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DIA Staff Ride Examines Conventional Wisdom on Civil War Battle

By Jacob Breach, DIA Public Affairs

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July 22, 2014 — Down a lonely stretch of I-270 just south of Frederick, Md., there’s a spot where a railroad junction meets the Monocacy River, a little-known tributary of the Potomac. The quiet picturesque farmland conceals a somber past. Here, along this stretch of river, the blood of thousands was spilled in a battle that determined the fate of Washington, D.C., and potentially that of the Union itself. The Battle of Monocacy was fought over this ground on July 9, 1864.

More than 150 years after that sweltering July day where Confederate and Union forces clashed, Defense Intelligence Agency employees embarked on a staff ride July 19 to study the strategic importance of the battle and the tactical decisions that were made during its course. Led by DIA analyst Greg Elder, a Civil War historian, the participants reviewed the scope of the battle in a classroom setting and then took to the field to study how and why the decisions of that day were made by analyzing terrain and environmental features of the battlefield. Monocacy has often been called an intelligence failure. However, history shows Union leadership failure was the primary cause, not intelligence collection.

The Battle of Monocacy was fought between the Confederate forces of Gen. Jubal Early and the Union forces of Gen. Lew Wallace, also known for writing “Ben-Hur.” In June 1864, while Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was undertaking the Siege of Petersburg in an effort to defeat Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Early had been detached with one of Lee’s three corps. His mission was to march down the Shenandoah Valley, defeat the Union forces there, and, if possible, threaten Washington, D.C.  After victories at Lynchburg, Va., and Martinsburg, W.Va., Early crossed the Potomac on July 5 and was quickly marching toward Washington.

 One of the focuses of the staff ride was the role that intelligence had in bringing these conditions to pass. By July 1, Grant, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Henry Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton all had intelligence reports regarding Early’s movements but failed to pass them along to each other or to the regional commanders. It was actually a civilian, John Garrett, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, who delivered the intelligence that saved Washington after his railroad depot at Martinsburg had been destroyed. After telegraphing Stanton with no result, Garrett went to Wallace, who was in command of the defense of Baltimore, and informed him of Early’s attack. Believing either the capital or Baltimore were at risk, Wallace marched his forces to Monocacy Junction to defend the approaches to both. On July 9, 1864, Wallace and 5,800 Federals stood again Early and 14,000 Confederates in an attempt to save Washington, D.C.

The DIA staff ride showed how information was collected from a multitude of sources that should have alerted Union leadership – Grant, Halleck and Stanton – of the impending assault. However, it was a command and communications failure, not an intelligence failure, which led to Wallace acting alone.  Had information been shared, the battle might never have come to pass.

Elder led the team to several locations on the battlefield and demonstrated how Wallace’s forces defended against Early’s assault. Though the Federal forces lost, they successfully delayed the Confederates by three days - just enough time for Grant to send forces from Petersburg, Va., by boat to defend Washington at the Battle of Fort Stevens on July 11-12, 1864.

There were more than 2,000 American casualties that day on the banks of the Monocacy River, Union and Confederate alike. To this day it remains hallowed ground. It is one of the smallest but most strategically significant battles of the Civil War. Had Wallace not acted on his own initiative, or had Union leadership acted on the intelligence they received, the battle might not have been fought. Conversely, had Wallace not taken the initiative, the United States as we know it might not exist today. This battle shows the importance of intelligence collection and of communication between commands. In the end, the fate of the Union was decided along a sleepy little river by the name of Monocacy.