The 1864 Battle at Monocacy That Saved Washington
Sometimes we lose in order to win.
This was very much the case with the Battle of Monocacy, fought just outside Frederick, Maryland on July 9, 1864. The Union soldiers went down in defeat, but they accomplished a bigger goal — they saved Washington.
In all the stories of the Civil War, the Battle of Monocacy has been less frequently told. The final decision to preserve the battlefield and to open it to the public so the Monocacy story could be shared was not realized until July of 1991, a full 127 years after the battle.
What happened at Monocacy and why was it only later remembered?
In June of 1864 the Union had pulled troops from other areas to move South, and in the process they had temporarily stalled the Confederate troops in the areas around Richmond and Petersburg. General Robert E. Lee was looking for the next move for the Confederate Army when his spies informed him that the Union capital was essentially undefended, with only 9,000 Union soldiers, most of them reservists, guarding Washington, D.C.
Lee’s plan was to send General Jubal Early north with about 14,000 soldiers to strike the Union’s capital. As Early’s men moved north, they encountered some 6,500 Union soldiers in the area around Frederick, Maryland under the guidance of General Lew Wallace; the Battle of Monocacy (named after the river the Confederates crossed) took place.
The Battle of Monocacy ended in heavy Union losses and eventual retreat, but these Union soldiers delayed Early’s advance by a day, providing General Ulysses S. Grant with the opportunity to move men back into Washington to defend the capital.
The timing was such that when Early first arrived near Rockville, Maryland on the evening of July 10, his initial reports were that Washington was still lightly defended. However, the 25th New York Cavalry and two divisions of the Sixth Corps arrived under cover of darkness, and by the morning of July 12 when Early planned to attack, he saw that the parapets were now lined with seasoned troops. President Abraham Lincoln also made an appearance at the battlefield in a show of force for the Union.
With these new developments, Early abandoned plans to capture Washington; he intended to keep his men there for a fight, but shortly the Confederates were beaten back in a full retreat.
General Grant was to say of Monocacy, “General Wallace contributed on this occasion, by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of equal force to render by means of a victory.”
For many years, not much was said about the Battle of Monocacy. The battlefield was not preserved, and the storytelling about those days involved talking about Early’s decision to abandon his plans to attack Washington.
However, one fellow knew this was an injustice. Though he had been only age six at the time, Glenn H. Worthington remembered watching the brutal fighting from the cellar of his family home on what had become the Monocacy battlefield. Confederate troops had crossed the Monocacy River, onto the Worthington Farm, initiating three attacks from the fields of his family farm.
Cathy Beeler, Chief of Resource Education and Visitor Services at Monocacy National Battlefield, explains that it was Glenn Worthington’s lifelong interest that eventually led to the preservation of the battlefield.
Though General Lew Wallace had campaigned for a monument to his men and had suggested preservation of the battlefield, nothing had been done. Finally in 1928 a Congressional bill was passed providing $50,000 to acquire the battlefield land, but as the Depression deepened, Congress reduced the amount to just $5,000.
Angered when the funds were reduced so severely, Worthington who had grown up, attended law school and become a circuit judge but who pursued the study of Monocacy as a hobby, began to actively campaign to save the battlefield.
In 1932 his book about the battle, Fighting for Time, was published, and in 1934, the battlefield was established by an Act of Congress. However, no funds were set aside for land purchase and much of the battlefield remained in private hands.
Finally in 1974 Congressman Goodloe E. Byron (1929-78) introduced a bill to authorize the National Park Service to acquire more of the battlefield land, including the Worthington Farm. On July 13, 1991 this important battlefield opened to the public with one park ranger and one volunteer to greet interested comers.
Since that time, the Monocacy Battlefield has grown and changed. In 2007 a new Visitors Center opened its doors, and since that time, many letters and documents pertaining to the local battle have helped fill in details.
Without it, an important American story — that of sometimes losing in order to win — would not be told.