Thursday, May 16, 2013

William Seward, Jr. and the Battle of Monocacy


A photo taken in 1906 of the 1832 Frederick, MD, B&O
station; photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In the summer of 1864, John W. Garrett, President of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, came to see General Lew Wallace. Mr. Garrett expressed concern for the safety of Washington (as well as his railroad). His personnel were reporting detachments of Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley and, according to him, such appearances were precursors of trouble. General Wallace decided to go to the western limit of his command, the Monocacy River, southwest of Frederick, Maryland. Upon his arrival at the blockhouse guarding the rail junction (Monocacy Junction) he found the country alive with rumor. A Confederate army, reported to be between 5,000 and 35,000 men strong, was thought to have crossed the Potomac River on the 2nd or 3rd of July. Its exact whereabouts and destination were both unknown. The civilians that General Wallace sent to gather information were turned back by rebel cavalry at every pass in the mountains west of Frederick. General Wallace believed this cavalry was screening a larger army.

Two miles north of the junction, a stone bridge called the Jug Bridge crossed the Monocacy, carrying the National Road that led to Baltimore. At the junction there was an iron railroad bridge and, a few hundred yards southwest of it, the wooden covered bridge of the Georgetown Pike, the road to Washington. Any invading army intent on Washington or Baltimore would have to come this way. After brief consideration, General Wallace believed that Washington was the objective. He began putting men in place. 

On July 9, 1864, 6,500 troops under the command of General Wallace met 14,000 battle–hardened veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Jubal Early, on the farm fields near Monocacy Junction. Confederate troops held the field at day’s end, but Wallace and his men had delayed them long enough that reinforcements ultimately sent by Union General-in-Chief U.S. Grant would reach the lightly-defended U.S. capital just in time. Early’s plans to capture Washington were quashed. The battle of Monocacy is now known as the “battle that saved Washington.”

General Grant later wrote that Wallace had done more for the cause by losing this battle than many generals had accomplished by winning.

As the Battle of Monocacy loomed, the city of Washington panicked. One of the men in Wallace’s small army was Colonel William Seward, son of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, and the commander of the hard-fighting Ninth New York Heavy Artillery. Seward’s regiment was in the middle of the Monocacy battle and according to Wallace’s official report the Ninth New York had 102 killed and wounded with 99 missing for a total of 201 casualties. Seward’s family, in Washington, received continuing reports from the battlefield and was well aware of Wallace’s valiant defense but ultimate defeat.

William Henry Seward, Jr.
The Secretary of State stayed at the War Department reading telegrams coming in from the battle until almost midnight. He had just returned home when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton arrived at the Seward residence to tell the family that there were reports that young William was wounded and taken prisoner. Colonel Seward’s brother, Augustus, left early the next day to go to Baltimore in an effort to ascertain the truth of the rumors. Based on reports he could gather, Augustus determined that his brother had been wounded, but not captured—although his whereabouts were unknown in the panic and chaos that was gripping both Washington and Baltimore.

By that evening there was a telegram at the Seward home from General Wallace: “I have the pleasure of contradicting my statement of last night. Colonel Seward is not a prisoner, and I am now told he is unhurt. He behaved with rare gallantry.” While Colonel Seward was reported safe on July 10, Washington definitely was not—Jubal Early’s veterans were marching on the city. On July 11, Early’s army arrived in front of Ft. Stevens, the northernmost fort in Washington’s defensive chain. Early could see the flag flying on the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

The city was in real jeopardy--Grant’s reinforcements had not yet arrived--but luck was on the Union side because Early delayed his attack. Grant’s reinforcements arrived on the night of the 11th and battled with Early’s men on July 12. During this fighting, President Lincoln arrived at Ft. Stevens and insisted on watching the action from the ramparts. He was thus exposed to Confederate sharpshooters, who killed an officer standing nearby, whereupon the President was convinced to move off the walls.

As it turned out, Wallace’s information relayed to the Seward family was still not correct. Colonel Seward had in fact been injured. He suffered a slight wound to his arm and broke his leg when his horse was shot and fell on him during the battle. Seward was unable to walk off the battlefield and only escaped capture when he found a mule and, using his silk handkerchief as a bridle, was able to ride off the field ahead of the Confederates. Within eight weeks Seward was promoted to brigadier general and served throughout the remainder of the war. A banker before the war, General Seward returned to a successful career in banking after his time in the military. He followed politics, supported charitable causes, served as a director for a number of corporations, and was involved in historical and patriotic societies until his death in 1920, over 50 years after Lew Wallace’s battle that saved Washington—a battle that directly affected the outcome of the Civil War and likely changed the history of the nation.

Many years later General Wallace encountered one of the Confederate commanders, J. B. Gordon, at a White House reception. Gordon told Wallace he was the only Yankee who ever whipped him. Wallace replied that, in the end, his men ran from the field. “In that sense you are right,” Gordon countered, “but you snatched Washington out of our hands.”

Sources: Shadow of Shiloh, Gail Stephens, Indiana Historical Society Press, 2010
                Seward, Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, Walter Stahr, Simon & Schuster, 2012

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