‘The Firing Became an Unbroken Roll’ – The Battle of Monocacy

July 9, 1864 (Saturday)

The railroad bridge over the Monocacy.
The railroad bridge over the Monocacy.

Jubal Early, commanding the Rebel column that had marched down the Shenandoah Valley and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland was about to make its move on Washington. The Georgetown Pike, leading to the northern capital, crossed the Monocacy River just south of Frederick. Six miles upriver, the National Road crossed, winding its way to Baltimore.

General Lew Wallace, later of Ben-Hur fame, and his small band of 2,500 troops had been all that stood between the Confederates and the limits of either city. He did not know which route, if any, Early would take, and so hedged his bets, trying to cover both.

Previously, General Grant, commanding in Petersburg, had sent north two divisions of the Sixth Corps and helmed by James Ricketts. They had been ordered to pass Wallace’s command by and move to protect Harpers Ferry, but with Early’s Confederates in such proxcimity, Wallace was easily able to convince Ricketts to join him. This brought the Federal numbers to just under 6,000. The Rebels had more than twice their number.

In this way, both Ricketts and Wallace were able to cover the Georgetown Pike, the National Road, as well as the B & O Railroad bridge and a few fords along the Monocacy, though the bulk of their number was posted nearest to the pike and railroad.

And it was there where General Early found them, and deployed a division of infantry under Stephen Ramseur. His own skirmishers threw back those of the Federals, and he was able to establish his batteries on good ground.


To Ramseur’s left, and along the National Road to Baltimore, Robert Rodes’ Division was deployed. But the more he peered across the river, the less settled he was on victory. “The enemy’s position was too storng,” wrote Early after the war, “and the difficulties of crossing the Monocacy under fire too great, to attack in front without greater loss than I was willing to incur.”

Early then began to think of outflanking his enemies, and examined the ground for himself to see where his troops might best cross the river. When he arrived on his right, he saw John McCausland’s Cavalry Brigade splashing across the water in an attempt to do just that.

On the opposite shore, Lew Wallace saw it too. “A line of skirmishers is advancing from the south beyond the cornfield at your left,” he wrote to Ricketts. “I suggest you change front in that direction, and advance to the cornfield fence, concealing your men behind it. They will be enfiladed, but that can’t be helped.”

In ten minutes, two of Ricketts’ brigades were in place, with Wallace watching closely. The Rebel skirmishers gave way to a solid gray line, seemingly unaware of the Federals crouched behind the wall before them. The crept closer, but not a Yankee fired. They waited. And when the Rebels drew near, they rose up as one and fired into them.

“I saw the gleaming of the burnished gun-barrels as they were laid upon the upper rails,” wrote Wallace after the war. “The aim taken was with deadliest intent – never more coolly.” The Southern line went down, almost to a man, but soon regained much of its stature and the firing began anew.

The Rebels came close to doing some real damage, but in time, Rickett’s men drove them back. Though beaten, Early now knew where to cross. He called upon John Breckinridge’s Division, as well as John Gordon’s, to follow up the failed assault. Both were ordered to fall upon the Union left and force it north of the river crossings.

The Confederates began to cross and Wallace was not ignorant of their presence. He once more sent word to Rickett’s, suggesting he face his entire force to join the two brigades at the cornfield. Seeing Rickett’s men on the move, Wallace rode to the wooden covered bridge carrying the Georgetown Pike across the Monocacy. This, he had to burn to prevent the Confederates from crossing and falling onto the rear of Rickett’s troops.

Burning of the railroad bridge. Drawn by Alfred Waud on this date.
Burning of the railroad bridge. Drawn by Alfred Waud on this date.

The sound Rebel flank attack rose with the smoke. “The firing became an unbroken roll,” remembered Wallace. “I could hear no sound else. Both sides were working under a repression too intense for cheering, and repression in which there could be but one intent – load, load, and fire, meaning kill, the more the better. Battle has no other philosophy.”

Seeing a slight advantage, Wallace called for a charge, and when it came, the Rebels retreated. It was not over, but a lull fell across the field. It was in the lull when Wallace saw two columns of dust rising. The first from Frederick, the other even farther on his left.

He immediately shot off a message to Grant, explaining that he had done his best, but that the enemy was clearly making for Washington. He then called Ricketts to his side. Pointing out the Confederate reinforcemens, Ricketts determined there to be at least a division. “God knows there were enough of them already,” he was to have said. Wallace suggested that there was still time enough for an orderly retreat.

“A while longer,” he replied, speaking deliberately, “and Early can’t move before morning; and, if what I am told is true, that the ford is very rocky, it will be noon before he can get his artillery across the river.” This meant that if the Federals could hold off the Rebels for another hour or so, Early would have no choice but to wait an extra day to attack Washington. In that time, more reinforcements from Grant would arrive. It was 3:30pm, and they had to remain.

After another half hour, the Rebels attacked again, this time in much more strength. The new line would overlap Ricketts’ enough though he did his best to extend it, stretching it thin like thread. They held for a time, but from beyond the engaged line of Rebels was seen another line. And then another. There was now no other choice. There was no holding, no waiting. There was only retreat.

Wallace called upon Ricketts to retreat and soon the lines fell back and soon were upon the National Road to Baltimore. The rest of the army pulled out slowly, delaying the Confederates until nightfall. This could hardly have been considered a victory, but delaying Early’s forces for another day would have its definite advantages.


((Sources: Autobiography by Lew Wallace; Memoirs by Jubal Early; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling.))

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‘The Firing Became an Unbroken Roll’ – The Battle of Monocacy by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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