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The battle of Dranesville, Va.

The ‘first Federal victory South of the Potomac’ in the war between the States-fought before Christmas 1861, between five regiments of Federals and four regiments of Confederate Infantry.

By William S. Hammond, Lexington, Va.
Dranesville, a small Virginia hamlet, is situated in Fairfax county, about twenty miles from Washington, and about fourteen from Leesburg. On a commanding hill at the eastern edge of the village the Leesburg and Washington and the Leesburg and Alexandria Turnpikes form a junction. The confluent roads form a single highway from this point to Leesburg. From the point of junction this road dips into a small valley and crosses a smaller hill, on which stands the village church in a grove of massive oaks. The view westward from the church towards Leesburg commands a rolling, open country of farm and woodland. The turnpike, crossing this tract, may be plainly seen until lost in a piece of woodland in the distance.

This roadway, before the railroad paralleled it some four miles away, was a main line of travel and commerce. Long caravans of ‘schooner’ wagons with white canvas tops, droves of horses, sheep and cattle, stages well loaded with passengers, gave life to the old highway and brought thrift to every wayside village and hamlet. This was the golden age of the ‘wagon stand’ and ‘tavern.’ With the march of progress and the coming of the railroad, wagons, stage coaches and taverns were relegated to the limbo of things that were. The jangling music of the wagon bells, the tootings of the stage-drivers horn, the noisy commotion of the wayside inn are only echoes that faintly survive in the memories of very old men. Progress has her victims no less than grim-visaged war.

Dranesville in other days was a recipient of the bounty that flowed from the old-time commerce. With the passing of the [70] turnpike traffic an unbroken quiet settled upon the village until the stillness was rudely broken on a memorable winter afternoon of 1861. The roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry announced to the village and the surrounding country that the tide of war, which had rolled at a distance, was now right at hand.

Comparative estimates.

Compared with the mighty engagements of the after conflict, this so-called ‘battle’ of Dranesville is but an insignificant incident in the War Between the States. Measured by the slaughter of such conflicts as Antietam, Gettysburg or Spotsylvania, it assumes little more than the dimensions of a hotly contested skirmish. Yet in that first year of the war it was called a ‘battle,’ and to it, at the time, there was attached an importance that at this day scarcely justified.

The press of the North proudly pointed to it as ‘the first Federal victory south of the Potomac.’ Secretary of War Simon Cameron wrote General McCall a few days after the battle: ‘It (the battle of Dranesville) is one of the bright spots that give assurance of the success of coming events, and its effects must be to inspire confidence in the belief that hereafter, as heretofore, the cause of our country will triumph. ... Other portions of the army will be stimulated by their brave deeds, and men will be proud to say that at Dranesville they served under McCall and Ord.’

Small was the victory—if victory it was at all—yet the semblance of success went far towards relieving the gloom of the disastrous rout at Manassas and the bloody repulse at Ball's Bluff, which had occurred earlier in the year. The collision of five regiments of Federal with four of Confederate Infantry December 20, 1861, constitutes this battle.

The first Christmas of the war was approaching, and the joyous memories of this happiest festival of Christendom but emphasized the sorrow in countless homes, North and South, where anxious hearts awaited its coming oppressed by the lengthening shadow of the great national tragedy which had already begun. Already two deadly engagements had claimed their victims, and many a hearth was desolate. [71]

The Federal army, disorganized and routed at Manassas on the 21st of the preceding July, had retreated to the defense of Washington. A line, stretching from the Chain Bridge to Alexandria, along the south bank of the Potomac, formed a living bulwark between the capital and the victorious Confederates encamped at Centreville, some thirty-miles away. McClellan, called from West Virginia ‘to save the capital,’ had spent the summer and autumn in the task of transforming a uniformed mob of citizens into a well-disciplined army of soldiers. The guns of Manassas had given a quietus to the clamorous cry of ‘On to Richmond,’ and the North was awaking to the fact that the road to the Confederate capital, if traveled at all, must be traveled by a well-trained army, and was not to be attempted by a heterogeneous mob.

