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The Confederate campaign that nearly took Washington and the desperate battle that saved the nation’s capital.

Hours, even minutes, decided the campaign, and one half-forgotten hero protected the Union’s capital from what may have been, man for man, the toughest little army the Confederacy ever put into the field. Had those 15,000 Southerners under Lieutenant General Jubal Early succeeded in burning the newly completed Capitol building, Abraham Lincoln’s re-election hopes might well have been crushed, and all the bloody sacrifices of General Ulysses Grant’s advance from the Wilderness to Petersburg would have seemed a gruesome waste. Fortunately for the country we know today, a brutal Union defeat in Maryland saved Washington – and the Union.

The Yankees started it. With the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia glaring at each other across the trench lines at Petersburg and Richmond, the Union assembled a potentially potent force in the Shenandoah Valley, determined to master the “breadbasket of the Confederacy” and then to sever the deep-in-Virginia rail lines essential to supporting General Robert E. Lee’s troops and the Rebel capital. If all went well, that Union force, commanded by Major General David Hunter, would not only cut Lee’s lines of communication, but further close the trap on the most important Confederate army.

For once, the quality of the Union troops was not an issue. In particular, the two divisions led by Major General George Crook had been toughened physically by years of warfare in the mountains of West Virginia. But Crook, a first-rate leader, wasn’t in overall command. Hunter was. And Hunter combined brag with untimely caution, pigheadedness and cruelty – if any man can be said to have begun the viciousness that characterized the war’s last year in the Shenandoah Valley, it was Hunter.

Hunter’s objective was Lynchburg, a Confederate rail junction, logistics center and hospital city just east of the Blue Ridge. And Hunter could have had it for the taking – only a tiny force under Confederate Major General (and former vice president of the United States) John C. Breckinridge stood between the Yankees and their prize. But Hunter dallied in Lexington, outraging his own subordinates by burning the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the home of a Virginia governor. Crook and the other Union generals and colonels barely persuaded him to spare Washington College (later, Washington and Lee).

In mid-June, Hunter belatedly moved forward – but carefully, as if he might be outnumbered. As soon as Breckinridge identified Hunter’s objective, he sounded the alarm and force-marched his men to Lynchburg. Gathering up the local citizens, military strays, convalescents and a contingent of VMI cadets, Breckinridge bluffed the approaching Hunter by blowing train whistles, marching bands about, organizing cheers and shifting forces back and forth as if they were arriving reinforcements.

Hunter hesitated through the night of June 17, 1864. The delay – all of his delays – proved fatal. Lee had dispatched Early and his Second Corps to reinforce Breckinridge, and Early, a man of furious temper and fierce determination, had moved his forces with breathless speed, using trains when possible and marching his men bloody-footed when the trains did not appear.

Still outnumbered, Early and Breckinridge parried Hunter smartly on June 18, convincing him that his army faced destruction. More proficient at burning homes than fighting battles, Hunter began a hasty retreat back to the Shenandoah Valley.

It got worse. Once back across the Blue Ridge, the panicking Hunter did not withdraw down the Valley (northward) to shield the Potomac crossings and the invasion route to the north – he ran for the safety of West Virginia, taking his troops out of the fight for a crucial month.

Early knew opportunity when he saw it, as did Robert E. Lee. Maintaining tight security and staging his own deceptions on the Petersburg front, Lee unleashed Early’s new command, the Army of the Valley District, for a strategic sweep into Maryland with multiple objectives: threatening Washington and thus forcing Grant to weaken the Army of the Potomac to reinforce the capital; pushing the fighting out of the Valley so the harvest could be saved; and, if possible, freeing the tens of thousands of Confederate prisoners held at Point Lookout, Maryland. While the last goal was something of a pipe dream – an operational impossibility, given the lean force under Early’s command – “Old Jubilee” would accomplish the first goal superbly and do a fair job on the second.

Not only was Early an aggressive commander, he led four of the best division commanders left to the Confederacy: Major Generals John B. Gordon, Stephen D. “Dod” Ramseur, Robert E. Rodes and John C. Breckinridge. Dividing his army into two wings or demi-corps to facilitate rapid movement and what we call “command and control,” Early put Breckinridge in charge of Gordon’s division, as well as the former vice president’s own.

But there were problems, as there are in any military endeavor. Early was an irascible, difficult man, bent with arthritis and given to blunt speech laced with sharp profanity spoken through a beard stained with tobacco juice. He also was a man of strong likes and dislikes, and he instinctively resented the magnetic, inspiring Gordon. In the Wilderness, Early had dismissed Gordon’s reports that the Union flank was undefended until it was too late to make a decisive difference (although Gordon still managed to terrify the Yankees for a few hours). Then Gordon – as dashing and eloquent as Early was raw and plainspoken – proved to be the indispensable man in the May 12 Mule Shoe crisis at Spotsylvania, overshadowing Early’s role. Both men had been promoted to higher commands, but Gordon had committed the twin sins of being right then of being in the right place and outperforming his superior.

