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The Union Loss That Saved Washington, D.C.

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 9, 2022 3:15 am

The Union Loss That Saved Washington, D.C.

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 9, 2022 3:15 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, while lost battles can sometimes be devastating, this Civil War loss actually helped give the Union just enough time to prepare for what could have been an even more disastrous defeat. 

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MUSIC Back to tell the story of the Battle of Monocacy, the Civil War battle that was a Union loss and saved Washington, D.C. The July 9th, 1864 Battle of Monocacy is one of the most important little-known battles of the Civil War, mainly because it's known as the Battle that Saved Washington, D.C., because after which the Confederates attacked the nation's capital for the first and only time during the Civil War.

It took place four miles south of Frederick, Maryland, about 45 miles west of Washington, D.C. This was a time when Lee was surrounded at Richmond and Petersburg by Grant following the bloodiest six weeks of the Civil War. Its Wilderness Campaign, aka the Overland Campaign, the last three huge battles of the Civil War. The Battles of Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Cold Harbor. These were mammoth battles that hundreds of thousands of troops took part in.

Wilderness, May 5th through the 7th. This is over 101,000 Union troops alone, 61,000 Confederates, 25,400 casualties killed, wounded, and taken prisoner. Followed by Spotsylvania Courthouse coming east toward Fredericksburg, again, 100,000 Union troops, over 50,000 Confederate troops, 30,000 combined casualties.

These were slaughters, as was the Battle of Cold Harbor right near Richmond that dragged on for two weeks, May 31st to June 12th, about 17,000 casualties. And the other thing to keep in mind about this whole thing is, hovering over it is, the 1864 presidential election, the only presidential election ever held in a country during a fighting Civil War. A democratic national election held during a fighting Civil War. And of course, Lincoln was running for re-election, and he was going against the Democrat General McClellan, the disgraced Union general. It was not a great time for Lincoln. They didn't have Gallup polls then, but everybody knew it was going to be a really uphill struggle to get that victory in November.

In fact, he almost didn't get the Republican nomination. He had to choose a Democrat, that would be Andrew Johnson, Senator of Tennessee, a Southern Democrat at that, to be his running mate because his Republican Party was divided. You know, War Republicans and Peace Republicans were at odds. Lincoln was trying to navigate that.

The Democrats, they were slightly divided, but they were united in their opposition to Lincoln. In the midst of all this, Robert E. Lee comes up with his bold four-part plan to thwart Grant's plan to end the war. Part one, to drive Union forces from out of the Shenandoah Valley. The Union had Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates' breadbasket, they were desperately needing food, they were desperately needing supplies to get through. Second, free the Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout POW camp, which was on the southern point, still there today, it's a museum, on the southern tip of southern Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C., as the crow flies, probably 12,000 Confederate prisoners held there. If they had been freed, that would have been the equivalent of a corps of troops for Robert E. Lee desperately needed.

Third, to threaten Washington, D.C., if possible. And fourth, and most important in Lee's mind, was to force Grant to move those troops away from Richmond and Petersburg so that Lee could have some breathing room. So who did Robert E. Lee choose on this dangerous and important mission? His Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early, who was one of the most colorful and controversial characters in the Civil War, he was a Virginian from Rocky Mount, Virginia, he went to West Point, he wasn't a great student, graduated at the bottom of his class just about, served briefly in the Seminole War, although nothing was going on when he got down to Florida. He served in the Mexican War, same thing, fighting was over by the time he got out there, he went back to Virginia, practiced law. He was a member of the Virginia Secession Convention, actually voted against secession at first, but when the tide turned, he voted for a secession, and he was one of the most tie-hard Confederates during the war and afterward. He was wounded at the Battle of Williamsburg in 1962, he fought in every battle in the Eastern Theater. He was an aggressive general, although he did not judge Terrain well, he did not judge, wasn't a great tactician, he had a love-hate relationship with the men, he was very abrasive, didn't get along very well with the other officers. Robert E. Lee called him my bad old man, even though Lee was older than Early, Early had contracted arthritis and he was hunched over and he had a straggly beard.

He was just kind of a mean, cantankerous, misogynistic, racist guy. But he was aggressive, which is probably why Lee chose him, although he didn't have much choice at that point in the war with what generals were available. So on the early morning hours of June 13th, Early marched 8,000 Confederate troops away from Richmond and Petersburg. They snuck out, the Union troops did not have a clue that this happened.

They marched 70 miles due west to Charlottesville, they got on rickety trains. On June 17th and on June 19th came the Battle of Lynchburg, which is even less well known because there wasn't much of a battle because when the Union generals heard that Early was there with a corps of troops, they fled. And you're listening to Mark Leipsohn tell the story of the Battle of Monocacy, and it's the battle that saved Washington, D.C. More of the story here on Our American Stories.

