July 6, 1864 (Wednesday)
Jubal Early had given up the idea that he could capture Harpers Ferry, and had begun to file troops across the Potomac River into Maryland. Using the crossing at Shepherdstown and a pontoon bridge at Antietam Ford, three full divisions, save one brigade, were across by the end of this day. That lone brigade, under William Lewis, held back, sending forward only skirmishers into the town. This drew away the Federal eyes from Early’s other endeavors.
The first division to cross onto Northern soil had been John Gordon’s, which spanned the river the day previous. Early’s initial directive was to put a scare on Washington. For this he needed speed and stealth. At this point, the Federals were still trying to figure out just how many Rebels were before them, so stealth was certainly covered. Speed would now have been useful. Rather than continue into Maryland, Early wished for the Federals atop Maryland Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry, to be pried from their defenses. Gordon’s skirmishers moved forward, advancing on Union left, but there came no attack. Though the Federal numbers were small, their defenses and artillery were formidable.
More concerned was Early with the destruction of the C & O Canal, it seemed. He personally oversaw the dismantling of locks and burning of boats until a strange message arrived from General Robert E. Lee concerning Point Lookout Prison.
Point Lookout was established in 1862 to hold Confederate prisoners of war. By this time, as exchanges broke down, the 10,000-man capacity was grossly exceeded and the conditions had worsened while the suffering increased.
Jubal Early called his commanders to him. Turning to General Bradley Johnson, a Marylander, he explained that General Lee had selected him and his cavalry brigade to leave at dawn the following morning, move north of Frederick and watch Early’s left flank while the rest of the army engaged the Federals in battle nearly Washington.
Once the battle was underway, Johnson was to “strike off across the country” towards Baltimore, destroying the B & O Railroad as they went. They were to bypass Baltimore on the Washington side, still preying upon the railroad. From there, they would turn south, paralleling the Potomac and fall upon Point Lookout Prison. He would there be met by a Confederate Naval fleet, which would aid him in the attack. After the prisoners were liberated, Johnson was to march them to Bladensburg, northeast of Washington, where they would join Early’s Army.
Johnson was floored. There was no possibility that this could succeed. Early assured him that he had been personally selected by Lee as the only man who could do this. But Johnson countered that it was “utterly impossible for man or horse to accomplish.” There would be almost 300 miles to cover in four days. How was he supposed to ride that distance while destroyed railroads and meet up with some Navy vessels at an appointed time at Point Lookout?
Early would hear none of it and told him to simply do his best. Johnson had no choice but to agree. And so Johnson had a date with the Navy at 3am on July 12th. They would leave before dawn on July 9th.
Meanwhile, General Franz Sigel, commanding the Federal troops on Maryland Heights above Harpers Ferry, was in regular communication with Washington. By the afternoon, the capital was aware that as many as 30,000 Rebels were crossing the Potomac. “My troops are preparing for action,” wrote Sigel, ignoring the very idea that they might be once more raiding into Pennsylvania or have Washington on their minds.
In his next dispatch, Sigel completely ignored any Confederate troops that were not in his immediate sight. There were some in the town and others nearer to him. He expected an assault by the following day, though he admitted his troops were “not very reliable.”
Later, around noon, Sigel once more mentioned that it was Early’s entire corps, but again forced on the troops before him. He sent a cavalry detachment toward the Rebels to suss it all out. He would not report on these matters again for another twenty-four hours.
That Sigel had missed this lost the Federals at least two days. On the day previous, General Grant had offered to send a corps to Washington, but Chief of Staff Henry Halleck waved it off, believing that it was merely a raid.
But then there was General Lew Wallace, commanding a few thousand troops in the Baltimore area. On July 5th he received an erroneous message stating that a column of Confederate cavalry was moving east through the southern tier of Pennsylvania. Wallace, had no reason to distrust the accuracy of this claim.
“In this situation,” he wrote in his report, “I felt it my duty to concentrate that portion of my scanty command available for field operations at some point on the Monocacy River, the western limit of the Middle Department [his jurisdiction].” He felt confident that though his force was small, he could repel this Rebel cavalry column should they make the plunge towards Washington.
Wallace moved quickly as word of Middletown, near Frederick, Maryland, had fallen. This was true, but lacked the details of the larger picture. By the evening of this date, he had arrived on the Monocacy, south of Frederick with 2,500 men, all told.
That night, he ordered a regiment of cavalry under David Clendenin to move through Frederick and continue on to Middletown, following the pike until he met the enemy.
The enemy, a brigade of cavalry commanded by Bradley Johnson, was encamped at Middletown. This strange prelude to something larger would begin at dawn. 1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 1, p177-178, 182, 193-194; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; The Confederacy’s Last Northern Offensive by Steven Bernstein; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders. [↩]