Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C., and Changed American History

by Marc Leepson, St. Martins , 2007, $25.95

OK, see if you know this one:How many times did the Army of Northern Virginia move north during the Civil War and which invasion included a victory?

Everyone knows the battles that followed when Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the North in 1862 and 1863. Less well known is the July 1864 Battle of Monocacy during a third invasion.Despite the author’s assertion,the battle was less important than Antietam and Gettysburg, but he works hard to make his case.

To strengthen his outnumbered army after Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant moved south in May 1864,Lee withdrew units from the Shenandoah Valley and the Union forces moved in. This unsettled Confederate leaders who held the belief—dutifully echoed by historians ever since—that possession of the Valley was vital to the war effort. Lee not only shared this belief, he knew Grant had stripped Washington’s defenses to bolster his army, and the Valley offered an unobstructed route to the capital.Deciding it was worth the risk, he dispatched an experienced general, Jubal Early, with three veteran divisions and two artillery battalions to retake the Valley and, if possible,threaten Washington.

This was no minor operation. Early’s estimated 16,000 men totaled about a quarter of Lee’s army. He marched off on June 13 and quickly ran into a Union force under Maj. Gen. David Hunter. For reasons never explained, Hunter ordered a retreat after the fighting had barely begun and fled southwest, removing the only substantial force between Early and Washington. Suffering mostly from heat and lack of supplies,Southern troops moved north into Maryland on July 5.

At this point Early attracted the concern of Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur, it’s traditional to add) who commanded the Middle Atlantic Department: Delaware and eastern Maryland. This was a backwater, and Wallace occupied himself as military governor of Baltimore. He commanded a few thousand troops who had enlisted for garrison duty.Later,he benefited greatly from his literary fame,writing a popular autobiography that highlighted the importance of his actions that summer.

No historian claims Wallace did badly, and Leepson has nothing but praise. Quicker than Lincoln and Halleck to decide substantial Confederate forces were heading for Washington,Wallace assembled the 2,300 troops of his command at the Monocacy River to block Early’s path.At the last moment, veterans from the Third Division,VI Corps,arrived,ordered up from Petersburg on July 6 by an increasingly concerned Grant. This swelled Wallace’s force to not quite 6,000.Attacking at dawn on July 9, Early ordered several unsuccessful charges against entrenched veterans. In the end, Early’s superior numbers and artillery prevailed,but the fighting lasted all day.

By the time news reached Washington,all that remained were Wallace’s defeated troops retreating in disorder.Assuming the worst, Halleck relieved Wallace of command.Early resumed his advance on July 10 and arrived within sight of Washington on the 11th,the same day two remaining divisions of the VI Corps docked at the city.By the 12th,when Early gave serious consideration to attacking,veterans occupied the fortifications that until then had been feebly defended by untrained men,invalids and civilians.But when veterans moved in, Early decided to withdraw to the Shenandoah,pursued (as usual, much too slowly) by Union forces. Two months passed before Maj.Gen.Phil Sheridan crushed him at Winchester.

The Battle of Monocacy ends at the book’s halfway point, so the remainder covers the abortive threat to Washington and the author’s creative discussion of what it all meant. No historian doubts Early’s campaign distracted Grant.The VI Corps never returned to Petersburg. Combined with losses in the spring campaign and the end of many enlistments, the Army of the Potomac shrank by nearly half over the summer (from 137,000 to 69,000),perhaps discouraging a direct assault on Richmond that might have shortened the war.

Three weeks after dismissing Wallace, Grant reappointed him.The official report and Grant’s memoirs concluded that the battle delayed Early’s advance, enabling the VI Corps to reach Washington.Grant never claimed this saved the city and ensured victory for the Union, but Wallace had no doubt, and the author agrees.

Civil War writing enjoys a long tradition of uncovering events that changed the course of history.What would have happened if J.E.B.Stuart had kept Lee informed before Gettysburg, if Braxton Bragg had pressed his advantage in Perryville,if Grant had exploited the breakthrough at the Crater.The answer is easy: no one knows. Although cause-and-effect makes predictions easy in physics,it’s meaningless in history,which features too many irrational decisions,bizarre coincidences,self-destructive behavior and very bad judgment from people who should have known better.

Early’s campaign is not as obscure as the book jacket claims,but no popular account has appeared in decades. Having done his homework,Leepson fills the gaps nicely,so readers will find little to object to except the time-honored but inadequate maps.


Originally published in the January 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here