The rivalry between these two “frenemies” would play out tragically later in the year, but, overall, one of the South’s leadership challenges was the almost-feudal individuality of its eternally squabbling leaders. And the intermittent – ultimately bitter – discord between Gordon and Early weakened one of the Confederacy’s great combinations: A man of no military experience prior to the war, Gordon had developed into a magnificent tactical leader, with incomparable battlefield instincts and a perfect eye for ground. Early, by contrast, had a strong sense of strategy and operational daring. Later, Early would be castigated for his defeats at the hands of rising Union star Major General Philip Sheridan, but Early was consistently outnumbered at least 2- to-1 and usually 3- or 4-to-1 in those encounters and still came close to defeating Sheridan in two major battles.

But those fights were still in the future on July 5, 1864, as Early’s infantry crossed the Potomac after rampaging down the Valley. (See Early’s Valley Campaign map.) Amazingly, no one in the Union high command realized Early was there. It was one of the greatest intelligence failures of the war.


Washington had been warned of Early’s approach, but top government officials wouldn’t believe it. Focused on his own campaign, Grant responded to queries by insisting that Early and his corps remained in the Petersburg lines and that reports of a significant Confederate presence in the lower Valley were greatly exaggerated. Grant’s staff insisted that the Reb activities were no more than a raid. Meanwhile, Early had boxed in Major General Franz Sigel at Harper’s Ferry and Maryland Heights, wrecked the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), and turned east.

While Sigel did report a strong Rebel presence, only one man in the Union – one with his own intelligence network – grasped the dimensions of the threat: John W. Garrett, the president of the B&O. Garrett’s station masters and telegraphers had reported news of Early’s advance to the line’s Baltimore headquarters with far greater accuracy and timeliness than the military system delivered. And Garrett was an angry man. On one hand, the Rebs were wrecking his railroad, a line vital to the North and its armies, while, on the other, he could not get anyone in Washington to believe the mounting evidence. Since July 1, Garrett had been forwarding messages to his acquaintance, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, but the secretary put his faith in Grant’s assurances that claims of Early’s presence in Maryland were nonsense.

There was only one general officer ready to believe Garrett and take action, and that was a man with no forces to speak of, Major General Lew Wallace, who had been consigned to the rear-area command of the Middle Department, headquartered in Baltimore. Wallace would go on to a remarkable postwar career as governor of the New Mexico Territory (where he attempted to reform Billy the Kid) and then as the U.S. diplomatic representative to the Ottoman Empire, where he astonished the sultan’s court by becoming the ruler’s personal friend and adviser. But Lew Wallace’s enduring fame would come from the novel he wrote by lamplight in the then-crumbling Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. The book was Ben Hur, and it not only would become one of the greatest bestsellers of all time and never go out of print, but would inspire the cultural capital of the next century, Hollywood, to film the story repeatedly.

In July 1864, though, Wallace was near a low point. A volunteer officer and former militia commander (who drilled his men in Zouave tactics), Wallace, on his own initiative, had saved Grant’s right wing from destruction at Fort Donelson, only to become the scapegoat for the Union’s near-disaster at Shiloh. Although Grant had nearly lost his army, Wallace, who had done his best to obey vague orders overtaken by events, was the man who lost his command. And the villain of the piece was Major General Henry Halleck, “Old Brains,” a general who never won a battle and never forgot a grudge. Halleck despised volunteer officers, convinced that only a West Point education qualified a man to lead troops. Worse, a few of his staff officers had overheard Wallace criticizing Halleck and reported the matter upward. Halleck might have forgiven Wallace for his late arrival on the field at Shiloh, but not for the criticism.

Wallace had been sent home to Indiana. Even when he rushed to Ohio and saved Cincinnati from a Rebel incursion, he received no thanks. After two years of despairing as he watched the war bleed on without him, the best appointment Wallace’s political allies could get him was the do-nothing Baltimore post – and Halleck, now in Washington as the Army chief of staff, had opposed even that.

By July, Wallace’s only excitement as commander of the Middle Department had been overseeing Maryland’s recent elections. Then Garrett cornered Wallace with news that no one else would believe: The North was being invaded and Washington threatened.

Wallace caught the vision. He could see the Capitol, the Treasury and the Navy Yard in flames. And he understood the political implications: Lincoln would fail in his re-election bid and the country would be divided. Yet, Halleck, Stanton and all the rest of the Washington men dismissed the imminent danger as a pipe dream.

Wallace took what action he could, gathering up the Maryland Home Brigades – essentially, militia – in his jurisdiction, as well as 10 infantry companies of the Ohio National Guard detailed to his department and a handful of mounted infantry. He had one six-gun battery, 10 men from the New York Heavy Artillery, and he just managed to commandeer five companies of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, the only veterans in his ragtag force. Including the 200 Illinois cavalrymen, Wallace led just under 2,500 soldiers, almost all of them partially trained and green, to face Early’s seasoned killers.

