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Reminiscences of the war.

By General William Smith.

Skirmish at Fairfax C. H., May 31st 1861.

[None who knew him could fail to admire the enthusiastic courage with which Governor Wm. Smith, of Virginia, threw himself into the thickest of the fight for Southern independence, and gave an example of patience under hardships which younger men might well have emulated. Now in his eighty fifth year; but with the clear intellect and retentive memory of his vigorous manhood, he proposes to write us some of his personal reminiscences of the great struggle.

The following paper on the skirmish at Fairfax Courthouse, will be followed by one on the first battle of Manassas. We are sure our readers will thank us for these interesting sketches by this gallant old hero.]

On the night of the 31st of May, 1861, Lieutenant-Colonel Ewell (subsequently General Ewell), just out of the Federal lines, in which he was Captain of cavalry, was in command, and had been for two weeks, of the Confederate forces at Fairfax Courthouse. This was a small village of some 800 inhabitants, and was the county seat of the noted county of Fairfax. The village was built, principally, on the Little River turnpike, and at a point thereon fourteen miles from the city of Alexandria. The turnpike was used as the main street of the village, and was its only avenue to the west. The most important buildings of the village were the court-house and its appurtenances, including a lot of several acres, well enclosed, and on the northern side, with a high-boarded fence; and the hotel and its appurtenances and enclosure. These buildings were opposite each other — the court-house on the south and the hotel on the north side of the turnpike. The court-house lot was not only well enclosed, but was also surrounded with streets--first, the turnpike, on the north side, as before stated; second, a street on the west side, leading from the turnpike into Stevenson's farm and there, at an intersecting point, running due east with the court-house lot to its intersection with the street, binding said lot in its eastern side and running from the hotel south 230 steps to the Methodist [369] church, and thence to Fairfax station. I mention these facts with more particularity, as it will assist the reader to understand what follows. I proceed now to add, for the same purpose, that Lieutenant-Colonel Ewell's quarters were at the hotel; that Captain Thornton's company of cavalry, of about sixty men, were on the same side of the street with the hotel, the horses in the stable of the hotel, and the men in a church a short distance further west. Captain Green's cavalry company, also about sixty strong, was quartered in the courthouse lot, the horses picketed in the lot, and the men sleeping in the court-house. Captain Marr's company of rifles, about ninety strong, was quartered in the Methodist church, which, as I have said, was 230 steps from the hotel. This company had only arrived that day (the 31st), and had not seen Colonel Ewell, nor been seen by him, he being out on a scout.

Captain Marr, after making his company comfortable in their new quarters, sent out a picket of two men on the Falls Church road, the only approach it was deemed necessary to guard. I arrived at Fairfax Courthouse about 5 P. M. of the same day, on a visit to Marr's company, which being raised in my neighborhood, although known as the Warrenton Rifles, I designated as “my boys.” After seeing them at their quarters, and spending a pleasant hour with them, and after a gratifying interview with Colonel Ewell (whom I knew well, but had not seen for many years,) and many other friends, for the little village was quite crowded, I retired with Joshua Gunnell, Esq., to the comfortable quarters he had kindly tendered me at his house. This brought me within about one hundred yards of Marr's command. I shall be pardoned, I trust, for introducing my name into this statement of the situation, but the circumstances will excuse, if not make it necessary, I should have done so. The only companies then at Fairfax Courthouse, on the night of the 31st of May, were those I have mentioned. They had seen no service, and were entirely undisciplined. The cavalry companies were badly armed, and Colonel Ewell, in his official account of the affairs which subsequently occurred, says: “The two cavalry companies (Rappahannock and Prince William) had very few fire arms and no ammunition, and took no part in the affair.” So here is the number and character of our entire force on the 31st of May, 1861, and the only force in any way concerned in the affair of the next morning.