The Federal right, encamped at Langley, a few miles in advance of the Chain Bridge (three miles above Washington), consisted of the First Pennsylvania Reserves, commanded by Brigadier-General George A. McCall, a West Pointer, who had seen active service in the Mexican War. The Reserves were formed in three brigades—the First, commanded by Brigadier-General J. F. Reynolds; the Second, by Brigadier-General George G. Meade; the Third, by Brigadier-General E. O. C. Ord.

The Confederates were at Centreville, a small village in Fairfax, a few miles in advance of the line of Bull Run.

The Army spirit.

The spirit pervading the two armies at this time afforded a striking contrast. The Federal Army, beaten disastrously in July at Bull Run, and even more completely discomfited in October at Ball's Bluff, had no precedents of victory to inspire it as a military organization. However great the bravery of the individual soldier may have been, the lack of confidence in the army as a fighting machine had assumed an all-pervasive form of panicky timidity. The battle of Dranesville did timely service in removing to a degree this feeling of distrust.

Inspired by two signal victories the Confederates were in fine fettle. The men in gray had gone to the front possessed with the idea that the South could ‘whip the world.’ Bull Run and Ball's Bluff were but anticipated confirmations of this bold confidence. [72] The successful issue of these initial combats beckoned to greater glories and the final triumph of the newly-established Confederacy. This feeling animated the entire Confederate camp, and the army of Johnston stood boldly and confidently awaiting the first hostile move of McClellan from his entrenchments along the Potomac.

Thus were matters posed when the battle of Dranesville was fought. The tedium of winter quarters was relieved in both camps by the sending out of parties to forage and gather information of the doings of the enemy. The arena of these sporadic operations was that portion of Fairfax lying between Washington and Centreville. This strip of territory for months was debatable ground—a region where terrifying rumors and dire alarms were continually afloat.

The citizens whose homes stood between the lines of the two opposing armies were divided in political sentiment. A few remained ‘Union’ to the core, while the greater majority were heart and soul with the Confederacy. This division of sentiment filled the hours, day and night, with a turmoil of excitement. Credence was given to the most improbable rumors, and accurate information was at a decided discount.

A report, which upon the face of it seemed to bear some degree of probability, reached the ears of General McCall at Camp Pierpoint (Langley, the right of the Federal line) that a considerable body of Confederate cavalry was between Dranesville and the Potomac, menacing the Federal picket line and greatly harassing Union citizens residing in that locality. In fact, it was known that two ‘loyal’ citizens had been arrested and had been sent on to Richmond to enjoy the not overly lavish hospitality of Libby Prison. Stirred to action by this rumor, on December 19th General McCall issued an order to General Ord, commander of the Third Brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves (Sixth, Ninth, Tenth and Twelfth Regiments), to proceed the next morning at 6 o'clock with his brigade on the Leesburg pike, in the direction of Dranesville. Kane's famous ‘Bucktail’ Regiment, Easton's Battery (Battery A, First Pennsylvania Artillery), and two squadrons of the First Pennsylvania Cavalry were directed to accompany this expedition.

The object of this demonstration as indicated in McCall's [73] order, was two-fold—‘to drive back the enemy's pickets from their advanced position’ and ‘to procure a supply of forage.’ The latter was to be procured, according to the orders of the day, ‘at Gunnell's or any other rank secessionist's in the neighborhood.’ The band of marauders between Dranesville and the river was not to be neglected.

Movements of the troops.

The First Brigade, commanded by General Reynolds, was ordered to move to Difficult Run, a small stream that crossed the road between Dranesville and Langley, so as to be in supporting distance should Ord need assistance. A touch of humor attaches to McCall's serious caution to Ord that he should bring his troops back to camp before nightfall without fail. It was evidently considered dangerous at this period to leave small bodies of troops out over night.

Pursuant to orders, the expedition started at 6 A. M., December 20th. The day was cold, bright and clear. On the march Ord learned that the Confederate marauders had decamped, but that there was a respectable picket at Dranesville, which might be captured. Moving forward cautiously he entered Dranesville about midday. He was accompanied by his cavalry and artillery, the infantry moving up at some distance in the rear. Upon Ord's approach the Confederate Cavalry picket stationed in the village fled and scattered, but remained in the distance, watching the movements of the Federals.