Wallace and Garrett agreed on the decisive point on the map, the railroad man because he wanted to protect a new iron river bridge and Wallace because he was soldier enough to recognize that Frederick, Maryland, was the point of decision where Early would have to show his hand and march either on Washington or Baltimore – and Wallace was convinced Old Jube was headed to the capital.

The reckoning would come at Monocacy Junction, where the B&O and the highway to Washington met to form a strategic river crossing.

Flowing southwest toward the Potomac, the winding Monocacy River ran three miles east and south of Frederick, its course defining the western boundary of Wallace’s district. Without seeking permission – which Wallace suspected would be denied – he ignored that restriction and advanced his cavalry 10 miles to the west along the highway leading to Frederick, determined to delay the Rebs and gather intelligence. It was all about time now, and no one else seemed to realize it. Wallace knew he couldn’t win a battle against such impossible odds, but he intended to fight for every hour, until someone in Washington woke up. And he knew where he had to make his stand – at the only defensible ground he had, the southeast bank of the Monocacy, smack astride that road to the nation’s capital and the rail line.


By July 7, Washington’s complacence began to crumble into panic: Yes, Early – or somebody – was out there with a substantial Rebel force and Washington lay all but undefended, its defenses stripped of troops to replace the losses of Grant’s Overland Campaign. Still, the situation remained befuddling to desk-bound officers and bureaucrats. As Early’s cavalry trotted toward Frederick, Halleck believed the Confederates were gathering near Harper’s Ferry.

Wallace knew better. He had dispatched his Illinois horse soldiers, under the leadership of a savvy veteran, Lieutenant Colonel David R. Clendenin, to scout, observe, harry and delay the graybacks heading toward Frederick from the mountain ridges to the west. On the morning of July 7, Clendenin’s men collided with Rebel cavalry under Brigadier General Bradley T. Johnson. A native of Frederick, Johnson knew the ground, but still had difficulty pushing the Yankees eastward. With barely 200 troopers, Clendenin fought a succession of skillful delaying actions.

Intense heat had followed a long dry spell. The dust on the roads was as fine as chalk, choking the men in the long gray columns and coating the new shoes that had just caught up with them. Tough soldiers, they had been pushed almost beyond endurance and ever more of them fell out by the wayside. Gordon appears to have argued for even more aggressive marching, but Early was not only concerned for the welfare of his soldiers – he was a better man than his rough demeanor suggested – but appears to have struck a lull himself. Instead of heading directly for Washington as swiftly as he could go, he had squandered time destroying stores and wrecking the B&O line, tasks that could have been handled after a successful coup de main at the nation’s capital. He also had lost a full day probing the Federal fortifications on Maryland Heights by Harper’s Ferry to no result.

Nor did Early trust or value his cavalry, with the result that he used them halfheartedly. Old Jube had come to detest the mounted arm to an irrational degree. Part of the problem was the condition of the Confederate cavalry: By mid-1864, mounts were so scarce that many a proud cavalier was reduced to reluctant service as an infantryman, while the horses that were available often were in wretched shape compared to the plentiful mounts of their Northern counterparts. Discipline, too, had deteriorated, with some battalions little more than freebooters. And J.E.B. Stuart and many another experienced cavalry leader had been killed: Ostentatious gallantry had its price.

As the Confederate horse deteriorated, the Union cavalry had come into its own. Increasingly skillful, well-led and well-mounted, and with ever more regiments equipped with Spencer repeating rifles, the “modern” Yankee horsemen had attained levels of versatility that European armies failed to match before the days of the mounted arm were over: As Union cavalrymen would prove in the Valley that autumn, they had become a combat arm of decision, able to conduct traditional reconnaissance, screening and raiding missions, but also capable of fighting dismounted with stunning firepower or, under brilliant tactical leaders such as Brigadier Generals George Armstrong Custer or Wesley Merritt, stage clinch-the-decision saber charges in close coordination with the artillery and infantry.

But those autumnal triumphs were still to come. On that deadly hot day, July 7, a handful of Union troopers delayed the Confederate horse until Rebel infantry and artillery came up, giving Wallace time to deploy a small force of Home Guard infantry and an artillery section to the western outskirts of Frederick to further blunt the tip of Old Jube’s advance. By dusk, the fighting petered out and not a single Confederate had entered Frederick, let alone passed through the city to cross the Monocacy.

Frederick had been much visited, but not despoiled, by passing armies. It was now a major supply depot and military hospital center. Wallace did what he could to evacuate stores and the wounded, but some goods had to be destroyed and some suffering veterans could not be moved. Meanwhile, the town fathers pleaded with Wallace not to abandon the city. Wallace refused to lie to them. He knew that his small covering force – even if reinforced with every man he had – could not hold Early’s army at bay in the gently rolling countryside between the mountain passes and Frederick. The only line where he might make a serious stand followed the southeastern banks of the Monocacy, where the defensive ground was superb and an enemy would be channeled toward a very few bridges and fords. His green troops needed every possible advantage.

