Thursday, December 16, 2010

Friendly Fire Episodes at Dranesville

As students of the Civil War know, friendly fire-related incidents sometimes occurred during the heat and confusion of battle, often with tragic consequences.  One of the more infamous episodes involved the shooting of "Stonewall" Jackson by his own men during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863.  But battle histories are replete with other, lesser-known examples.  While researching the Battle of Dranesville, I recently came across a few tales related to friendly fire.
Battle flag of the 1st Kentucky (courtesy of Sand Hill Flag Co.)
As J.E.B. Stuart prepared to attack the Union force under General E.O.C. Ord which had entered Dranesville on December 20, 1861, he sent forward the 1st Kentucky and the 6th South Carolina to the left of the Centreville Road.  According to Stuart in his official report of the battle:
The thicket where the Sixth South Carolina and First Kentucky operated was so dense that it was impossible to see either [their] exact position or their progress in the fight, and I regret to say that the First Kentucky and the Sixth South Carolina mistook each other for the enemy, and a few casualties occurred in consequence. . . .
Colonel Conrad F. Jackson, commander of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves (courtesy of the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps Historical Society)

(Stuart's report does not mention the exact number of dead and wounded as a result of this friendly fire incident, but according to The Glories of War by Charles P. Poland, Jr., the 1st Kentucky killed five men of the 6th South Carolina.)  The 1st Kentucky, recovering from this unfortunate encounter, pressed forward into the fight.  Meanwhile, Ord had dispatched the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves south of the Leesburg and Alexandria Turnpike on the Union right.  Before long, Colonel Conrad F. Jackson heard movement in the underbrush and ordered the 9th Pennsylvania into position.  According to a letter to the Pittsburgh Gazette from an unknown soldier of Company A (Pittsburgh Rifles), 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, some men called out "Who are You?," to which the Confederate troops responded, "The 1st Kentucky Regiment."  Other Pennsylvanians heard something else.  As Colonel Jackson recounted:
One of the enemy called out, "Don't fire on us." One of my men imprudently asked, "Are you the Bucktails?" The answer was, "Yes, we are the Bucktails; don't fire."
The unknown soldier recalled that the Kentuckians also shouted "For God's sake don't fire we are your friends."  This deception strengthened the impression for some soldiers that the men in front of them were fellow Pennsylvanians from the Bucktail regiment.  Jackson soon heard from another officer that "the troops opposite were the Bucktails."  Concern over accidentally opening fire on Union soldiers overcame Jackson.  He wrote:
Determined to avoid falling into the fatal error of killing our own men, I at once used all my energy to prevent firing, nor did we fire until after we had received a volley from the enemy, as they proved to be. We received their first fire as Captain Galway was in the act of reporting that he had obtained a view of them, and assured me in the most emphatic manner they were rebels. The order to fire was then given and promptly obeyed, but I found there still existed a doubt on the part of the men as to the true character of the troops we were engaged with, which caused considerable confusion in the ranks, which was overcome to a great extent with some difficulty.
The anonymous soldier had a somewhat different recollection.  He wrote to the Pittsburgh Gazette that Colonel Jackson "rode in the rear of the line begging the men not to fire into the Buck Tails, though the shot was flying thick as hail and our boys were falling on our right and our left."  This soldier's account raises questions about whether in fact the 9th was under an intense attack before Jackson learned that the regiment opposite his men was the 1st Kentucky.  The unknown soldier also indicated that some soldiers may not have waited for the order to fire:
Yet, regardless of all orders, there was firing all along the line, and finally the Colonel could no longer be heard and all loaded and fired as fast as we could for half an hour.  
Jackson and his unknown soldier were in agreement about one thing.  As Jackson wrote in his report of the battle:
I feel perfectly convinced, had the men been assured at the onset that the troops before us were rebels, we might have driven them from their position before they could have fired on us, as we could hear them distinctly load their pieces.
The soldier from the Pittsburgh Rifles likewise believed that "Had we been commanded to fire immediately, we might have done terrible execution."  Regardless, even with the confusion at the outset of the encounter, the 9th Pennsylvania held its ground and drove back the 1st Kentucky.  But this story goes a long way to showing just how soldiers and commanding officers could be gripped by anxiety over friendly fire.  As the earlier encounter between the 1st Kentucky and the 6th Carolina shows, the 9th Pennsylvania had every reason to fear such a costly mistake.

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