Ord placed two guns of Easton's Battery on the hill near the church. From this point of vantage he scanned the open country lying before him in the direction of Leesburg. The scurrying of the Confederate pickets along a road in the distance and their return as for observation convinced him that a considerable body of the enemy was near at hand.

Nor was he mistaken in this conjecture. General Johnston had sent out from his camp at Centreville nearly all the wagons of his army into upper Fairfax and lower Loudoun to gather much needed supplies. The protection of this wagon train was entrusted to Colonel J. E. B. Stuart, who afterwards immortalized himself as the Prince Rupert of the South. As a guard for the wagons he had under his command four regiments of [74] infantry—the 10th Alabama, 6th South Carolina, 11th Virginia, 1st Kentucky; one battery of four guns, the Sumter Flying Artillery, of Georgia, Captain A. S. Cutts, and about 150 cavalry.

The two combatants, thus unexpectedly fronting one another, were both seized with consternation. Ord came to the conclusion that the Confederate force in his front had been sent out to intercept his retreat to camp and capture his command. Stuart, on the other hand, could only interpret the presence of such a large body of the enemy as an attempt of the Federals to capture his wagons and forage.

He fully realized the danger of his position, as his wagons were scattered about the country gathering hay and corn, while the enemy could easily interpose between him and Johnston's camp at Centreville.

Thus both commanders, misconceiving the purpose of the other, immediately took steps to avert the imagined danger. These precautionary measures brought on the collision which is dignified by the name of the battle of Dranesville. After the battle both sides laid claim to the victory. This is now easily understood, for Ord felt that the battle had saved his command and Stuart felt that it had saved all the wagons of Johnston's Army and a valuable amount of supplies. Each accomplished what he conceived to be the main purpose of the battle, which, after all, was a misconception on the part of both, as Ord was not in pursuit of Stuart's wagon train, and Stuart had no designs against Ord's line of retreat.

Ord S Artillery.

Ord, in entering the village and placing a section of his artillery on the church hill, had passed the junction of the two roads on the higher hill some 600 yards in his rear. This eminence, known as the Drane Hill, is pre-eminently the military key of the situation, as it commands all of the surrounding country. Stuart knew this position well, and immediately started to gain it by a circuitous march through the woods around Ord's flank. Stuart afterward stated that, had he gained this point with his four regiments, he could have held the whole Federal Army in check.

Ord surmised, and surmised correctly, that the Confederates [75] were moving around to his rear in the hope of seizing this coveted position. He immediately ordered the section of artillery which had taken its position near the church, to withdraw, and, with the other guns of the battery, to take position on the Drane Hill, near the junction of the two roads.

This was done with commendable expedition, the guns went at a sweeping gallop to the top of the hill and took a new position with muzzles pointing south. In this direction the advance of the Confederates was driving in the Federal skirmish line. The Centreville Road enters the Alexandria pike a short distance from the junction of that road with the Washington pike. The Confederate advance was along this Centreville Road, and Easton's Battery arrived in the nick of time to cover this important approach. Ord's foresight and promptness had secured for his troops an overmastering superiority of position. The Confederates, owing to the length and many difficulties of their circuitous march had failed to reach the crest of the hill in advance of the Federals. Finding the enemy in secure possession of the coveted position, Stuart placed his battery in the Centreville Road some five or six hundred yards distant from the Federal Artillery. This battery was placed behind a slight swell of ground, the muzzles of the guns just clearing this slight elevation. It came into action at once and poured a heavy fire into the ranks of the Federals, but this fire did little execution, being aimed too high.

Captain Easton, in command of the Federal battery, had no other target than the rising smoke, yet training his guns on the point where he thought the opposing battery ought to be, at the third fire he completely disabled the enemy's guns. One gun was put out of action, a caisson was exploded, and many men and horses of the battery were killed, while many more were dangerously wounded. General Stuart, in his report of the battle, wrote: ‘Every shot of the enemy was dealing destruction on either man, limber or horse.’

The two batteries thus engaged marked the centres of their respective lines. The 10th Pennsylvania was placed in support of Easton's Battery, and rendered effective aid in protecting the Federal left. The other four regiments were placed in advantageous [76] positions. The famous ‘Bucktail’ Regiment held a position around a brick house, near Easton's Battery, known as the Thornton House. The ‘Bucktail’ sharpshooters took possession of this building, and from every door and window poured a destructive fire into the ranks of the Confederates. Lieutenant-Colonel Kane, of this regiment, was a brother of the noted Arctic explorer, Dr. Elisha Kane, and during this engagement was severely wounded.

