In July 1864, Robert E. Lee turned to Jubal Early to clear the Shenandoah Valley and menace Washington. Lew Wallace, a disgraced general and future author, sacrificed his scant command at Monocacy Junction, Md., to buy time for reinforcements to arrive at the nation's capital.
Wallace, who would later author "Ben Hur -- A Tale of the Christ," was in charge of the Middle Atlantic Department in Baltimore. Wallace and Ulysses S. Grant had a history. Just two years prior, Wallace had taken a roundabout route to the fighting at Shiloh. Grant blamed Wallace of incompetence which nearly cost Grant the battle.
Grant had Wallace removed from battlefield command. Since then, Wallace served at a variety of temporary assignments behind the lines. Now, Grant knew that Wallace and his inexperienced soldiers were all that stood between Early and the capture of Washington. Grant ordered David Hunter's VI Corps from the Army of the Potomac to reinforce Wallace and protect Washington.
Meanwhile, Early's 15,000-man Army of the Valley was called upon by Lee for this task.
Early, an irascible, ill-tempered man but a hard fighter, was successful in forcing the Federals out of the Shenandoah. From there, Early marched north planning to threaten Washington.
Wallace advanced toward Frederick, Md., with troops that had little to no combat experience. Wallace hoped to gain accurate information on Early's numbers, determined his destination and slow down the Confederate advance until reinforcements from James Ricketts arrived.
Wallace and Ricketts' troops united at Monocacy Junction. Wallace correctly surmised Early would advance here since the Georgetown Pike to Washington, the National Road to Baltimore as well as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad crossed the Monocacy River at that location.
On July 9, 1864, Dodson Ramseur's Confederates clashed with Wallace near the Best Farm on the Georgetown Pike.
Meanwhile, Robert E. Rodes fought with Federals on the National Road.
Initially, the Federals held their ground, but Early's superior numbers pushed Wallace back. Wallace already had all his forces committed when John B. Gordon launched a three-pronged attack at the Worthington farm.
Fearing his small force might be annihilated, Wallace called for a withdrawal. The battle was a clear tactical defeat for Wallace, but it would prove to be a hollow victory for the Confederates.
On July 11, 1864, Early reached the outskirts of Washington but only after the nation's capital had already been reinforced by Hunter. Wallace's defeat at Monocacy was suddenly a strategic victory.
Early's Confederates got within five miles of the White House but deemed his troops too exhausted and Union defenses too strong.
Abraham Lincoln came to Fort Stevens to observe the fighting. Lincoln continually exposed himself to Confederate fire by standing to view the fighting. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., saw the civilian in a stovepipe hat and shouted, "Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!"
Lincoln took Holmes' advice and stayed down.
At the battle of Monocacy, Wallace's inexperienced troops suffered 1,294 casualties to save Washington.
Wallace said, "These men died to save the National Capital and they did save it."