Early began to focus again, driving his army to concentrate on Frederick for the last dash southward to Washington. But the fickle fortunes of war had begun to change. Alerted to reality at last, Grant ordered Major General George Gordon Meade to send a VI Corps division to Baltimore (a possible goal for Early) and to have the rest of the corps prepare to embark at City Point for Washington on order – and the order soon would come. The XIX Corps, on its way to Virginia from New Orleans, also would be diverted to Washington in the coming days, creating a race between North and South for, arguably, the war’s greatest prize.

In the pre-dawn hours of July 8, Wallace, unable to sleep at his headquarters on the Monocacy, awaited his first reinforcements. Garrett, the railroad president, had alerted him the previous afternoon that veteran troops had arrived by ship off Baltimore … yet, the soldiers had not materialized. Starved for information from his own chain of command, Wallace didn’t know that conflicting orders had been issued, delaying disembarkation. And when the troops finally began to come ashore, Halleck ordered them not to Wallace, but to Point of Rocks, Maryland, and on to Harper’s Ferry, a course of action which, at worst, might have seen them captured piecemeal or, at best, dispatched them far from the battlefield.

Garrett took command of the “operational rear,” badgering the War Department until he got the first regiments aboard his trains and headed for Monocacy Junction, which was on the line to Point of Rocks. Around dawn, Wallace finally heard a train. It carried the 10th Vermont, whose colonel, William W. Henry, was under orders to get to Harper’s Ferry. Possessed of no authority over VI Corps troops, Wallace nonetheless persuaded Henry that the fight would take place where he stood and his men were needed on the Monocacy, not to the west. The Vermonters stayed. More regiments would filter in throughout the day.

Thus far, Wallace had violated his departmental boundary, commandeered the Illinois cavalry, and convinced the first VI Corps arrivals to ignore their orders. And he knew he still was going to lose the coming battle, even if reinforced with an entire division. But there was real hope now of causing Early a significant delay, giving Grant and Meade time to rescue Washington. Whatever Wallace’s failings may have been, the man had guts.

Fate helped. Union intelligence had failed abysmally for a month. Now it was Early’s turn to fall victim to bad information. Local Confederate sympathizers had reported, prematurely, that Frederick and the Monocacy were defended only by a few green “milish.” Nor had Early’s cavalry, which simply paused in the face of Wallace’s resistance on Frederick’s outskirts, reported on the changing situation.

The Confederates largely wasted July 8, marching hard to make up for their dispersion, but without any serious effort by forward elements to dislodge the thin blue line Wallace had deployed as a covering force. By the end of the day, most of the Union’s 1st Brigade of the 3d Division, VI Corps, had arrived at Monocacy Junction, and, except for a brief, blundering cavalry brawl fought in a dust cloud, the Rebels still had not reached the streets of Frederick.

Surprised at the lack of Confederate aggressiveness and proud of what his scraped-up force had accomplished over two days, Wallace withdrew to the river line during the night. The retreating troops endured the catcalls of Frederick’s citizens, but Early was now arriving in force just west of the town and Wallace saw that any further attempt to fight near the city would mean extensive destruction to no purpose – and a possible rampage by hungry, ill-clad Confederates.

Early, for his part, issued his orders for July 9 based on the assumption that his army faced only militia who could be brushed aside in a matter of moments. But just as the Confederates began to advance in the soft light of dawn, another crucial player arrived on the soon-to-be battlefield: Brigadier General James B. Ricketts, commanding the battered-but-bully 3d Division of the VI Corps. For the coming fight, Ricketts would have only one and a half of his division’s two brigades – two regiments and several companies never reached the field – but he and Wallace would, together, make one of the most heroic stands in American history.


Briefed by Wallace, Ricketts swiftly grasped the importance of fighting for time, but his division had been much reduced by the constant fighting in May and June in Virginia. He now commanded about 5,000 men, but would bring only 3,500 to the field, and he had been ordered to embark without his artillery or hospital trains. Together with Wallace’s patchwork force, the Union would have no more than 6,000 soldiers on the field, supported by one battery and a lone 24-pounder (which would be fouled by a nervous cannoneer early in the battle).

After detachments, stragglers and heat casualties, Early probably led 15,000 men by the time he marched through Frederick, and he was about to detach Johnson’s cavalry brigade to terrorize eastern Maryland and free the prisoners at Point Lookout, “if practicable.” It would not be practicable, and Johnson would spend part of his raid lunching with friends.

But the lean and leathery foot soldiers Early commanded were the finest light infantry of the 19th century, accustomed to extracting a terrible toll from the Yankees whenever they met. And Early’s lead division for the day’s march – it was expected to be little more than a march – was led by a fire-breathing 27-year-old major general, “Dod” Ramseur. Early expected Ramseur to swat away the enemy “militia” and dash toward Washington, followed by Early’s other three divisions, with Rodes bringing up the rear after feinting toward the crossing that led toward Baltimore.