The ground on either side of the position of the Confederate battery was covered with woods and dense undergrowth.

Stuarts work.

Stuart placed two of his regiments on either side of the Centreville Road, facing north. The 6th South Carolina and the 1st Kentucky were to the left, and the 11th Alabama and the 11th Virginia to the right of the road. The South Carolina and the Kentucky regiments, in moving to their assigned positions by different routes, came into collision and through mistake poured a destructive volley into eath other—a mistake that occurred with tragic frequency in the first battles of war.

When moving forward to attack the enemy, Stuart sent a few of his cavalrymen scurrying about the country to gather the wagons and hurry them towards Centreville. The teamsters needed no further incentive to action than the startling information that the enemy might swoop down upon them at any moment. The fun grew fast and furious. Wagons swept along the roads from every direction, the loads of hay rocking and swaying over the rough frozen ground while the air grew resonant with the vehement cries of the teamsters urging their horses to their utmost speed. Residents now living, who witnessed the event, aver that the driving done that day by the Confederate Jehus was a sight not to be forgotten.

While the teams were heading tumultuously for Centreville, the opposing legions on Drane Hill were becoming more hotly engaged.

The 9th Pennsylvania, as it came into position on the Federal right, was confronted by troops partly concealed by the underbrush [77] on their front and right. To avoid the fatal mistake of firing into friends, an injudicious member of the 9th called out, ‘Are you the ‘Bucktails’?’ ‘Yes, we are the ‘Bucktails’,’ came the ready response from the brush. Almost instantaneously with the response came a hot volley of musketry. The troops surmised to be ‘Bucktails’ by the Pennsylvanians were ‘bred in Old Kentucky,’ being the first Confederate regiment of that State. The confusion caused by this blunder was soon allayed and the 9th held its ground until the end of the fight.

Stuart, seeing his battery partially, if not wholly, disabled by the Federal fire, ordered the 6th South Carolina and the 10th Alabama to charge forward towards the brick house held by the ‘Bucktails.’ He hoped, by a vigorous charge upon their centre to dislodge the enemy from their strong position. These two brave regiments responded with alacrity, but the forward movement brought them into the open field where they became an easy target for the sharpshooters in the Thornton House, the battery on the hill, and the opposing lines of infantry.

This destructive fire was too much for the intrepid Southerners, so they retired to their original position near the disabled battery.

About this time a report reached Stuart that a large force was moving on the Washington pike to Ord's assistance. This report was correct, for General Reynolds, with the First Brigade, had started for Dranesville at the sound of the first firing.

Stuart, being outnumbered and hard pressed, and knowing that his wagons were now safely beyond the reach of the enemy, determined to withdraw. This he did without any further loss, his disabled gun being carried off by hand. The enemy made no serious attempt at pursuit, and Stuart went into camp for the night at old Fryingpan Church, about six or seven miles from the field of battle. It is true that Stuart left the field in possession of the enemy, but had he delayed his withdrawal until the arrival of Reynolds, he would have found himself confronted by at least 10,000 troops, and his situation would have been extremely hazardous. Ord and Reynolds, gathering their dead and wounded, returned to Camp Pierpont at night. On the morning of the 21st, Stuart, reinforced by the 9th Georgia and [78] the 8th Virginia, returned to Dranesville, but, finding the Federals gone, he gathered those of his wounded and dead that remained and returned to Centreville.

The same uncertainty that attaches to the statistics of other battles of the war confronts us when we attempt to sum up the numbers engaged and the killed and wounded at Dranesville.

Ord reported his loss as 7 killed, 61 wounded, and none missing; total, 68.

Stuart reported 43 killed, 143 wounded, 8 missing; total, 194.

The Federal forces must have numbered at least 5,000; the Confederates between 2,000 and 2,500. The engagement lasted about two hours. The colors of the Federal regiments here engaged were taken to Washington, and on each flag ‘Dranesville, December 20, 1861,’ was painted in golden letters.

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