The Battle of Monocacy: Reflections on Battle, Contingency, and Strategy

This is, in some ways, a strange essay for me to write. I’m an historian, but I study the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I’m a military historian, but I tend to eschew the study of battles and campaigns in favor of cultural history and grand strategy. (My twitter handle is literally @notabattlechick.) I’m a southerner, but I named my cats after William Tecumseh Sherman and David Farragut. When I drive from Carlisle, PA to Raleigh, NC (a trek I make with some regularity), I drive on a road named (until recently) Jefferson Davis Highway, and I pass by many Civil War battlefields—Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, Bennett Place—but I never stop. So, when I received an invitation to write about the Battle of Monocacy on the occasion of its anniversary, I was both perplexed and intrigued.

Several questions swirled as I contemplated taking on the task: How and why did the battle take the shape it did? Was it a minor engagement or an underappreciated turning point in the war? What could this little-known battle have to tell us about the American Civil War? Could a closer examination of Monocacy open up possibilities for teaching about war and strategy that the study of larger and more well-known battles might preclude?

The Shenandoah Valley Campaign, of which Monocacy was a part (Civil War Preservation Trust)

My first instinct was to turn to my bookshelf, but it’s a battle that gets little coverage in general histories of the American Civil War. When I taught The History of the Military Art at West Point, the American Civil War occupied between eight and ten lessons of forty in the semester, yet I don’t recall ever mentioning the Battle of Monocacy in class. In the recently-updated textbook, The West Point History of Warfare, in which battles and operations are centerpieces of the story, this battle is covered in about two sentences. In James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, Battle Cry of Freedom, Monocacy is covered in a paragraph and embedded in a discussion of the embattled Union Army and Grant’s Overland Campaign of the summer of 1864 and the Union siege of Petersburg. Ron Chernow gives it a scant paragraph in his recent biography of Grant, even though Grant’s relationship with the Union commander at Monocacy, Major General Lew Wallace, is worthy of some scrutiny. In each case, the authors conclude that at Monocacy Wallace slowed Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s assault long enough for Grant to move troops critical to the defense of Washington, D.C., but they give limited attention to the details of the battle, the dynamics it engendered within the high command of either the Union or Confederate armies, or the broader implications of the delay for the war.

Monocacy Battlefield Map (Civil War Preservation Trust)

My bookshelf having failed me, my next approach was twofold. It turns out I drive right by the Monocacy National Battlefield, too. So I stopped and walked the ground; there’s nothing like this for military historians. The national park site is relatively small, and it features no grand film introduction or elaborate museum displays like those at at Gettysburg. The exhibits in the Visitor’s Center are text-heavy and informative, but accessible primarily to people already possessed of a decent knowledge of the American Civil War. The Auto Tour includes five stops and will put just six miles on your car. The town of Frederick, Maryland is about eight miles to the north, and the battle played out in the crook of an S-shaped curve in the nearby Monocacy River. Today, Interstate 270 slices the site roughly north to south, and runs parallel to Maryland 355, which in 1864 was known as the Georgetown Turnpike. The Baltimore and Ohio railroad bisects the battlefield east-to-west.

The key terrain on the battlefield is Monocacy Junction, a triangular sliver of land formed by the road, the railroad, and north of the river, encompassing several structures providing cover for the combatants. Two bridges across the river were critical paths for a march on Washington, D.C. As with many Civil War battles, the fighting took place at key public crossroads and on private property—local farms, fields, and houses absorbed blood and bodies, artillery shells and bullets. Battles fundamentally altered local landscapes and shaped local residents’ lives, both during the battle and long after as they were left to restore and rebuild after the combatants departed.

Sufficiently oriented, I turned to the documents, as historians are trained and primed to do.

Major General Lewis "Lew" Wallace (Wikimedia)

The messages exchanged between U.S. Army commanders around Frederick, Maryland are short, pointed, and reveal the the urgency of the situation. On the afternoon and evening of 7 July 1864, it was clear the Confederate Army was on the move. That day, Wallace ordered: “Should it become necessary to evacuate Frederick you will fall back upon the Baltimore pike and hold the crossing of the Monocacy at all hazards.” Wallace, whose reputation suffered badly at the battle of Shiloh, and who struggled to earn the respect of Grant and Sherman, nevertheless acted decisively in emplacing his defenses at Monocacy Junction, not knowing whether Baltimore or Washington, D.C., was the ultimate Confederate target. Wallace’s men were green, most of them Hundred Days Men filling volunteer regiments formed in 1864 and obligated for just 100 days, though there were some battle-hardened veterans in the line. The Union Army was badly outnumbered by more than two to one.

