July 9, 1864 – A makeshift Federal force hurried to block Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley as it marched toward Washington.
Early’s forces continued advancing through Maryland toward the Federal capital. While passing through Frederick around 8 a.m., the Confederates demanded $200,000 as reparations for Federal destruction in the Shenandoah Valley. City leaders pleaded for time to raise the cash and were given a few hours; they paid the ransom later that day.
Southeast of Frederick, Major General Lew Wallace commanded about 6,000 hastily assembled Federals holding Monocacy Junction, which guarded the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the roads leading to both Baltimore and Washington. Wallace did not expect to stop the 10,000 Confederates heading his way, but he hoped to stall their advance long enough for Federal reinforcements to arrive.
Wallace’s improvised force of raw recruits and militia held the right (northeast) flank, while Brigadier General James B. Ricketts’s division of VI Corps held the center and left (southwest). The right was anchored on the Baltimore Pike, the center held the railroad bridge over the Monocacy River, and the left was anchored on the Georgetown Pike leading to Washington.
Early sent cavalry eastward to cut telegraph lines and destroy railroad bridges leading to Baltimore. However, the Confederates reported that Federals were behind defenses along the Monocacy. Early led his troops forward, and they came upon the Federals around 12 p.m.
Fighting erupted when Confederates of Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s division clashed with skirmishers in front of the Federal center. The Confederates pushed the Federals back and positioned their batteries on high ground. Major General Robert Rodes’s Confederates encountered Federals on Wallace’s right soon after.
Early assessed the situation and, as he later wrote, “The enemy’s position was too strong, and the difficulties of crossing the Monocacy under fire too great, to attack in front without greater loss than I was willing to incur.” Early directed Brigadier General John McCausland’s cavalry brigade to flank the Federal left.
Wallace observed the movement to the left and notified Ricketts, “A line of skirmishers is advancing from the south beyond the cornfield at your left. I suggest you change front in that direction, and advance to the cornfield fence, concealing your men behind it. They will be enfiladed, but that can’t be helped.” Ricketts shifted four regiments from facing northwest to southwest.
McCausland’s Confederates got into position, but they did not see the Federals hidden behind a wall and in the nearby wheat and cornfields. When the Confederates got into range, the Federals rose and fired. Wallace later wrote, “I saw the gleaming of the burnished gun-barrels as they were laid upon the upper rails. The aim taken was with deadliest intent–never more coolly.”
The single volley decimated McCausland’s front line and caused a panic. McCausland eventually regrouped his men and sent them forward, but they could not break the Federal line and fell back. Early next deployed Major General John B. Gordon’s division to turn the Federal left. Ricketts turned his entire division to face the threat, while Wallace directed his men to burn the bridge over the Monocacy to prevent Confederates from crossing and landing in Ricketts’s rear.
When Gordon attacked, Wallace recalled, “The firing became an unbroken roll. I could hear no sound else. Both sides were working under a repression too intense for cheering, and repression in which there could be but one intent–load, load, and fire, meaning kill, the more the better. Battle has no other philosophy.”
The Federals repelled the charge, but Wallace and Ricketts could see the Confederates regrouping for another assault. When Wallace suggested retreat, Ricketts replied, “A while longer, and Early can’t move before morning; and, if what I am told is true, that the ford is very rocky, it will be noon before he can get his artillery across the river.”
The Federals repelled the Confederates’ second assault, but Gordon’s massive assault at 4 p.m. finally broke Ricketts’s line. Wallace could not reinforce Ricketts due to continued attacks by Ramseur and Rodes on the Federal center and right, and Confederate artillery firing from across the river. Wallace ordered a retreat eastward down the Baltimore Pike. The troops withdrew in an orderly fashion. Early did not pursue because the path to Washington was now open.
This was the Confederacy’s northernmost victory of the war. The Federals sustained 1,880 casualties (98 killed, 594 wounded, and 1,188 missing or captured), while Early lost about 700 men. But the outnumbered Federals had withstood several ferocious attacks. More importantly, they delayed Early a full day in getting to Washington. During that time, Federal troops from VI and XIX corps began pouring into the capital to man the fortifications ringing the city.
Early issued orders for the Confederates to be ready to resume the advance at “early dawn.”
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