You're at Our American Stories. And we're back with Mark Leipsohn here on Our American Stories and the story of the Battle of Monocacy, the little known battle that saved Washington, D.C. When we last left off, Union troops were fleeing north from Confederate General Jubal Early in June of 1864. They went west. They went over the mountain into what is now West Virginia. That was led by General David Hunter, aka Black Dave Hunter, who was not one of the top Union generals. He had just finished what was known as Hunter's Raid up and down the valley, the Shenandoah Valley, Stanton, Lexington, Natural Bridge, that area, Lynchburg.

And he had, you know, was living off the land, which meant confiscating people's farm animals and crops and just up to general no good. And so he fled, and with him, one of Lee's goals was accomplished. The Union troops had left Shenandoah Valley, not to come back. So then the Confederate troops, they started their march up north, which we call going down the valley, because how the Shenandoah flows.

So in other words, when you go north, you're going down the valley because of the way the Shenandoah flows. The last Union general in their way was General Franz Siegel, who, again, was not one of the great Union generals. In fact, he was probably one of the worst. He was a political general. He was German.

He came here with no battlefield experience. Lincoln was trying to influence German Americans and Germans to come on the Union side, and that was the reason Siegel got this command. And his low point came during the Battle of New Market earlier that spring when his superior forces were routed by Confederate troops there in the Shenandoah Valley, aided by cadets from Virginia Military Institute, some as young as 15 years old.

So Siegel fled. He went way up into Maryland to the Maryland Heights over at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, right across the river. Early and his men marched.

It was very hot that summer. About a third of the men did not have shoes, but they kept going. And when Early crossed the Potomac River, this was the third time that the Confederates had, if you want to call it that way, invaded the north, the first time being for the Battle of Antietam in 62 and the second time in 63 for Gettysburg.

Everybody heard of that. But not very many people know about this third move into the north, and they camped for two days outside Antietam, which is not far from Harpers Ferry, where they rested. So that's when Early got the order from Rob Lee, Robert E. Lee's son. They sent him on horseback.

They didn't want to put this order out on the telegraph. They sent him on horseback up from Richmond, and he delivered this important, crucial order to go after those imprisoned Confederates at Point Lookout if they could. So let's back up just a quick minute and talk about Washington, D.C. at this point in the war. You know, you think about it, Washington is just, you know, across the Potomac River from Virginia.

It was 90 miles. It is 90 miles from Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. So especially after the first battle of Manassas in the summer of 61, people were worried about a Confederate invasion of the national capital. So soon after that, the Union Army went and built what was known as the Defenses of Washington. When they finished, which was this time in the Civil War, there were something like 68 forts surrounding Washington, D.C., and of course they went into Virginia because the Union took over Northern Virginia soon after the war started. Now these were defensive forts. They weren't extensive, but they did bristle with artillery. They were out facing, and the forts were basically all tied together by a series of berms and embankments. There's only one fort left today that you can see, and that's Fort Stevens, which is, if you think of Washington, D.C. as shaped like a diamond, it's at the very tip of the diamond near Silver Spring, Maryland, and it's a national park now. I mean, the fort has been rebuilt, but you can see what they were like if you go there.

They had cannons facing out, of course. Inside it was like a horseshoe, and the forts were designed to be manned by about 50,000 to 60,000 troops. But at this point in the war, there weren't a lot of spare able-bodied Union troops. I mean, Washington, D.C. was kind of like a hospital during the war. Hospital schools, government buildings were turned into hospitals, men recovering from these vicious battles that had kept accumulating.

And so we don't know how many people were defending Washington at this time, but we think it was maybe around 10,000, if that. And not only that, but most of them were members of what was known as the Veteran Reserve Corps. Now the Veteran Reserve Corps had recently changed its name in 1864. It had been known as the Invalid Corps. The Invalid Corps were men who were recuperating from their wounds, but well enough to walk and man the barricades. So we had about 10,000 invalids defending Washington, D.C. at this point in the war.

And we had Jubal early on the march. So they crossed the Potomac, like I said, on July 5th. This was actually the first time Union Intelligence realized that Lee had just sent an entire corps of troops away from Richmond. They started moving toward Washington, D.C. Now, word is getting back to Washington now that Lee has sent a corps of troops out there, and the Union Intelligence, which was not great in general during the war, was not good here either. At first, the reports said it was General Ewell, who was in the hospital at the time. It was actually early, and they kept getting the numbers wrong.

