The three most important parts of a book are: a well constructed plot, compelling characters, and a satisfying conclusion.

Monday, March 9, 2015

DESPERATE ENGAGEMENT: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C. and Changed American History By Marc Leepson

Publisher:  Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date:  2007
Genre: American History/Civil War
Reviewed By WC
4 Stars
About the Book: 
The Battle of Monocacy, which took place on the blisteringly hot day of July 9, 1864, is one of the Civil War's most significant yet little-known battles. What played out that day in the corn and wheat fields four miles south of Frederick, Maryland., was a full-field engagement between some 12,000 battle-hardened Confederate troops led by the controversial Jubal Anderson Early, and some 5,800 Union troops, many of them untested in battle, under the mercurial Lew Wallace, the future author of Ben-Hur. When the fighting ended, some 1,300 Union troops were dead, wounded or missing or had been taken prisoner, and Early---who suffered some 800 casualties---had routed Wallace in the northernmost Confederate victory of the war.

Two days later, on another brutally hot afternoon, Monday, July 11, 1864, the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Early sat astride his horse outside the gates of Fort Stevens in the upper northwestern fringe of Washington, D.C. He was about to make one of the war's most fateful, portentous decisions: whether or not to order his men to invade the nation's capital.

Early had been on the march since June 13, when Robert E. Lee ordered him to take an entire corps of men from their Richmond-area encampment and wreak havoc on Yankee troops in the Shenandoah Valley, then to move north and invade Maryland. If Early found the conditions right, Lee said, he was to take the war for the first time into President Lincoln's front yard. Also on Lee's agenda: forcing the Yankees to release a good number of troops from the stranglehold that Gen. U.S. Grant had built around Richmond.

Once manned by tens of thousands of experienced troops, Washington's ring of forts and fortifications that day were in the hands of a ragtag collection of walking wounded Union soldiers, the Veteran Reserve Corps, along with what were known as hundred days' men---raw recruits who had joined the Union Army to serve as temporary, rear-echelon troops. It was with great shock, then, that the city received news of the impending rebel attack. With near panic filling the streets, Union leaders scrambled to coordinate a force of volunteers.

But Early did not pull the trigger. Because his men were exhausted from the fight at Monocacy and the ensuing march, Early paused before attacking the feebly manned Fort Stevens, giving Grant just enough time to bring thousands of veteran troops up from Richmond. The men arrived at the eleventh hour, just as Early was contemplating whether or not to move into Washington. No invasion was launched, but Early did engage Union forces outside Fort Stevens. During the fighting, President Lincoln paid a visit to the fort, becoming the only sitting president in American history to come under fire in a military engagement.

Historian Marc Leepson shows that had Early arrived in Washington one day earlier, the ensuing havoc easily could have brought about a different conclusion to the war. Leepson uses a vast amount of primary material, including memoirs, official records, newspaper accounts, diary entries and eyewitness reports in a reader-friendly and engaging description of the events surrounding what became known as "the Battle That Saved Washington."

WC's Review: 
Many times during the great skirmish commonly known as the American Civil War was the outcome decided by lack of follow-through. More than one general used the time-worn excuse that his men were just too tired.

General Jubal Early, more assertive than most Southern field commanders, used this excuse twice, both of them decisive. This entertaining account by Marc Leepson details the more recent incompletion at a location within 35 miles of Washington, DC., a place called Monocacy Junction during the summer of 1864, where Early battled the Union forces under the leadership of the more familiar Lew Wallace.

The resilient Wallace, who battled the superior army of Early for several hours, slowly realized he had to capitulate to save his small band of irregulars. Early failed to pursue, thus jeopardizing his ultimate goal of dealing a severe blow to the Northern capital, and negating his chances of capturing Lincoln.

But the purpose was served, Early later asserted, by forcing the massive army of General Grant in Richmond to divide in coming to the defense of Washington, DC, thereby extending the South's chances of survival. Some say his tactics only prolonged the final agony.

The first time Jubal Early used this excuse was during the first day at Gettysburg, where he failed to take advantage of Union chaos by neglecting to take Culp's Hill. So what if his army had just marched 30 miles from Harrisburg?

Civil War buffs, this is a must read for those of us who wish to complete our perspective of the finer nuances of the War for Southern Independence.  4 Stars

About the Author: 
Historian and journalist Marc Leepson is the author of seven books, including What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life (Palgrave, 2014), the first biography of Key in more than seventy-five years; Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General, a concise biography of the Marquis de Lafayette (Palgrave, 2011); Desperate Engagement, the story of the little-known but crucial July 9, 1984, Civil War Battle of Monocacy (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007); Flag: An American Biography, a history of the American flag from the beginnings to today (Thomas Dunne Books, 2005); and Saving Monticello, the first complete history of Thomas Jefferson's House (Free Press, 2001, University of Virginia Press, 2003, paperback).

A former staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, Marc Leepson is the arts editor, senior writer, and columnist for The VVA Veteran, the magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America.

He has written about the Vietnam War and Vietnam veterans and other topics for many other newspapers and magazines, including the Washington Post, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Newsday, the Arizona Republic, Smithsonian, World War II, Vietnam, Military History and Preservation Magazines, Civil War Times, the Encyclopedia Americana, and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.

He has been a guest on many television and radio news programs, including All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, On the Media, History Detectives, The Diane Rehm Show,Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CBC (Canada), the BBC News Hour, and Irish Radio. And he has given talks at many colleges and universities, including the University of Maryland, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Miami, Appalachian State University, the College of Southern Maryland and Georgetown University.

He teaches U.S. history at Lord Fairfax Community College in Warrenton, Virginia. He graduated from George Washington University in 1967. He was then drafted into the U.S. Army and served for two years, including a year in the Vietnam War. After his military service, he earned an MA in history from GWU in 1971. He lives in Middleburg, Virginia, with his wife. They have two adult children.