A General Remembered: Lew Wallace after the Battle of Monocacy

A guest post by Ryan Quint, part three of a series.

After his defeat at the Battle of Monocacy, Major General Lew Wallace retreated back towards Baltimore. His force, badly outnumbered by Confederate troops under the command of Lieutenant General Jubal Early, had held their lines throughout July 9 until being outflanked and pushed back towards the Baltimore Pike.

Chief of Staff Henry W. "Old Brains" Halleck
Chief of Staff Henry W. “Old Brains” Halleck

As Lew Wallace retreated, he must have reflected on what had been a whirlwind of activity over the past few days. John Garrett, President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, had arrived at Wallace’s headquarters in Baltimore on July 2, only a week earlier than the Battle of Monocacy. It was during his conference with Garrett that Wallace had learned that rebel troops had invaded Maryland once more. Then, after a midnight train ride, Wallace had arrived at the Monocacy Junction on July 5. Three days later, on the 8th, the first rebel troops had marched to the outskirts of Frederick, and then the next day, the 9th, Wallace had fought at Monocacy. Just seven days.

Wallace did not have much time to contemplate his next move. In Washington, Chief of Staff Henry Wager Halleck had decided on July 10 that Wallace had unnecessarily put the capital at risk with his stand at Monocacy. On the 11th, Halleck issued General Orders 228, which simply stated, “Major General E. O. C. Ord is assigned… to the command of the Eighth Army Corps and of all troops in the Middle Department.” Though Wallace was reinstated on July 28, Halleck’s actions must have stung after the former’s labors along the banks of the Monocacy River.

Henry Halleck was not a supporter of Wallace in any way, shape, or form. The Chief of Staff, derisively known as “Old Brains,” was not a proponent of political generals–those who were given command based on their stature and not military training–a category into which Lew Wallace snugly fit. Halleck also still harbored mistrust of Wallace from the latter’s decisions at the Battle of Shiloh. These different attributes led to an unfair judgment of Wallace’s leadership at the Battle of Monocacy.

Perhaps Halleck should have worried more about defending the capital rather than firing generals he disproved of. On July 11, as Halleck issued his orders relieving Wallace, Jubal Early’s Confederates were at the gates of Washington D.C. And to face the Confederates, Washington was in dire straits. In a city full of generals, there were far too few privates.

In the 87 forts that encircled Washington D.C. was a rag-tag force that Union officials had strung together and thrown into the works. Most of these men were clerks from the War Department who had been hastily armed and marched off to the defenses. Joining them were Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs’ men, also hastily armed and maneuvered into place. Troops from the Invalid Corps–soldiers who could perform light duties–were also mobilized. The total of this ad hoc force numbered about 9,600 men.

Fort Stevens
Fort Stevens

There should have been more troops within the forts, but Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, a bloody affair that brought the competing armies through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and to the doors of Petersburg, had cost tens of thousands of casualties. To try and equalize the losses, Halleck had been sending Grant reinforcements, mostly in the form of large Heavy Artillery regiments. In the middle of May, Halleck had sent Grant about 10,000 men from the forts alone. The “Heavies” were the most trained to deal with Washington’s massive guns, but most of them were now fighting in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond.

If Washington D.C. was the damsel in distress, its knight in shining armor was on its way. The Federal Sixth Corps had become of the finest corps in the Army of the Potomac. They were led by Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, who had been in command for exactly two months when one of his divisions, under James Ricketts, fought alongside Wallace at Monocacy. Wright was then with the rest of his men, and on July 10 the lion’s share of the corps, with their Greek Crosses adorning faded blue uniforms, boarded transport vessels at City Point, Virginia.

The 1st and 2nd Divisions of the Sixth Corps’ steamed down the James River and then turned into the Chesapeake Bay. From there they made their way towards the embattled capital. Meanwhile, their comrades in the 3rd Division under Ricketts retreated towards Baltimore.

Worthington Farm on the Monocacy Battlefield.
Worthington Farm on the Monocacy Battlefield.

On July 11 the transports docked at the wharves along Sixth Street and as soon as the gangplanks were lowered, veterans from the hardened Army of the Potomac began to file down in their columns. Bobbing in the water nearby was the Baltimore, the steamer that had been ordered to be ready at any moment to whisk President Lincoln away in case the rebels had breached the city’s defenses.

By the time that the bulk of Wright’s Sixth Corps arrived in Washington, Early’s Confederates were pressing down Seventh Street. The only thing standing in their way was a series of fortifications, manned by Meigs’ clerks and some hastily armed militia. In the center of these works was Fort Stevens.