In this state of things, the enemy having determined on a scout, I have concluded to let Lieutenant Tompkins, commanding, speak for himself by publishing his official report: [370]

camp Union, Virginia, June 1, 1861.
Sir,--I have the honor to report, pursuant to verbal instructions received from the Colonel-Commanding, that I left this camp on the evening of 31st of May in command of a detachment of Company B, Second Cavalry, consisting of fifty men, with second Lieutenant David S. Gordon, Second Dragoons, temporarily attached for the purpose of reconnoitering the country in the vicinity of Fairfax Courthouse. Upon approaching the town the picket guard was surprised and captured. Several documents were found upon their persons, which I herewith inclose. On entering the town of Fairfax my command was fired upon by the Rebel troops from the windows and house-tops. Charged on a company of mounted rifles, and succeeded in driving them from town. Immediately two or three additional companies came up to their relief, who immediately commenced firing upon us, which fire I again returned. Perceiving that I was largely outnumbered, I deemed it advisable to retreat, which I did in good order, taking five prisoners, fully armed and equipped, and two horses. Nine horses were lost during the engagement, and four wounded.

The force actually engaged at the commencement of the engagement were two companies of cavalry and one rifle company, but reinforcements coming in from camps adjacent to the Courthouse, which I learn from reliable authority, increased their force to upwards of 1,000 men. Twenty-five of the enemy were killed and wounded. Captains Cary, Fearing and Adjutant Frank, of the Fifth New York State Militia, accompanied the command as volunteers, and did very effective service. I regret to state that Captain Cary was wounded in the foot.

(The concluding paragraph of Lieutenant Tompkins's official report is omitted as unnecessary.)

The following report by General McDowell, commanding, had been previously made to the Adjutant-General:

Arlington, June 1, 1861-12 M.
Sir,--The following facts have just been reported to me by the Orderly-Sergeant of Company B, Second Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Tompkins, the commanding officer being too unwell to report in person. It appears that Company B, Second Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Tompkins (aggregate about seventy-five), left its camp about 10 1/2 last night on a scout, and reached Fairfax Courthouse about 3 A. M., where they found several hundred men stationed--Captain Ewell, late of the United States Dragoons, said to be in command. A [371] skirmish took place, in which a number of the enemy were killed, how many the Sergeant does not know. Many bodies were seen on the ground, and several were taken into the court-house and seen there by one of our cavalry, who was a prisoner for a short time and afterwards made his escape.

Five prisoners were captured by our troops. Their names are as follows, viz: (Names not given by General McDowell; and concluding paragraph omitted as unnecessary.)

The above quotations from the official reports of Lieutenant Tompkins and General McDowell are so full of errors that it is due to truth and justice they should be exposed. I repeat that the whole Confederate force at Fairfax Courthouse, on the night of the 31st of May, 1861, was composed of the companies and of the character and description I have heretofore named; and I will add, that the only additional force which came to our assistance was sent for by Colonel Ewell, and was composed of the cavalry companies of Harrison and Wickham, who did not reach the Courthouse until after sunrise, and fully two hours after the enemy had been finally repulsed, by little more than half his number of Captain Marr's rifles.

Lieutenant Tompkins says: “It will be observed, that he was in command of a detachment of Company B, Second Cavalry, consisting of fifty men, with Second Lieutenant David S. Gordon's Second Dragoons temporially attached.”

He subsequently adds: “Captains Cary, Fearing and Adjutant Frank, of the Fifth New York State Militia, accompanied the command as volunteers.” General McDowell says: “It appears that Company B, Second Cavalry, commanded by Lieutenant Tompkins, (aggregate about seventy-five).” General Bonham, after an examination of the three prisoners taken, reports, “the enemy was eighty to eighty-five strong.” Colonel Ewell in his official report says: “Three prisoners were brought in, who separately reported their strength at eighty, rank and file.” And two of the prisoners taken by the enemy, intelligent men, with whom I have communicated, think the enemy's force must have been from seventy-five to one hundred men. All this testimony with what I saw, satisfied me that Lieutenant Tompkins had his company, and not a detachment thereof with him, and that his force was about eighty men, and not fifty, as he reports.

Lieutenant Tompkins says: “Upon approaching the town the picket-guard was surprised and captured.” This was on the Fall's church road, about a mile below the town. One of Marr's pickets was captured, made his escape in town, and joined us, as he says, in the fight [372] which subsequently occurred. The firing of the enemy at the pickets did more to spread a knowledge of his approach, than all our pickets.

