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By early summer in 1864, Robert Lee and the Army Of Northern Virginia was facing a siege at Richmond and Petersburg. Ulysses Grant had attacked nonstop that spring, at the Wilderness through Cold Harbor, pushing Lee back to the gates of Richmond. Grant was immune to casualty reports and had very nearly broken his army that spring even though he had gained territory. Now he needed to replenish his forces for a final push to take the Confederate capitol. To do this, he stripped the north of all available soldiers.
Lee saw an opportunity. Perhaps the most successful general in history who could divide his forces in the face of a superior enemy, he asked Early to take his Corps up the Shenandoah valley, defeat the Union forces there, and cross into Maryland. Lee's plan was that this would force Grant to detach significant forces from Richmond to protect Washington. Early was Lee's most aggressive general, in many ways cut from the same cloth as Stonewall Jackson, and Early jumped at this chance to thrash the Yankees on their own turf.
The book lays out in astonishing detail how the Union high command simply missed the intelligence they received from the field: how Early routed the Union army in the Shenandoah, how Early's men kept marching north towards Maryland, how they had crossed the Potomac. Somehow none of the generals up to and including Grant connected these dots, and they were simply ignorant that 20,000 confederates were marching on an undefended capitol.
1864 was an election year, and the war had been going badly that year. Losses were enormous, and Lincoln's call for another half million men led to draft riots in New York City. If the South had captured Washington, it is unlikely in the extreme that Lincoln would have won re-election, it's possible that England and/or France would have recognized the Confederacy, and the history of the New World would have been very different.
But not everyone was asleep. B&O Railroad Co. President John Garrett alerted the commander of Union forces in Baltimore, Lew Wallace. Wallace scraped together a few thousand men and - despite opposition and indifference from the Army high command - brought them to Monocacy Junction, a B&O station a couple miles south of Frederick, MD. They dug in.
Although outnumbered 3 to 1, they fought hard. It took Early's foot-sore men an entire day to break the resistance. Then Early raced for Washington. His troops arrived within sight of the Capitol dome, but were exhausted from the hard marching of the previous month - not to mention the battle. It's a fascinating question what would have happened if he had pushed into town immediately. The forts were guarded by militia and invalid soldiers who would not have stood a chance. But his troops were at the end of their endurance, and a suddenly aware Grant had detached the 7th Corps by steamboat from Richmond, and they arrived at the city wharf at the same time Early's troops arrived outside the forts. Early was famously aggressive, but seems to have thought that he risked the destruction of his army. Instead, he withdrew to Virginia.
What is indisputable is that if Lew Wallace and his troops had not so stubbornly fought for so long, Early would have beat the steamships by a day. The Capitol would have been burned, the Treasury looted, and Lincoln's (and likely the Union's) prospects would have gone up in smoke.
The Union high command showed continuing incompetence after the battle, looking around for a scapegoat and seizing on Wallace who was removed from his command. Grant finally figured out that Wallace had saved the day and restored his command after a couple of weeks. All in all, it was not the Army's finest moment.
Wallace, of course, went on after the war to write Ben Hur, which made his fortune. He's known for that, but really should be known for saving his country.
Thanks to Libertyman for the book, which is a great read.