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Chapter 11:

  • Battle of Leesburg
  • -- operations on the lower Potomac and east shore -- action at Dranesville.

After the first battle of Manassas, Col. Eppa Hunton had been ordered to reoccupy Leesburg with his regiment, the Eighth Virginia; a little later Col. William Barksdale's Thirteenth Mississippi, Col. W. S. Featherston's Seventeenth Mississippi, a battery, and four companies of cavalry under Col. W. H. Jenifer, were sent to the same place, and these were organized into the Seventh brigade of the Confederate army of the Potomac, which, early in August, was put under command of Brig.-Gen. Nathan G. Evans, who had been promoted for his brave conduct July 21st. General Beauregard's object in locating this strong force at Leesburg was to guard his left flank from a Federal attack by way of several good roads that led from the fords of the upper Potomac, near that town, directly to his Bull run encampment; to watch the large Federal force that McClellan had located on the opposite side of the Potomac; to keep up a connection with the Confederate force in the lower Shenandoah valley by a good turnpike that led from Leesburg across the Blue ridge, and to save for his army the abundant supplies of the fertile county of Loudoun.

On the 15th of October General Banks' division of the Federal army was located at Darnestown, Md., about 15 miles due east from Leesburg, with detachments at Point of Rocks, Sandy Hook, Williamsport, etc.; while the division of Brig.-Gen. C. P. Stone, composed of six companies of cavalry, three of artillery, and the infantry brigades of Gens. W. A. Gorman and F. W. Lander and Col. E. D. Baker, was located at Poolesville, 8 miles north of east from Leesburg. The object in this disposition of so large a force was, not only to guard the right of the big Federal army that General McClellan was gathering at Washington, but especially to cover the important approaches from the northwest to Baltimore and the Federal [188] city, particularly those from the lower Shenandoah valley and northeastern Piedmont, Virginia.

On October 19th McCall's Federal division advanced to Dranesville, on the road to Leesburg and about 15 miles from that place, ‘in order to cover the reconnaissance made in all directions the next day;’ and later, Smith's Federal division advanced along a parallel road to the west, acting in concert with General McCall, and pushed forward strong parties in the same direction and for the same purpose. About 7 p.m. of the 19th, Stone's advance opened a heavy cannonade on the Confederate positions at Fort Evans, on the Leesburg pike, and at Edwards' Ferry; and at the same time General Evans heard heavy firing in the direction of Dranesville. At midnight General Evans ordered his whole brigade to the front, along the line of Goose creek, 3 miles southeast of Leesburg, where he had a line of intrenchments, to there await an expected attack from General McCall, the next morning, Sunday, October 20th, as it had been reported that the Federal advance was moving in force from Dranesville toward Leesburg. Evans' scouts captured McCall's courier bearing dispatches to General Meade, directing him to examine the roads leading to Leesburg. The Federal batteries kept up a deliberate fire during the day, but no assault was made.

On the morning of the 20th the Federal signal officer on Sugar Loaf mountain, in Maryland, reported, ‘The enemy have moved away from Leesburg.’ This Banks wired to McClellan, whereupon the latter wired to Stone, at Poolesville, that a heavy reconnaissance would be sent out that day, in all directions, from Dranesville, concluding: ‘You will keep a good lookout upon Leesburg, to see if this movement has the effect to drive them away. Perhaps a slight demonstration on your part would have the effect to move them.’ McClellan desired Stone to make demonstrations from his picket line along the Potomac, but did not intend that he should cross the river, in force, for the purpose of fighting. Late in the day Stone reported that he had made a feint of crossing, and at the same time had started a reconnaissance from Harrison's island toward Leesburg, when the enemy's pickets retired to intrenchments. That ‘slight demonstration’ brought on the battle of Ball's Bluff (or, as it is variously called, Leesburg, Harrison's Island, or Conrad's [189] Ferry), on Monday, October 21st. On the morning of the 21st, McCall retired from Evans' front to his camp at Prospect Hill, 4 miles up the river from the Chain bridge.

