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desperate engagement

1 november 2008

The battle of Monocacy (9 July 1864) is indeed one of the lesser-known engagements of the Civil War. I have been to most of the major battlefields and many of the minor ones, and have crossed western Maryland (home of my grandmother's family) many times, without stopping there. My big National Geographic wall maps showing hundreds of Civil War sites don't mention Monocacy by name. Even Google-mapping "Monocacy" brings up a crossroads in Pennsylvania, not the battlefield park outside of Frederick, MD. Marc Leepson's Desperate Engagement is therefore a welcome addition to the rolls of single-campaign histories of the War.

But did Monocacy save Washington, D.C. and change the course of American history, as Leepson's subtitle suggests? Lew Wallace liked to think so. The future author of Ben-Hur was cooling his heels as commander of the Union army's Middle Atlantic Department in the summer of 1864. Every competent northern general was either with Sherman in Georgia or Grant in front of Richmond. But Wallace had been in the doghouse since getting lost in the woods during the battle of Shiloh in 1862. Commanding a secure rear area was not going to redeem him anytime soon.

And then, all of a sudden, Jubal Early showed up in western Maryland with a Confederate corps. Early, hard to get along with but undeniably aggressive, had been sent in June by Robert E. Lee on a diversionary campaign up the Shenandoah Valley, a flanking march that recalled the glory days of Stonewall Jackson. Lee was embattled around Richmond and Petersburg, and needed to reduce the forces that Grant was bringing to bear on the Confederate capital. So he instructed Early to advance across lightly-defended Maryland and threaten Washington from the rear.

The Union had several large commands in the Valley, but at the sight of Jubal Early, they vanished. Union general David Hunter, notorious for terrorizing rebel civilians, decided that the approach of Early's regulars would be a good moment to withdraw across the whole state of West Virginia to the Ohio river and get on some steamboats headed for Wheeling – rather as if Rommel had reacted to D-Day by taking a Mediterranean vacation. Franz Sigel, at Harpers Ferry, similarly ran away, earning himself the nickname "the Flying Dutchman." Early swept into Maryland and set up field headquarters near the city of Frederick.

By this time, in the second week of July, Wallace, somewhat reinforced by elements of James Ricketts's Sixth Corps, had drawn up a defensive line at Monocacy (now Frederick Junction), mostly because the B&O Railroad had a valuable iron bridge there and they didn't like leaving it for Early's men to melt down. Wallace was greatly outnumbered; to find troops to defend Monocacy, he said, "was like gleaning a field for a second and third time" (Leepson 78). Indeed, when Early attacked Wallace's position on the 9th of July, he rolled up the Union lines with an irresistable flanking attack. But Early's men were already tired from forced marches, and low on materiel. The battle itself merely slowed them down and roughed them up. Early proceeded to Washington and sat ominously outside the capital on the 11th and 12th. His men even took some potshots at Abraham Lincoln, who went onto the ramparts to observe the invaders. But Grant had detached two corps to defend Washington by this point, and a full-scale sacking of the city would have been suicidal. Early retreated in good order.

The battle and campaign were then refought in print for decades by the survivors. Both Early and Wallace had prickly relationships with historians, and both of them were paradoxically redeemed and tarnished by their actions at and after Monocacy. Could Early have taken Washington? Could Wallace have kept him from ever getting there? Did any of this matter?

Early diverted Union troops from Grant's investment of Richmond; Wallace slowed Early's diversion. Maybe the net result of the Monocacy campaign was a wash: the war was perhaps prolonged by it, but not by as much as it might have been. But it was a thrilling month in military history. Leepson tells his tale well, though the book bears signs of slapdash production by St. Martin's, with a number of typos and a paucity of maps. Good brisk writing is always welcome, though, and the book is impressively documented.

Leepson, Marc. Desperate Engagement: How a little-known Civil War battle saved Washington, D.C., and changed the course of American history. New York: St. Martin's, 2007.