July 2, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley arrived at Winchester as it moved north “down” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley toward Maryland.
Early’s mission was to clear the Valley of Federal forces and then cross the Potomac River to take the fight to the North. It was hoped that this would draw Federals away from Petersburg, where the Armies of the Potomac and the James were besieging General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
After Major General David Hunter withdrew his Federal army into West Virginia, Early had a clear path down the Valley from Lynchburg. Upon reaching Winchester, Early received orders from Lee to operate in the lower (northern) Valley “until everything was in readiness to cross the Potomac and destroy the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal as far as possible.”
Early dispatched cavalry to burn bridges on the B & O, and he sent one infantry corps under Major General John C. Breckinridge through Martinsburg. Early led the other corps to Harpers Ferry, where the rest of his army would rejoin him. About 5,000 Federals under Major General Franz Sigel were at Martinsburg, and a Federal force about half Sigel’s size under Brigadier General Max Weber was at Harpers Ferry.
As the Confederate cavalry met unexpected resistance near Leetown, Breckinridge entered Martinsburg behind Sigel’s retreating Federals. Early wrote, “It was too late, and these divisions were too much exhausted to go after the enemy.” The Confederates began stripping Martinsburg of anything useful to their army, but this soon degenerated into wholesale looting.
Meanwhile, B & O Railroad President John W. Garrett notified Major General Lew Wallace, commanding the Federal Middle Department which included the lower Shenandoah, that his railroad agents reported large numbers of Confederates approaching Harpers Ferry. Fearing another Confederate invasion, Wallace began gathering Baltimore militia to meet the threat.
Garrett sent boxcars to Martinsburg to help with the Federal evacuation, but they were intercepted by John S. Mosby’s Confederate partisans. Garrett then telegraphed Federal Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “Cannot General Hunter be ordered from the west to such points east of Cumberland as may be most judicious? Appearances at present indicate a general abandonment of the (rail)road.”
After confirming that the Confederates threatening the lower Valley were Early’s, Halleck tried contacting Hunter but received no response. He then wired Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, headquartered with the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. He warned Grant that Sigel was no match for Early, and added, “You can therefore judge what probability there is of a good defense if the enemy should attack the line in force.”
Sigel transferred troops to strengthen the garrison at Harpers Ferry on the 3rd. Federal troops and guns commanded Bolivar Heights and Maryland Heights, overlooking the town. Early wrote Breckinridge, “I will move everything in that direction in the morning.” Panic spread among the citizenry north of the river, including Washington, as it was unclear whether another Confederate invasion would take place.
The next day, Halleck instructed Weber that “everything should be prepared for a defense of your works and the first man who proposes a surrender or retreat should be hung.” The Federals manned their defenses as Early’s Confederates approached. After scouting the defenses, Early decided that “it was not possible to occupy the town of Harpers Ferry, except with skirmishers, as it was thoroughly commanded by the guns on Maryland Heights.”
Sigel’s Federals began arriving and entrenching on Maryland Heights that night, after Early had decided to bypass Harpers Ferry. The Federals fired on the Confederates as they looted some of the warehouses in the town. A Confederate officer wrote, “A universal pillaging of United States Government property, especially commissary stores, was carried on all night.” Skirmishing occurred at Patterson’s Creek Bridge and South Branch Bridge, where Early planned to cross the Potomac the next day.
On the 5th, a Confederate detachment demonstrated in Harpers Ferry and feasted off the captured stores as the rest of Early’s army crossed the river at Shepherdstown to the northwest. Upon entering Maryland, the Confederates moved east and occupied Sharpsburg that night. The Confederate detachment withdrew as well, leaving the Federals confused as to where they would go next.
Federal officials at Washington became increasingly concerned as Early moved closer to the capital. However, conflicting reports slowed their response to the situation. The governors of New York and Pennsylvania were called upon to send 24,000 militia to defend Maryland.
At Baltimore, Wallace received an incorrect report that Confederate cavalry was moving through southern Pennsylvania. He stated, “In this situation, I felt it my duty to concentrate that portion of my scanty command available for field operations at some point on the Monocacy River, the western limit of the Middle Department.”
To best protect both Baltimore and Washington, Wallace selected the point on the Monocacy where the B & O crossed. Roads from this point led east to Baltimore and southeast to Washington. Although Wallace had acted on incorrect information, he placed his troops in a perfect position to block Early. However, Wallace had just 3,000 men to face 10,000 seasoned Confederate veterans.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 432-33; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9345-55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 464-65; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 640-44; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 69, 71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 531-34; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 233-34, 504