From his point of observation, at the earthwork called ‘Fort Evans,’ to the eastward of Leesburg, overlooking the fords at Conrad's and Edwards' ferries and Ball's bluff, Evans, at 6 a. m. on the 21st, found that the enemy of Stone's division had effected a crossing at Edwards' ferry and at Ball's bluff, 4 miles above. He promptly sent four companies from his Mississippi regiments and two companies of cavalry, under the command of Lieut.-Col. W. H. Jenifer, to the assistance of Captain Duff, to hold the enemy in check until his plan of attack should be developed. Colonel Jenifer immediately engaged the Federal advance and drove it back toward Ball's bluff.

The force that had crossed at Harrison's island, about midnight of the 20th, was part of the command of Colonel Baker, some 300 men under Col. Charles Devens, of the Fifteenth Massachusetts. Its object was to capture a Confederate camp that had been reported to be about a mile from the river. This force advanced to an open field surrounded by woods, where it halted until it could be joined by a company from the Twentieth Massachusetts, which had been left on the bluff, on the Virginia side, to protect the Federal return. Devens, at daybreak, pushed forward with a few men to reconnoiter, and, in person, went to within sight of Leesburg. Thinking he had not been discovered, Devens determined to remain, and sent back to his brigade commander, Colonel Baker, for reinforcements. The latter consulted his division commander, General Stone, and obtained permission to either withdraw Devens or to send over reinforcements to him. He promptly directed Devens to hold his position and said that he would support him, in person, with the rest of his brigade. The boats and flats that had been provided for crossing the Potomac from the Maryland shore to Harrison's island, and from the latter to the Virginia shore, were entirely inadequate, and it was nearly noon before Devens' regiment of 625 men was closed up on the Virginia shore.

Convinced, at about o a. m., that the main Federal attack would be at Ball's bluff, 4 miles northeast of Leesburg, Evans ordered Colonel Hunton, with the [190] Eighth Virginia, to the support of Colonel Jenifer, directing him to form line of battle immediately in the rear of Jenifer's command, and that the combined force should then drive the enemy to the river, while he, General Evans, supported the right of the movement with artillery. This movement was made soon after noon, and the opposing forces at once became hotly engaged, the Confederates advancing on the Federals, who held a strong position in front of the woods. Learning, at about this time, that an opposing force was gathering on his left, and that he would soon be vigorously attacked by a body of infantry that appeared in that direction, and by a body of dismounted cavalry that had deployed in his front, and apprehensive of being flanked, Devens retired his regiment to an open space in the woods, in front of the bluff, and prepared to receive an attack. To ascertain about reinforcements, Devens went back to the bluff at about 2 p. m., where he found Colonel Baker, who directed him to form his regiment on the right of the position that he proposed to occupy, while Baker placed 300 of the Twentieth Massachusetts on the left and advanced in front of these his, California regiment, with two guns, supported by two companies of the Fifteenth Massachusetts. At about the same hour General Stone ferried a strong force across the river at Edwards' ferry, to make a demonstration on Evans' right, leaving Colonel Baker in command at Ball's bluff. Stone then telegraphed to McClellan: ‘There has been sharp firing on the right of our line, and our troops appear to be advancing there under Baker. The left, under Gorman, has advanced its skirmishers nearly one mile, and, if the movement continues successful, will turn the enemy's right.’