It was very dark, so that objects could only be discerned in the group, and not in the detail. On the alarm being given, lights were soon moving in the hotel. The cavalry companies located as before described, commenced to form, forming on a line with the court-house enclosure, on the part of the Prince William company, and on the street or turn-pike over which the enemy must pass in charging through town, while the Rappahannock company, similarly employed, was forming in the court-house lot, but with the advantage of being protected from an enemy by a high boarded fence. Neither company was nearly formed when the enemy appeared. Lieutenant Tompkins, says: “On entering the town of Fairfax, my command was fired upon by the rebel troops, from the windows and the house-tops.” In this the Lieutenant was under a gross mistake. Not a shot from any direction, up to this time had been fired at him; on the contrary, Lieutenant-Colonel Ewell speaking of the alarm, says: “This was soon followed by their appearance, firing at the windows and doors of the hotel, where there were no resistance or troops.” Lieutenant Tompkins further says: “That he charged on a company of rifles, and succeeded in driving them from the town.” This is a gross mistake, we had no such force. It is true, as the enemy went through the town firing to the right and left, apparently at random, and as if for no other purpose than to excite alarm, he drove before him a small portion of the Prince William cavalry, four of whom he succeeded on this occasion in capturing, the Rappahannock Company having been left behind in the court-house lot to complete its formation at leisure.

In the meantime, the alarm having reached Captain Marr also, he promptly deployed his company in Stevenson's clover field, his right near the road to the Fairfax Station and near its quarters, the Methodist church, and parallel with the street before described, and which divided the clover field from the court-house lot, resting its left on the road leading to the Stevenson farm house. Here Captain Marr was found, the next morning, dead, (and apparently without having had a struggle in his last moments,) one hundred and fifty steps from the church, and thence two hundred and thirty steps to the hotel, thus constituting an obtuse tri-angle. Here he was, doubtless, handling his men, and was struck by a random shot to the left, fired by the enemy as he passed the court-house, the distance being, as well as I can judge, three hundred steps. I have not been able to ascertain that anyone of his men knew of his death — the clover was very rank and tall, and I am told [373] completely enveloped his person, which may account for it. And, further, from a careful examination of his wound next morning, I became satisfied that the Captain was killed, as I have before said, by a random shot. The wound was immediately over the heart — had a perfect circular suffusion of blood under the skin, something larger than a silver dollar, but the skin was unbroken, and not a drop of blood was shed. Nothing but a round spent ball could have inflicted such a wound. Manifestly, it was the shock of the blow, which, suspending the machinery of the heart, had necessarily produced instant death. It was reported to me that Captain Marr, when found, was upon his face, with his sword firmly gripped in his right hand, not having taken time, it is inferred, in the hurry and excitement of passing events, to belt it round his person. Captain Marr being thus killed, a fact unknown to his men, the enemy having gone up the turn-pike, driving part of the Prince William company before it, and the Rappahannock company left in the court-house lot having completed its formation, moved into the street, west of said lot, and to avoid the enemy on his return, turning in the direction of Marr's men, near the Stevenson road was, in the extreme darkness, mistaken by them for the enemy, and was fired upon, severely wounding one of the cavalry. This, very naturally, impressed the cavalry company with the idea they had been fired upon by the enemy. So that under the mutual mistake, the cavalry being entirely unfit for effectual service, and the left wing of the Rifles demoralized by the unexpected disappearance of its Captain, both dispersed, and sought safety in darkness, perhaps as intense as I ever saw.

