American Civil War battle that gave the North its biggest scare of 1864. After the failure of General Hunter’s Shenandoah Valley campaign (see Battle of Lynchburg, 16-18 June 1864), the Confederate general Jubal Early had a chance to launch a small scale invasion of the North. Robert E. Lee hoped that a successful raid into Maryland would seriously damage President Lincoln’s chances of re-election, and hoped that it would force General Grant to pull troops away from the inexorable Federal advance on Richmond and Petersburg.
Hunter having retreated into West Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley was effectively empty of Union forces. Early was able to reach the Potomac River by the start of July, and crossed into Maryland on 6 July. He could not have picked a better time to enter the North. Grant had pulled as many troops as possible into the field, leaving Maryland and even Washington virtually undefended. For a short period, Early’s 14,000 Confederates were the strongest force in the state.
The Union commander on the stop was General Lew Wallace, based at Baltimore. He was able to scrape together a force of only just over 6,000 men, very few of whom had any combat experience. At Washington were another 20,000 men, of whom only about half were genuinely available to man the defences of the capitol. Those defences had been built when the threat to Washington was much more serious, and needed far more than 10,000 men to be effectively manned. On hearing of the threat posed by Early, Grant had moved men from the lines outside Richmond back to Baltimore. Given time, Grant could easily move sufficient men back to Washington to man the lines, but the question was whether he would get that time.
Wallace knew that his ad-hoc army would not be able to defeat Early’s veterans. However, he hoped to impose a big enough delay on the Confederate advance to allow those reinforcements to reach Washington. He formed up on the eastern bank of the Monacacy River, where Early found him on 9 July.
Early’s men quickly forced their way across the river, outflanking the Federal left. Wallace’s men were not able to hold their position for long and were soon in flight. However, even this defeat delayed Early, who had to make sure the Federal army was not going to stop and rally, and also had to deal with at least 700 prisoners. Union losses were 98 killed, 594 wounded and 1188 missing (a total of 1,880). Early lost somewhere between 600 and 700 men.
The true significance of the battle is that is probably delayed Early by one day. He arrived in front on Washington on 11 July. On the same day the veteran Union 6th corps reached the city. When Early probed the defences of Washington on the morning of 12 July, he found them fully manned by some of the best Union soldiers. If he had arrived one day earlier, it is perfectly possible that Early could have smashed into the city before Grant’s reinforcements arrived in the city. Faced with a strong army in front of him, and news of sizable Union armies forming behind him, Early pulled back from Washington. He managed to elude every Federal attempt to block his retreat, and made it safely back to the Shenandoah Valley.
Even if he had not been able to hold on to his prize, the sight of a Confederate army at loose within the Federal capital could have cost Lincoln the Presidential election, and would certainly have provided great encouragement across the unconquered areas of the Confederacy. Grant later said that ‘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.’