At about 2:30 p. m., General Evans, having the advantage of a concealed, shorter and inner line, seeing that the enemy was being constantly reinforced, ordered Colonel Burt, with the Eighteenth Mississippi, to attack the Federal left, while Hunton and Jenifer attacked his front, holding the attack at Edwards' ferry in check by batteries from his intrenchments. As Colonel Burt reached his position, the enemy, concealed in a ravine, opened on him a furious fire, which compelled him to divide his regiment and stop the flank movement that had already begun. At about 3 p. m.,. Featherston, with the Seventeenth Mississippi, was sent at a double-quick to [191] support Burt's movement. Evans reports: ‘He arrived in twenty minutes and the action became general along my whole line, and was very hot and brisk for more than two hours, the enemy keeping up a constant fire with his batteries on both sides of the river. At about 6 p. m. I saw that my command had driven the enemy to near the banks of the river. I ordered my entire force to charge and drive him into the river. The charge was immediately made by the whole command, and the forces of the enemy were completely routed, and cried out for quarter along his whole line. In this charge the enemy was driven back at the point of the bayonet, and many were killed and wounded by this formidable weapon. In the precipitate retreat of the enemy on the bluffs of the river, many of his troops rushed into the water and were drowned, while many others, in overloading the boats sunk them and shared the same fate. The rout now, about 7 o'clock, became complete, and the enemy commenced throwing his arms into the river. . . . At 8 p. m. the enemy surrendered his forces at Ball's bluff, and the prisoners were marched to Leesburg.’

During this action, Colonel Barksdale, with nine companies of the Thirteenth Mississippi and six pieces of artillery, was held to oppose Stone's movement from Edward's Ferry and also as a reserve. After the engagement, Evans withdrew all his brigade to Leesburg, except Barksdale's regiment, which he left in front of Edwards' ferry.

Each of the combatants had about 1,700 men engaged in this action. The Confederates had no artillery in the fight, while the Federals had three light guns. Shortly after the action became general, Colonel Baker, passing in front of his command, was killed by a sharpshooter, which so demoralized the Federals that the surviving officers conferred and decided to retreat. This was opposed by Col. Milton Cogswell, of the Forty-second New York, who had succeeded Colonel Baker in command. He said a retreat down the bluff and across the river was now impossible, and that they must cut their way through the Confederate right to Edwards' ferry. He promptly gave orders to that effect, and moved to the front, followed by the remnants of his own two companies and a portion of the California regiment, but not by the others. He was quickly driven back and the whole Federal [192] command was forced to the river bluff in great disorder. Just then two companies of the Forty-second New York landed on the Virginia shore. These Colonel Cogswell ordered up the bluff and deployed as skirmishers to cover the Federal retreat, while he advanced to the left with a small party, and was almost immediately captured. Colonel Devens escaped by swimming the river.

On the morning of the 22d, Colonel Barksdale informed General Evans that the enemy was still in force at Edwards' ferry. He was ordered to carefully reconnoiter the Federal position, learn its strength and make attack. This he did, at about 2 p. m., and drove a superior force, from an intrenched position to the bank of the river, killing and wounding quite a number of men. At about sundown, the Federals, having been reinforced and holding rifle-pits, Barksdale withdrew to Fort Evans, leaving two companies to watch his front. The enemy recrossed the Potomac during the night. Evans reported his loss, in the thirteen hours of fight, on the 21st, as 36 killed, 117 wounded and 2 missing, from a force of 1,709. Among the killed was the brave Colonel Burt. The Federal losses were returned at 49 killed, 158 wounded, 694 missing. General Evans claimed the capture of 710 prisoners, 1,500 stand of arms, 3 cannon and 1 flag.

Evans called on Longstreet for reinforcements when he reported his battle of the 21st, thinking that 20,000 Federals were in his front. Colonel Jenkins, with the Eighteenth South Carolina and cavalry and artillery, was dispatched from Centreville, in the afternoon of the 22d, and marched toward Leesburg, through mud and a driving rain, until midnight, when the infantry went into bivouac; but Capt. C. M. Blackford's cavalry and four guns of the Washington artillery hurried forward all night, and came in sight of Leesburg about daylight of the 23d. That morning, finding his men much exhausted, General Evans ordered three of his regiments to fall back to Carter's mill, a strong position on Goose creek, about 7 miles southwest from Leesburg, and join Jenkins, who had been halted at that place, leaving Barksdale with his regiment, two pieces of artillery and some cavalry, as a rear guard near Leesburg, and Hunton, with his Eighth Virginia and two pieces of artillery, on the south bank of Sycolin creek, 3 miles from Leesburg, and sending his cavalry well to the front toward Alexandria. The weather was stormy and very cold. [193]