While these events were occurring, of which I knew nothing other than from the noise, I was satisfied that the enemy had passed through town. I was delayed briefly in fixing my tape to my Maynard rifle. Hurrying to the quarters of the Warrenton Rifles, I found about forty or forty-five of them, a short distance this side of their quarters, standing in the clover lot before referred to and resting on the fence which enclosed it, and without an officer. I promptly addressed them, “Boys, where is your Captain?” They answered, “We do not know, sir.” Where is your Lieutenant (meaning Shackleford)? The answer was the same. (It is due that I should say that both the Lieutenants, Shackleford and McGee were absent on leaves with their families). Knowing that the men did not look to the other officers to command, I said to them, “Boys, you know me, follow me.” Without hesitation, they jumped the the fence, and at the corner of the court-house lot on the sidewalk leading from the church to the hotel, I, without the slightest knowledge of tactics, commenced to form them into two files. I had [374] nearly completed my work, when hearing a disturbance at the head of the column, I walked rapidly up the line to hear what was the matter. Nearing the head of the column, I heard Lieutenant-Colonel Ewell, in his impetuous way, say to one of the men (Davidson), “What, sir, do you dispute my authority?” To which the young man, in a very proper manner replied, “I do sir, until I know you have a right to exercise it.” Taking in the situation, and aware that The Rifles and this officer were strangers to each other, I at once said, “Men, this is Lieutenant-Colonel Ewell, your commanding officer, a gallant soldier, in whom you may place every confidence.” Of course this ended the trouble. The men might well be excused for doubting Colonel Ewell, for when he came up, he was bare and bald-headed, in his shirt sleeves and bleeding. Fearful that the enemy might be on his return through town before we were prepared to intercept him, Colonel Ewell again hurried to the column to complete its formation, which was soon accomplished. We put ourselves at the head, and gave the command “march,” having two hundred yards to go before we could reach the turnpike, running by the hotel and over which the enemy must pass on his return. It was during this march that Colonel Ewell told me how he came to be in his then condition, that he had undertaken to run across the street from the hotel, just ahead of the enemy's column, which he supposed he could do under cover of the darkness, that the commanding officer of the enemy discovering that some one was crossing the street in front of him, had fired upon him, and struck him in the fleshy part of the shoulder, that as he ran, he jerked off his uniform, and pitched it into a lot, his fear being that the enemy might discover he was an officer, and might make a special effort to capture him. The coat was found next morning in Powell's porch below Gunnell's, and accounts for Ewell's tardiness in reaching The Rifles. He then said to me, that as soon as we reached the hotel he would have to leave me to get a courier to send off to Fairfax Station for some calvary camped at that place, and added that as I seemed to have a turn for this sort of thing, I must take charge of the boys and manage them to the best advantage until he rejoined me.

I will here collate the incidents which had occurred up to this time. I think it was a little before 3 A. M., and very dark, when the enemy struck our pickets, and entering town, and near the hotel, as described, wounded Colonel Ewell--commenced firing to the right and left, clearly with no other object than to alarm — killing Captain Marr by a chance shot at a distance of three hundred yards, never pausing for a moment, but driving the Prince William cavalry before them, and stopping at [375] the stream west of the town, manifestly to reform and to return through the town, the dispersion of the Rappahannock cavalry, and the larger portion of the Warrenton Rifles, and the organization of those remaining, by Colonel Ewell and myself, and marching them promptly to the point of interception of the enemy, should he undertake to return through the town, as was expected. I am confident that all these incidents occurred within the first half an hour of the first appearance of the enemy in town; resulting in the slight wounding of Colonel Ewell, the killing of Captain Marr, and the dispersion of the whole Confederate force, except some forty to forty-five of the Rifles, then in hand; and with which to redeem the fortunes of the night.

But to resume, we had just struck the turn-pike, and turning our little squad to the left had got it cleverly on the road between the hotel and the court-house, when the enemy appeared advancing. My purpose was to advance until I found a good position for the expected fight, but we had to take things as we found them. Both of us had narrow fronts, two files, and neither could deploy, the road being enclosed on each side by the fences of the hotel and the court-house respectively. The enemy halted, because, (I suppose,) he saw something occupying the road in his front. Flushed with their success, they were manifestly in considerable disorder, and when I ordered the Rifles to fire, which, owing to their position, was obeyed to a very limited and inefficient extent, I do not think the enemy returned it. But, reversing his movement returned, I inferred, to the run west of the town, to reform his command, I presume, in order to charge, in order, through the town. It must have been at this time, or when we first entered the turn-pike, (for I saw no more of him afterwards,) that Colonel Ewell left the command to dispatch a courier to bring up the cavalry companies of Harrison and Wickham, camped at Fairfax Station, three miles from the court-house. Captain Thornton, I was informed, went on this duty. Neither man, nor beast, that I could ascertain, sustained the slightest injury in this collision.