Instead of terrified “Sunday soldiers,” Ramseur’s forward troops struck a tenacious Union skirmish line on the northwest bank of the river, with rifle pits and a blockhouse at the party’s rear to protect the bridges. Worse, the key terrain was on the opposite bank, in Union hands. The gray cavalry had failed to identify fords in advance for a flanking movement and any direct assault on the bridges would be costly, no matter how inexperienced the defenders. Ramseur could count at least a brigade’s worth of Union troops. Still, he didn’t realize that he faced VI Corps veterans.

Wallace had deployed his meager forces with consummate skill, taking bold risks. Six thousand men were precious few to defend a front whose essential terrain stretched for over three miles, with crucial ground on the flanks adding additional miles of concern, but Wallace wagered that Early’s target was, indeed, Washington and made his dispositions on that assumption. Posting less-experienced (but well-led) troops at the “Jug Bridge” that led to Baltimore – a position vital to his line of retreat, shielding its flank – and on the steep bluffs running southwest, he deployed the last of his own troops near the vital road and rail bridges down at the junction to supplement Ricketts’ men. The VI Corps division stood firmly astride the Washington pike and guarded the endangered high ground to the left, a broad plateau of fields dotted with a few houses. The skirmishers deployed across the river paired green troops with veterans to brace them, and Wallace’s few artillery pieces were positioned with excellent lines of fire to support the skirmish line and protect the bridges. Wallace had been studying the ground for days, and although his was a painfully thin defense, it was brilliant.

Ramseur settled for skirmishing while he brought up artillery, hoping guns would drive the blue-bellies off. They didn’t. Meanwhile, Brigadier General John McCausland’s cavalry brigade searched frantically for a ford to the west that would let the army turn the Yankee flank. But with the South desperately in need of sound currency, Early had tarried in Frederick to strong-arm the mayor and leading citizens into paying a ransom of $200,000 to save their homes from the torch. For hours, the commanding general wasn’t where he was needed to shape the battle.

By the time Early reached the battlefield late in the morning, the Confederate effort had become disordered. The usually aggressive Ramseur had accomplished little and, although McCausland’s horsemen had found and secured a ford, there appears to have been no effort at coordination, a situation worsened by overconfidence, pride and rivalries.

“Tiger John” McCausland had a wicked grudge, but against Early, not the Yankees. Early’s disdain for the cavalry appears to have spurred McCausland, a former infantryman, to attempt to have his horsemen save the day. Reaching the high ground on the southern bank by the Worthington House – where a young boy would witness the battle and write of it decades later – McCausland still believed he faced only militia. He dismounted his men and hurriedly formed them up to imitate an infantry formation, flags flying. Tiger John believed he could frighten the Yankees into running for the nearby hills.

When a hasty order came to advance – with no attempt at reconnoitering what waited ahead – the cavalrymen marched forward, heading across the high plateau and into a broad cornfield. The midday heat was punishing and the sweat running into men’s eyes might have obscured the figure of a lone Yankee horseman waiting on the far side of the field.

That man was Jim Ricketts. Recognizing (as did Wallace) that the Union’s left flank would draw the main Rebel attack, he had advanced nearly a third of his force in a heavy skirmish line, hiding them behind a rail fence on the friendly side of the cornfield that had just come alive with the thrashing of a thousand Johnnies advancing into a trap.

Ricketts had ordered his subordinate officers to dismount and send their horses to the rear. The soldiers were told to lie down and keep themselves quiet. High-crowned officers’ hats were removed and every last lieutenant was warned of severe consequences if he showed his head above the top fence rail.

Rabbits fled the cornfield, racing over the waiting Yankees. Midway through the corn, the unsuspecting Confederates gave a cheer and shifted to the double-quick.

Ricketts waited. And waited. A perfect target for any gray-clad sharpshooters.

Howling, the Rebs came on faster, breaking into a run.

At last, Ricketts ordered his men to stand and open fire. But these troops were hard-bitten veterans. They didn’t fire wildly, but took a pair of seconds to steady their rifles on the top fence rail. When their volley exploded, McCausland’s lines disappeared.

The Union fires were devastating, but the Rebs were veterans, too, and many had wasted no time before throwing themselves to the earth then scurrying rearward, shocked into breaking. In the Worthington farmhouse yard, a furious McCausland rode among his fleeing men, threatening to shoot them, until his regimental commanders convinced him that “his boys” had merely been surprised and would make a go of a second, better-organized attack.

McCausland seethed when he realized that, had he taken the time to climb to the second floor of the house, he would have spotted the lurking Yankees. As quickly as his subordinate officers could round up their men, he designed a new attack to outflank the too-short line of Union troops.

Wallace, for his part, managed the overall battle while Ricketts handled the tactical fighting on the endangered flank. But fortune had turned again. By his calculation, Wallace had already cost Early five hours as the sun reached its zenith, but the Union commander’s instructions to prepare the road bridge for burning had gone awry and the covered bridge had been set alight before the skirmishers on the far bank could withdraw. Those men now had only the open-deck rail bridge as a tenuous line of retreat (a ford near the road bridge would prove a shooting gallery for the pursuing enemy’s riflemen). Then Wallace learned that the junction’s telegrapher, his link to Baltimore and Washington, had run away. More bad news followed: The 24-pounder, his only powerful gun, was out of action. And the train he had positioned to take off his wounded had pulled off at the first sounds of battle.