After skirmishes on the outskirts of Frederick on 7-8 July, the Confederates moved into Frederick on the morning of 9 July and continued southward on the Georgetown Turnpike on multiple lines of advance. Their objective was Washington, D.C. Both organized assaults and sharpshooters harassed the Union line, and the Confederates did not expect to see heavy resistance. After a day of exchanging artillery fire and trading advances and retreats, Union troops generally succeeded in slowing, but not stopping, the Confederate advance. The final Confederate attacks were coordinated late in the afternoon as Wallace ordered a general retreat toward Baltimore. The Confederate pursuit lasted only about two miles. Union casualties reached just over 1200 while the Confederates suffered around 900 casualties. At the end of the battle, Wallace wrote to Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War,

I did as I promised. Held the bridge to the last. They overwhelmed me with numbers. My troops fought splendidly. Losses fearful. Send me cars enough to Ellicott's Mills to take up my retreating columns. Don't fail me.

Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal S. Early (Wikimedia)

When Early and his soldiers moved on toward Washington, D.C., on 10 June, Grant had sent reinforcements from the lines at Petersburg and various other volunteer units sufficient to fend off the attack. The Battle at Monocacy had been lost, but neither the Union capital nor the Maryland coastline fell into Confederate hands.

What does all this mean, though? Is it simply a story of losing a battle, but winning the war for the Union? Is it a story of difficulty in translating tactical success into strategic and political effect for the Confederacy? Is it the type of underdog story Americans are so drawn to—where Wallace’s ragtag gang of green troops does just enough to forestall Early’s advance with seasoned Confederate soldiers?

Perhaps it is all of these things, but, most importantly, I think it is a story about contingency and how things could have gone another way. It’s about how, even by the summer of 1864, the outcome of the war felt far from inevitable. Although counterfactual ruminations are always dicey, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which Wallace was unable to delay Early’s advance, in which the shock of Confederate troops in Washington, D.C., altered the outcome of the 1864 presidential election, or in which Lincoln fired Grant because the General’s focus on defeating Lee’s army came at too high a cost: mounting casualties and the seat of American government.

In hindsight, it might seem obvious the Union would win the war, given its overwhelming advantage in men and materiel. In this Lost Cause version of the story, it was only a matter of time before the ennobled but outnumbered Confederates, led by their stalwart and genius captain Robert E. Lee, succumbed to the Union’s industrial, agricultural, and manpower superiority. But this is more myth than fact. Of course, the United States had tremendous advantages, but long wars and crises have a way of warping democratic norms, and public support for war is far from assured. Domestic politics and the prevailing sentiment for how things are going may determine outcomes as surely as battlefield exploits.

The great irony of the Battle of Monocacy, then, is that the “Battle that Saved Washington” was, by most measures a Union loss, and not a close one.

In the American Civil War, internal domestic political and social dynamics put immense pressure on both the Union and Confederate armies and governments. The significance of Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 for the outcome of the war can hardly be overstated. Even with repeated tactical setbacks in the spring and summer of 1864, Lincoln had both the strategic vision and the single mindedness to continue the war. Lincoln believed his political fate lay in the hands of his generals, especially Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. While Sherman’s Atlanta campaign was realizing significant gains, Grant’s progress required more forbearance. The great irony of the Battle of Monocacy, then, is that the “Battle that Saved Washington” was, by most measures a Union loss, and not a close one. The losses could have been far greater, or reinforcements not precisely on time—and the course of the war could have changed.

General William T. Sherman, General Ulysses S. Grant, President Abraham Lincoln, and Rear Admiral David Porter (Library of Congress)

In a larger sense, the Battle of Monocacy and the question of contingency brings us to a larger exploration about the nature of war and strategy. Because Monocacy belies simple declarations about which side won and lost, a closer examination forces us back to the ambiguous, messy middle. The battle was both the only Confederate victory on Union soil and an irredeemable loss as the Confederate army failed to capture Washington, D.C. Wallace’s troops were soundly defeated in the short-run, but a few months later Lincoln won the 1864 election against George McClellan in a landslide. The Union’s ability to absorb the loss at Monocacy and salvage strategic success importantly demonstrates Grant’s vision and mettle—his ability to see alternate futures and to focus on the strategic level of war. 

Unlike Gettysburg, Antietam, Sherman’s March to the Sea, or even Vicksburg, the story of Monocacy remains primarily one of local-interest. It is the kind of battlefield to which dedicated history buffs may drag their kids on a summer road trip, but which will probably be forgotten. It features in a sleuthing story about the actual location of a famed Civil War photograph of Confederate soldiers on the march. It is the subject of a 2006 independent film, No Retreat from Destiny: The Battle that Rescued Washington—though it was not widely distributed outside of film festivals, where it was well-received. It is not ingrained into the American national consciousness, but perhaps it should be.

Unlike Gettysburg, Antietam, Sherman’s March to the Sea, or even Vicksburg, the story of Monocacy remains primarily one of local-interest.

In the end, I think this is not such a strange essay for me to have written at all. The Battle of Monocacy, in part because of its relative obscurity, but also because of the complexity of its strategic effect, opens up interesting questions about historical contingency, the meaning of victory and defeat, the duality and ambiguity of war and strategy, and the narratives that take hold and those which fade away.

Jacqueline E. Whitt is Associate Professor of Strategy at the United States Army War College and the author of Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains in the Vietnam War. The views expressed are the authors alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: The covered bridge over the Monocacy River. (National Museum of the U.S. Army)