In 1864, at the height of the US Civil War, Confederate troops moved through Maryland toward the capital city. While convening near Frederick, spies working for the B&O Railroad sent word of the troops’ movement to Union Major General Lew Wallace in Baltimore (odd aside: Wallace was the author of Ben Hur). He realized that DC would be an easy target for the Confederates and so quickly assembled a rag-tag collection of soldiers to oppose the enemy army.
The Confederates had 15,000 men. Wallace had only 6,500. The point was not to win, but merely to slow down the Confederates’ advances until more Union troops could arrive to defend DC.
They met at Monocacy Junction on July 9, 1864. More than 20% of the troops would be dead, wounded, or captured by the end of the day.
Although the battle would be a technical victory for the Confederates, it was the Union who celebrated: the fighting had delayed the South enough for the North to build its defenses around DC. The Confederacy gave up on trying to claim the capital and retreated to Virginia. The rest of the war was fought on Southern soil.
Like most people, I had never heard of Monocacy and the battle that saved DC. And I never would have heard about it all if not for a six-year-old boy who witnessed the battle from the basement of his family’s farm house. Glenn Worthington watched through cracks in the boarded-up windows as men were shot and killed just feet from where he stood.
The battle understandably had an enormous impact on the boy, and when he grew up he worked to establish Monocacy as a federally protected battlefield. His memoir about the experience, Fighting for Time, helped sway opinion on Monocacy’s importance. In 1934, shortly before Worthington’s death, Congress made Monocacy a battlefield park.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara is one of my all-time favorite books, and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on what happened at Gettysburg. But when I visited Monocacy earlier this year, it was much more elusive.
I saw the farm house where Worthington and his family hid in fear as a raging battle swept across their lawn. Even though I could empathize with the horror that little boy must have experienced, I couldn’t really picture it for myself. A popular jogging trail cuts through the property, and a major road divides the Worthington Farm from the rest of the battle site. It’s difficult to get a sweeping view of the battlefield, to sort out what happened where.
It’s not until we’re leaving the tiny visitor center that we overhear another horrifying tidbit about the area: a large slave village was uncovered at the Best Farm in 2003. This village predated the battle by about 70 years, and the slave owners were shockingly cruel even for the time. Although it was pretty much unheard of, the family actually faced charges nine times for cruelty against their slaves. If you’re interested, I suggest checking out this excellent article on the slave village by The Washington Post.
I didn’t see a mention of the slaves at all while at the park; maybe I just didn’t know to look for it. But it’s a fascinating convergence of history, a battle that would decide the fate of slavery raging on the remains of a brutal slave village.
Monocacy is an easy drive from Baltimore and an interesting visit. If you go, I recommend reading up on the battle beforehand as the visitor center wasn’t terribly helpful, in my opinion. The battlefield itself is open from 7AM to 20 minutes after sunset every day and is free of charge.
A note about the pictures: I talked my father into going to Monocacy with me, and, as he is the better photographer, all the above photos are his. I’ve tried in vain to convince him to start his own photography blog. If you like his pics and think you’d follow his blog were he to have one, please let me know in the comments!