A Civilian Remembers the Battle of Monocacy

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy, fought in 1864 between Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace and Lt. Gen. Jubal Early. Wallace’s badly-outnumbered Federals aligned themselves along the Monocacy River, hoping to hold off the Confederates in a last-ditch effort to slow the gray- and butternut-clad onslaught through Maryland. Fifty miles behind Wallace’s men lay the undefended Washington, D.C.

Beginning early in the morning of July 9, the two sides began to skirmish, the crackle of musketry and booming cannon continuing steadily through the day. As the armies came into contact, the civilians in the area took to basements for cover amidst the coming storm. One of those civilians was 18-year old Mary Addison ‘Mamie’ Tyler, a close friend of Alice Thomas, whose father’s property, the Thomas farm, soon became the epicenter of the battle. In 1913, for the battle’s 49th anniversary, Tyler, then Mrs. Ellicott Fisher, wrote the following letter subsequently printed in the Daily Frederick News on July 9, 1913. It stands as one of the best remembrances of the battle from a civilian’s perspective rather than a soldier’s or officer’s, though, as one might expect, has the dramatics of some 50 years added. Even with some of Mamie Tyler’s questionable additions, I figured the best way to remember the Battle of Monocacy on its 152nd Anniversary was through the thoughts of its 49th:

To Cellar For Shelter

At nine o’clock in the morning of July 9th 1864, Araby, the country seat of Colonel C. Keefer Thomas, where I was visiting his daughter. Alice, was a scene of restful beauty, under a cloudless sky. One hour later the scene had changed. Federal soldiers were assembling from every direction. Colonel Thomas was ordered to seek shelter at once, with his family in the cellar. It is needless to say we were not long obeying the command.

'Araby,' the Thomas family's home. Mamie Tyler, among others, sought refuge in the cellar during the Battle of Monocacy. (Ryan Quint)

‘Araby,’ the Thomas family’s home. Mamie Tyler, among others, sought refuge in the cellar during the Battle of Monocacy.
(Ryan Quint)

 

The Rebel line was near enough to be seen, and in a moment pieces of shell were flying too near to be pleasant. The battle had begun and continued six hours. Hours of suspense, anxiety, and at times, terror. There were some amusing episodes during those long hours of confinement. One of those seeking shelter, was an old colored “Mammy” who became quite indignant with the younger inmates for feeling the pangs of hunger. She remarked frequently, “Honeys, say your prayers, dis is no time to eat. Pray de good Lord to deliver us from this dreadful battle.”[1]

You can imagine how strange the sounds outside of those walls. Minie balls slashed the shrubbery, while the larger missiles of war’s fearful instruments twisted huge limbs from the trees, levelled down chimneys, and tore out an angle of the house. One of the Federal officers kindly brought us a bucket of ice water, and we conversed with him upon his ideas of the result of the battle. Of course he expected to drive the Rebels back in a short time, at which we very boldly expressed deep regret, and also requested him to let us have a wounded Confederate, who was lying outside the cellar window, between the fires, inside, with us. This he consented to do, perhaps in consideration of remark made by one of us, “Wouldn’t you rather have a live prisoner than a dead one?”[2]

Maj. Peter Vredenburgh, Jr., checked on the refugees in the Thomas home's basement during the Battle of Monocacy. (NPS)

Maj. Peter Vredenburgh, Jr., checked on the refugees in the Thomas home’s basement during the Battle of Monocacy.
(NPS)

This wounded man received our most devoted attention, our handkerchiefs were used in bathing the wounds with ice water. To him we were indebted for an explanation of the “Rebel Yell,” having once heard, never to be forgotten. A change came over his despondent face as he shouted, “There’s the cry of victory, raise me up.” A moment later the cellar door was opened by a comrade, who expressed deep sympathy for his condition, and carried him to the sunlight outside. Imagine if you can, the sight that greeted the eye when released from our prison cell. The soft carpet of grass had become the resting place of dead and dying soldiers, a battlefield in variety and truth. One poor soldier, as we passed, begged for a pillow to rest his dying brother’s head upon, remarking “I am the last of five brothers, all slain in battle.”

