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Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C., and Changed the Course of American History Paperback – June 10, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

How small can a Civil War battle be and still claim the mantle of war-changing decisiveness? That proposition is tested in this engaging account of the 1864 Battle of Monocacy Junction, in which some 16,000 Confederate troops trounced 5,800 bluecoats on a Maryland field. Not a surprising outcome, but Leepson (Flag: An American Biography) contends that Union Gen. Lew Wallace's doomed stand held up Confederate Gen. Jubal Early's surprise lunge at Washington, D.C.—which was held only by a hapless force of invalids, militia and government clerks—by one crucial day. The result was a photo finish, with Union reinforcements arriving in the nick of time to save the capital from capture (hence the decisiveness). Leepson lucidly narrates the campaign, adding color commentary about Early's panoply of abhorrent personal traits and the incompetence, apathy and possible drunkenness that prevailed among Union commanders, along with plenty of vignettes of the horror and pathos of war. He also debunks the campaign's premier anecdote, which has Lincoln coming under rebel fire while looking out from Washington's ramparts (true, he finds) and getting chewed out—Get down, you fool—by a young Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (false). Gettysburg it ain't, but it's still a hard-fought, dramatic episode that Leepson brings vividly to life. Photos. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Old Glory was the topic of popular historian Leepson's previous book (Flag, 2005), and the Stars and Stripes flutter again in this volume. So does the Confederate battle flag, for Leepson's topic is Jubal Early's advance on Washington, D.C., in July 1864. Chronicling the episode generally from commanders' post facto accounts, Leepson captures the consternation provoked by the appearance of Early's force before the federal capital. Although small by Civil War standards, Early's army outnumbered the Union's locally available troops and routed them at the Battle of Monocacy. The defeat delayed Early, however, and Union reinforcements arrived in the nick of time, dissuading Early from assaulting the city's fortifications. That's the shape of the strategic story, while an associated anecdote will attract interest from Civil War buffs, namely, the exact circumstances of President Abraham Lincoln's exposing himself to the gunfire of Early's rebels. Leepson judiciously turns over the veracity of its details and acquits himself well in the overall battle narrative, producing a campaign history that will count with the Civil War set. Taylor, Gilbert --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 303 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st edition (June 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312382235
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312382230
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,239,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am a journalist and historian and the author of eight books. The most recent is What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life (June 2014), the first biography of the author of "The Star Spangled Banner" in more than seventy-five years.

My other books include Lafayette: Idealist General (2011), a concise biography of the Marquis de Lafayette; Desperate Engagement (2007), a history of the Civil War Battle of Monocacy; Flag: An American Biography (2005), a history of the Stars and Stripes from the beginnings to the 21st century; and Saving Monticello (2001), a history of Thomas Jefferson's house that concentrates at what happened after Jefferson died. I also edited The Webster's New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War.

I am a former staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, and have been a full-time free-lance writer since 1986. I have written for many publications, including the Washington Post, New York Times, New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Smithsonian, Military History, Civil War Times, and Preservation Magazines, the Encyclopedia Americana, and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.

I am senior writer, arts editor and columnist for The Veteran, the magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America.

I have been a guest on many television and radio news programs, including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, On the Media, Talk of the Nation, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, The History Detectives (PBS), The History Channel, Discovery Channel, CBC (Canada), The BBC NewsHour, RTV-1 (Russian television) and Irish Radio.

I have given talks at many colleges and universities, including the University of Maryland, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Miami, Mary Washington University, Sweet Brian College, Longwood University, Appalachian State University, the College of Southern Maryland and Georgetown University.

I tought U.S. history at Lord Fairfax Community College in Warrenton, Virginia, from 2007-2015.

After graduating from George Washington University in 1967, I was then drafted into the U.S. Army and served for two years, including a year in the Vietnam War. After my military service, I earned an MA in history from GWU in 1971.

If you would like to know more about my writing career, I invite you to go to my website:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Steven Peterson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 28, 2008
Format: Paperback
The battle at Monocacy Junction in July, 1864 is not as well known as other engagements during the Civil War. But it may well have been as important, at least, as some better known battles. "Desperate Engagement" describes the context for the battle, its actual occurrence, and then the aftermath and a series of reflections.

