Sunday, July 6, 2014

Civil War Sunday - From Monocacy to Ben-Hur

It's such a peaceful place now, the Monocacy Civil War battlefield near Frederick, Maryland.

But the area was anything but peaceful in July of 1864.

Maryland was a slave state, a border state, that did not secede.  It would pay for its decision.  And, like in all border states, residents fought for both sides.

The Sharpsburg Fire Department logo shows the Civil War connection
Maryland was invaded by Confederates in 1862 and 1863.  In 1862 the Battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland resulted in a Union victory and a retreat back to Virginia for the rebels.  In 1863, the Confederates reached as far as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,and were beaten at the three day July Battle of Gettysburg.

But the Confederates were not finished yet.  In 1864, their plan was to capture Washington DC, the capital of the United States, a capital that lay one river (the Potomac) away from the Confederate border.  They would do this by approaching from Maryland.

And who was there to defend the Capital?  Washington, DC was heavily fortified, but, as it turned out, not heavily enough.  And not only that, but:

Things were not going well in the Civil War.  It had been going on for three bloody years.  Hundreds of thousands of people killed, wounded, missing, held prisoner, dying from disease, wounds, and starvation.  And, it was an election year.  It may see a certainty to us in 2014 that Abraham Lincoln would be reelected, but it wasn't certain in July of 2014.

The Union was stalemated on several fronts.  And now, the Confederates had invaded.
Who was standing in their way?

Some Union troops, led by a previously disgraced general, General Lew Wallace. Wallace, a former governor of Indiana, had seen battle at Ft Donelson and at Shiloh, in Tennessee (another border state) in 1862.  At Shiloh, some of his actions were controversial.  He was removed from command and reassigned in disgrace.  Eventually, he ended up at Monocacy Junction, facing a much larger, and more experienced, Confederate Army.

Washington, DC needed some time, enough time to get more troops into the area to defend it.  Would they get it?

On July 9,1864, the Confederates, under the command of Jubal Early, won the Battle of Monocacy. (Monocacy is named after a river that is a tributary of the Potomac River.) The Union suffered some 1300 casualties in this battle that many have never heard of.    There is a wonderful description of the background of the battle, and the battle itself, here.

This is part of the battlefield today.

Wildflowers, in September of 2012.

The battlefield itself is free, and well worth the visit.

A display in the Visitors Center.

The Confederates were delayed a day.  They lost at Ft. Stevens, inside the District of Columbia (the "DC" of Washington, DC, which is not technically in any state) on July 11-12, a battle witnessed by Abraham Lincoln. After their loss, the Confederates retreated still again.  It can safely be said that the delay at Monocacy Junction saved our nation's capital from falling into Confederate hands.

General Grant later wrote in his memoirs:

"If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent. ... 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 an equal force to render by means of a victory."

So, what did this all have to do with Ben-Hur?

 In 1880, the disgraced General Lew Wallace finished a book called "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ."  It became a best seller, topping even the sales of a novel that influenced the country in the years before the Civil War, "Uncle Tom's Cabin". Ben-Hur remained the all time best selling American novel until replaced by a Civil War epic novel, "Gone with the Wind".

In 1959, Ben-Hur was made into an epic movie, starring Charleston Heston as Ben-Hur.  It has been seen, and loved, by millions.  I read the book a very long time ago.  I've seen the movie many times.

From disgrace to helping to save our Nation's capital to Ben-Hur. Not bad as a legacy.


  1. I didn't know that little bit of history, very interesting.

  2. I love reading your posts.
    I learn something new about American history most days from your blog! ;)
    It's hard to believe that the overgrown area was once part of a battle field!

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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