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Chapter 10:

  • Operations along the Potomac
  • -- from First Manassas to battle of Leesburg.

Soon after the retreat of McDowell from Bull run to Washington, Longstreet's brigade, with artillery and Stuart's cavalry, was advanced, first to Centreville, then to Fairfax, and later to Falls Church and Mason's, Munson's and Upton's hills, commanding positions in full view of Washington, but with orders, writes Longstreet, ‘not to attempt to advance even to Alexandria.’ The Federal authorities soon threw a cordon of well-located, formidable and well-manned fortifications around the front of Washington and Alexandria, and heavy artillery guarded all approaches to the national capital. The Confederate cavalry was constantly at the front, but the infantry and artillery supports were frequently relieved. A single battery was allowed to Longstreet, and as that had to respond to calls in all directions, General Longstreet writes that he supplied the want of located batteries by collecting ‘a number of old wagon wheels and mounting on them stove-pipes of different caliber, till we had formidable looking batteries, some large enough of caliber to threaten Alexandria, and even the national capital and the executive mansion.’

During this period of three months there was, practically, a suspension of active hostilities between the Confederate army of the Potomac and the Federal army of the Potomac, but the opposing governments were collecting recruits, organizing armies, and making preparations for the renewal of the mighty struggle between the two nations for the mastery within the boundaries of Virginia.

To guard the approaches to Washington from the west, a division of the Federal army was sent, under Banks, to occupy, in Maryland, the line of the Potomac from above that city to opposite Harper's Ferry; while the line of that river from Harper's Ferry westward was guarded by [179] forces under Kelley. The Confederate outposts, when again advanced, practically held the line of the Potomac, except in the immediate front of Washington and Alexandria. Especially was this the case at Leesburg, the county town of the fertile county of Loudoun, in the vicinity of which were several fords by which the Potomac could be crossed and from which a number of highways led to the front and to the left flank of the Confederate army at Manassas. A Confederate brigade, under the command of Brig.-Gen. N. G. Evans, who had won such distinction in the battle of Bull Run, was sent to that point, where, under the direction of competent engineers, fortifications were constructed covering the nearby fords of the Potomac and adding to the defensive strength of the position. Banks' Federal division was distributed along the opposite side of the river from near the Point of Rocks, where the Baltimore & Ohio railroad reaches the banks of the Potomac, to the mouth of Seneca creek. The pickets of the two armies were placed on the opposite banks of the Potomac almost to Washington, and thence southward they confronted each other about halfway between Washington and Manassas. This proximity of opposing forces necessarily led to frequent skirmishes and minor engagements, as the commanders of either army sought to gain information in reference to the movements of the other by pushing forward reconnoitering detachments. A mere enumeration of these encounters gives an idea of the activity of the outposts during this period.

On the 29th of July a skirmish took place with Evans' pickets at Edward's Ferry, when a Federal, force attempted to cross and ascertain what was going on at Leesburg; on the 5th of August another took place opposite Point of Rocks, some miles from Leesburg, when a Federal force attempted to cross; and again, on the 8th, at Lovettsville, northeast of Leesburg, to which a Federal force had advanced from near Point of Rocks with the same object in view.

On the 17th of August the Federal department of the Potomac, generally called the ‘army of the Potomac,’ was created, to include Washington and vicinity, northeastern Virginia and the Shenandoah valley; and on the 20th General McClellan assumed command of this department with his headquarters at Washington. On the 24th [180] this department was still further enlarged by taking in the department of Pennsylvania.

Once in full command of the twelve brigades, the five unattached regiments of infantry, and the numerous bodies of cavalry and artillery in his division, on the 5th of August McClellan called upon his outposts for information concerning the Confederate forces in his front. On the 25th of August a scout was sent into Virginia from the Great Falls, some 15 miles above Washington, with which Stuart had combat; on the 27th and 28th skirmishes took place at Bailey's and Ball's cross roads with the scouting parties of that vigilant ‘eyes-and-ears’ of Johnston's command, in the immediate vicinity of Washington; and again on the 31st at Munson's hill, on the Leesburg turnpike, and along the Little river, or Fairfax turnpike, short distances from Alexandria. On the 2d of September a skirmish with Evans' cavalry occurred near Harper's Ferry; on the 4th, Stuart, with five field guns, shelled McCall's brigade at the Great Falls of the Potomac; on the 10th there was skirmishing at Lewinsville, a short distance beyond the northwestern fortifications of Washington. On September 3d General Beauregard, in person, reconnoitered McClellan's front from Munson's and Mason's hills, from which the Federal camps, earthworks and outposts, and the cities of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria were plainly visible.

