The war was not going especially well for Lewis “Lew” Wallace. Early on, he had established himself as a competent commander while serving under Ulysses S. Grant, and was widely regarded as a “rising star” in the Union Army. As a Brigadier General, he performed superbly at the battle for Ft Henry, but it was at the siege of Ft Donelson that he really began to break out of the pack. On 15 February 1862, the Confederates at Ft Donelson staged a surprise attack on the surrounding Union Army, sending it into disarray. Seeing that Brig Gen John McClemand’s forces were taking a beating by the Confederates, Lewis took the initiative and moved his brigade up to reinforce the center of the Union line, eventually repelling the attack. Lew’s battlefield savvy was the talk of the Army that evening, and soon afterward Grant promoted him to Major General. He was clearly on track for greatness…until Shiloh.
Having been overrun by the Confederate Army, Grant called for Wallace’s Division to come up and reinforce the front. Receiving the order, Lew moved his forces immediately. Grant had not been specific about the route to take however, and Wallace had a choice of two roads. The first road was worn and rutted while the other was relatively smooth. Wallace choose the nicer of the two roads thinking it would get him to the right position. Unfortunately, he was wrong. By the time his division had made it to the front, the Union had been beaten back so badly that he actually found himself in the rear of the attacking Confederate troops. Rather than seize the opportunity and attack from the rear, Lew decided to march his division back to where they had started and take the correct road. When he finally joined up with Grant it was nearly 7pm and the fighting was all but over for the day. Grant was furious. The next day, Wallace fought bravely and ultimately helped the Union win the battle, but the damage to his reputation was done. When people began to hear of the horrible casualties at Shiloh, Grant needed a scapegoat and Wallace’s blunder was still fresh in his mind. Grant laid the blame squarely in Wallace’s lap, removed him from command, and reassigned him, in disgrace, to first defend Cincinnati and then to run the garrison at Baltimore. The Union Army’s brightest star had fallen from the sky almost as quickly as he had risen. He had disgraced his name, his family, and his country. Major General Lew Wallace was finished; a casualty of wartime politics.
As bad as things were going for Wallace in the summer of 1864, they were going much worse for Robert E. Lee. His once unstoppable army was now in tatters, and besieged by Union forces in Petersburg, VA. Grant had adopted a much different strategy than his predecessors, and had pursued Lee relentlessly giving his army little time to rest or resupply. They were now pinned down in Petersburg incapable of going toe to toe with Grant’s vastly superior numbers. Lee was desperate for relief. He needed time to rest, resupply, and relocate his army. Lee knew that if he did not take action soon, the war would be lost. So, he came up with a daring plan to do the only thing he knew how to do – attack.
Lee’s plan was to send Lt General Jubal Early up through the Shenandoah Valley with a Corps of 15,000 men. He would cross into Maryland near Fredrick, and make his way down the Georgetown Pike to Washington. In order to pursue Lee’s army, Grant had called just about every available unit from Washington leaving the capital practically undefended. If Jubal could maintain the element of surprise, he would be able to take Washington and force Grant to withdraw his forces from Virgina. Perhaps, Lincoln could even be persuaded to accept a negotiated peace as ransom. It was a brilliant plan, but Lee understood the risks well. On one occasion he confided to his generals:
“If we are successful, we have everything to fight for. If we fail, there will be nothing left to fight for.”
So Jubal Early headed north through the Shenandoah Valley with his infantry, for one last glorious battle. He was Lee’s most capable general and he did not plan on failing. The road was wide open all the way to Washington City, and victory seemed within reach. If anyone could pull it off, “Ole’ Jube” could.
The secret did not last long however. As Jubal’s Corps neared Maryland, workers for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad spotted them and got word to B&O President John W. Garrett. Concerned that the Confederates were going to destroy his rail line, Garrett found Major General Wallace in Baltimore and pleaded with him to defend the railroad. Unsure of whether Jubal was headed for Baltimore or Washington, Wallace decided to move as many men as he could to a small bridge and rail junction near the Monocacy River just south of Fredrick. If the Confederates were going to come down the Georgetown Pike, they would have to pass this point regardless of their final destination, and it was there at the Monocacy Bridge that Wallace would make his stand. He sent word of his intentions to Grant and then moved out without delay.
Wallace rounded up approximately 2,500 men, most with no battle experience whatsoever, and headed from Baltimore to the rail junction at Monocasy. Lew knew that he would be facing over 15,000 battle hardened Confederates, and that the odds were horribly stacked against his ragtag force. He also knew that they were the only thing between Jubal Early and Washington. If he could just give Grant enough time to bring reinforcements up the Chesapeake to Washington, then the city might be saved. Wallace was not fighting for a victory at Monocacy; he was fighting for time.
Lew’s plan was pretty simple. He would station his troops on the south side of the Monocacy River by the bridge and the railroad crossing, and fight like hell to keep the Confederates from crossing over. With only six cannon and one 24 pound Howitzer he knew that Jubal would have him significantly out-gunned, so to slow them down further he would send a line of skirmishers north of the river to engage Jubal’s men as far forward as possible. On the morning of 9 July, 1864 he arrayed his artillery and troops around the bridges the best that he could and waited for the southern juggernaut to arrive. In a bit of lucky timing, an additional 3,000 battle hardened men arrived that morning with the compliments of General Grant. The odds were better, but Jubal would still have nearly a three to one superiority. Wallace was ready for a fight however, and perhaps a bit of redemption in the process.
