Many are the lessons that can be learned from historical sites, and a visit to Maryland’s Monocacy National Battlefield a few weeks ago was no exception. For Tavish the Intrepid Pup, the teachable moment came from a “stimulating” encounter snuffling the grass around a low-voltage electric fence by the cow pasture at the Worthington Farm site. (Note: no worries, he’s fine…just a lot more observant now when it comes to fences.) For Team Tavish, it was the realization that were it not for what happened at Monocacy back on July 9, 1864, the Civil War might have taken a different turn.
The battle at Monocacy represented the third and final Confederate invasion of the North. It often doesn’t get its due in history books because of the more epic scale of the previous two invasions at Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863). But Monocacy is intriguing in its own right. With great irony, it was the Union army loss of the battle that actually saved the nation’s capital a mere 47 miles away. There are far greater chroniclers of Civil War battle strategy than the Intrepid Pup, but the basic storyline of Monocacy is this: Ulysses S. Grant was beginning to successfully deter Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces in the east. To sustain the pressure on those forces, Lt. General Grant was diverting to Richmond fresh reinforcements in the form of seasoned troops from the various forts that protected Washington, D.C. With relatively few soldiers left behind to “mind the store” so to speak, Lee recognized an opportunity and tasked Lt. General Jubal Early (1816-1894) with making a relatively quick run north up the Blue Ridge to cross at Harper’s Ferry and then invade the capital from the northwest. Early and his men very nearly succeeded except for intervention from an unlikely source: John Garrett. Personally, Garrett was a Confederate sympathizer. Professionally, however, Garrett was the president of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad with many of his clients and much of his business centered in Union territory. It was he who alerted Major General Lew Wallace, stationed in Baltimore, to Early’s troop movements. Wallace had precious little time to react and even fewer resources to muster, but with an inexperienced band of 2,800 short-term recruits (i.e. not battle trained), he set out to intercede Early. The good news for Wallace was that by the time he encountered Early’s Confederate forces at Monocacy on July 9, his Union ranks had swelled to 5,800. The bad news for Wallace was that he was still outnumbered three to one. Imagine going into battle with full knowledge that the odds are squarely not in your favor.
The battle played out over about 12 hours amid several farmers’ fields and along a rail bed and the banks of the Monocacy River…you can still “read” the battle in the landscape today. By almost any measure, Wallace had been defeated and had lost nearly a quarter of his men in the process. Yet Early hadn’t expected to meet such resistance at Monocacy, and the fighting cost him some 900 men and critical hours. With no choice but to encamp on the battlefield the night of July 9, Early had effectively lost a day—and the element of surprise—in an already tight timeline. Early’s men pushed onward the next morning and reached the northwest boundary of Washington by the following afternoon to mount an attack on Fort Stevens. The delay, however, had given Grant just enough time to send steamships full of soldiers to repopulate the defensive forts around Washington. So, while the fighting at Fort Stevens on July 11 was fierce and deadly, it was not enough to fully infiltrate the nation’s capital. Early withdrew, ultimately unsuccessful in his mission.
Fifty nine Union soldiers lost their lives in the Battle of Fort Stevens—the only Civil War battle to be waged in the District of Columbia—and 41 were buried the evening of July 12 at a site a half mile north of the fort on the battleground itself. President Lincoln attended the interment ceremony and consecrated the land as hallowed ground. Now known as Battleground National Cemetery, this tiny plot of land on Georgia Avenue, N.W. between Van Buren Street and Whittier Place is among America’s smallest national cemeteries. Added over the years were various monuments commemorating the regiments that fought, as well as several plaques bearing such sentiments as: “The muffled drums’ sad roll has beat the soldier’s last tattoo. No more on life’s parade shall meet that brave and fallen few.” There’s also a stone superintendent’s house designed by General Montgomery Meigs (1816-1892), a veteran of the Battle of Fort Stevens and also the architect/engineer of DC’s Pension Building that today houses the National Building Museum.
And what ever happened to Major General Wallace (1827-1905)? Yes, he lost the battle but survived the war and, interestingly enough, went on to write the famous novel Ben-Hur: A Life of the Christ (1880). His book was subsequently adapted for the silver screen several times, with the most notable version being the 1959 film classic (starring Charlton Heston and his famous chariot race scene) that reaped 11 Academy Awards.
Dogging the Details
Monocacy National Battlefield, Frederick, Maryland
Fort Stevens, Washington, DC
38°58′14.69″N, 77° 1′37.23″W
Battleground National Cemetery, Washington, DC
Because of the three sites’ relatively close proximity to one another, tracing the full story of Monocacy—from the initial battle in Frederick, Maryland, to the conclusion at the tiny cemetery in Washington—is easy to experience in one very full day or over the course of two leisurely days. There’s the most ground to cover at Monocacy National Battlefield. Begin your foray at the visitors’ center on Urbana Pike. It used to be in smaller quarters at the Gambrill Mill site but moved to this nice new building about five years ago. Although dogs aren’t allowed inside the visitor center, make sure you head upstairs. There’s a succinct yet exceptionally comprehensive exhibition with an overhead timeline, lighted battle map, and several interactives that really help put what you’re about to see outside in a broader context. Be sure to pick up a brochure from the ranger, because it contains not only driving directions but also a trail map. There are 5 separate locations within the national park to get out explore with your dog. As always, dogs are to be leashed and picked up after:
- While Best Farm and Monocacy Junction don’t have any trailheads per se, there’s plenty of room to explore the immediate vicinities from the parking areas. Best Farm is also associated with a remarkable 1862 event related to Antietam (Learn more at the visitors’ center or Google “Lee’s Lost Orders”!).
- During the battle, the Gambrill Mill site was co-opted as a Union field hospital, and the short loop trail here includes a boardwalk section leading to the Monocacy River. Tavish enjoyed wading in the shallows.
- The Thomas Farm site contains two loop trails that wind through the farm fields that withstood the heaviest fighting that day in 1864.
- Worthington Farm has the longest trails, though neither of the two loops takes more than a half hour to hike. We went on a Sunday afternoon and had the place mostly to ourselves save for a couple joggers. The Ford Loop Trail is flat and hugs the flood plain of the Monocacy River. Should you happen to time it right in the springtime, as we did by happy coincidence, you’ll find the path to be spectacularly carpeted with Virginia bluebells (see photo). Much of the Brooks Hill Loop Trail borders the aforementioned cow pasture. Fresh from his fence episode, Tavish curiously appraised the gangly calves and their moms from a respectful distance. Once the trail enters woodland it quickly gains elevation, topping out on a ridge with an expansive view across emerald farmland toward Thomas Farm.
Back in the District of Columbia, visiting Fort Stevens simply involves snagging a parking spot on the street or in the neighboring church parking lot. All that remains of the once extensive Civil War Defenses of Washington are more than 20 locations throughout DC-MD-VA ranging from simple forest sites to earthworks to full-fledged forts. Fort Stevens is not staffed but does have a couple interpretive panels to orient visitors to the partial reconstruction. Continue the short distance to conclude your journey by parallel parking on Georgia Avenue in front of Battleground National Cemetery.