Helping the Wounded

General J.S. B. Gordon was the first to greet us, with the exclamation, “What, women and children here?”[3] To Alice Thomas and myself he said, “Girls you must be brave, and do what you can for these poor men, we have not surgeons enough here.”

Maj. Gen. John Gordon

Maj. Gen. John Gordon’s division fought heavily around the Thomas farm.

And we did what we could with loving hands, and eager feet, and when night descended on that camp, the scene was a novel one. All through the dark hours we heard the voices of dying men, some singing, some praying, and a few cursing in their delirium. Outside of our room we found a dead man lying but that was a small matter, at the close of so fearful a day. Excitement and enthusiasm had filled every move with courage and desire to help our cause.

At daylight next morning we arose from a sleepless bed to see what else we could do for our men. The first act was a most solemn one[,] General Gordon was looking for us to attend the burial of two of his staff officers, Colonel Lamar and Major Von Valkenberg.[4] He said it would comfort the families of those men to know that a little band of friends had gathered to witness the performance of so solemn a right. It was an impressive scene, the sun was rising in the east, “giving color to all manimate objects, as only Nature can.” The birds seemed to be chanting a requiem in the grand old tree under which we stood. The spot was selected to mark the graves of the two brave men whose remains would be removed later. Around those graves stood General Gordon, the chaplain, Alice Thomas and myself, and the body servant of Colonel Lamar, with the bullet-torn hat of his master pressed to his heart, weeping bitterly.[5]

Won General Gordon’s Approval

The most gratifying memory to our hearts, was General Gordon’s approval of our conduct. “You have been brave girls, I will never forget you.” The Confederates only held possession of that part of Maryland twenty-four hours, then returned to Virginia.

Child that I was I can never forget the scenes on that battlefield, and General Gordon’s surprise at seeing us come out of the cellar. I wore a short gingham dress and my hair was curled. Years later in a fashionable New York hotel, an evening dress and of course a different dressing of the hair, imagine my surprise when General Gordon came up and said, “Is this Mamie Tyler, the little heroine of Monocacy?” And then we enjoyed a long talk over that memorable July day on Monocacy field.

Soon the Confederates marched away from the Monocacy battlefield, leaving the plots of dead underneath freshly-turned soil. But the memories of the “Battle that Saved Washington” remained forever with the soldiers and civilians alike.

 

______________________________________________________________

 

[1] These “younger inmates” were the two sons of Antoinette Gambrill, whose husband owned the nearby Gambrill Mill. While John Gambrill watched over his property, Antoinette took her young children to the safety of the sturdier, brick Thomas home.

[2] This Federal officer was Maj. Peter Vredenburgh of the 14th New Jersey Infantry. Posted near the Monocacy in 1862, Vredenburgh had become good friends with the Thomas family and braved the Confederate fire to check-in on the family during the Battle of Monocacy. In his own letter written just three days after the battle, Vredenburgh wrote that he found the refugees “in the cellar frightened to death.” Vredenburgh also wrote, “They all hung on me and wanted me to stay but I couldn’t do it,” leaving a different telling of the conversation between him and those in the basement than Mamie Tyler depicted. Peter Vredenburgh, Letter July 12, 1864, in Upon the Tented Field: An Historical Account of the Civil War as Told by the Men Who Fought And Gave Their Lives, edited by Bernard A. Olsen. (Red Bank: Historic Project, Inc., 1993), 253.

[3] Maj. Gen John B. Gordon commanded a division of infantry that bore the brunt of the fighting at Monocacy. His name does not have an ‘S’ in it.

[4] Colonel John Lamar commanded the 61st Georgia Infantry, a regiment in Gordon’s division. Shot through the head, Lamar died instantly in the fields around the Thomas home. With Lamar’s death, Major James Van Valkenburg took command of the Georgians when he too was shot in the head and killed instantly.

[5] The funeral of Lamar and Van Valkenburg is substantiated by Gordon in a letter written to his wife on July 11, just two days after the battle. He wrote that the two officers were “buried in the garden of [a] good Southern rights man near Frederick City—where the ladies of the household promised to cultivate his grave & place flowers over it—They will do it.” John B. Gordon Letter, July 11, 1864, in Bound Volume 178, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Collections.

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