Over two days, July 11 and July 12, Early’s men skirmished with Fort Stevens’ garrison. Rebel sharpshooters manned positions near what today is the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. From their positions the Confederates fired towards the Federals, including one interested observer, President Lincoln.

Lincoln visited Fort Stevens on both the 11th and 12th, and he was on the ramparts as Wright’s men deployed to counterattack on the second day of the battle. One story, most-likely apocryphal, tells that future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. shouted at Lincoln to “Get down, you fool!”

Sketch of the Lincoln Conspirators done by Wallace.
Sketch of the Lincoln Conspirators done by Wallace.

Seeing the heavy Federal presence now pouring into the city, Jubal Early decided against an all-out assault on Fort Stevens and so began to retreat from Washington D.C. As he rode away, Early turned to an aide and said, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”

The man most responsible for Early’s inability to capture Washington was then forty miles away, in Baltimore. He was, of course, Lew Wallace. On the morning of July 9, before the guns began to roar at Monocacy, Jubal Early was only a day’s march or so to the capital. At that time, the majority of the Sixth Corps had not even boarded their transports at City Point and Washington D.C. was still in chaos as the officials there tried to figure out just what exactly was going on. Had there been no fight at Monocacy, Early would have marched throughout the ninth of July and arrived at Washington’s doorstep early on the tenth. At that point, Wright’s battle-hardened veterans were in the midst of the Chesapeake Bay and drill sergeants were trying desperately to teach basic drill to War Department clerks. As it was, Early was delayed an entire day by Wallace’s “Horatian” stand at Monocacy, and then the Confederates needed to spare more time in taking care of their wounded and re-supplying their men.

To put it simply, Lew Wallace’s stand at Monocacy saved the capital. Historians have brushed Early’s campaign into Maryland aside–they label diminutively as a ‘raid.’ This is incorrect–Early’s movements against Washington were a full-fledged invasion–a last gasp of breath from the Army of Northern Virginia that was trying to disrupt the Northern war effort. With the Presidential election only four months away, no one can say for certain what would have happened had Early managed to grab Washington, if only for a little while. Perhaps it would have been the only momentum the Peace Democrats throughout the North needed to clinch the election of George McClellan.

Wallace in later life.
Wallace in later life.

In his autobiography Lew Wallace wrote a potential epithet for a projected monument that was to go up at Monocacy. The line was to be “‘These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.’” In 1885 as Ulysses S. Grant, struggling to finish his memoirs before throat cancer killed him, wrote, “There is no telling how much this result [Early’s repulse at Washington] was contributed to by General Lew Wallace’s leading what might well be considered almost a forlorn hope. If Early had been but one day earlier he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements… Whether the delay caused by the battle [of Monocacy] amounted to a day or not, General Wallace contributed on this occasion, by the defeat of the troops under him a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander… to render by means of victory.”

Lew Wallace did not command troops in the field following Monocacy, but he was far from finished in the service of his country. In 1865 Wallace sat on the commission trying the Lincoln Assassination conspirators. During the trial Wallace sketched the various conspirators as they listened to the hearings throughout the hot summer.
Later that year, Wallace also served through the hearings of Henry Wirz, the commandant of the Andersonville prisoner of war camp. Wallace was one of those who sentenced Wirz to death, the only Confederate executed for war crimes.

An original copy of Ben-Hur.
An original copy of Ben-Hur.

In 1878 Wallace became the Territorial Governor of New Mexico, a position he held until 1881. At the time New Mexico was embroiled in a conflict with bandits, most notable Billy the Kid. Wallace tried his hand at ending the conflict, offering pardons to most of the bandits, but ultimately excluding the Kid. The same year that Wallace left the post of Governor, Billy the Kid was killed by Pat Garrett. From the Governor’s mansion, Wallace then became an envoy to the Ottoman Empire, a position he held until 1885.

But Wallace’s lasting legacy is the 1880 publication of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur was America’s best-selling novel of the 19th Century, even passing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wallace’s work was only superseded by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Ben-Hur has been adapted into film four times, perhaps most famously in the 1959 edition with the lead played by Charlton Heston.

Retiring from public life, Lew Wallace died in 1905 at the age of 77. He died with his own massive autobiography unfinished– it was published by his wife posthumously. Perhaps most fitting of all, the section that Wallace was working on when he died was the Battle of Monocacy.

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