Having been left to my own discretion, and perfectly satisfied that my position was untenable against any mounted force of dash and courage, I followed immediately on the retiring footsteps of the enemy. It was not until I had reached Cooper's wagon shop, ascertained by recent measurement to be one hundred and ninety-five steps west from the court-house, that I found a place which satisfied my judgment. Here I found a new post and rail fence, on each side of the turn-pike — the one on the south side, helping to enclose the wagon shop yard. Feeling safe in this position, I at once divided my command, placing it on [376] opposite sides of the road, and protecting it by the post and rail fence. I stated to the men, if I was not much mistaken, the enemy would soon appear — that they would seem a dark moving mass, and when I gave the command “fire” they must all aim at the head of the column, my object being to crush it in, throw the command into confusion, win time, deliberately to reload, and to give them another plunging volley before they could recover from their confusion. And in that way I said, I counted on whipping the veteran enemy, although our superior in numbers. I had scarcely gotten through with this statement of my plans and purposes, when the enemy appeared. Near the Episcopal church, fifty steps, by subsequent measurement, west of the position we occupied, I first discovered him. He was leisurely advancing, and when within forty yards of us, I gave the command “fire.” It was admirably executed. Another fine volley followed, and a third partially, when the enemy fell back. During this time the enemy fired wildly and irregularly, not only without wounding or killing any of my men, but not even entertaining “The Rifles” with the whistle of a bullet. The result of this affair was the capture on our part of three prisoners, I think four horses, a number of horses killed and wounded, and, according to General McDonald's first official report, (which I have,) one man killed and six wounded, besides a number of arms and fancies, such as photographs of pretty women and the like, picked up after the fight. This whole affair occupied a very short time, during which Colonel Ewell was engaged in getting his courier, and preparing his dispatch to order up the troops from Fairfax Station--it could not have exceeded twenty-five minutes. I repeat that the enemy's passage through town resulted in the casualties as stated — the dispersion of the entire Confederate force, with the exception of some forty to forty-five of the Rifles — that our cavalry, for the reason stated by Colonel Ewell, I suppose, “took no part in the affair” --that in passing through town, as Colonel Ewell officially says, the enemy “did not stop, but passed through toward Germantown,” and was not fired upon, the cavalry, I repeat, taking no part in the affair, and the Rifles being, at the nearest point, two hundred and thirty steps off — that the first collision which took place, was between the enemy, on his return through town, and about forty of the Rifles, and occurred on the street, between the hotel and court-house inclosures, without damage to either, the enemy retreating, and that the final affair took place one hundred and ninety-five steps from the former, resulting in the inglorious retreat of Company B, Second United States Cavalry, before, certainly not more than forty-five young Virginians, but little more, if any, than half the number of their veteran [377] enemy, and that, too, without inflicting upon us the slightest injury. In this final fight, if I may so express myself, Lieutenant Tompkins says, “Perceiving I was largely out-numbered, I deemed it advisable to retreat, which I did in good order.” I re-affirm upon my honor that the force which Lieutenant Tompkins assumes to be largely superior to his own, did not exceed forty-five men; and that he was permitted to retreat “in order,” in consequence of our inferiority of numbers and our utter want of military experience. He further says that we increased our “force to upwards of a thousand men.” Now I assert that no reinforcements joined us until long after his inglorious retreat before an inferior force; and that the only force which did join us were the companies of Captains Harrison and Wickham, for whom Colonel Ewell had sent, and they did not arrive until some time after sunrise. Lieutenant Tompkins officially reports that, “twenty-five of the enemy were killed and wounded.” This is most inexcusable mendacity. I again say that except from the chance-medley firing of the enemy as he passed through town, we did not sustain the slightest injury. At the first collision we received no injury, and are not aware that we inflicted any. At the second and last, we certainly received no injury, but inflicted considerable damage upon the enemy, and forced him to seek safety by retiring from the contest, through the fields of an adjoining farm.

I have thus presented the facts of this little affair, most of which are within my personal knowledge, whilst those contributed by others have been adopted, only after the most patient investigation.

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R. S. Ewell (24)
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