Monday, December 6, 2010

The Action at Dranesville

Of all the skirmishes and minor battles around the Washington area during the Civil War, Dranesville has attracted its fair share of attention.  A quick search on Google reveals plenty of material about this engagement on December 20, 1861.  The Friday after Thanksgiving, my Dad and I set out to explore the area around Dranesville.  The battlefield is now marred by the suburban D.C. development, but a few historical markers recall the encounter, and Fairfax County has preserved an old tavern there.  

The hamlet of Dranesville sat just west of the crossroads of the Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike (today's VA Route 7/Leesburg Pike) and the Leesburg & Georgetown Turnpike (VA Route 193/Georgetown Pike).  In December 1861, Dranesville occupied "debatable ground" between the Union and Confederate lines in Northern Virginia, characterized by heightened tensions among local inhabitants.  The Union Army learned that enemy cavalry was operating in the region and threatening Union sympathizers.  Brigadier General George A. McCall, commander of the Pennsylvania Reserves, instructed Brigadier General E.O.C. Ord on the evening of December 19 to set out the next morning with his brigade to drive back Confederate pickets and collect forage from secessionist farmers.  Another brigade commander, Brigadier General John F. Reynolds, was instructed to move to Difficult Run, where he was to wait and provide support to Ord if necessary.  Early on the morning of the 20th, Ord left Camp Pierpont in Langley with his brigade of the 6th, 9th, 10th, and 12th Pennsylvania Reserves, along with the "Bucktail" regiment (13th Pennsylvania Reserves), four guns under Captain Hezekiah Easton of Battery A, 1st Pennsylvania Artillery, and two squadrons of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry.  All told, the force comprised about 5,000 men.

Brigadier General E.O.C. Ord (courtesy of Georgetown University Library)
The Confederates, meanwhile, were planning a similar foraging expedition in the area.  Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart was assigned to guard the wagons with around 1,600 infantry of the 1st Kentucky, 6th South Carolina, 10th Alabama, and 11th Virginia, as well as four guns of the Sumter Flying Artillery and 150 cavalry.  When Stuart learned of the approaching Federal brigade, he sent the wagons back towards the Confederate camps in Centreville and prepared to defend what he perceived as a threat to his recently collected supplies.
"The Battle of Dranesville -- Sketched by an Officer Who Was Present," Harper's Weekly, Jan.11, 1862 (courtesy of  This print depicts a view from the position of Easton's battery.  Ridge Road is to the left of the artillery.  The Thornton House, occupied by the Bucktails, is immediately to the front of the artillery, on the right.
As Ord arrived in the vicinity of Dranesville, Rebel pickets fled before his men.  Ord's soldiers moved west of the intersection of the two pikes.  Ord soon discovered that the Confederate force was advancing in his rear, and dispatched his artillery to high ground east of the intersection.  He then wheeled his regiments around and aligned them facing south, towards the Confederates, who were advancing on either side of Ridge Road (or Centreville Road, more or less today's Reston Avenue).  A hot fight ensued between the two armies, lasting around two hours.  The Union artillery, occupying a dominant position, proved particularly effective and wrecked havoc on the Confederate battery.  The Bucktails engaged the 6th South Carolina and 10th Alabama from an advantageous location in and around the Thornton House in the Union center. Off to the Union right, the 9th Pennsylvania battled the 1st Kentucky.  Finally, Stuart, who feared the arrival of Union reinforcements, withdrew from the field and fell back to Frying Pan Church, about half a dozen miles distant.  Lucky that Stuart left, as Reynolds, and another brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves under Brigadier General George G. Meade, were on the way  after learning of the battle that had erupted at Dranesville.  The Union had lost about 68 killed and wounded, and the Confederates suffered 194 casualties.  McCall, worried that the Rebels might cut off Ord's men from Union lines during the night, ordered Ord to march his brigade back to Camp Pierpont.  Stuart returned the next day to collect the wounded and bury the dead.
Modern view of the intersection of Leesburg Pike and the Georgetown Pike at Dranesville.  Ord aligned his forces along the Leesburg Pike, facing south.  The 9th and 12th Pennsylvania were positioned just beyond the intersection, where the ground slopes down.  Easton's artillery was placed to the right of the intersection on elevated land (not visible here).

State historical marker on the "Action at Dranesville," along Leesburg Pike heading west towards the Dranesville intersection of VA Routes 7 & 193. More information can be found on the Historical Marker Database.  

Dranesville Tavern (c. 1824), located west of the Dranesville intersection.  This historic site is owned by Fairfax County, which restored the tavern to its 1850 appearance.  The tavern was moved about 125 feet southwest of its original location.  During the time of the Civil War, the tavern was considered "one of the best roadside inns in America," according to the Virginia Gazette.  The tavern's role in the Battle of Dranesville is not known.  However, a Civil War Trails marker in front of the tavern commemorates the action at Dranesville.
Dranesville was hailed in Northern papers as a major victory.  After the ignominious defeats at First Bull Run and Ball's Bluff, the North was hungry for a win over the Confederates.  Dranesville gave Northerners the opportunity to celebrate.  Secretary of War Simon Cameron, himself a Pennsylvanian, wrote to General McCall that "[i]t is one of the bright spots that give assurance of the success of coming events, and its effect must be to inspire confidence in the belief that hereafter as heretofore, the cause of our country will triumph."  Confederate papers largely portrayed the engagement as a loss.  The Richmond Examiner, for instance, observed that "[t]he impression is, that we have suffered no inconsiderable disaster."  Larger-scale, more brutal battles would follow, and for all the attention Dranesville got in the winter of 1861, it would soon become, as historian Charles Poland has said, "a virtually forgotten sideshow of the war."

A Note on Sources:

I found several sources useful in learning more about the Battle of Dranesville.

The Glories of War: Small Battles and Early Heroes of 1861, by local historian Charles P. Poland, Jr. has a detailed chapter on the battle.

The Official Records, Series I, Volume V contains official reports of the battle by Union commanders and Confederate General Stuart.

"The Battle of Dranesville, Va." by William S. Hammond in the Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXV, Richmond, Jan.-Dec. 1907 (available here) provides a concise account of the engagement.

Craig Swain, over at To the Sound of the Guns, does a great job of describing troop positions in relation to the current lay of the land in Dranesville.


Dick Stanley said...

D.H. Hill, commanding the Rebs around Leesburg at the time of the Dranesville fight, was so annoyed by Stuart's defeat that he chastised him in a letter:

“From what I have been able to learn,” Hill wrote, according to historian Hal Bridges in Lee’s Maverick General: Daniel Harvey Hill, “the enemy knew your strength and destination before you started…. I would therefore respectfully suggest that when you start again, you should disguise your strength and give out a different locality from that actually taken.”

Ron said...

Thanks for the information and the link.

I read that one of the soldiers with Evans at Leesburg said that Stuart was caught "napping." I guess D.H. Hill's sentiments were held by many others in the Confederate ranks.

The Finkelman Bunch said...

You should have let me know you were coming! This is all in my backyard!

Ron said...

Wish I would have realized that! Didn't you say that there is an old house near your place where Stonewall himself stayed?