The attention of the Federal commander was now turned to operations on the Potomac river, below Washington, as the Confederate batteries, located at Freestone point, Cockpit point, Shipping point at the mouth of the Quantico, and at the mouth of Aquia creek, were a standing menace to the navigation of that river to and from Washington. On October 22d a detachment of the Seventy-second New York was sent to construct intrenchments at Budd's ferry, opposite the Confederate battery at Shipping point, and to report on the Confederate batteries along the Potomac; he also constructed earthworks for batteries opposite Evansport. On the 28th the Confederate battery near Budd's ferry, numbering some 14 guns, opened on a steamer attempting to pass up the river. General Hooker, learning of this, directed his batteries on the Maryland shore to open on the Confederate steamer Page, in case the steamer attempting to go up the Potomac should be disabled, or if an attempt should be made to take it as a prize.

On the 9th of November, Gen. D. E. Sickles, of General Hooker's command, sent an expedition of 400 men down the Potomac to reconnoiter Mathias point, which was held by a small Confederate picket. On the 12th Gen. S. P. Heintzelman, in charge of Fort Lyon, on the Telegraph road, a short distance from Alexandria, sent out two brigades of infantry to Pohick church. On reaching the church, early the next morning, it was ascertained that the Confederates had left the night before.

On the 14th of November, General Dix, commanding the department of Pennsylvania, with headquarters at Baltimore, ordered Gen. H. H. Lockwood, commanding the Federal peninsula brigade, partly composed of Union Marylanders, to proceed on an expedition through Accomac and Northampton counties, in Virginia, for the purpose of ‘bringing these counties back to their allegiance to the United States, and reuniting them to the Union on the footing of West Virginia.’ The commander of the expedition was directed to distribute a proclamation by General Dix, which made known the object of the expedition and gave many assurances as to the good results that would follow submission to Federal authority, and to exercise ‘the utmost vigilance to preserve discipline and prevent any outrage upon persons or property.’ [194]

In the course of his instructions to Lockwood, Dix proceeded to settle grave questions of state by military instructions. He advised that ‘The people, if they return to their allegiance to the United States, should make such temporary provision for their own government, not inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States, as they may think best. For the time being, it seems to me that it would be well for them to act with western Virginia, and hold elections by proclamation of the governor.’

On November 15th, the day after his expedition started, Dix wrote to President Lincoln, enclosing a copy of his proclamation to the people of Accomac and Northampton, with the hope that what he had done would meet with his approbation; and stated that he had sent 4,500 men on this expedition.

Reaching the borders of Virginia, November 16th, General Lockwood sent a flag of truce to the Confederate troops, some 10 miles below the line, but found no force to treat with, as they had either dispersed or fallen back to Eastville. The bearer of this flag reported, from Temperanceville, ‘We have thus far had a triumphant welcome and uninterrupted march.’

Lockwood reported from Drummondtown, on the 22d, that the larger portion of his command was at that place, but he had sent two regiments, with cavalry and artillery, to Eastville. After describing the points selected for his bases of supplies, he stated that he had found and secured seven new 6-pounder guns, and a number of small-arms of little value. After declaring that the people manifested a readiness to submit to the Federal government, and that they were arranging to hold county meetings for this purpose, he wrote: ‘The basis of the system in western Virginia will be adopted as a temporary measure. All with whom I have conversed look to an annexation with Maryland as an event much to be desired whenever it can constitutionally be accomplished. This, they think, can be done by regarding themselves, together with western Virginia, as the true State of Virginia, and inducing the State thus constituted and the State of Maryland to pass the necessary laws.’ He advised that Dix write to the governor of West Virginia, asking him to make proclamation, as soon as the people have [195] declared their allegiance to the United States, ‘ordering an election for the civil officers and a representative to the Congress of the United States,’ and concluded, ‘I hope that by their joint action this interesting people may be relieved from their present position, and brought into that association with the State of Maryland to which their geographical position naturally points.’

