Leepson’s arguments are persuasive…. Desperate Engagement will (of course) be of interest to Civil War buffs, whose numbers remain legion nearly a century and a half after the war’s end, and to many other readers as well. Wondering about what might have been is a game more than a study of history, but it is an instructive, useful game that deepens our understanding of history’s uncertain, unpredictable path.
Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World, July 15, 2007
Elightening and engaging…Leepson, who uses a wealth of primary sources, invests this history with great humanity. He intersperses battlefield scenes with mini-biographies of the players, and he draws on his background as a journalist to construct the book with immediacy and relevance. Desperate Engagement is a bright, relatively brief story that merits the attention of the general reader as well as the Civil War enthusiast.
Jay Strafford, Richmond Times Dispatch, August 26, 2007
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 clerksby 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.
Publishers Weekly, May 7, 2007
Sharp assessment of the single Confederate victory north of the Mason-Dixon line, the only military engagement during which a sitting U.S. president came under hostile fire.
In an efficient narrative, journalist Leepson (Flag, 2005, etc.) describes all principals engaged in the Battle of Monocacy and offers useful mini-portraits of subsidiary characters. It was July, 1864. Ulysses Grant had every able-bodied, experienced Union soldier with him outside Richmond and Petersburg, where he was pounding the Confederates. Under severe pressure, Robert E. Lee ordered his “Bad Old Man,” General Jubal Early, to move through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and invade under-defended Washington, D.C. Forty miles outside the capital, Union General Lew Wallace, blamed by his superiors for malfeasance at Shiloh (and better known later as the author of Ben-Hur), forced Early's hand at Monocacy. Wallace’s valiant stand ended in defeat, but it left Confederate troops depleted and exhausted as they marched on to Ft. Stevens, within sight of the Capitol dome. Unable to immediately go into battle, Early paused for a fateful day, time enough for Grant’s veteran Sixth Corps reinforcements to arrive and man the parapets. From there, Lincoln himself watched some minor skirmishing before Early decided to retreat. In the tradition of James McPherson’s study of Antietam, Crossroads of Freedom (2002), Leepson offers not only military details, but also the political consequences of the failed invasion. Had Early succeeded, the spectacle of Confederate forces rampaging through Washington would surely have deflated Northern morale, added to Dixie’s almost empty coffers, sunk Lincoln’s hopes for the 1864 election and won over foreign powers to the flagging Southern cause.
A smart consideration for the general reader of one of the many intriguing what-ifs that can be asked about the Civil War.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2007
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.
Booklist, June 1 & 15, 2007
Leepson brings the story to life using diary accounts, correspondence and postwar memoirs of the campaign…. Engagements such as Monocacy and Fort Stevens are important and forgotten aspects of the American Civil War; their impact was deep, and it is refreshing to see Leepson recognize this fact…. The work is well-balanced and tells both sides of the story well. The author [informs] the reader of every major personality who played a major role in the battles. These mini-biographies shed light on many less-well-known characters, while at the same time showing the reader what these men were made of. Were they liabilities or were they assets? Leepson helps to answer this question….
For the Civil War community, this is a good addition to one’s reading list. Whether you have a great deal of knowledge of the campaign or are new to these battles, you will walk away with a better understanding of why and where these events took place.
Leepson’s uncluttered account…is elegantly simple. He provides the backgrounds of events and characters and avoids getting bogged down in the details of battles. Desperate Engagement, sprinkled with firsthand accounts, pulses with the sense of being there.
James H. Johnston, Legal Times, August 27, 2007
Leepson’s latest time-travel has focused his laser-like gaze on the 1864 Battle of Monocacy.... Thorough and meticulous in his research, Leepson relies on memoirs, diary accounts, newspaper stories, official records, and a published eye-witness account to present this overlooked battle of the Civil War.... [He] does not disappoint.
The Piedmont Virginian magazine, Fall 2007
Leepson relied on memoirs, diary accounts, newspaper stories, official records and a published eyewitness account to present an engaging behind-the-scenes look at the activity surrounding the battlethe mindset of the officers, their personality quirks and the miscommunication and lack of intelligence information that almost gave Gen. Jubal Early free entrance to the “national capital.”… The author recounts the battle, but not in great tactical detail. He’s written the book for the "general reader," but anyone with an interest in the Civil War will find Leepson's account and anecdotes about the men and events surrounding it an entertaining read.
Sue Guynn, Frederick (Maryland) News Post, September 9, 2007
…A terrific book about the Battle of Monocacy…. Leepson makes a convincing case….
lincolnfreak.blogspot.com, September 16, 2007
…[a] fine addition to the catalogue of U.S. Civil War writing…. Civil War buffs will love this book, but also anyone who is interested in looking at the great 'what ifs' of world history will be intrigued by the possible outcomes elucidated in Leepson's work….
Jim Barber, Barrie (Ontario) Advance, September 18, 2007
…Marc Leepson’s rich, historical and very human recount of the Battle Of Monocacy deserves much credit. His knowledge of the individual personnel who fought and took part in this invasion, and the aftermath, is extensive. Leepson doesn’t write in boring facts, but rather with detailed clarity about what was actually going on during the latter part of the Civil War. He takes an intensively personal look at the personalities that affected the War’s outcome. The historical figures will pop off the page for you. Desperate Engagement is right up there with Jeff Shaara’s Killer Angles (the story of the Gettsyburg Battle of 1863).
…Civil War writing enjoys a long tradition of uncovering events that changed the course of history…. No popular account of [Early's campaign] has appeared in decades. Having done his homework, Leepson fills the gaps nicely, so readers will find little to object to….
Mike Oppenheimer, America's Civil War, January 2008
I was able to read Leepson’s book. I was duly impressed - he’s a terrific writer, the book was well-organized, and the story is well-told and the context of Early’s raid in the events of 1864 is well-done. I recommend the book to anyone interested in this battle.
J. David Petruzzi, Hoofbeats and Cold Steel, January 16, 2008