On the 11th of September, Brig.-Gen. W. F. Smith, whose brigade was encamped at Chain bridge, just within the District of Columbia, sent Col. I. I. Stevens, with some 2,000 Federal troops of all arms, to make a reconnoissance to Lewinsville, about 4 miles to the northwest, for the purpose of examining that important road center. for a permanent Federal outpost, as it was not only held by the Confederates but was uncomfortably near to Washington. That village was reached about 10 a. m.; scouts were sent out on the five roads there converging, and infantry and artillery were properly disposed to guard against an attack while the engineers examined the locality to determine upon the location of works of defense. This done, at about 2 p. m., orders were given to return to camp, and the pickets were called in and the return march begun.

At noon of the same day, Col. J. E. B. Stuart, of the [181] First Virginia cavalry, who was in command of the Confederate line of picket posts, informed of this movement, started from his camp at Munson's hill, near Falls church, for Lewinsville, which was one of his picket posts, some 6 miles to the northwest, accompanied by Maj. James B. Terrill with 305 of the Thirteenth Virginia infantry, two pieces of Walton's Washington (La.) artillery under Capt. Thomas L. Rosser, and two companies of the First Virginia cavalry under Capt. William Patrick. Nearing Lewinsville and learning that the enemy was in the act of retiring, Stuart promptly made a skillful disposition of his small force in the surrounding woods, and, deploying his infantry as skirmishers, attacked the flank and rear of the retiring Federals, who were taken by surprise and at once beat a hasty retreat. A battery near the village stood firm and opened on the Confederates, but Terrill's riflemen picked off the gunners and that also retired. Rosser's battery secured a good position and raked the flank of the retreating foe. Stuart prudently withheld pursuit and the Federals rallied, for a time, about a mile and a half from Lewinsville, and Griffin's regular battery fired back up the road by which they expected to be pursued, and then retired to the Potomac, having lost 2 killed, 13 wounded and 3 missing. Stuart reported: ‘Our loss was not a scratch to man or horse,’ and that, after re-establishing his line of pickets through Lewinsville, he returned to his camp at Munson's hill. The Federal brigadier, informed of the engagement, hastened to it with reinforcements in time to take command of its retreat and claim the expedition a success.

This small affair was, at the time, greatly magnified in importance. General McClellan, in person, met the returning detachment at its camp, and, anxious to score a victory in his new command, sent this dispatch to General Scott: ‘General Smith made reconnaissance with 2,000 men to Lewinsville; remained several hours, and completed examination of the ground. When work was completed and the command had started back, the enemy opened fire with his shell, killing two and wounding three. We shall have no more Bull run affairs.’ Three days later, the Seventy-ninth New York regiment, which had borne a prominent part in this affair, was reported by its brigade commander as ‘in a state of open [182] mutiny,’ and its colors were taken from it; but they were returned the next day because of ‘their conduct in the reconnoissance of the 11th.’

To the Confederates this engagement was an important one because such a large force of the enemy had been discomfited by a much smaller one in consequence of the skill and daring of its leader. It gave additional confidence to the Confederate outposts which Stuart's boldness and restless activity had been keeping in sight of the dome of the capitol, and had a dispiriting effect upon those of the Federals. Gen. J. E. Johnston, the next day, issued congratulatory orders, from the headquarters of the army of the Potomac, in which he expressed ‘great satisfaction in making known the excellent conduct of Col. J. E. B. Stuart, and of the officers and men of his command, in the affair of Lewinsville,’ . . . in which ‘they attacked and drove from that position, in confusion, three regiments of infantry, eight pieces of artillery, and a large body of cavalry, inflicting severe loss, but incurring none;’ and in a report, from near Fairfax cross-roads, on September 14th, to Adjutant-General Cooper, he wrote: ‘I am much gratified at having this opportunity of putting before the department of war and the President this new instance of the boldness and skill of Colonel Stuart and the courage and efficiency of our troops.’ He then called attention to a communication from Generals Longstreet, Beauregard and himself, recommending the ‘forming a cavalry brigade and putting Colonel Stuart at its head. A new organization of the cavalry arm of our service is greatly needed, and greater strength as well as an effective organization. Our numbers in cavalry are by no means in due proportion to our infantry and artillery, yet without cavalry in proper proportion, victory is comparatively barren of results; defeat is less prejudicial; retreat is usually safe.’ After proposing other arrangements concerning the First Virginia cavalry, if Stuart were promoted, Genneral Johnston continues:

The regiment so far is exclusively Virginian. By all means keep it so, where it can be done without prejudice in other respects. State pride excites a generous emulation in the army, which is of inappreciable value in its effect on the spirits of the troops. I therefore recommend that Capt. William E. Jones, who now commands the strongest troop in the regiment and one which is not surpassed in discipline and spirit by any in the army, be made colonel. He is [183] a graduate of West Point, served for several years in the Mounted Rifles, and is skillful, brave and zealous in a very high degree. It is enough to say that he is worthy to succeed J. E. B. Stuart. For the lieutenant-colonelcy I repeat my recommendation of Capt. Fitzhugh Lee. He belongs to a family in which military genius seems to be an heirloom. He is an officer of rare merit, capacity and courage. Both of these officers have the invaluable advantage at this moment of knowledge of the ground which is now the scene of operations.

Stuart soon became brigadier-general of cavalry, later major-general, and then lieutenant-general, and the famous commander of the cavalry corps of the army of Northern Virginia until he fell in action. Fitz Lee soon became colonel, then brigadier-general, and finally the distinguished leader, as major-general, of a cavalry division in the same army, and in 1898 a famous consulgen-eral of the United States and a major-general in its army in the Cuban war. Jones became colonel, later brigadier-general of cavalry, and fell on the battlefield.

General Longstreet, who was in command of the ‘advanced Confederate forces,’ reported that he had arranged to move a heavy force during the night to cut off the enemy at Lewinsville, but Stuart did not receive his instructions, and himself ‘drove the enemy back to his trenches at once.’ He added:

The affair of yesterday was handsomely conducted and well executed. . . . It — is quite evident that the officers and men deserve much credit for their handsome conduct, one and all It is difficult to say whether the handsome use of his light infantry by Major Terrill or the destructive fire of the Washington artillery by Captain Rosser and Lieutenant Slocomb, is the most brilliant part of the affair. Colonel Stuart has, I think, fairly won his claim to brigadier.

Captain Rosser became the colonel of the Fifth Virginia cavalry, a brigadier in Fitz Lee's division of cavalry of the army of Northern Virginia, and a majorgen-eral in command of a cavalry division in the same army; Major Terrill became colonel of the Thirteenth Virginia infantry; Captain Patrick became major of the Seventeenth battalion of Virginia cavalry and fell, in the brave discharge of duty, in the second battle of Manassas.

On the 15th of September a Confederate force of cavalry and artillery scouted the south bank of the Potomac from Harper's Ferry up to the mouth of the Antietam, and had skirmishing at various points during the day with Col. J. W. Geary's Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania [184] across the river. On the 16th a Federal detachment that crossed the Potomac at Seneca creek was driven back by Stuart's cavalry pickets. On the 24th General Evans sent a detachment to opposite the Point of Rocks, which fired across the Potomac upon Geary's camp and then withdrew; that officer reported, ‘Our enemy, if not so savage as the Indian, purposes to emulate his vigilance.’ He also stated that he had taken possession of Heter's and Noland's islands and proposed to occupy all the other islands in front of his lines, ‘and where Nature has not provided shelter, to make it by art.’

On September 24th Col. J. E. B. Stuart received his promotion as brigadier-general of cavalry. His brigade, as nearly as can be ascertained, consisted of the First Virginia cavalry, under Col. W. E. Jones; the Second Virginia cavalry, under Col. R. C. W. Radford; the Fourth Virginia cavalry, under Col. B. H. Robertson; the Sixth Virginia cavalry, under Col. C. W. Field; the First North Carolina cavalry, under Col. R. Ransom, Jr., and the Jeff Davis legion of cavalry, under Maj. W. T. Martin. Of these, Jones and Robertson subsequently became brigadier-generals, and Field, Ransom and Martin, major-generals in the Confederate army.

