ECW Weekender: Visiting Monocacy National Battlefield

By the summer of 1864, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was largely pinned down around Richmond and Petersburg. With little room to maneuver, a fragile supply situation, and a deteriorating Confederate position in the Western Theater, Lee understood that he needed to change the fundamental dynamic of the strategic situation in Virginia.

With that in mind, he turned to Lt. Gen. Jubal Early and his Second Corps, which had already cleared the Shenandoah Valley of Union forces. Throughout the war, the Lincoln administration had been sensitive to any Confederate threat to the nation’s capital. Lee and Stonewall Jackson expertly took advantage of this in 1862, and now the Confederate leadership hoped to repeat that feat. 

The visitors center provides good views of the northern half of the battlefield. Photo by author.

In July, Early crossed the Potomac River with roughly 15,000 Confederate troops. At a minimum, he expected to draw Union forces away from Petersburg. At best, he hoped that a major Confederate victory near the capital, or even a temporary occupation of Washington, D.C., could deal a body blow to the Union war effort. Northern morale was already flagging in the face of massive casualty lists. With the presidential election just around the corner, and the specter of foreign intervention never too far off, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Grant had stripped Maryland and Washington of almost all Federal troops in order to fuel his Overland Campaign and the siege at Petersburg. Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace – effectively in exile after Shiloh – took the first rumors of Early’s advance seriously, and pulled together a scratch force of defenders. Reinforced by Ricketts’ division of the VI Corps, he drew up a line of defense behind the Monocacy River, just outside Frederick, and along Early’s route to either Washington or Baltimore.

Despite being outnumbered almost three to one, Union soldiers stubbornly held on for most of the day. Their positions defending the main bridges across the river were too strong to be attacked head-on. Once Early found a ford downstream and flanked the Union positions, Wallace’s men continued to fight until late in the afternoon, before eventually being forced to retreat.

The approximate location of the Worthington Ford, along the Ford Loop Trail, where Confederate troops were able to turn the flank of the Union position. Photo by author, who was not bold enough to investigate whether the river was fordable that day.

While Monocacy was a tactical defeat, Wallace’s troops had bought precious time. Early resumed his advance on Washington, but wasn’t able to attack before the remainder of the Union VI Corps arrived. After some skirmishing around Fort Stevens – the only time a sitting U.S. President has come under fire – Early recognized that he had missed his opportunity, and withdrew to Virginia.

For me, one of the great what-ifs of the Civil War will always be: What if Early hadn’t lost a day at Monocacy? So when I found myself passing through Maryland last month, I made a point of leaving enough time to visit the battlefield. 

The Worthington House stands on a hill overlooking the ford on one side, and the fields that formed the Union defensive lines on the other. Only six years old, Glenn Worthington observed some of the fighting while hiding in the cellar. He went on to write one of the first accounts of the battle. Photo by author.

The battlefield is remarkably well preserved, despite being right on the outskirts of Frederick. It was largely empty on the unseasonably warm February day that I visited. While I’d like for all of these sites to be visited by more people, I didn’t hate the feeling that I had the whole place to myself. 

It’s also a battlefield where you can get a full experience in just part of a day. 3 or 4 hours was enough time to tour the visitor center’s museum (including a helpful electronic map), do the audio tour, and hike a couple of the trails. The Ford Loop Trail gave me a particularly good sense of a critical part of that battlefield that wasn’t visible from the audio tour stops. The Gambrill Mill trail provides a great view of the bridges that formed the initial focal point of Wallace’s defense.

Interpretative signs along the Gambrill Mill Trail help make sense of that portion of Wallace’s defenses. The locations of both bridges that were critical to the fighting are visible. Photo by author.

The battlefield is relevant to the Antietam campaign as well. The Best Farm, now part of the Monocacy National Battlefield, is where Union troops found the famous Lost Order in September 1862. The farm also serves as a window into the history of slavery in the area. 

If you’d like to learn more about the battle of Monocacy, there are several other posts on Emerging Civil War. It’s also the topic of the 2017 Emerging Civil War series book by Ryan Quint, Determined to Stand and Fight. For additional reading, I’d recommend Desperate Engagement by Marc Leepsen.

4 Responses to ECW Weekender: Visiting Monocacy National Battlefield

  1. I toured this battlefield last September with my sister and brother-in-law. We thought it was great. The visitors center is fantastic.

  2. Nice summary! I’ve always loved Monocacy and have been going for decades. Remember the cool but underwhelming visitor center inside Gambrill’s Mill? Like you, I wish more people visited this important site but also never mind having it to myself. The spread-out battlefield is extremely well-maintained. There seem to be three very starkly distinct areas around Frederick, MD: the beautiful red-brick downtown, followed by strip mall hell just south, and then suddenly the battlefield and rural space. And it’s all fairly close to Gettysburg, Antietam and Harpers Ferry.

  3. Thank you for this nice summary of the battlefield experience. My wife is a descendant of Lew Wallace, and this is a good reminder that we must go see the site of the Battle That Saved Washington.

  4. We went to Monocacy, Antietam and Harper’s Ferry in October of last year and I just LOVED Monocacy. There was a beautiful Civil War house (I believe it was) down by Gambrill’s Mill that we would love to renew our vows at. It is just a beautiful area and can’t wait to go back.

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