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Chapter 4: the Confederates hovering around Washington.

  • An Early War
  • -- time amenity -- the Author invited to dine with the enemy -- “stove-pipe batteries” -- J. E. B. Stuart, the famous cavalryman -- his bold dash on the Federals at Lewinsville -- Major-General G. W. Smith associated with Johnston and Beauregard in a Council -- Longstreet promoted Major-General -- fierce struggle at Ball's Bluff -- Dranesville a success for the Union arms -- McClellan given the sobriquet of “the young Napoleon.”

After General McDowell reached Washington my brigade was thrown forward, first to Centreville, then to Fairfax Court-House, and later still to Falls Church and Munson's and Mason's Hills; the cavalry, under Colonel J. E. B. Stuart, constituting part of the command.

We were provokingly near Washington, with orders not to attempt to advance even to Alexandria. Well-chosen and fortified positions, with soldiers to man them, soon guarded all approaches to the capital. We had frequent little brushes with parties pushed out to reconnoitre. Nevertheless, we were neither so busy nor so hostile as to prevent the reception of a cordial invitation to a dinner-party on the other side, to be given to me at the headquarters of General Richardson. He was disappointed when I refused to accept this amenity, and advised him to be more careful lest the politicians should have him arrested for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. He was my singularly devoted friend and admirer before the war, and had not ceased to be conscious of old-time ties.

The service at Falls Church, Munson's and Mason's Hills was first by my brigade of infantry, a battery, and Stuart's cavalry. During that service the infantry and batteries were relieved every few days, but the cavalry was kept at the front with me. As the authorities allowed [60] me but one battery, and that was needed from time to time to strike out at anything and everything that came outside the fortified lines, we collected a number of old wagon-wheels and mounted on them stove-pipes of different calibre, till we had formidable-looking batteries, some large enough of calibre to threaten Alexandria, and even the National Capitol and Executive Mansion. It is needless to add that Munson's Hill was so safe as not to disturb our profound slumbers. This was before the Federals began to realize all of their advantages by floating balloons above our heads.

One of the most conspicuous and successful of our affairs occurred on the 11th of September. A brigade of the enemy's infantry, with eight pieces of artillery and a detachment of cavalry, escorting a reconnoitring party, advanced to Lewinsville. If they had secured and fortified a position there they would have greatly annoyed us. Colonel Stuart, who from the start had manifested those qualities of daring courage, tempered by sagacity, which so admirably fitted him for outpost service, had his pickets so far to the front that he was promptly informed of the presence of the enemy. He was ordered, with about eight hundred infantry, a section of Rosser's battery, and Captain Patrick's troop of cavalry, to give battle, and so adroitly approached the enemy as to surprise him, and by a bold dash drove him off in confusion, with some loss.

We had a number of small affairs which served to season the troops and teach the importance of discipline and vigilance. It was while at Falls Church that Major-General G. W. Smith reported for duty with the Army of Northern Virginia, and was associated with General Johnston and General Beauregard, the three forming a council for the general direction of the operations of the army. General McClellan had by this time been appointed to superior command on the Federal side.

Despairing of receiving reinforcement to enable him to [61] assume the offensive, General Johnston regarded it as hazardous to hold longer the advanced post of Munson's and Mason's Hills, drew the troops back to and near Fairfax Court-House, and later, about the 19th of October, still farther to Centreville, and prepared for winter quarters by strengthening his positions and constructing huts, the line extending to Union Mills on the right. These points were regarded as stronger in themselves and less liable to be turned than the positions at and in advance of Fairfax Court-House. We expected that McClellan would advance against us, but were not disturbed. I was promoted major-general, which relieved me of the outpost service, to which Colonel Stuart was assigned.

The autumn and early winter were not permitted to pass without some stirring incidents in our front. Soon after the battle of July 21, Colonel Eppa Hunton was ordered to reoccupy Leesburg with his regiment, the Eighth Virginia. Later, the Thirteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Mississippi Regiments were sent to the same vicinity, and with the regiment already there and a battery constituted the Seventh Brigade, Brigadier-General N. G. Evans commanding. To cover a reconnoissance and an expedition to gather supplies made by General McCall's division to Dranesville, General McClellan ordered General C. P. Stone, commanding at Poolesville, Maryland, to make a demonstration in force against Leesburg, and, if practicable, to dislodge the Confederates at that place. Early in the morning of the 21st of October four of General Stone's regiments crossed the Potomac at Edwards's Ferry, and about the same time five other regiments, under the immediate command of Colonel Baker, late United States Senator from Oregon, crossed the river above at Ball's Bluff. Leaving Colonel Barksdale with his Thirteenth Mississippi, with six pieces of artillery as a reserve, to hold in check the force that had crossed at Edwards's Ferry, Evans with his main force assailed [62] the force under Colonel Baker, and after a long and fierce struggle, under a heavy fire of batteries on both sides of the river, drove them down the bluff to the river, many surrendering, others plunging into the river to recross, overcrowding and sinking the boats that had brought them over; some drowning in the Potomac.

Two months later, December 20, there was an affair at Dranesville which for us was by no means so satisfactory as Evans's at Leesburg and Ball's Bluff. It was known that food for men and horses could be found in the vicinity of Dranesville. All of the available wagons of the army were sent to gather and bring it in, and Colonel Stuart, with one hundred and fifty of his cavalry, the Sumter Flying Artillery (Captain A. S. Cutts), and four regiments of infantry detailed from different brigades, was charged with the command of the foraging party. The infantry regiments were the Eleventh Virginia, Colonel Samuel Garland; Tenth Alabama, Colonel Forney; Sixth South Carolina, Lieutenant-Colonel Secrest; and First Kentucky, Colonel Thomas Taylor; the cavalry, Ransom's and Bradford's.

General McCall, commanding the nearest Union division, happened just then to want those supplies, or, as seems more probable, had information through a spy of Stuart's expedition.

He took measures to gather the supplies, or surprise and perhaps capture or destroy Stuart's party. However that may be, when Stuart reached the vicinity of Dranesville he found himself in the presence of General Ord, who had under him his own brigade of five regiments of infantry, Easton's battery, two twenty-four-pound howitzers and two twelve-pound guns, and two squadrons of cavalry. Finding that he was anticipated, and that his only way of saving the train was to order it back to Centreville in all haste, Stuart decided to attack, in order to give it time to get to a place of safety, and [63] despatched a detachment of cavalry on the turnpike towards Leesburg to warn the wagons to hasten back to Centreville, the cavalry to march between them and the enemy. He ordered his artillery and infantry to hasten to the front, and as soon as they came up assailed the enemy vigorously, continuing the engagement until he judged that his wagon-train had passed beyond danger; then he extricated his infantry and artillery from the contest, with a much heavier loss than he had inflicted on the enemy, leaving the killed and some of the wounded. It was the first success that had attended the Union arms in that quarter, and was magnified and enjoyed on that side. This action advanced McClellan considerably in popular estimation and led to the bestowal upon him, by some enthusiast, of the sobriquet “the Young Napoleon.”

During the autumn and early winter the weather had been unusually fine. The roads and fields in that section were generally firm and in fine condition for marching and manoeuvring armies. With the beginning of the new year winter set in with rain and snow, alternate freezing and thawing, until the roads and fields became seas of red mud.

As no effort of general advance was made during the season of firm roads, we had little apprehension of trouble after the winter rains came to make them too heavy for artillery service.

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