The Battle that Saved Washington, DC
Monocacy National Battlefield preserves the site of a Civil War battle, July 9, 1864, south of Frederick, MD, during the third and final Confederate invasion of the North. The Battle of Monocacy is less famous and smaller in scale than the battles of Antietam and Gettysburgduring the first and second invasionsbut it also proved crucial. The Battle of Monocacy delayed Confederate forces sent to capture the Nation's Capital and ultimately forced them to withdraw to Virginia.
Third Confederate Invasion of the North
By mid-I864 the tide of war had turned against the Confederacy. In the West its army was being beaten back toward Atlanta, GA. In the East, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was forced to establish battle lines around Richmond and Petersburg, VA. To bolster Union forces besieging the cities, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant removed thousands of troops from the defensive ring of forts around Washington, DC, leaving the city lightly defended and a tempting target.
To relieve pressure on his beleaguered army, Lee sent 15,000 troops under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early to secure the Shenandoah Valley and then invade Maryland. Lee hoped to force Grant to divert troops to protect the North by threateningand possibly capturingWashington. Early headed west to the Shenandoah Valley, then swept north into Maryland. His goal was to threaten or capture the Nation's Capital. Lee also hoped that this third invasion of the war-weary North would further erode public support for the war there.
Early's army reached Harpers Ferry, WV, on July 4. Crossing the Potomac River near Sharpsburg, MD, they headed east toward Frederick and the road to Washington. Seeing their movements, railroad agents alerted Baltimore and Ohio Railroad President John W. Garrett, who notified Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, the Union commander in Baltimore. Wallace quickly assembled 3,200 troops, mostly new or short-term recruits without experience.
Unsure of Early's strength or whether the Confederates were headed to Baltimore or Washington, Wallace rushed his troops by railroad to Monocacy Junction, an important trade and transportation center. There, the Georgetown Pike to Washington and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crossed the Monocacy, as did the nearby National Road to Baltimore. Guarding the three bridges and several fords, Wallace hoped to delay Early until Washington could be reinforced.
By dawn on July 9, the last of the 3,400 Union veterans that Grant had sent reached Monocacy Junction, more than doubling Wallace's force to 6,600. Early's armyin Frederick nowstill outnumbered Wallace more than two to one, although Early had sent some cavalry to raid the Union prison at Point Lookout and free the thousands of Confederates held there.
The Armies Clash at Monocacy
Wallace determined that Early was headed toward Washington. He concentrated his veterans on the east side of the river at Monocacy Junction, where the road to Washington crossed. He also placed a line of skirmishers along the railroad tracks on the west side. On the morning of July 9, advancing Confederates attacked Union troops defending the Monocacy River bridges.
The Confederates brought up artillery and heavy fighting ensued around the Best Farm as they tested the Union defense. Early decided a direct frontal assault would be too costly. Instead, his cavalry found a place downstream to ford the river and attack the Union left flank. Alerted to the movement, Wallace shifted troops onto the Thomas Farm to meet the assault.
Early's cavalry crossed the river at the Worthington Ford, dismounted, formed ranks, and advanced across the Worthington Farm fields. Instead of springing a surprise attack, they marched into a line of soldiers concealed along a fence on the Thomas Farm. Union rifle fire raked the Confederates, forcing them to fall back. Meanwhile, Wallace ordered his men to
Meanwhile, Wallace ordered his men to burn the wooden covered bridge on the Georgetown Pike to keep Confederates on his right from storming across the river. By doing so, he also cut off the best route of retreat for his skirmishers, still stubbornly holding their ground near the junction. Wallace bolstered his left flank and shifted more troops to the Thomas Farm, preparing for a second Confederate assault.
A mid-afternoon Confederate cavalry attack pushed the Union soldiers back and captured the Thomas House. Then a Union counterattack recaptured the house. On the Worthington Farm, a full Confederate division forded the river in late afternoon and launched a three-pronged assault against the Union line.
The day's heaviest fighting raged across the wheat and corn fields of the Thomas Farm, as the Confederates again pushed the Union soldiers back. At the junction they also dislodged the Union skirmishers and forced them to flee under fire across the railroad bridge.
Wallace could hold his position no longer. He ordered what was left of his small army to fall back past Gambrill Mill and retreat toward Baltimore. He left behind some 1,300 mendead, wounded, missing, or captured.
Significance of the Battle
The exhausted Confederates encamped on the battlefield that night before resuming their march toward Washington. The battle had cost them as many as 900 men killed, wounded, missing, or captured, as well as a precious day of time. On July 11, two days after the Battle of Monocacy, Early's army reached Fort Stevens in northwest Washington. By the time his army arrived, the two divisions Grant rushed to Washington from Petersburg were moving into Fort Stevens and other city defenses.
Early's and Grant's troops battled on July 12, with President Lincoln watching the action, but any opportunity to capture the city had been lost. The Confederate cavalry sent to liberate prisoners at Point Lookout was recalled before they could reach their destination, and on July 12, under the cover of darkness, Early started to withdraw his army back into Virginia, ending the last Confederate invasion of the North.