You know, 20,000 was mentioned, 25,000 was mentioned. Grant heard about it. He saw the dispatches, and he figured out what Lee was up to. And he decided he wasn't going to send any troops. He had his plan in place, and that's what he was going to do. But one Union Army general did figure it out and did take action, and that is Lew Wallace, another colorful character who later became famous as a novelist.

You know, he wrote the second best-selling novel of the 19th century, Ben Hur. He wasn't a military man, although he did form a local militia unit, but it was a Zouave unit. The Zouaves were guys who dressed up in these interesting uniforms with pantaloons and vests and mostly did close-order drill. They were very popular, but they certainly didn't have any battlefield experience. So Lew Wallace started his own regiment when the war started. He quickly rose in the ranks as he had success in an early battle in Romney, West Virginia when the Union press was looking for heroes, and they played him up, and then he also fought very well in February 1962 at the battles of Forts, Henry, Hyman, and Donelson out there in Tennessee. And he was promoted to major general at 34, one of the youngest Union generals.

His low point came at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6th, 7th, 1862, when he managed to get his men lost in the woods before they missed the first day. Grant was commanding, as was General Halleck and Henry Halleck, and they both were not very happy with Wallace. They relieved him of his command. He was out of the war for two years. He begged to get back in.

He finally was, but he got a terrible assignment. In March of 64, he was appointed commander of the 8th Army Corps of the Middle Department. Basically, he was military governor of Baltimore, which was kind of a hotbed of Confederate sentiment, but it wasn't anything like what he wanted.

He was itching to get back in the fight. So without orders, on his own, on July 3rd, Wallace started gathering up troops to send down to Monocacy Junction, which is four miles south of Frederick, Maryland. And he arrived on July 5th.

At the end of the day, July 6th, all the troops he could muster, who were mostly Hundred Days Men who hadn't had any experience in battle, one gun, one piece of artillery, and he had about 1,500 men. And you're listening to Mark Leipsohn tell the story of the Battle of Monocacy. And by the way, picture in your mind Richmond being the capital, Montgomery also a capital in the Confederacy, and Richmond and D.C., two capitals of opposing armies within about a two hours drive, if you know that area of the country.

So they're right next to each other, these two capitals. And here is Lee trying to strike at our current nation's capital, Washington, D.C. The story of the Battle of Monocacy continues here on Our American Stories. And we're back with the final portion of Mark Leipsohn's retelling of the 1864 Battle of Monocacy here on Our American Stories. It's also known as the Battle to Save Washington, D.C. We return to Mark Leipsohn and the Union General, Lew Wallace. At the end of the day, July 6th, all the troops he could muster, who were mostly Hundred Days Men who hadn't had any experience in battle, one gun, one piece of artillery, and he had about 1,500 men.

Meanwhile, earlier he picked up more troops, he's got about 14,000 men, and he's bearing down on Monocacy. So finally, Grant finally relents when he hears when all this word gets to him, and he releases the six corps from City Point outside of Richmond. They wake him up early in the morning, they get on ships, they go down the James River out into Chesapeake and up to Baltimore. They get on trains at the old Camden Station, and they arrive there on early afternoon, July 7th.

Trains left at 4 o'clock. They arrive at dawn the next day at Frederick Junction, and now Wallace has about 6,500 troops. He's over a two-to-one-out man, but he at least has 6,500. He has one gun. The Confederates have something like 24 guns. So it's inevitable that the Confederates are going to win this, but Wallace puts up a full day fight. One of the Confederate commanders was John Brown Gordon, who had fought in every battle in the Eastern Theater, was wounded five times at Antietam.

He said that later that monocracy was the sharpest fight he was in. The first shots were fired at 6 a.m. Saturday, July 9th. Those three artillery battalions really won the day for the Southerners, and Wallace was forced to retreat at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. So this little-known battle, no, it wasn't Antietam, it wasn't wilderness, but we did have about 1,300 Union casualties killed, wounded, taken prisoner, and about 800 Confederates. So some people call this a skirmish, but, you know, it was a battle. The river ran red with blood, and I know that people say that other battles, but in this case it was true because a lot of the fighting took place right on both sides of the river.

The Confederates won. When Halleck and Grant found out what happened, they relieved Wallace of his command, although he was soon reinstated early, and the troops spent the night on the battlefield at July 9th, and then the next morning they marched east toward Washington, D.C. He sent his cavalry north toward Baltimore for two reasons. One, a feint, to make people believe that he was going to Baltimore rather than Washington, and two, to cut the railroad and telegraph lines, which he did. So Washington was in communicata. Last they heard, Early was either on his way to Baltimore or Washington, probably Washington, and there was panic in the streets.

