Fighting at Monocacy’s Thomas Farm

Today is the 153rd anniversary of the battle of Monocacy—the “Battle that Saved Washington.” Fought just miles south of Frederick, Maryland along the banks of the Monocacy river the battle was Federal Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace’s last-ditch effort to slow Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s march on the District of Columbia. To commemorate the battle, I wanted to look at the climatic fighting around the Thomas farm—combat that lasted about ninety minutes and was by far the bloodiest part of the battlefield on July 9. It was fighting that left men battered, bloodied, and absolutely stunned by its ferocity.

By the afternoon of July 9, Wallace’s Federals had managed to parry a number of light attacks by Confederate divisions of infantry and two assaults of dismounted cavalry. On Wallace’s left flank stood Brig. Gen. James Ricketts’s division of hardened Sixth Corps troops—rushed to Maryland from Petersburg to held defend the capital. It would be Ricketts’s two brigades, about 3,500 men, who fought around the land of Christian Keefer Thomas, whose brick home Araby dominated a small plateau.

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Fighting around the Thomas farm, July 9, 1864, (map copyright Ryan Quint)

After repulsing those dismounted cavalry attacks, Ricketts’s men would face their main opponents: about 3,000 equally experienced and veteran soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon. Commanding the remnants of the famed Louisiana Tigers, Stonewall Brigade, and his own Georgians, Gordon readied his attack around 3:30 p.m. Gordon’s objective: break Ricketts’s men, who held the Georgetown Pike—the road Early’s Confederates would have to use to get to Washington, D.C.

Gordon’s three brigades attacked en echelon from the right, attacking in staggered formations about 15 minutes apart. Brig. Gen. Clement Evans’s Georgians hit Ricketts’s line first, and volleying began to rip out, spewing thick clouds of acrid smoke over the lines.

By 1864 warfare had changed. Both sides had taken to digging earthworks, fighting from their trenches at places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. Soldiers knew just a couple inches of dirt could mean the difference between life and death.  Ricketts’s and Gordon’s men had both gone through the apocalyptic destruction of the Overland Campaign—Monocacy was not their first action. And yet, at Monocacy, there was no time to dig trenches. And so both sides slammed into each other like a dam breaking and water spewing in every direction. When I bring groups to the battlefield, I explain it as a stand up, knock down fight. The fighting that filled C.K. Thomas’s fields would have been much more often found in the battlefields of 1862 or ’63, when the two opposing forces stood apart and simply blasted away at each other.

Maj. Gen. John Gordon

Standing in their ranks, the Federals from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Vermont let the Georgians, Louisianans, and Virginians come on. And then: “The command ‘fire!’ rang out along our line,” as a soldier in the 106th New York remembered.[1] Those volleys scythed through the advancing Confederates, with John Gordon writing that his men “were met by a tempest of bullets, and many of the brave fellows fell at the first volley.”[2]

The Confederates soon began to return fire, and a New Yorker remembered, “the bullets flew like hail stones, the boys fell all around me, I shall never forget the short—Oh! Dear Me! and such like exclamations which was all that gave us to understand that one of our number was wounded.”[3]

Ranks closed around each other, filling in the gaps of the dead and dying. Flags fell and were picked back up as color bearers were struck down. In the case of the 14th New Jersey, that exchange of hands took place back to back to back to back as bullets slammed into their ranks, and one Garden State soldier wrote, “These four were killed and disabled in almost the time it has taken me to write it, showing the terrible fire we were exposed to at the battle of Monocacy.”[4] And yet, even as the ranks shrank, the firing continued.

Brigadier General James Ricketts

Gordon’s lines kept up their pressure, gradually pushing Ricketts’s men back from the Thomas farm itself and into the sunken cut of the Georgetown Pike. Knowing they had reached their last stand position, the Federals dug in their heels and continued to bite into the cartridges, poured the powder down hot, fouled barrels, and continued to slam home slim ramrods.

As the fighting continued, both sides began to lose officers one after another. Gordon later recalled, “Deadly missiles from Wallace’s ranks were cutting down the line and company officers with their words of cheer to the men but half spoken.”[5] In just the Georgia brigade alone, the brigade commander Clement Evans went down wounded; in the 61st Georgia Col. John Lamar was killed, followed almost instantly by Lt. Col. James Van Valkenburg of the same unit. In the center of the brigade, the 13th Georgia’s Col. James H. Baker fell wounded. Gordon’s own brother Eugene “was shot [within] 50 yds of the enemy’s. . . cut in the road which they occupied.”[6] And in the middle of it all, John Gordon’s horse went down, leaving him momentarily stunned “and unhorsed in the very crisis of the battle.”[7]

Federal officers were going down too, though, and that began to tell. The 9th New York Heavy Artillery lost their colonel, William Seward Jr., when his horse was killed and rolled over the New Yorker’s ankle, breaking the bone. The 14th New Jersey’s chain of command was shot to pieces as five officers were killed or wounded. As their ammunition began to run out and officers and men fell dead, the Federal lines began to break. By 5 p.m., Ricketts’s men were retreating back to Baltimore. The fighting at Monocacy, at least on the left flank, was all but over.

Araby: The home of Christian Keefer Thomas. (Ryan Quint)

But that fighting left a shattered, desolate land. Over the course of the day Monocacy resulted in about 2,200 casualties on both sides. And while that pales in comparison to the massive bloodletting of other battles, Monocacy stuck with the men. Of those 2,200 casualties, close to 2,000 of the dead, wounded, and missing fell around the Thomas farm. Such fighting told on the ranks: the 61st Georgia went into action with 152 men, but “after the battle was over we could not stack but fifty-two guns by actual count,” a veteran remembered.[8] The 14th New Jersey, on the other hand, suffered almost 40% losses on the afternoon of July 9, 1864.

To conclude, we’ll leave with the words of the commanders. John Gordon, reflecting on the losses of his men, wrote in a letter, “Oh Lord why am I spared & so many & so good men are taken around me.”[9] And Lew Wallace eulogized his men by pledging “These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.”[10]

 

Want to hear more about Monocacy? Consider this year’s ECW Symposium.

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[1] Peter Robertson, “Monocacy and the Gallant Stand of the 106th New York Against Early,” National Tribune, Jan. 24, 1884.

[2] John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904), 311.

[3] Abiel T. LaForge, Diary, July 10, 1864 Entry, Monocacy National Battlefield Archives.

[4] J. Newton Terrill, Campaign of the Fourteenth Regiment New Jersey Volunteers (New Brunswick: Daily Home News Press, 1884), 75.

[5] Gordon, Reminiscences, 311.

[6] John B. Gordon Letter, July 11, 1864, Bound Volume 178, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Archives.

[7] Gordon, Reminiscences, 313.

[8] 5 G.W. Nichols, A Soldier’s History of His Regiment (Jesup: n.p., 1898), 171.

[9] Gordon Letter. See Footnote 6.

[10] O.R., Volume 37, pt. 1, 200.

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One Response to Fighting at Monocacy’s Thomas Farm

  1. Pingback: ECW Week in Review July 3-9 | Emerging Civil War

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