But Wallace’s men fought – not only Ricketts’ veterans, but the short-term soldiers, as well. The visual contrast was almost comical, though, with the Home Brigade men in relatively clean uniforms and wearing “town-feller” complexions, while the VI Corps troops were ragged, with their faces so darkened by gunpowder, dirt and the sun that they might have been mistaken for U.S. Colored Troops.

And now McCausland’s men were as riled as their commander, sweeping forward around the dangling Union right and slamming like a door. Despite Ricketts’ urgent effort to extend and refuse his line, his far-left regiments were caught in mid-movement and thrust back past a fine brick mansion, the Thomas House, or “Araby.”

But McCausland’s boys, while game, were not trained infantrymen. Their attack reached its culminating point in the mansion’s yards and began to break up. Spotting the disorder through the smoke (and under constant bombardment from Rebel artillery across the river), Wallace suggested that Ricketts launch an immediate counterattack. In the fog of battle, the order landed at the regimental level and regrouped VI Corps men surged back up the slope toward the mansion. A bout of hand-to-hand fighting cleared the grounds and then the house.

McCausland grew wildly desperate, intent on proving that his horsemen were as good as any infantry. But they weren’t. They made two more attacks, but both failed badly.

Riding amid the dead and the wounded, Ricketts grasped that all the hard fighting his men had done had only been against dismounted cavalry, that the real trial was on the way. With Wallace shifting his green troops to cover more of the river frontage, Ricketts drew most of his men up into the high fields, re-orienting his division westward. Praying for the arrival of two delayed regiments and several missing companies, that mid-afternoon may have been the longest of Jim Ricketts’ life.

And it had been an interesting life, at that. A West Pointer and a veteran of Mexico, the old artilleryman had performed bravely at Buena Vista, but wasn’t the dashing sort who gained brevet promotions. In the “old Army,” Ricketts’ advancement from lieutenant to captain had been slow, and the outbreak of the Civil War found him a mere battery commander in the Regular artillery. He was courageous, but his courage only brought him four wounds at Bull Run. He was left behind on the battlefield, reported dead.

Ricketts’ wife, learning that her husband might yet be alive, bullied her way past an old acquaintance, J.E.B. Stuart, and found Ricketts in a filthy room in a shanty whose yard was littered with severed limbs. Confronting weary surgeons, she saved her husband’s leg then went with him into imprisonment in Richmond, first in the disease-ridden almshouse, and then in Libby Prison, where, at one point, she nourished Ricketts by accepting charity from a sympathetic prostitute. With Ricketts’ luck running from bad to worse, the Confederate government then selected him as one of a number of prisoners to be executed in retaliation for the hanging of Southern privateers. His wife went to war with Jefferson Davis – and won.

Still ailing, Ricketts was exchanged and reached Fairfax, Virginia, with his emaciated, ill and beaming wife. He received command of a division and fought through the summer of 1862, until he was injured a second time when, having already lost one horse that day, a second was killed and fell on him at Antietam. This time, his return to command was delayed by a stint of inglorious court-martial duty, and when he got his new division in early 1864, it was an unruly rump affair that combined veterans surly over the Army of the Potomac’s recent consolidation of corps. The division had performed poorly in the Wilderness, moderately well at Spotsylvania, and superbly at Cold Harbor, as Ricketts mastered its peculiarities.

Now his bare-knuckled rogue of a division was bound to be overwhelmed. But first it would do its finest service of the war.


Major General John Brown Gordon’s men had been resting in the fields between Frederick and the Monocacy. For once, they were merely watching a battle, instead of bearing the brunt of it. But their pleasure was fleeting. As Ramseur stalled and McCausland failed, Early fumed. He and Gordon had been on the outs, but Gordon’s division was the best positioned to march up and finish the job, so the army could get moving toward Washington. Early told Breckinridge to order Gordon forward.

John Gordon never had to be told twice to attack. Aggressive, intuitive and a masterful leader of men, he got his division underway quickly, heading for the Worthington Ford, used earlier by McCausland. It was already mid-afternoon when Gordon arrived on the battlefield, and if the Yankees were not cleared off rapidly, the entire day would be lost. Gordon was convinced that there was no time to lose, if Early’s army hoped to seize the capital.

Across the river, Wallace and Ricketts understood that they faced the hour of reckoning. With the covered bridge a smoking ruin and the Confederates maneuvering for position, there was still time to save the bulk of their force by withdrawing toward Baltimore. The retreat was tempting, but both men knew what was at stake. They appear to have agreed that the risk to the force was worth it, if they could buy a few more hours. And the soldiers, even the volunteers, had shown real spirit, as if they, too, sensed what hung in the balance. Although Wallace’s skirmishers and a detachment of Vermonters were all but stranded on the northern bank, they kept on fighting as the bridge burned and fell at their backs, and no Confederate had been able to cross the river in Wallace’s center or to the north, by the Baltimore bridge.