On November 16th, Maj. W. T. Martin, of the Second Mississippi cavalry (subsequently major-general), cut off a foraging party of the Thirtieth New York, near Falls Church, and captured 30 prisoners, killing 4 and wounding several. On the 18th Lieut.-Col. Fitzhugh Lee, of the First Virginia cavalry, attacked a Federal picket in the same vicinity, part of the Brooklyn regiment (Fourteenth New York) of hard fighters. Two of Lee's men lost their lives, and 2 of the enemy were killed and 10 captured. On the 26th a squadron of Pennsylvania cavalry, on a reconnoissance to Vienna, was attacked by 120 men of the First North Carolina cavalry, under Col. Robert Ransom, and stampeded. Ransom reported the capture of 26 prisoners, and a considerable number of horses, sabers and carbines. The attention of the government was invited to these successful affairs by General Johnston.

Skirmishes followed, of like character, near Dranesville on the 26th, near Fairfax on the 27th, and at Annandale, December 2d.

Gen. S. G. French, stationed at Evansport, reported on December 15th that his position had been under fire from Federal batteries on the Maryland shore during the past three weeks.

On December 20th Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, with a force comprising the Eleventh Virginia, Col. Samuel Garland; Sixth South Carolina, Lieutenant-Colonel Secrest; Tenth Alabama, Col. J. H. Forney, and First Kentucky, Col. T. H. Taylor, in all 1,600 infantry; Capt. A. S. Cutts' Georgia artillery (four pieces), Maj. J. B. Gordon's North Carolina cavalry, and Capt. A. L. Pitzer's Virginia cavalry, moved toward Dranesville for the purpose of protecting an expedition of army wagons after hay. At the same time a Federal expedition approached Dranesville, on a similar mission. Upon discovering the presence of the enemy, Stuart sent Pitzer to keep between them and the wagons, and order the latter [196] back, while the main body was disposed for a vigorous attack upon the Federal rear and left flank. The force Stuart encountered at Dranesville was E. O.C. Ord's Pennsylvania brigade of five regiments (including the ‘Bucktails’), two squadrons of cavalry and Easton's battery. Stuart took position, screening his infantry in a wood, and when the enemy came up the action was opened by an artillery combat. Then Stuart ordered forward his right wing, and the Alabama regiment ‘rushed with a shout in a storm of bullets.’ Colonel Forney fell wounded, and Lieut.-Col. J. B. Martin was killed. The other regiments also pushed forward, and a stubborn fight resulted. ‘When the action had lasted about two hours,’ Stuart reported, ‘I found that the enemy, being already in force larger than my own, was recovering from his disorder, and receiving heavy reinforcements [Reynolds' and Meade's brigades].’ Consequently he withdrew in order. ‘The enemy was evidently too much crippled to follow in pursuit, and after a short halt at the railroad I proceeded to Fryingpan church, where the wounded were cared for.’

Early next morning, with two fresh regiments, Stuart returned to the field, and found that the enemy had evacuated Dranesville and left some of their wounded there. The official returns of casualties were, on the Federal side, 7 killed and 61 wounded; on the Confederate, 43 killed, 143 wounded and 8 missing.

The return of the department of Northern Virginia, Gen. J. E. Johnston commanding, for December, showed for the Potomac district, General Beauregard, aggregate infantry, cavalry and artillery, present and absent, 68,047; aggregate present, 55,165; effective total, 44,563. The forces in the Valley district, General Jackson, were reported at 12,922 present; in the Aquia district, General Holmes, 8,244, raising the aggregate present of Johnston's command to 76,331. [197]

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