On September 15th, Gen. W. F. Smith, United States army, marched from his camp, near the Chain bridge, to Lewinsville, with 5,100 infantry, 150 cavalry and 16 pieces of artillery, guarding a train of 90 wagons to procure forage. He not only took the precaution of having advanced guards and flankers, but left detachments of infantry and artillery along every mile of the road as special guards. After loading his wagons and as he was preparing to retire, about 3 p. m., Stuart vexed him with small bodies of cavalry and three pieces of artillery all along the way as he withdrew. On the 28th the same officer started two of his regiments, with two days cooked rations, toward Munson's hill. They marched at midnight, but when about halfway to their destination, in a thick body of woods, they were fired into from ambush, with considerable loss; in the confusion that followed one portion of the command fired into another. This led to a halt and the forming of a line of battle, which rested on its arms during the night. These two regiments returned to their camp the next day, after a loss of 4 killed and 16 wounded. [185]

On October 3d, 300 infantry, of the Twenty-sixth New York, were ordered to fall upon a body of Confederate cavalry at Pohick church, 12 miles from Alexandria, and capture them. Instead of obeying orders, this force, as soon as it got beyond the Federal pickets, as General Slocum reported, ‘was converted into a band of marauders, who plundered alike friend and foe.’ The same day an expedition to Springfield Station drove away the Confederate pickets and brought away 32 carloads of wood and ties. On the 4th Gen. N. G. Evans tried his artillery on the Federal battery on the Maryland shore near Edwards' ferry, to which reply was made. On the 15th a small body of Confederate cavalry attacked and routed the Federal picket near Padgett's tavern, on the Little river turnpike.

On October 16th, Col. Turner Ashby, who held the front of Harper's Ferry, determined to punish the Federal forces that had for several days been making incursions into Virginia, seizing wheat and committing other depredations, their larger force enabling them to push back his smaller one as they advanced. Ashby had in his command some 300 militia, armed with flint-lock muskets, and two companies of cavalry. He asked General Evans to co-operate with him from Leesburg by sending a force to Loudoun heights, which could prevent the sending of Federal reinforcements across the Potomac, and could drive the enemy from the shelter of the houses at Harper's Ferry. Ashby was reinforced, on the 15th, by two more companies of McDonald's Virginia cavalry, Captain Wingfield's, mounted and armed with minie rifles, and Captain Miller's company, about 30 mounted and the rest on foot, armed with flint-lock guns. He also had a rifled 4-pounder, and a badly mounted 24-pounder, which broke down during the engagement and which he had to spike and abandon. His force, on the morning of the 16th, was 300 militia, parts of two regiments commanded by Colonel Albert of Shenandoah and Major Finter of Page; 180 of McDonald's cavalry, Captain Henderson's men, under command of Lieutenant Glynn; Captain Baylor's mounted militia, about 25 men, and Captain Hess', also about 25 men. Captain Avirett had charge of the rifle gun and Captain Cornfield of the 24-pounder.

Ashby attacked in three divisions, drove the enemy [186] from their breastworks on Bolivar heights, without loss to himself, as far as lower Bolivar; there the 24-pounder carriage broke down, much to his detriment. Its detachment was then transferred to the rifle gun, and Captain Avirett was sent to Loudoun heights with a message to Colonel Griffin, who commanded the detachment from General Evans. About this time the enemy rallied in a countercharge, but were repulsed by the militia At that moment Colonel Ashby ordered a cavalry charge, led by Captain Turner, which was handsomely made, killing five of the enemy.

After holding his position on Bolivar heights for four hours, when the enemy was reinforced by infantry and artillery, which had been left on guard at the ferry, and which Griffin, from the position he had taken, had not been able to keep back, Ashby withdrew to the position, near Halltown, which the Federal pickets had occupied in the morning, and which he called ‘Camp Evans.’ That night the Federals recrossed the Potomac and encamped on the first terrace of Maryland heights. Ashby reported his loss as 1 killed and 9 wounded, and that he had captured 10 prisoners, besides a large number of blankets, overcoats and a dozen muskets. In concluding, he reported: ‘I cannot compliment my officers and men too highly for their gallant bearing during the whole fight, considering the bad arms with which they were supplied and their inexperience.’

On the 18th of October, Brig.-Gen. I. B. Richardson, reconnoitered to Pohick church and Accotink village, drove in the Confederate pickets, and on his return advanced his own pickets to Windsor's hill, some 5 miles southeast of Alexandria. On the 20th, Major Whipple made a reconnoissance from Dranesville; near Hunter's mill had a skirmish with Confederate pickets, also one near Thornton Station. [187]

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