The outcome would be determined on those high fields on the Union left. Ricketts re-formed his line again, extending it southward past the brick mansion and refusing the flank by a regiment, but there just were not enough men. The position lay open to a flanking movement in force.

And that flanking movement was on the way. Gordon rode ahead with his brigade commanders, scouting the ground and forming his plan. He would attack en echelon, with his former command, the Georgia Brigade, leading off and overlapping the Union left, followed by the Louisiana Brigade to the Georgians’ left, with the Virginia Brigade in trail above the river, ready to pivot toward the point of decision. Gordon saw that there was no perfect or even good way to fight the battle: A long stretch of open ground had to be crossed, and there would be a knockdown fight with Yankees – men he now knew were veterans from the VI Corps. His approach march took advantage of all the concealment the terrain had to offer, but this was going to be a fight, even if the Federals were outflanked. And the sun was already hours past its meridian.

Gordon’s infantrymen had the experience, discipline and tenacity that McCausland’s troopers had lacked, but, above all, they had faith in John Gordon, an officer whose gift for rhetoric was as impressive as his god-of-war appearance in the saddle. Flawlessly brave, Gordon truly led men by example. When his troops burst over a ridge, headed straight for the Union flank, Gordon was with them, hurrying them forward.

The greatest stroke of luck the Confederates had that day was the absence of Union artillery beyond the mere six guns along Wallace’s lines. Federal artillery had been a leading arm throughout the war, and a standard division’s worth of field pieces would have butchered Gordon’s attackers. Gordon must have been sweating from more than the sun as his men advanced over the open ground, still unsure if the Yankees were holding back masked batteries, waiting for an opportunity just such as this. The Federals never fought without their artillery …

The Georgia Brigade, under Brigadier General Clement A. Evans, had to negotiate a succession of fences and attempt to maintain alignment amid scattered wheat shocks. They soon came under fire so thick that the Union position disappeared in its own smoke, reduced to blinks of light amid a gray fog. Taking severe casualties, but cheering and raising up each fallen flag, the Georgians surged to within a hundred yards of the Yankees, then came closer still, entering the acrid cloud, the men firing, reloading, choking, cursing, dying …

Gordon’s close friend, Colonel John Lamar of the 61st Georgia, was killed, as were a substantial number of other officers. The brigade commander, Clem Evans, toppled with a wound that would cause him pain for years to come: In his pocket, he carried a packet of steel pins – a rarity in the 1864 South – as a gift for his wife. The bullet that felled him struck the pins, splintering them and scattering bits of steel into his flesh.

Gasping in the smoke, the Georgians must have felt they had been abandoned, but the consolidated Louisiana Brigade pounded in on their left, fixing the Yankees then slowly pushing them back as desperate Union officers threw every available soldier into the wavering line.

Survivors in Gordon’s division remembered the attack as one of the bitterest fights of the war – and these were veterans of the Spotsylvania Mule Shoe – but the Georgians and Louisianans never faltered, trusting in Gordon to turn the tide in their favor.

A rumor flew through the ranks that Gordon was wounded or dead. And he was, indeed, down, thrown from an agonized, dying horse. But after a moment of shock, he forced himself back to his feet, hatless and still dizzy, and borrowed another mount to ride through the billows of smoke to deliver the killing blow. His Virginia Brigade, which had been advanced carefully between the fighting and the riverbank, was ready to go in just where Gordon needed them. He brought them up on the immediate tactical flank of the struggling Union line, and the howling Virginians, blood up and beyond the control of their officers, poured over a crest and on through a fence to slam into Ricketts’ last, meager reserves, just as they were marching up to reinforce their comrades.

The Union defense broke. But it was not yet a rout. Rump regiments and pockets of men fought on, and a last line formed up along the road to Washington. But Gordon’s men had the momentum now, and Ramseur had finally gotten traction with his own attack, driving the last Union skirmishers over the rail bridge or picking them off as they tried to wade through the nearby ford. Ricketts’ division was flanked on both sides now.

Having done more than Wallace expected, his green troops finally collapsed. The stubborn VI Corps men increasingly found themselves enveloped or surrounded. Troops lacked officers, and officers lacked troops. Riderless horses galloped across the field and the sides grew intermingled. Desperate volleys killed friend and foe alike. But the inevitable outcome had grown clear: As the smoke thinned, hot-blooded Rebs herded hundreds of Union prisoners toward the rear. The last resistance faded. Brave men ran.

Ricketts remained on the field as long as he could, struggling to direct a command that, for the moment, no longer existed. All but dragged off by his staff, Wallace hurried to the Jug Bridge on the Baltimore road to do what he could to encourage its defenders to hold it and protect the line of retreat. But Confederate pressure had intensified on that flank, too.

The retreat turned into a desperate flight from the battlefield – although the Union artillerymen brought off all of their guns, including the 24-pounder. Early found himself with so many Union prisoners that he called off the pursuit, unable to handle any more captured Yankees. For their part, the Federals who got away ranged from units maintaining a rough cohesion, to individuals blundering through the countryside, drunk with fear.

