Early’s Raid and Operations Against the B&O Railroad [June – August 1864]
The Battle of Monocacy
The Battle that Saved Washington
This contemporary map of the battle of Monocacy gives you a pretty good idea of how the battle went. You can see Ricketts’ Division at the bottom center of the map being pushed backwards after Gordon’s Division crossed the ford over the river. With the left flank turned, the Union army under Lew Wallace broke apart and fled down the road toward Washington, after forcing Early’s raiding army to stop for a day and fight, rather than march directly down to threaten Washington.
While this rather minor battle gets a lot of hype as “The Battle that Saved Washington,” I am not so certain that designation is deserved. Even if Early had reached Washington unopposed, he only had enough forces for a raid, not to conquer and occupy, and while he no doubt would have destroyed what stores he could have, and captured what he could have carried, Early himself figured he could have only remained in Washington for a day before being driven out by the rapidly arriving reinforcements from Grant.
Plus, after forcing Early to deploy for battle, the Union forces could just have easily used delaying tactics to slow Early, and avoided the battle altogether.
Wallace claimed after the fact that he expected to lose the battle, but felt it necessary to attempt a stand to protect Washington. Whatever he expected, he deployed his troops poorly, allowed his left flank to be turned by troops crossing unopposed at a ford he neglected to protect, and ended up presiding over a rout of his own troops. His troop deployment is a classic example of wishful thinking, of hoping the enemy will do what you want, rather than being prepared for what the enemy actually chooses to do.
In brief, Wallace expected Early to attempt to force a crossing at the bridge where the road to Washington and the B & O railway crossed the river, so he put his best troops, Ricketts’ Division there. His militia and 100 day conscripts he placed north along Crumm’s Ford and the Baltimore Pike. I have no doubt he fully expected to repel the attack, or at least force a lengthy battle that would cripple Early’s ability to threaten Washington.
Early, seeing the troops lined up along the far bank across the bridge thought so too, sent his cavalry to find an alternate crossing, and then assaulted Rickett’s exposed flank. All that saved the Union from an even worse defeat here was the heroic fighting of Rickett’s division in a very difficult position.
Important note: Early’s mission on this raid down the Shenandoah Valley was never to take Washington, nor Baltimore, but simply to force Grant to detach troops from around Richmond and Petersburg to deal with him. That mission was fully achieved, as Grant sent first Rickett’s Division of 5,000 men, then the remainder of the entire elite VI Corps (Getty’s and Russell’s divisions) under H.G. Wright to the defense of Washington.