Monday, November 8, 2010

The Grand Review at Bailey's Crossroads

Looking today at the commercial sprawl of Bailey's Crossroads in Northern Virginia, it is difficult to imagine the rural character of the landscape during the nineteenth century.  In November1861, Bailey's Crossroads was the site of the largest military review ever seen on North American soil up to that time.  Throughout the previous months, the area around Bailey's Crossroads lay in a virtual "no-man's land" between Confederate forces at Munson's Hill to the northwest and Union lines outside of Alexandria.  The area fell into Northern hands when the Confederates withdrew in late September 1861.

General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, had expended much effort after the defeat at Bull Run whipping his raw recruits into a fighting force.  A Grand Review would provide McClellan with an opportunity to showcase the results of his organizational prowess.  Early on the cold morning of November 20, 1861, troops from seven divisions of the Army around Washington began marching towards Bailey's Crossroads.  McClellan wanted a great display of force, but as the New York Times reported, he ensured that the "pickets on the outposts [were] considerably strengthened" while the divisions were away.

Around 20,000 to 30,000 spectators gathered to watch the review.   According to the Times:
As no passes were required it was free to everyone who could procure a conveyance, or who chose to walk, the distance being about eight miles by the route which they were obliged to take. The roads were guarded the entire distance, so that civilians without written permission could not diverge from the prescribed limits of travel. 
The scene made an impression on Sergeant Oren M. Stebbins of the famed 1st Pennsylvania Rifles, also known as the "Bucktails." In a November 24, 1861 letter to his local newspaper, he noted that spectators were "filling the trees, covering the house tops and barns, and swarming on every vacant spot, all anxious to behold the grandest military display, that ever was witnessed in America."

As the troops arrived in Bailey's Crossroads, they were organized into a semi-circle of four miles.  At the start of the ceremony, fifteen batteries fired a salute and then McClellan, along with President Lincoln, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, "all on horseback, rode rapidly along the line, meeting with continuous and enthusiastic cheers from the soldiers."  (New York Times, Nov. 21, 1861.)  As J.P. Sheibley of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves described the scene to his brother, McClellan, Lincoln, and the Cabinet, "were welcomed with loud huzza's from the soldiers, and bands playing 'Hail to the Chief'.  It was a sight that made the pulse beat quick."

"The Great Review at Bailey's Cross Roads, Virginia, on November 20, 1861 -- Sketched by Our Special Artist From the Top of a Barn," Harper's Weekly, December 7, 1861 (courtesy of
The dignitaries returned to the review stand, and at one-thirty in the afternoon, the seven divisions began to file past in a procession that lasted three hours.  General George A. McCall's Pennsylvania Reserves, led by the  "Bucktails," went first, followed by the divisions of Generals Samuel P. Heintzelman, William "Baldy" Smith, William B. Franklin, Louis Blenker, Fitz John Porter, and Irvin McDowell.  According to the Times, the force consisted of "a total of 76 regiments of infantry, 17 batteries and seven regiments of cavalry, perhaps in all about 70,000 men."  (Most accounts, including Harper's Weekly, reported 70,000; McClellan claimed 65,000 in a letter written that day, while the historical marker in Bailey's Crossroads notes 50,000.) After passing the review stand, the soldiers headed back to their camps around Washington.

Bailey's Crossroads, at the corner of Leesburg Pike and Columbia Pike (in 1861, the Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike and the Columbia Turnpike).  In 1837, Hachaliah Bailey from Westchester County, New York purchased land at this intersection and built his home "Moray" here.  Union officers and their families boarded at Moray during the Civil War.  Today, only Moray Lane remains.  The windmill to the left of the highway marker is all that is left of the rural landscape. (Thanks to my wife for snapping the picture.)
The reaction of officers present in the stands was described by Harper's Weekly in the December 7, 1861 edition:
The passage of this large army of volunteers elicited the strongest praise from the very formidable body of old army officers who sat in review. General Stunner, who now for the first time since his return from the Pacific witnessed an exhibition of the progress in drill of the volunteers, expressed much surprise that men coming from civil life should, in so short a period, have been able to compete in soldierly appearance with the veterans of the regular army.
McClellan also was very content with his Army's performance.  He wrote to his wife that night at half past eight:
The Grand Review went off splendidly. . . not a mistake was made, not a hitch.  I never saw so large a Review in Europe so well done -- I was completely satisfied & delighted beyond expression.
Unfortunately for McClellan, his skills on the battlefield did not match his skills as an organizer of military reviews. 


Seward House Museum said...

If anyone is interested in learning more about Seward, be sure to visit the Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY (in the Finger Lakes region).

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for the information about the house and museum. I will be sure to check it out when I get to the Finger Lakes, and I hope my readers will too.