Later that morning Lew and his commanders watched quietly as Jubal’s Corps filed south toward the railroad junction and the Monocacy Bridge. When the Confederates were in range of his skirmishers they open fired, and Lew’s battle for time had begun. Lt General Early pushed forward toward the bridge with 4 Regiments. They marched in a massive formation across the freshly hewn fields of the Best Farm toward the Monocacy Bridge. Early also set up a number of artillery batteries on the farm’s front lawn sending a fierce barrage toward Lew’s lines. The map below shows a rough layout of the battle.
The Battle of Monocacy July 9, 1864
The battle was intense and men on both sides started to fall. Thanks to the fearless efforts of men like Lt George Davis, who received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery, the thin Union line held. So fierce was their resistance, that Jubal met with his generals and determined that a direct attack on the bridges was too risky. Instead, he sent two of his generals and 3,000 infantry west to find a good place to cross the river and attack the left flank of Wallace’s line. Soon, they found a suitable crossing a couple of miles downstream at a place called Worthington Farm. Once across, they formed up for a simultaneous attack with the main force.
The Old Worthington Farm Where Jubal’s Generals Crossed
Wallace had read Jubal’s plan however, and shifted his most battle hardened troops west to meet the Confederates head on. They lined up along a fence separating Worthington Farm from Thomas Farm and waited for the Confederates to come. At 1030, they appeared directly in front of Wallace’s troops, unaware of their presence. Wallace’s men open fired inflicting horrendous casualties on the Confederates, eventually forcing them to withdraw and regroup. Things were quiet until about 2:30 in the afternoon when the Confederates came again. This time, they circled around the Thomas Farm fence line and focused their attack on the Thomas House itself. The fighting was fierce and often hand to hand with rifle butts and bayonets. Over the next hour and a half, the Thomas Farm changed hands several times. Wallace’s troops held their line however, driving the attacking Confederate Regiments back time after time. While the fighting was raging to the west, Wallace ordered the Monocacy bridge burned so that the Confederate forces would not be able to storm it. Lt Davis and his skirmishers were inadvertently left on the other side of the river, and had to withdraw across the B&O railroad tressel while under heavy fire.
Wallace’s troops fought valiantly for the entire day, successfully holding a vastly superior force at bay. At 4:00 in the afternoon however, low on ammunition, and having lost over 20% of their force they could hold their ground no longer. As the Confederates swarmed their flank a third time, Wallace ordered his men to withdraw to the east and start heading for Baltimore. They had lost over 1,200 men but had inflicted about 900 casualties on Jubal’s forces, severely reducing their combat effectiveness. They had also tired out the Confederates so badly that Jubal had no choice but to make camp at Monocacy for the evening before proceeding to Washington City. Though Major General Wallace had technically lost the battle, he had bought General Grant an extra day to get reinforcements up the Chesapeake to Washington.
When Jubal arrived at Ft Stevens on the outskirts of Washington City two days later, he found two fresh Union Divisions ready for a fight. Early attacked Ft Stevens on the afternoon of 11 July but the Union reinforcements held firm, making it impossible for him to enter the city. Jubal realized that his opportunity to take the Union Capital had passed. He had literally arrived a day late because of the battle at Monocacy. The battle in which Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace stood his ground and saved Washington.
The importance of Wallace’s stand at Monocacy was not lost on General Grant. In his memoirs he noted that Wallace’s defeat contributed:
“…a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of equal force to render by means of a victory.”
Lew Wallace had been disgraced at Shiloh, removed from his command, and shoved to the side by his nation. He had been ridiculed by his seniors, and criticized by politicians. His once bright military career had been shattered into a thousand shards of glass, and he was destined to be nothing more than a footnote to failure in the history books. Instead of drowning in his own bitterness, however, Major General Lew Wallace chose to stand up and answer the call of his countrymen. Once again, he risked everything to save what he held dear. Had he failed, and Jubal reached Washington a day early, they would have beaten Grant’s reinforcements and taken the city. Lincoln himself would have been held hostage until a negotiated peace to the war was achieved. The consequences of Wallace’s actions are simply incalculable. Against all odds, he rallied his forces and gave the Union the additional day that they so desperately needed. A day that ultimately resulted in the final defeat of the Confederacy, and an end to the bloodiest war in American History.
I am not providing you this, rather lengthy, history lesson in order to draw some loose analogy to our present-day political struggles. To do so would trivialize the importance of what happened at Monocacy River that day. My point for telling this fantastic story, is to remind us all that America is great because Americans are great. History shows us time and again that, when others would declare defeat, we stand up and renew the fight. Lew Wallace reminds us of this fact. Had he not fearlessly stood his ground that day at Monocacy River, our nation’s history may have been profoundly different. At the very least, the war could have lasted years longer, costing both sides thousands of more lives. Lew stood his ground and, in doing so, gave us all an example of what it means to be an American.
In this modern age of relative prosperity and comfort it is easy to overlook the roots of greatness that make this country strong. We are those roots. Just like Lew, each of us has the power to stand up and be counted. Monocacy is a reminder to each of us that the fate of our nation is firmly in our hands, and that our heritage of courage is all that stands between us and tyranny. Lew knew this to be true, and that is why he responded so valiantly when his nation called on him. If history is any measure of the future, we can be sure that there will be many more Monocacy moments. Perhaps it will be your turn to stand up and be counted. How will you respond?
Editor’s Note: After the war, Lew Wallace became famous for one more great contribution to the world. In 1880 he wrote “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” It became the top selling book of the 19th Century and has never been taken out of print.