A year after the nation turned its attention to Gettysburg, the smaller, quieter battlefield at Monocacy, south of Frederick, Md., commemorates its own moment in Civil War history with two weeks of events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the battle July 9.
National battlefield staffers say the typical visitor lives nearby but knows little about the battle. So much of the interpretation efforts focus on the basic: the battle, its aftermath and its place in the Civil War. The park is also increasingly popular with younger folks who appreciate its seven or so miles of trails.
"I don't know if they're interested in Civil War history or not," says park volunteer Jim Hubbard. "But they do like to hike."
If you've never visited Monocacy, the upcoming commemorations on July 5 through July 15 are an ideal time to visit this under-appreciated battlefield, whether or not you're especially interested in the Civil War. And if quieter weekdays are more your style, the battlefield offers plenty of history and nature to reward a day's visit.
No matter when you go, here are five things you should see while visiting Monocacy:
1. The electric map
Gettysburg's beloved electric map may have given way to digital "progress," but Monocacy still has its own version of the lights-and-paper-mache wonder that educated generations of Gettysburg buffs. Considerably smaller — befitting Monocacy's tactical simplicity and more modest contribution to the war — the flashing lights of the electric map give a great overview of the "Battle that saved Washington."
The electric map is at the Monocacy visitors center, where you can also pick up a driving-tour map of the battlefield, and a copy of the excellent Sentinel magazine, free from the Park Service, describing the entire campaign.
2. The Best Farm
In Union hands at the beginning of the battle, the Best Farm soon fell to the Confederate attackers, who posted sharpshooters in the barn to snipe at the federal gunners across the river. In response, the Yankee cannoneers rained explosive shell on the barn, burning it to the ground.
But other original buildings remain, and recent archeology has also discovered extensive slave quarters dating from the 18th century. Originally a 748-acre plantation known as L'Hermitage, the land was home to about 90 slaves in six dwellings, according to the National Park Service.
And according to one eyewitness account from 1798 on a park service interpretive sign, life there could be brutal:
"One can see a row of wooden houses and one stone house (and) instruments of torture, stocks, wooden horses, whips, etc ... They foam with rage, beat the negroes, complain and fight with each other."
By the time of the Civil War, however, the land was a tenant farm and the slave quarters were part of history.
3. Gambrill Mill
Today a verdant, hidden place of tranquil escape amid the bustling sprawl of Frederick, the Gambrill Mill was right behind the center of the Union position during the battle. A quarter-mile, wheelchair-accessible trail winds through the woods to an observation platform where visitors can see the original railway bridge over the Monocacy. Caught on the now-Confederate side of the river, with the original covered bridge in flames, Lt. George Davis of the 10th Vermont ordered his men back across the open railway bridge under Rebel fire. He would receive a Medal of Honor for his intrepid defense of the bridges.
A field hospital was set up at the mill during the battle, and Union Gen. Lew Wallace said it "appeared well selected for the purpose, its one inconvenience being that it was under fire." Now, however, the peaceful mill pond, historic mill and shaded benches make this a perfect place to pause, rest and reflect.
4. Hometown heroes
A monument today to the three Pennsylvania regiments who fought at Monocacy stands on the high ground where the Union soldiers made their last stand of the battle. Those regiments include the 87th Pennsylvania, a unit raised in York County that faced its toughest test of combat at Monocacy.
In the fields below the monument stands the Thomas Farm, where the 87th made a determined stand against the Rebels. A 1.75-mile loop trail at the farm takes visitors along the Union left flank, where the battle was decided.
Across Araby Church Road, you can still see the trace of the sunken road that gave final shelter to the outnumbered bluecoats before they were pushed from the field by the determined Confederate onslaught. This is the original road to Georgetown and the capital beyond.
5. The Worthington House
This elegant house overlooks the Monocacy and a hiking trail takes visitors to the ford where Confederate forces were eventually able to cross the river and turn the Union flank. From here, Confederate cavalry Gen. John McCausland could see the vulnerable Union flank and the road to Washington.
During the battle, 6-year-old Glenn Worthington hid in the cellar, his face pressed up against the boarded windows, watching fighting through slits in the wood. The boyhood scene so impressed him he would go on to write the first full-length book on the battle and was instrumental in the creation of the national battlefield.
If you go
The anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy is July 9, but the National Park Service is sponsoring a number of events, tours and living-history demonstrations beginning this weekend.
Events begin Saturday morning with a 9 a.m. orientation on how the battle was fought and won. Events the first weekend focus on the battle, while those of July 12-13 concentrate on the stories of slavery, civilians and a historic home tour.
The July 9 anniversary events include an opening ceremony in the morning, "real-time" battlefield hikes and an evening "Remembrance of the Fallen."
On July 11, a bus tour will travel from Monocacy to Fort Stevens in the District of Columbia, where the Confederate attack on Washington faltered and President Lincoln came under enemy fire. Registration is required for this $50 tour.
For a complete list of tours, military demonstrations and living-history programs, go to www.nps.gov/mono/planyourvisit online or call the battlefield park at (301) 662-3515.