It was a Union defeat, and a severe one. But it had destroyed Early’s hopes of seizing Washington. Old Jube just didn’t know it yet.


Exhausted by the unexpected and unwanted encounter, Early’s army camped on the battlefield, gathering the wounded while survivors feasted on captured Yankee rations. For many, though, the evening’s mood was grim. Although the Yankees had suffered almost 1,300 casualties, nearly half of those were men taken prisoner, about 600. Of the 900 Confederates lost to Early’s army, all had been killed or wounded.

Gordon’s crack division in particular had suffered, with 698 men falling dead or wounded in less than two hours. And Gordon’s beloved Georgia Brigade had the worst of it, with the 61st Georgia wrecked. The regiment had gone into battle with 150 men. At nightfall only 52 soldiers stacked arms.

The embarrassments for Early’s cavalry weren’t over, either: Clendenin’s badly outnumbered Illinois troopers turned on their pursuers at Urbana. In the fading light, the Yankees tore through McCausland’s surprised ranks, capturing a battle flag before disappearing again.

The Confederates hadn’t lost a few hours, but a full day. Their forward elements arrived within sight of the Capitol dome and in front of Washington’s fortifications just before noon on July 11, with most of Early’s weary army filtering onto the scene across the afternoon. The heat had grown even more severe and hundreds of stragglers were still catching up with their units throughout the night.

As the army staggered up, Gordon pressed Early to attack immediately. From a military-textbook standpoint, Gordon was right: The Confederate opportunity was fleeting, all but gone. But armies don’t live and fight in textbooks, and Early knew that his soldiers were exhausted. They skirmished well enough and perhaps the diminished force on the scene could have pushed through the trench lines between the great earthen forts. They might have penetrated the city itself. But then the attack would have crumbled, unable to hold what it had briefly seized.

As Early, Gordon and the other generals studied the Yankee defenses on that blazing afternoon, clouds of dust rose from the Washington streets. Soon, columns of blue-clad veterans, distinguished by their easy gaits even when marching hard, began to fill in the ramparts and breastworks across the fields from the thirsty, bone-weary Confederates. The rest of the VI Corps had arrived at the Washington wharves just as Early’s advance guard first glimpsed Washington.

That night, enjoying the appropriated hospitality of the country mansion of Francis Preston Blair, father of the Union’s postmaster general, Early and his generals debated whether to attack in the morning, with Early – enjoying the absent host’s French wine – deciding that, having come this far, an attack had to be risked, once the men were rested.

Wisely, Early delayed the morning attack until he could inspect the field once more. And he found that the Union defenses had been even more heavily reinforced during the night. Frustrated and, no doubt, cursing the bright blue streak for which he was famous, the bold, tobacco-chawing, querulous, ever-combative general gave the order to keep on skirmishing to bluff the Yankees, but to prepare the army for a retreat to Virginia when darkness fell.

Had Early reached the capital one day, or even hours, earlier, our history might have taken a different course.


Recovering from his belated panic, Major General Henry Halleck had his priorities straight. Even as Early was still on the march between the Monocacy and Washington, Halleck convinced Secretary of War Stanton that Wallace had exceeded his authority, ignored his responsibilities, failed miserably and wasted the only troops between Early and Washington. According to Halleck, it was Wallace even more than Early who had endangered the nation’s capital.

Just 24 hours after the guns fell silent along the Monocacy, Stanton, at Halleck’s eager behest, signed an order relieving Wallace of command. Wallace had not expected accolades, but he had done what he saw as his obvious duty, despite knowing he must lose in the classic sense. Nonetheless, he was stunned at being dismissed after holding Early at bay for a full day of battle, to say nothing of delaying the Rebel advance on the two preceding days – all the while wildly outnumbered. And it must have delivered an extra shock that even a master of intrigue and vengefulness such as Halleck could strike so swiftly.

While Halleck never understood field command, massed armies or modern weaponry, he thoroughly understood military bureaucracy and how to use it to punish men, to really make it hurt. Instead of removing Wallace completely from the scene, he left him in Baltimore, degraded, at the beck and call of his replacement. He was rubbing Wallace’s face in his humiliation, making it public.

Only when the truth began to seep out as to what Wallace had accomplished did minds begin to change. Stanton realized he had been misled, and Grant (who would praise Wallace’s valiant stand in his memoirs) saw Wallace reinstated in his Middle Department command. Later that summer, when Wallace accepted Grant’s invitation to visit his headquarters at City Point, he was treated generously and thanked for what he did on that muddy river on July 9. Nonetheless, when Wallace asked Grant for a field command, just for a division, Grant made excuses.

Wallace had saved Washington, but it turned out he was still on the wrong side of politics.


Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team and the author of the prize-winning Civil War novel “Cain at Gettysburg,” as well as “Hell or Richmond,” a novel on Grant’s Overland Campaign. The next book in his “Battle Hymn” series, “Valley of the Shadow,” will cover the fighting from Monocacy through Cedar Creek.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Armchair General.