In short, Jubal Early and the 2nd Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia were sent to the Shenandoah, to clear it of Northern troops, as Generals Sigel, Hunter, and Crook had been attacking the area. And, if the opportunity arose, to advance on Washington, D. C. itself, to (perhaps) free Confederate prisoners, to force General U. S. Grant to divert soldiers from his siege in Virginia to relieve pressure on the Capitol, maybe to even occupy parts of the city.

This book outlines why Early was given this assignment and how he carried it out. Incompetent generalship by Generals Sigel and Hunter allowed Early to cross the Potomac and head toward Washington in summer, 1864. The threat was real, but the Unions forces in Washington, D. C. were few in number and poor in quality. Many were recovering from wounds suffered on the battlefields of the East; others were brand new troops without any real training; others were simply subprime in one way or another. The center of government was surrounded by powerful forts--but there weren't the troops to make these forts formidable obstacles to the Confederates.

General Lew Wallace had pretty much a desk job; he had been shelved as a battlefield commander after Shiloh (and one could argue that his poor response was as much due to Grant's bad staff work as to Wallace's own ineptitude on that occasion). This was long before he penned "Ben-Hur"! Seeing the danger to Washington, D. C.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Chris Sodaro on September 22, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Don't miss out on Marc Leepson's "Desperate Engagement." This is a powerful book about the Battle at Monocacy Junction and its curious impact on the better known Battle for Washington.

The Battle at Monocacy, fought between Jubal Early and Lew Wallace of Ben Hur fame, took place four miles South of Frederick, Maryland. Early, who was on his way to threaten the Union capital in Washington, D.C., was ordered to engage Wallace at Frederick, diverting Union troops from Lee's advance. Early did not want to fight this battle, but he won it.

The controversy was that Jubal Early, after his victory over Wallace, should have advanced toward Washington without delay. Leepson points out that Washington was poorly defended at the time and could have been taken during this crucial window of opportunity. Instead, Early chose to rest the remainder of his army, which was wounded, ill-fed and exhausted from being on the march since June 13th. This allowed Grant some two days to send reinforcements to the capital. When Early did attack, he was defeated.

Lincoln, who was visiting Fort Stevens in Washington at the time, became the first and only President to come under fire in active battle. Standing on the parapet of the fort, he was enjoying the spectacle until an officer in charge insisted he take cover.

Leepson's track record for capturing history is impeccable ("Flag: an American Biography" ; "Saving Monticello"), and this latest foray will put you right in the middle of one of the strangest conflicts of the Civil War. If you enjoy being a General from the safety of an armchair (like I do), expect to be challenged by some very troubling questions about timing versus the well-being of your troops.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By J. Stalnaker on July 23, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Extremely well researched historical work. Extensive use of quotes from private letters, messages and other contemporary writings bring the intestity of the event to life. Military buffs will find the extensive details of the events of particular interest. To think but for a difference of a day the South might have well invaded Washington DC and could have dramatically changed history either causing England to recognize the South and break the blockade and/or end the war in a way very different from what happened at Appomattox 9 months later.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By thomas betsock on June 1, 2009
Format: Paperback
This is a highly readable and well-researched history of Jubal Early's campaign that failed to take Washington. I've read a lot on this campaign, having grown up near the old Washington fortifications and later residing in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland. Marc Leepson provides a good description of the campaign leading up to Monocacy. His sound description of Monocacy is not the most detailed that I have seen, but it is the most readable. He makes a strong case that the few hours delay that the battle bought were the key to saving the city - although one has to wonder what would have happened if temperatures been milder for the hard-marching Confederates.

He provides short but enjoyable biographies on all the main actors in this campaign, and his favorable description of Lew Wallace makes me want to finally read Ben Hur. In short, I think that anyone who knows very little about the campaign can gain a lot from reading the book, and anyone who knows a lot about it will still appreciate the book and pick up a number of new insights. He provides notes and OBs in the back of the book, for those keen on more details.
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