At Monocacy, Wallace's small improvised army had held its ground against repeated assaults by a much larger; battle-hardened Confederate force, delaying their advance for one critical day. His troops had lost the battle, but they had saved Washington.
Monocacy Battlefield Then and Now
Two Other Significant Civil War Events took place on the Monocacy battlefield before and after the battle:
On September 13, 1862, Union soldiers made a surprising findthey discovered an envelope containing two cigars and a copy of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Special Orders No. 191. The orders, detailing movements of the Confederate army September 1O-12, were written a few days before as the army was camped at the Best Farm. This information enabled Union Gen. George B. McClellan to determine Lee's movements and intentions, and to move his army quicker and with more confidence. His clash with Lee at Antietam on September 17, the bloodiest day of the war, ended in a drawa missed opportunity to destroy the Confederate army. A historical marker on the Monocacy battlefield identifies Lee's headquarters site where Special Orders No. 191 was prepared.
On August 5, 1864, Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met with several of his generals in an upper room at the Thomas House (known as "Araby") to devise a plan to drive Lt. Gen. Jubal Early's army from the Shenandoah Valley and then systematically lay waste to this "breadbasket of the Confederacy," therefore denying Lee's army a dependable source of food and forage. The next day he placed Gen. Philip Sheridan in command of the Union army in the Valley. Sheridan's assignment: destroy Early's forces and render the Valley so desolate that "even a crow flying over the place would have to take his rations with him."
Touring the Battlefield
The self-guiding auto tour begins at the visitor center and covers about six miles.
Early decided to redirect his attack downstream rather than risk a direct frontal assault against the well-positioned Federals. Later in the morning, Wallace shifted most of his force to the left to counter that move and ordered the wooden covered bridge burned in case the Confederates broke through the skirmish line. Although the burning bridge cut off their best avenue of retreat, the Union skirmishers held their ground throughout the day. They repulsed a second attack before a third and final assault forced them to flee across the open trestles of the railroad bridge.
Late in the day, a division of Confederate infantry, supported by a battery of artillery at the Worthington House, attacked and drove the Federals from the field. Wallace's force fell back past Gambrill Mill and retreated toward Baltimore. The Confederates had won the battle, but they had lost a precious day in their advance on Washington.
Enjoy Monocacy Battlefield's Trails and Auto Tour
Hours and Admission
Ask for trail brochures at the visitor centeror you can print them from our park website. Part of the Gambrill Mill Trail is wheelchair-accessible.
Safety and Regulations
The following are prohibited in the park: bicycles on park trails; relic hunting; metal detectors; pets off leash; littering; hunting or harassing wildlife; possession of cultural resources (bottles, ceramics, etc.); and possession of natural resources (flowers, rocks, etc.).
Beware of wildlife and poisonous plants. For firearms regulations, visit the park website. In an emergency, call 911.
Source: NPS Brochure (2012)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Archeological Overview, Assessment, Identification, and Evaluation Study of the Thomas Farm, Monocacy National Battlefield, Frederick, Maryland Occasional Report Series of the Regional Archeology Program No. 19 (Joy Beasley, ed. 2010)
Bird Inventory of Monocacy National Battlefield, Frederick County, Maryland 1999-2000 (Gwen Brewer and Kevin Kalasz, 2001)
Cultural Landscape Evaluation and Archeological Evaluation: Monocacy National Battlefield Final Report (EDAW, Inc., Land and Community Associates and John Milner Associates, Inc., September 1993)
Cultural Landscape Report: Best Farm, Monocacy National Battlefield (Judith Earley, Jeff Everett and Grace Zhang, September 2005)
Cultural Landscape Report: Thomas and Worthington Farms, Monocacy National Battlefield Historical Overview, Significance Summary, Analysis and Evaluation, Treatment (Michael Commisso and Martha Temkin, June 2013)
Cultural Resources Study: Monocacy National Battlefield (Paula Stoner Reed, November 1999)
Enjoy the View Visual Resources Inventory Project, Monocacy National Battlefield NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/MONO/NRR-2016/1232 (Mark Meyer, Bob Sullivan, Rick Slade and Maureen Joseph, June 2016)
Foundation Document, Monocacy National Battlefield, Maryland (October 2015)
Geologic Resource Evaluation Report, Monocacy National Battlefield NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2008/051 (T.L. Thornberry-Ehrlich, September 2008)
Impacts of Visitor Spending on the Local Economy: Monocacy National Battlefield, 2006 (Daniel J. Stynes, May 2008)
Monocacy National Battlefield, Frederick, Maryland: An Administrative History (Paula S. Reed & Associates, Inc., December 2019)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Gambrill House (Cherilyn Widell, July 8, 1977)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Monocacy National Battlefield, National Capital Region NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NCRN/NRR-2011/415 (Jane Thomas, Tim Carruthers, Bill Dennison, Mark Lehman, Megan Nortrup, Patrick Campbell and Andrew Banasik, June 2011)
Water Resources Stewardship Report: Monocacy National Battlefield NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NRPC/NRTR-2007/048 (Don Weeks, David Vana-Miller, Marian Norris and Andrew Banasik, August 2007)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 07-Jan-2022