consisted of the 1st Potomac Home Brigade and small portion of the 10th Vermont Infantry. Across the river were Maj. Gen. Ricketts’ 3,300 veterans.

The Thomas Farm
The Best Farm

By 8:30 a.m., Maj. Gen. Ramseur’s skirmishers had advanced along the Georgetown Pike, and soon the Confederates opened fire. A half an hour later, two companies of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery, and a detachment of the 106th New York Infantry crossed the covered bridge and deployed to protect it. Within minutes, the Confederate artillery on the Best Farm, west of the river, opened fire. The fighting quickly began to die down as Maj. Gen. Ramsuer determined it to be too hazardous to take the covered bridge.

The Railroad Bridge beyond the treeline.
The Railroad Bridge beyond the treeline.

By 11:00 a.m., Maj. Gen. Ramseur launched a second attack. This time he hit the Union right flank by the block house at the junction, and the railroad bridge not far up stream from the covered bridge. First Lieutenant George Davis and his detachment of the 10th Vermont Infantry held their ground and the Confederate attack was repelled.

The area where Confederate Brigadier General John McCausland formed his brigade.
The area where Confederate Brigadier General John McCausland formed his brigade.

As Maj. Gen. Ramseur did not take the bridge, Lt. Gen. Early ordered Brigadier General John McCausland to take his cavalry brigade down the Buckeystown Road and find a ford for easy access. By 10:30 a.m., Brig. Gen. McCausland forded the Monocacy River at the Worthington-McKinney ford, where he skirmished with portions of the 8th Illinois Cavalry. The 8th Illinois Cavalry fell back in order to warn Maj. Gen. Wallace of the Confederate advance now east of the river. As Brig, Gen. McCausland forded the river, Maj. Gen. Wallace heard the firing in that direction. He then sent Maj. Gen. Ricketts to the Thomas farm to form a defensive line.

Monocacy Junction today.
Monocacy Junction today.

With Maj. Gen. Ramseur pressing the Union center, and now a flanking attempt unfolding on the Union left, this presented a major problem for Maj. Gen. Wallace. Orders came from Maj. Gen. Wallace for the Union skirmishers west of the river to fall back to the eastern bank and destroy the bridge. A detachment of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery stacked some dried hay on the roof of the covered bridge and set fire to it. Near the block house, Lt. Davis’ skirmishers were unaware of what was happening. They would be forced to retreat using the railroad bridge during Maj. Gen. Ramseur’s third and final attack, which came around 3:30 p.m.

By 11:00 a.m., Brig. Gen. McCausland’s brigade of cavalry was dismounted in the fields near the Worthington Farm. Once ready, McCausland’s men advanced. Major General Ricketts ordered his men to hold their fire until the Confederates were within one hundred twenty-five yards of their position. As the Confederates reached that point, the Union troops unleashed a volley and sent lead flying in through the air. This forced the Confederates to fall back to the Worthington Farm.

The Thomas Farm
The Thomas Farm

Major General Ricketts reformed his battle line. Giving his men time to regroup, Brig. Gen. McCausland quickly studied the area for his next attack. By 2:00 p.m., the Confederates advanced, using the Thomas house itself, as a guide. As Brigadier General McCausland’s brigade moved forward, they threatened Ricketts’ left flank. Major General Ricketts ordered his division to fall back to the Georgetown Pike and reform their lines there, while the Confederates take the Thomas Farm.

Major General Wallace had sent a courier to Maj. Gen. Ricketts suggesting that the Thomas Farm be regained by charging the Confederate force there. The courier came across Captain William Lanius of the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry. As the courier relayed the message, Captain Lanius misinterpreted the message as an order to charge the Confederate position. Their brigade commander Colonel William S. Truex ordered the 10th Vermont infantry to support 87th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the 14th New Jersey Infantry as they charged across the field to the Thomas Farm.

By 3:00 p.m., the two regiments moved through the field and as they closed in on the Confederates, the fighting was very fierce. The Union troops retook the farm and within a half an hour, Brig. Gen. McCausland was forced to fall back to the Worthington Farm. Major General Ricketts quickly reestablished his lines, with his right flank situated near the river, and his left flank near Baker Valley Road.

