A General Fallen from Grace: Lew Wallace before Monocacy

A guest post by Ryan Quint. Part one in a series.

Lew Wallace
Lew Wallace

Musketry crackled in the distance, heavy cannonading made the ground rumble, hundreds of men died up ahead, and Major General Lew Wallace was on the wrong road.

Wallace and his Third Division had been ordered by Ulysses S. Grant to reinforce his battered army at Pittsburg Landing, by the old Shiloh Church. It was the morning of April 6th, 1862.

The Third Division was marching to the sound of the gunfire, to be sure, but around 2 p.m. one of Grant’s staffers, riding a badly exhausted horse after a circuitous route, came upon Wallace’s column. The two got into a heated argument, with Wallace pointing down the road and mentioning his intent to come to General Sherman’s assistance.

“Great God! Don’t you know Sherman has been driven back? Why, the whole army is within half a mile of the river…” the staffer screamed.[i] 

That comment brought the World crashing down upon Lew Wallace’s head. He delayed his arrival even further; instead of simply about-facing, insisting on counter-marching his entire command to keep his first brigade at the van of his troops. His division finally arrived at Pittsburg Landing around 7:30 p.m., after Grant’s men had held onto their positions with their fingertips.[ii]

Lew Wallace’s march to Shiloh nearly ruined his career, and historians still debate about his movements on that fateful April day. And if it were not for one battle, fought on a hot July day two years later, Wallace’s Shiloh stumbling would be his only military fame.

Lew Wallace was disgraced from Shiloh. Subordinates like Lieutenant Colonel James McPherson by 1864 found themselves commanding entire armies. In his autobiography, Wallace later wrote, “[S]omebody in the dark gave me a push, and I fell, and fell so far that I could almost see bottom.”[iii]

It was an abrupt turn for one of the Union’s most promising officers at the start of the war. Wallace had been immediately on the scene in his native Indiana, pledging his support in April, 1861 after President Lincoln had asked for 75,000 volunteers. The energetic man, recently turned 34, was given a colonelcy of the 11th Indiana.[iv] All the better that Wallace was a Democrat and could be used as an example of both political parties unifying in the face of a rebellion to divide the country.

Under a year later Wallace was given command of the newly created Third Division in Grant’s army, and he was on the field at Fort Donelson, on the chilly morning of February 15th, 1862, as the Confederate forces attempted a breakthrough. Wallace’s division, placed in the center of the Union lines, at first did nothing, oblivious to the fire to their right and Wallace himself ignoring the pleas of fellow officers. But when it finally became very clear that if he did nothing, the Federal forces would be smashed to pieces, Wallace shifted his brigades and, ordered by Grant who had just arrived on the field, counter-attacked. The move thrust the Confederate forces back into their entrenchments and the next day the Confederates surrendered to Grant’s men.[v]

Then followed the fateful march at Shiloh, and for almost the next two years, Wallace was shunned away from the battlefield. In March, 1864, he was appointed as commander of the Middle Department, an area that encompassed Delaware, and stretched from his headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, to the western edges of the Monocacy River, by Frederick, Md. His command was technically labeled as the 8th Corps, but that was being generous- the overall strength of the ‘corps’ could be counted as 2,500.[vi]

Wallace was not very impressed with his current assignment. There were partisans that raided along the Virginia-Maryland border, but nothing of the grandeur that Wallace had experienced at Fort Donelson or Shiloh. He angrily wrote to his wife in late April, 1864, “Soon will be heard the thunder of captains, the sound of the trumpet and the shout, and I will not be there.[vii]

That all changed two short months later with one telegram. At 1 a.m., the wire in the War Department began to click out a message from the President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, John Garrett. Garrett wrote worriedly of a Confederate force, led by Jubal Early, sweeping through the Shenandoah Valley. Refugees pegged its strength between 15,000-30,000. What could be done to prevent the Confederates from destroying his rail-lines, Garrett wanted to know. He finished with, “I am satisfied the operations and designs of the enemy in the Valley demand the greatest vigilance and attention.”[viii]

The War Department took the message and had no idea what to do with it. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wired Lt. General Grant at Petersburg and demanded an answer. Grant replied on the evening of July 1st, that Early’s corps had returned to the Richmond-Petersburg front. Even if Early had left to go to the Shenandoah Valley, Grant assured, he was now back in front of the Army of the Potomac. Nothing to worry about.[ix]

And yet John Garrett, with his vital Baltimore & Ohio, did worry. He was hearing constant rumors and whisperings of a large Confederate force headed his way. The rebels were striking straight at the undefended Maryland countryside. And so, on July 2nd, Garrett took a carriage ride to the Baltimore headquarters of Major General Lew Wallace.

