July 7, 1864 (Thursday)
Lt. Col. David Clendenin left Frederick, Maryland with the sunrise. Leading a column of 230 mounted men, and accompanied by two pieces of artillery, they rode northwest toward Middleton, along the National Road. The day previous, rumors held that Confederate cavalry had occupied the town. Clendenin had been sent by General Lew Wallace, who had been commanding in Baltimore, but was now headquartered at Monocacy Junction, south of Frederick.
Tales had abounded of as many as 30,000 Confederates storming north under Jubal Early, but the details were much less clear. Wallace believed that the Rebel cavalry was a raiding party that might attempt to cross the border into Pennsylvania. Clendenin was to sort it all out.
Before he even arrived at Middletown, he met a contingient of Rebels, close in number to his own. Spurred on, he drove them back, but they were soon heavily reinforced. There was nothing he could do but retire to Braddock Heights on the south spur of Catoctin Mountain. He had followed the old road over it before meeting the Rebels, and was now compelled to use the small pass as a defense.
Clendenin placed his two pieces of artillery on the ridge and was able “to shell the enemy skirmish line with effect.” But soon the Confederates replied with their own guns, two of which were of much longer ranger than Clendenin’s own. Had he not a superior position, he would have had abandon the line.
“After five hours’ skirmishing,” reported Clendenin, “the enemy being heavily re-enforced and flanking me, I was compelled to fall back on Frederick.” For three of those hours, he had been fighting what he perceived to be 1,000 men. This was a figure close enough to reality, as he was been up against the brigade under Bradley Johnson, a Confederate general native to Freckerick.
Johnson had called for even more reinforcements, and when they began to arrive, Clendenin could see them in the distance. As Johnson’s men pressed forward, the Federals retreated to Frederick. There, Clendenin found another piece of artillery and more ammunition. Rather than fall back to Wallace’s headquarters, he decided to defend the road.
“Placing the guns rapidly in position,” he recalled, “I cleared the road of cavalry and opened on the head of the approaching column, which fell back and deployed on our left bringing up artillery, which was posted south of the Hagerstown pike in a commanding position.”
It was then that an additional Federal regiment of cavalry arrived, deploying behind Clendenin’s position. By the time the two regiments were side-by-side, it was 4pm, and the Rebels began to pound the new line with artillery. This continued until, as one, the Federals charged, pushing the Confederates back onto Braddock Heights, and bringing the battle to a close.
But the day was not to be defined by two Union cavalry regiments. Washington was now scrambling to figure out just how many Rebels were northwest of the capital and how to stop them from taking the city.
Chief of Staff Henry Halleck wrote General Grant at Petersburg, explaining the crisis. “Until more forces arrive we have nothing to meet that number in the field, and the militia is not reliable even to hold the fortifications of Washington and Baltimore. It is the impression that one-third of Lee’s entire force is with Early and Breckinridge, and that [Robert] Ransom has some 3,000 or 4,000 cavalry.”
Grant had offered to send troops earlier, but Halleck waved them off, asking for only cavalry. This cavalry, however, had not yet arrived. To make matters worse, the Federal army under General David Hunter that was to be defending the Shenandoah Valley against such a thrust as Early’s had been driven back to the Ohio River, all the way across West Virginia.
“If you propose to cut off this raid and not merely to secure our depots,” continued Halleck to Grant, “we must have more forces here. Indeed, if the enemy’s strength is as great as represented, it is doubtful if the militia can hold all of our defenses. I do not think we can expect much from Hunter. He is too far off and moves too slowly. I think, therefore, that very considerable re-enforcements should be sent directly to this place.”
Fortunately for Halleck, Grant mostly ignored the suggestion not to send troops. 9,000 Federals, mostly dismounted cavalry, were now on their way to Washington. He suggested relieving Franz Sigel, who had been mostly ineffective against Early while near Harpers Ferry, and to replace him.
This, Halleck did almost immediately. Sigel was dismissed and replaced by Albion Howe. But still, Halleck confessed that though they knew that Early and John Breckinridge were personally accompanying the raid, “their special object is not yet developed.”
Early’s “special object” was Washington, and was preparing for a full thrust the following day.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 37, Part 1, p194, 219-220; Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders; Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. [↩]