The Worthington House
The Worthington House

Just as McCausland was falling back, Lt. Gen. Early had ordered Major General John Gordon to take his division down Buckeystown Road to reinforce McCausland’s men. After fording the river, Maj. Gen. Gordon’s 3,500 man division, and two batteries began to deploy near the Worthington Farm. As Maj. Gen. Gordon studied the area, Brig. Gen. McCausland’s brigade arrived shortly after their disastrous fight. Major General Gordon’s plan consisted of a three pronged attack. However, several obstacles were in the way. Farms, fences, and stacks of wheat would make an assault difficult. At around 3:30 p.m., Brigadier General Clement Evans was the first to march out. Using the hill near his position, he was to hit the Union left flank near Baker Valley Road. The fighting was fierce as Brig. Gen. Evans closed in and began to stall.

Around 3:45 pm, Brigadier General Zebulon York, forming the center of the Confederate line, made his attack. The Confederate line was supported by artillery, which pounded the Union line. This forced Maj. Gen. Ricketts to fall back, toward the Georgetown Road. Even though the Confederates regained the ground lost by Brig. Gen. McCausland’s brigade, they were still unable to break through Ricketts’ line.

By 4:00 p.m., Brigadier General William Terry’s brigade attacked the Union right flank, pushing the Union troops past the Thomas Farm. As he hit the Union right, the line became unstable. Major General Gordon ordered Brig. Gen. Terry to hit the line again. This attack broke the Union right, and to make matters worse, the men of Ricketts’ division were running low on ammunition.

By 4:30 p.m., Maj. Gen. Wallace realized that the battle was now lost. He ordered Maj. Gen. Ricketts to retreat toward the Baltimore Pike. However, Ricketts’ right flank was being pushed toward the Gambrill Mill. A half an hour later, Ricketts’ men were in retreat, and they were pursued nearly two miles by the Confederates. After giving up the chase, the Confederates returned to the scene of the battle.

Major General Wallace had sent an order to Colonel Brown to cover the Union retreat. Colonel Brown ordered the battle line at Jug Bridge to be strengthened. An hour after Ricketts’ men had retreated from the Monocacy, Maj. Gen. Rodes launched his attack, forcing the two Ohio National Guard units back. Confederate artillery opened on the Ohioans causing much chaos. Colonel Brown rallied his men, which stalled Rodes’ attack, but only briefly. After learning of Maj. Gen. Wallace’s retreat, Colonel Brown fell back to New Market, where he arrived by 8:00 p.m.

The 14th New Jersey Monument
The 14th New Jersey Monument

The Battle of Monocacy is the third largest Civil War battle to occur in Maryland, and was the only major victory achieved by a Confederate army during the three northern invasions. This victory came with a cost to the Confederate invaders. It took Lt. Gen. Early the entire day to fight a battle he did not want to fight. In addition, the battle of Monocacy bought the defenses of Washington time to reinforce the city with troops.

Although a defeat for Maj. Gen. Wallace militarily, it was an overall victory, as the Union defenders at Monocacy kept back a much larger force, saving Washington from capture. The battle of Monocacy cost the Union more than 1,200 casualties of killed, wounded, and captured men. The Confederate army lost less than a thousand men killed, wounded, or captured. From Frederick, the Confederate army would push southward to Washington and by July 12, Lt. Gen. Early withdrew, and forded the Potomac River.

Cooling, Benjamin Franklin, Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL, 1989.
Leepson, Marc, Desperate Engagement, St. Martun’s Press, New York, 2007.
Schilt, John W. Drums along the Monocacy, Antietam Publications, 1991.
Spaulding, Brett W. Last Chance of Victory, Jubal Early’s 1864 Maryland Campaign, Self published, 2010.
Vandiver, Frank E. Jubal’s Raid, General Early’s Famous Attack on Washington in 1864, University of Nebraska, 1988.
Wenger, Warren D., Monocacy, the Defeat that Saved Washington, Eugene Printing, Bridgeton, N.J., 1996
Worthington, Glenn H. Fighting for Time, The Battle of Monocacy, White Mane Publishing, Shippensburg, PA. 1994.
Official Records Series 1, vol 37, Part 1 (Monocacy)
Official Records Series 1, vol 37, Part 2 (Monocacy)