by Mackenzie Ryan
July 8, 2004
It is one of the least-known battles of the Civil War, but perhaps one of the more pivotal ones. Union troops met Confederate troops on their way to attack Washington, D.C., 140 years ago this weekend, delaying the Confederates long enough so that the Union could reinforce Washington and prevent its siege.
The National Park Service will commemorate the Battle at Monocacy Junction’s 140th anniversary by sponsoring a free living history program this weekend. Almost 40 men will dress, act, live and even eat as Union soldiers did at the time, said Cathy Beeler, chief of Resource Education and Visitors Services at the Monocacy National Battlefield National Park.
"If the Confederates got into Washington any length of time our country today would probably be very different," Beeler said.
Unlike a reenactment, during which Union and Confederate soldiers act out a battle, a living history program is an informal, intimate program allowing visitors to talk and ask questions of the soldiers.
The National Park Service stopped allowing reenactments on its grounds in the 1960s, when it was criticized for "glorifying war," Beeler said. Other reasons included safety and preventing damage to battlefield grounds, she said.
"It’s a little more commemorative in nature," Beeler said of the living history program the park is putting on. "You don’t get people caught up in the excitement and you don’t lose the commemorative idea."
A volunteer from the park service will also be at the Worthington Farm, as the majority of fighting took place there, Beeler said.
For some volunteers who are participating this weekend, acting in the living history program is a way to reenact the Civil War without participating in a battle.
"I actually stopped doing battle reenactments," said Brandon Bies, who lives in Rockville and works for the National Park System. "It seems kind of wrong to me … when people aren’t actually dying there is no way to have reality to it, you can never recreate the horrors of battle"
The living history program offers Bies, who stopped reenacting four years ago, a chance to mix his love of the outdoors with history.
He joined an ad hoc group that does impressions but not reenactments, calling themselves living historians. Instead of portraying a specific unit or regiment, they switch depending on the needs of the park service. This weekend they will portray Alexander’s Baltimore Battery, a six-gun battery that was at the Battle of Monocacy. It had six canons, he said, including a 10-pound Parrott Riffle canon the kind that will be fired this weekend.
Rob Childress, a software programmer from Ijamsville who will portray a private in the Third Regiment Infantry, Maryland Volunteers and also participates in battle reenactments, is looking forward to this weekend. While the Third Regiment was not at the Battle of Monocacy, but at the Siege of Petersburg in Virginia, the soldiers will show what being a Union soldier is like.
He dons the period clothes, made mostly of wool, cotton and leather. But while living like a soldier during the Civil War for a few days is his hobby, "in the back of your mind you know you don’t have to fight," Childress said.
The soldiers will set up camp at the Visitors Center grounds and live like the soldiers did during the Civil War.
"Everything we wear is just what they wore, it’s pretty close," Childress said. While some reenactors choose a Confederate or Union side based on their ancestors’ fighting, since he didn’t have relatives who fought on either side, he chose a Union regiment to honor his home state.
Childress said he reads and studies the battles to prepare for the program, but after reenacting for 12 years, he’s used to most the questions people ask.
"You still get a ‘wow’ out of people about all the things that you know," he said. "I’m proud of the way that our unit drills, I think we drill very well and we have a good showing."
Only Union troops will be present at the living history program, Beeler said, as the space is relatively small outside the visitor center, and the canon the center owns is a Union canon.
"They really don’t like to camp real close together," she said of the Union and Confederate troops.
The Battle of Monocacy has only recently been nationally recognized, Beeler said. Called "The Battle That Saved Washington," not much is known about the Battle of Monocacy Junction. Although military logs and some diaries and letters have surfaced over the years, there are no photographs of the battle or its aftermath. Since the park opened in 1991, Beeler said the park service has been scraping information together.
"It was swept under the carpet for so long," Beeler said. "So little was ever written about or even talked about."
The battle was a victory for the Confederates and a strategic defensive move by the Union. While the Confederates won the battle they outnumbered Union troops 18,000 to 5,800 the day’s delay allowed Washington, D.C., to be reinforced. Confederate Gen. Jubal Early’s attack on Washington would be thwarted and the rest of the war would be fought in the south.
For political reasons, Beeler said President Lincoln did not publicize the battle because he did not want to skew the polls during his reelection campaign. News of how close the Confederates came to attacking Washington could have cost him the presidency, Beeler said.
"It was such a close call," Beeler said. "[Lincoln] didn’t want anyone to know how close they came to getting into Washington."
For more information about the living history program Saturday and Sunday at the Monocacy National Battlefield, 4801 Urbana Pike, visit www.nps.gov/mono or call 301-662-6515. The park will be open from 8:30 a.m.5 p.m. and demonstrations are scheduled from 11 a.m.3 p.m., both days. For information about the Third Regiment Infantry, Maryland Volunteers visit www.cwreenactors.com/ ~thirdmd/.
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