The Navy Secretary Gideon Wells wrote in his diary, the rebels are upon us. They readied a ship, they provisioned a ship in the Potomac to spirit Lincoln out of town if this invasion of the city should take place and be successful, and Lincoln did not know about it, and when he found out about it, he was angry, but still, it wouldn't have helped Lincoln very much in his election campaign if he had had to flee Washington, D.C. There was also the U.S. Treasury to be raided, desperately needed Confederate supplies to be looted, possibly burning Washington if those Confederate troops got loose in the streets, and it certainly would have had an impact on the election.

So what happened? A call went out for all able-bodied men to get to the barricades, and so we had civilians, Confederate workers came up to those defensive forts to help the invalid Corps defend Washington against all these seasoned troops. Again, finally, at the last minute, Grant relented down in Petersburg, and he sent the rest of the VI Corps up to Washington, and again, they did the same thing. They got on ships, they went down the James River, but this time they came up the Potomac. They landed at the docks downtown Washington, D.C. about noontime on July 11th, and they went up to Fort Stevens, which was the northernmost part of Washington, D.C. The citizens were gleeful.

They greeted them with ice cream and sandwiches. So on July 11th, Early was one of those generals who was on his horse with the men right out in front of the troops, and they arrived outside Fort Stevens, and you know, from his horse with his binoculars, he could see the Capitol dome. He had it in his sights, you know, the South's most aggressive generals had the Capitol dome in his sights, and he could have given the order to attack, but he didn't, and for several reasons. One, he didn't have very many troops. He had to leave troops back on the battlefield to take care of the wounded and the prisoners, and the men were all strung out, you know, between Frederick and Washington, because he only had the lead elements of his troops. And also, it was really, really hot, and they had been on the march, now it's July 11th, since June 13th, and you know, there were wool uniforms.

They had to have been exhausted. Now, the men wanted to go, but Early decided not to. However, being Jubal Early, and he had his artillery, there was skirmishing, there was artillery going back and forth, and that night, Early took his generals for a council of war into Silver Spring at the Blair mansion owned by the prominent Blair family, and the Blairs had fled. They had gone to Pennsylvania, and Early and his generals had this council of war. They raided the Blairs wine cellar, and they decided that they would decide what they would do the next morning on July 12th.

So Early goes back early in the morning of July 12th. He looks up in front of him, and he sees six corps troops on the parapet at Fort Stevens. They had a distinctive cross as their regimental, or as their corps cross, and so he knew he was facing experienced troops. He had thought he might be facing these, you know, invalids, and so again, there was skirmishing and fighting, and you know, famously Abraham Lincoln and some of the citizens of Washington came out. Lincoln came out, was standing on the parapet at Fort Stevens, all six feet, five of them in a stovepipe hat. And a Union surgeon standing next to him was shot and wounded by a Confederate sharpshooter in the trees pretty far away, at which point Lincoln was urged to get down from the barricade. So there's two days of skirmishing, about 300 Union dead and wounded. We don't know how many Confederates, but it was probably in that ballpark.

It never made the official records of the Civil War. July 13th, Early snuck out of Washington, retreated back through Montgomery County, Silver Spring, to Poolesville, Maryland, and then crossed the Potomac River at White's Ferry and came back into Virginia. So did monocacy save Washington, D.C.?

You know, I think it did. Grant writes in his memoirs that had Lew Wallace not held up early for most of one day, and you know, probably two days because they rested on the battlefield the next day, that he, Grant, would not have had time to get the VI Corps up to Washington, D.C. What impact did it have on the 64 presidential election? Well, we know that Lincoln won. We also know that he was at a very, very, very low point. You know, he wrote a letter to his cabinet, said not to be unsealed until after the election, and the letter said, please cooperate with the new administration.

He didn't think he was going to win, but he did. And one of the reasons had to have been that Washington, D.C., escaped the Confederate attack. There were other factors. Certainly, there were. Certainly, what happened at monocacy had a strong impact on the presidential election.

And a special thanks to Robbie Davis for the production on that piece and the storytelling, and also a special thanks to Mark Leibson. His book, Desperate Engagement, How a Little Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C., and Changed American History. And there is no doubt if Washington, D.C. had been sacked, it would have been a death blow to the Lincoln presidency. And that's what, indeed, Gettysburg was all about, getting that big victory to harm Lincoln's chances of getting reelected in 1864 and the Union calling it quits in the greatest war of our country's history, actually perhaps more consequential even than the American Revolution. The story of the Battle of Monocacy here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 18:31:36 / 2023-02-17 18:41:35 / 10

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