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Lew Wallace (1827–1905) made national headlines as author of the 1880 best-selling novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and for his efforts as New Mexico territorial governor to bring outlaw William “Billy the Kid” Bonney to heel. But perhaps his single most important accomplishment came on July 9, 1864, at Monocacy Junction, Md., 45 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. At a critical juncture in the American Civil War the disgraced Union Army major general and his ragtag force were all that stood between the nearly defenseless capital and a Confederate invasion force led by Lt. Gen. Jubal Early. By threatening Washington, the Rebel general hoped to draw Union forces away from his besieged commander, General Robert E. Lee, in Petersburg, Va.

After driving off Union forces in his march down the Shenandoah Valley, Early and his 14,000 Confederates crossed the Potomac River into Maryland on July 5–6. Hoping to bring Lee to a decisive battle, Union commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had myopically ordered most of Washington’s defenders south to assist Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac in the siege of Petersburg. Lee hoped Early could force Grant, who was in Petersburg with Meade, to send part of the Army of the Potomac back to the capital. Blocking Early’s path was Wallace. An unlikely hero, the latter had sullied his own reputation by arriving late to the fight on the first day of the April 6–7, 1862, Battle of Shiloh, Tenn. Wallace had found himself increasingly sidelined from the war until March 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln appointed him to command the Baltimore-based Middle Department and VIII Corps.

Wallace chose to make his stand at Monocacy Junction, southeast of Frederick, Md., astride the turnpikes to Washington and Baltimore. He would have to defend a 6-mile front encompassing three bridges and several fords across the Monocacy River. With only 3,200 new and short-term recruits, Wallace hoped to delay the Confederates long enough for reinforcements to arrive and avert catastrophe.

Fortunately, Grant had decided to send Brig. Gen. James Ricketts’ 3rd Division, VI Corps, back from Petersburg. Ricketts arrived at Monocacy on July 8 with little more than 3,300 men. While the reinforcements increased Wallace’s force to nearly 6,600 men, Early’s approaching Confederates still outnumbered them more than 2-to-1. Wallace stationed Ricketts’ men on the Union left, south of an iron railroad bridge some 400 yards upriver from the covered wooden bridge on Georgetown Pike, the route to the capital. Wallace positioned his recruits on the Union right, 2 miles upriver from the railroad bridge, at the stone bridge on Baltimore Pike, thus securing a line of retreat back to Baltimore.

On the morning of the 9th Early sent skirmishers against the covered bridge on Georgetown Pike, but they were unable to budge the bluecoats. Early then ordered Brig. Gen. John McCausland’s dismounted cavalry to circle around the Union left by fording the Monocacy a mile downriver from the bridge. Wallace countered by first having the covered bridge burned and then moving the bulk of Ricketts’ men to resist the flanking attack. When devastating fire forced McCausland to retreat, Early sent Maj. Gen. John Brown Gordon’s three infantry brigades across the ford. By mid-afternoon their numbers finally broke the Union line, forcing Wallace to retreat down the Baltimore Pike. Though he’d suffered nearly 1,300 casualties to some 900 for the Confederates, Wallace had resisted a far larger, better equipped and more experienced force for more than seven hours.

Early drove his exhausted army on toward Washington, but it was too late. The delay at Monocacy had enabled Grant to send the veteran 1st and 2nd divisions of VI Corps to the defense of the capital. On July 11 Early made an ineffectual assault on Fort Stevens, 6 miles north of Washington, as President Abraham Lincoln himself watched from the parapets. By the afternoon of July 12 Early knew his invasion had failed, and the next day he retreated into Virginia. Confederate forces would not again set foot on Northern soil.

On learning of the rout at Monocacy, Grant relieved Wallace of command. But once the magnitude of the major general’s actions became clear—that his tactical defeat had in fact been a strategic victory, buying Washington crucial time for reinforcement—Grant reinstated him at the head of VIII Corps. Wallace’s reputation was also restored, as he received public approbation, as well as praise from Grant and, years later, from his Confederate opponent Gordon.

The battlefield remained in private hands for more than a century before Congress acquired the land and opened Monocacy National Battlefield [] to the public in 1991. The park encompasses more than 1,600 acres, preserving 51 structures and maintaining the landscape much as it appeared in 1864. Monuments pay tribute to soldiers on both sides of the “Battle That Saved Washington.”