Sunday, October 31, 2010

Visiting Monocacy National Battlefield

The season for tramping around battlefields is quickly drawing to a close. A couple of weeks ago Sheila, Meaghan, and I went to Monocacy National Battlefield near Frederick, Maryland. If you have never heard of the battle or visited Monocacy, don’t feel too bad. It is not one of the better known Civil War battles or National Parks. I would definitely recommend spending an afternoon at Monocacy, but not as your only experience in studying Civil War sites. Your one-stop, of course, is Gettysburg. However, I would highly recommend Antietam as well. (Which I just realized I’ve never talked about and it’s only 20 minutes away from my house. I promise I will rectify that soon.) Nevertheless, there are other reasons to visit Monocacy.

For a thorough discussion of the battle at Monocacy, see the NPS website. I’ll give you the gist of it here. In the early summer of 1864, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early and an army of approximately 15,000 crossed into Maryland near Sharpsburg. This would constitute the confederates third invasion of the North. When Early passed Harpers Ferry on July 4, 1864, personnel with the B&O railroad there alerted the Union army. Early’s mission was to draw Union forces arrayed against Robert E. Lee away from Petersburg, Virginia, by threatening the little defended Washington, D.C.

Union Major General Lew Wallace commanded the “Middle Department” that included Washington, Baltimore, Frederick, and Harpers Ferry, etc. Upon hearing of the threat posed to Washington or Baltimore by Jubal Early’s army, put together a force that would eventually number close to 6,000. Wallace rushed his force to Monocacy Junction on the B&O Railroad, just southeast of Frederick, Maryland. In this area the B&O Railroad, the Georgetown Pike (present day Hwy 355), and the National Road to Baltimore (present day Hwy 40) all crossed the Monocacy River. It was the most likely place to delay the rebels until reinforcements arrived.

On the morning of July 9, 1864, Confederate forces moved forward out of Frederick and began to engage Union forces. Although outnumbered three-to-one, the Federals under Lew Wallace successfully blocked Early’s confederates in the daylong battle. By nightfall, the Union had withdrawn from the field and sustained casualties of approximately 1,300 men dead, wounded or captured.

While considered a Confederate victory, as Early’s men continued to hold the field, the rebels were delayed for an entire day and sustained casualties of approximately 900 killed, wounded, or captured. The delay gave the Union time to reinforce Fort Stevens in the District of Columbia, which Early moved forward and attacked two days later. The Confederates fired on Fort Stevens, but Early knew that now that Union reinforcements had arrived, he did not have the resources to take the fort and threaten Washington further. Early withdrew the next day, July 12th, and headed back to Virginia.

Today, Monocacy National Battlefield has a modern visitor’s center/museum/gift shop and a 5-stop auto tour. It’s a relatively small affair, but it is certainly worth an afternoon of your time. At each auto stop there is a walking trail. Therefore, you can either just look around and read the waysides, or have a pleasant walk of a few hundred yards or up to a mile and a half. This ground on which the Civil War was fought also has a history that dates from colonial times. For example, the walking path at the Thomas Farm, auto stop number four, goes by the site of the Middle Ferry over the Monocacy River. This ferry site dates from before the French and Indian War. The Best Farm, stop number one on the auto tour, was formerly l’ Hermitage, a plantation established in 1794 that at one point kept up to 90 enslaved African Americans. The NPS has done an archeological dig on the site and information can be found on the website.

And speaking of the website, make sure you visit the NPS’ Monocacy National Battlefield website before you go, or especially if you can’t visit the park in person. This is an excellent site for their historical articles and multimedia downloads. On the website, you can download MP3 files for an audio tour while you are driving the auto tour. The NPS has even created some virtual tour videos of different points on the battlefield. The website is worth a look. Monocacy is worth a visit.

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