Wallace welcomed Garrett who jumped right to the point. “There are Confederates appearing along the line from Harpers Ferry West. You know and I know that General Augur [the commander of the Washington defenses] down in Washington doesn’t have enough men to guard that city…. Make sure the Rebels do not capture this railroad, especially the Monocacy Bridge.”[x]

Lew Wallace was well aware that Washington D.C., didn’t have enough men to defend it if the rebels really were making a concerted effort against the Capital. Grant had seen to that, systemically stripping away thousands of artillerists within the city, instead giving them rifles, and using them as infantry against Lee in the bloodletting that was the Overland Campaign. And so he promised Garrett, “You may take with you my promise- the bridge shall not be disturbed without a fight.”[xi]

Wallace would need to prepare for a fight. Marching at amazing speeds was Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. Early had set out towards the Shenandoah with, “a little over 8,000 muskets for duty,” all that was left of the Second Corps following the five engagements of the Overland Campaign.[xii] From there, he linked up forces already in the Valley, and by the time that Jubal Early finished his crossing of the Potomac River to invade Maryland on July 6th, his force was approximately 20,000 and 50 cannons.[xiii]

Lew Wallace decided to meet Early at the western-most fringes of his command. He would not wait for Early to gain even more momentum, and Wallace had made the promise to Garrett. And so the Monocacy River would become the stage.

Wallace wasn’t even sure if he could leave Baltimore; Chief of Staff Henry Halleck had not made it explicitly clear where anyone was supposed to go. But then that was typical Henry Halleck- Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary that Halleck was, “in a perfect maze, bewildered, without intelligent decision, or self-reliance.” For good measure, Welles added, “Stanton is wisely ignorant.” Lew Wallace was on his own.[xiv]

The general who had been disgraced at Shiloh, and allotted a command no one expected to be important, now found himself the only obstacle in the path of Jubal Early’s behemoth. Grant was sending reinforcements from Petersburg to defend Washington, but until they showed up, which could take as many as three days, Wallace would need to stall. So, after midnight, on July 5th, accompanied by only one staff officer, Wallace boarded a personal train that Garrett had provided and chugged towards the Monocacy Junction, about fifty miles away. He had told no one in Washington that he was leaving, and alerted no one when he arrived at the Junction that same morning. [xv]

For the next three days Wallace prepared his command. He had 2,500 men under the command of Erastus Tyler, a Fredericksburg veteran, one 24-Pounder Howitzer, and six 3-inch Rifles of the Baltimore Battery. Seven pieces of artillery and 2,500 soldiers, most of whom were ‘100-day men’, soldiers who enlisted for only three-month services. And coming at them was Early’s 20,000 veterans and 50 cannon. Behind Wallace, 50 miles away, lay the undefended Capital.[xvi]

Wallace’s men began to skirmish with Jubal Early’s vanguard across the Monocacy at nearby Frederick on July 8th. The gunfire attracted crowds and they watched as night came on, and Wallace ordered his small force back across the river. With nightfall, though, came reinforcements.

James Ricketts commanded the Third Division of the Army of the Potomac’s 6th Corps. As he climbed down from his train, with his men debarking behind him, Wallace came up and shook his hand. They looked over the situation, and Ricketts, as he peered at the Confederates just across the river, asked just what exactly Wallace intended to do.

“Fight,” Wallace simply replied. When Ricketts said that he had 5,000 men to add to Wallace’s force, the latter scoffed, “That’s first rate. Seven thousand five hundred against thirty [sic] thousand.”[xvii]

So it was that Major General Lew Wallace, a disgraced officer, now found himself in command of a patched-together force that was expected to hold back a Confederate attack aimed at the District of Columbia and the Union war effort itself.

Tomorrow was July 9th, 1864, and Wallace would fight the Battle of Monocacy.

Ryan was born and grew up in Maine, and fostered an interest in the Civil War since very early in grade school. After he graduated high school, Ryan chose the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg because of its proximity to the battlefields and National Park Service. He has been a volunteer at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP since September, and this fall will be heading into junior year of undergraduate.

[i] Wiley Sword, Shiloh: Bloody April (Morningside House, 1974) 346.

[ii]Ibid., 347.

[iii] Lew Wallace, An Autobiography: Volume II (Harper and Brothers, 1906) 589.

[iv] Steven E. Woodsworth, Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee: 1861-1865 (Vintage Books, 2006 reprint) 7.

[v] Ibid., 106, 119.

[vi] Glenn H. Worthington, Fighting for Time: The Battle of Monocacy (White Mane Publishing, 1985 reprint) 48.

[vii] Marc Leepson, Desperate Engagement: How a little-known Civil War Battle Saved Washington D.C., and changed the course of America Hustory (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007) 72.

[viii] Benjamin Franklin Cooling, Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington (Fire Ant Books, 1989) 33-34.

[ix] Leepson, 57.

[x] Joseph Judge, Season of Fire: The Confederate Strike on Washington (Rockbridge Publishing Company, 1994) 123.

[xi] Wallace, Autobiography: Volume II, 700. It is worth pondering that since Wallace wrote his memoirs in the early 1900s, how much of his dramatic promise to Garrett was with hindsight of the Battle of Monocacy.

[xii] Jubal Early, Narrative of the War Between the States (Da Capo Press, 1989 reprint) 371-372. The five engagements: The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, Totopotomoy Creek, and Cold Harbor.

[xiii] Cooling, 22.

[xiv] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles: Volume II, (Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1911) 70.

[xv] Worthington, 53; Leepson, 73.

[xvi] Cooling, 57.

[xvii] Worthington, 87.

4 Responses to A General Fallen from Grace: Lew Wallace before Monocacy

  1. Shiloh was an honest mistake(who hasn’t taken a wrong turn before?) Shameful that Grant and Sherman were allowed to redeem themselves, but Wallace was made a scapegoat.
    But rather than fade into obscurity after the war, he wrote Ben-Hur, the most successful novel of its time, still in publication today and still highly regarded as an American Classic.

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