In late 1864, Gen. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, laid the groundwork for the Battle of Cedar Creek by deciding to send Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early and the 2nd Corps from the siege of Petersburg, Va., to the Shenandoah Valley in an effort to distract the Union high command and draw federal forces away from the Confederate heartland.
Union Maj. Gen. David Hunter had been operating in the valley, earning the nickname "Black Dave" by burning the property of suspected rebels, even the houses of his own Virginia relatives.
On June 18 Hunter attacked Lynchburg, Va., and was repulsed by Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, who was reinforced some of Early's troops, arriving that day.
Hunter, on learning that Early's corps was on the scene, withdrew toward Charleston, W.Va., leaving the lower Shenandoah Valley open.
On July 2, Early arrived at Winchester, Va., with about 14,000 troops and headed north.
While the Army of the Valley crossed the Potomac, the regimental bands played "Maryland, My Maryland" as they had when Lee's Army of Northern Virginia crossed in September 1862, before the Battle of Antietam.
Grant sends reinforcements
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sent 5,000 men led by Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts on July 6 and later dispatched the 6th Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright. The only Union troops between Early and the capital were the 2,300 men of the 8th Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lewis Wallace. The 8th Corps' mission was to guard the Union's transportation lines to the west, and as a result it had no experience fighting as a unit.
Wallace, who is probably better known as the author of "Ben Hur," had served capably as a Union officer since the outbreak of the war and was stationed in Baltimore, where the Union trained recruits. The president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad warned Wallace that the Confederates were near Frederick.
Unsure whether their target was Baltimore or Washington, Wallace was determined to delay their advance until Grant's reinforcements arrived. Monocacy Junction, also known as Frederick Junction, is three miles southeast of Frederick and was the logical defense point for both cities. The National Road to Baltimore, the Georgetown Pike to Washington and the B&O; Railroad all crossed the Monocacy River.
Upon reaching Frederick at 8 a.m. July 9, Early demanded $200,000 in ransom to spare the town. The funds were raised by the mayor through the town's five banks and eventually handed over to him.
Near noon, Wallace's men spotted a large Confederate force marching down the Georgetown Pike toward an old wooden bridge along the road from Frederick to Washington. Wallace immediately ordered his men to burn the bridge. Soldiers grabbed sheaves of wheat from a nearby field and tucked them under the southeast corner of the structure's roof. Alfred Seelyle Roe, a member of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery, said that within minutes, the blaze "wrapped the roof in flames like magic." Wallace was forced to leave a handful of his troops on the other side of the bridge.
To avoid wading across the river, the Confederates' only course was to cross the railroad iron bridge, which was used for trains, not pedestrians. Wallace soon met with Ricketts' reinforcements at Monocacy. The two groups, numbering approximately 5,800, took cover at the fords and bridges of the river. They were surrounded by the Best, Worthington and Thomas farms. Ripened grain had been reaped and bound in sheaves and stacked in rows across the entire adjacent wheat field.
Brig. Gen. Clement A. Evans' Confederate brigade inaugurated the battle. As his troops climbed the fence atop a hill separating the Thomas and Worthington farms, they announced their presence with the rebel yell. Galloping down the hill between the shocks of wheat, some Confederates were stopped short with a flurry of bullets. Evans was seriously wounded, but a sewing kit consisting of a folded paper of pins served as an efficient, makeshift shield. All of the pins would not be extracted from his body until years later.
Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Zebulon York's Louisiana soldiers became engaged to the left of Evans' brigade with the center of Ricketts' line. York's men climbed the fence dividing the farms and drove the Union troops back toward the Thomas farm, the scene of the heaviest fighting in the battle.
Confederate Brig. Gen. William R. Terry attacked the right of Ricketts' line until his brigade cornered the Union force behind the hill near the burned wooden bridge.
Because of the slope of the hill, the federal troops were partly hidden from Terry's men. As the Confederates charged the hill's summit, they were greeted with a hail of fire from the half-protected troops.
A while later, Confederate artillery was posted in the Worthington yard and aimed at the Thomas house to remove the federal sharpshooters peeking out of windows and partially opened doors. Each time the cannon fired, the Thomas' rooster crowed, apparently disturbed by the noise. The second or third shell entered the house through the dining room and hit a table where a set of knives and forks catapulted into the air. The sharpshooters escaped the house but were captured by the Confederates.
Concealed by the Worthington Spring's bank, Terry's men opened fire on the federal line occupying the Thomas hill field. By late afternoon, the federal troops retreated eastward over the hill toward Baltimore, pursued by the Virginians. Soon, more joined the retreat in the direction of the Gambrill farm, where a gristmill was used as a hospital to tend to the wounded.
The 1,294 Union soldiers left behind were captured, wounded or dead, an impressively small number considering the South had three times as many soldiers as the North at Monocacy. The Confederates had 900 killed or wounded.
Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon, a Confederate leader whose horse was killed under him in the battle, reported that a small stream was reddened for 100 yards with the blood of soldiers from both sides who collapsed along its banks.
Confederate soldier George W. Nichols said, "The 61st Georgia Regiment went into battle with nearly 150 men, and after the battle was over, we could stack but 52 guns by actual count."
Wallace suggested a monument to read, "These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it."
A few years after the war, a tablet was erected in Mount Olivet Cemetery reading: "This Stone Marks the Last Resting Place of 408 Confederate Soldiers Who Gave Their Lives in the Battle of Monocacy July 9, 1864. Honor the Brave."
Delayed a day from the battle, Early's army arrived at Fort Stevens, within the District of Columbia, on the July 11.
As the exhausted Confederates marched toward their long-desired goal, Wright's reinforcements rushed to meet them. While Early succeeded in pulling some of Grant's men away from Lee, taking the capital was no longer possible. The rebels retreated across the Potomac at White's Ford and returned to Virginia. The war would be taken to the South until the end.
The next evening, Early told his staff, "Major, we haven't taken Washington, but we scared Abe Lincoln like hell!"
Frightened or not, the North was more than satisfied. Grant congratulated his army, saying, "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."