Baltimore and Ohio Railroad agents knew they had a serious problem brewing when a sizable Confederate force appeared unexpectedly near Frederick, Md., in early July 1864, during the American Civil War.
These rebels could reap serious havoc in Maryland, and more importantly, threaten Washington, D.C.
Local Union units available to counter the Confederate threat were in short supply, however, as the bulk of the Army of the Potomac under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was committed to a siege of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, more than 200 miles away at Petersburg, Va.
Upon learning the news, B&O Railroad President John W. Garrett notified Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace in Baltimore. Wallace quickly assembled a force of roughly 5,000 troops, many of which were not battle tested, and headed to the Monocacy rail junction along the Monocacy River, just south of Frederick. Soon after, some additional troops rushed up from Petersburg arrived, and augmented his small command.
A month earlier, Lee had dispatched Early north to threaten the Union capital. Lee hoped that the move would force Grant to counter the threat by likewise sending Union troops north, and thus take pressure off the Confederate lines at Petersburg and Richmond.
On the morning of July 9, 1864, Wallace's 6,600 Union soldiers confronted a 15,000-strong Confederate force under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early.
The Battle of Monocacy had commenced.
This year marks the battle's 150th anniversary. The encounter slowed the Confederate march toward the national capital, and bought invaluable time for the Union to reinforce Washington. The battle has long since become known as "The Battle that Saved Washington."
The Monocacy National Battlefield encompasses approximately 1,600 acres in essentially four land parcels that include three farms and a flour mill. The battlefield offers an ideal day trip from Washington, 52 miles to the southeast, or as a bonus stopover during a trip to Gettysburg, a one-hour drive north in Pennsylvania, or Antietam, about a 40-minute drive to the northwest.
The Battle of Monocacy began with morning skirmishes at the Best Farm. Early had planned a frontal assault from the Best Farm toward Union troops guarding the Monocacy Junction. But a stubborn Union defense supported by artillery slowed the Confederates' progress.
Early had expected Union resistance at the railroad junction, and had a ready alternative plan. His cavalry moved past the west side of the Best Farm to ford the Monocacy River behind the Worthington Farm on the opposite bank, south of the rail junction.
Keep traveling on the road to the Worthington Farm unit. This will help you keep the battlefield visit in chronological order.
The Worthington House was built around 1851, and used as a rebel hospital during the battle. The surrounding farm grounds also served as assembly points for Confederate infantry and cavalry forces. Dismounted cavalrymen, the first to cross the Monocacy, launched two failed attacks from the area, each against the Union flanks at the neighboring Thomas Farm.
After the attempts, Early shifted a division across the Monocacy River to the join the cavalry at the Worthington Farm. The now-larger Confederate force prepared for a third go at the Thomas Farm.
At 3:30 pm, Early's troops attacked the Union line anchored along a rail fence at the Thomas Farm. After roughly 30 minutes, the Southerners had turned the Union's right flank, and forced the men in blue to retreat.
A 1.75-mile hiking trail on the property starts from a small parking area just off Baker Valley Road, and then heads down past the farm's maroon barn. Markers along the trail indicate different phases of the battle.
The distant rumble of traffic passing through the battlefield on nearby I-270 or an owl hoot occasionally interrupt the peacefulness of the walking path. The sprawling farm property features only a few tree-lined stretches, leaving visitors exposed to the sun much of the time. Therefore, hikers planning to make a full survey of this part of Monocacy should remember to bring sunscreen and a hat.
The Thomas Farm mansion, established c. 1780, still stands today, and serves as the Park Service administrative offices for the battlefield. As the battle raged on the property, the Thomas family hunkered down in their basement.
Backtracking down Baker Valley and Araby roads, the last Monocacy stop lies across Route 355 at the Gambrill Mill. The mill dates back to 1830, and was used as a Union hospital during the battle and as a focal point for an organized withdrawal. A footpath circling the pond at the mill takes visitors through the final phase of the battle. The path includes a nice vantage point from where visitors can see a railroad bridge over the Monocacy that Wallace's troops used to pull back to Baltimore.
After the battle, Early's victorious yet tired army camped for the night on the battlefield. A few days later, the Confederate force arrived on the outskirts of Washington and attacked Fort Stevens, one of several forts ringing the capital. But by this time, Grant's reinforcements had arrived from southern Virginia.
After two days of skirmishing, Early's force retreated back to Virginia, and eventually into the Shenandoah Valley.
The Union force suffered approximately 1,300 casualties at Monocacy, while the Confederate losses numbered roughly 900. Although Wallace had lost about 20 percent of his men, his defensive action had delayed Early's plan to attack Washington.
After the war ended in 1865, the opposing Monocacy commanders went in decidedly different direction.
Early fled to Mexico for a time, but later returned to the U.S. under the general amnesty granted to Confederates. He practiced law in Lynchburg, Va., and became an avid promoter of the "Lost Cause" movement. Early died in 1894 at age 77.
Wallace served on the tribunal that tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators. He went on to become the governor of the New Mexico Territory, and later the U.S. minister to the Ottoman Empire. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame emerged from his writing.
Wallace penned several books, including "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" in 1880. "Ben-Hur" was a big hit in 19th century America; Grant was among its admirers. But the story would eventually thrive well beyond its book form.
"Ben-Hur" was adapted for the stage in 1899, and later appeared on the silver screen in three different versions. The most famous "Ben-Hur" film starred Charlton Heston in the title role in 1959, and won 11 Academy Awards.
Wallace died in 1905, also at age 77, and was buried in Crawfordsville, Ind.
IF YOU GO:
Address: 5201 Urbana Pike, Frederick, Md., 21704
Hours: The Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center is open daily, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m; Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
Visitor Center telephone: (301) 662-3515
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/mono/index.htm
From the north (U.S. 15), or west (Hagerstown, Md.): Using I-70 eastbound, take Exit 54 (MD Rt. 85/East Street). Bear right on Rt. 85 toward Buckeystown, then turn left (south) at the second traffic light onto Rt. 355 (Urbana Pike). The Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center is approximately 1.5 miles on the left, 5201 Urbana Pike, Frederick, MD 21704.
From Baltimore: Follow I-70 westbound to Exit 54 (MD Rt. 85/East Street). Bear left (south) on Rt. 85 toward Buckeystown, then turn left (south) at the second traffic light onto Rt. 355 (Urbana Pike). The Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center is approximately 1.5 miles on the left, 5201 Urbana Pike, Frederick, MD 21704.
From Washington: Travel I-270 northbound to I-70 eastbound. Take Exit 54 (MD Rt. 85/East Street). Bear right on Rt. 85 toward Buckeystown, and then left (south) at the second traffic light onto Rt. 355 (Urbana Pike). The Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center is approximately 1.5 miles on the left.
SPECIAL 150TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS
The National Park Service has scheduled nine days of events between July 5-13 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy. Find the complete schedule on the Park Service's Monocacy website (www.nps.gov/mono/planyourvisit/monocacy-150.htm).
Distributed by MCT Information Services
PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): UST-MONOCACY