Monday, April 25, 2011

The Fairfax Rifles Head to Alexandria

Before the Civil War, volunteer militias were common throughout both the North and South. William Dulany, who later served as a delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention, organized the Fairfax Rifle Rangers in Fairfax Court House on December 1, 1859.  Many such companies of Virginia Militia were formed in the aftermath of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in October of that year.  Dulany became captain of the Fairfax Rifles, which was assigned to the 60th Regiment (Fairfax County) of the Virginia Militia.  One of the earlier members of the Fairfax Rifles was James Jackson, who would achieve infamy across the North for gunning down Col. Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves in May 1861.

Mobilization of military forces in Virginia gained momentum in the days following the adoption of the Ordinance of Secession. Towards the end of April 1861, the Fairfax Rifles headed to Alexandria, an important port city not far down the Potomac River from Washington. Led by Lieutenant William A. Barnes, the Fairfax Rifles arrived on April 25.  They took up quarters on Prince Street, not far from the intersection with Fairfax Street.

Alexandria buzzed with martial activity. Soldiers from various local units, as well as militia companies from other parts of Northern Virginia, were stationed around town.  The Fairfax Rifles joined Major Montgomery Corse's command, which by the end of April consisted of several state militia companies, including the Mount Vernon Guard, the Alexandria Riflemen, the Old Dominion Rifles, the Alexandria Artillery, the Emmett Guards, the Loudoun Guard, and the Warren Rifles.  On April 27, Corse's units officially became the 6th Battalion of Virginia Volunteers.  The battalion was assigned to the overall command of  Lt. Col. Algernon S. Taylor, who led the state troops in Alexandria.  Taylor was the nephew of President and Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor.

General Montgomery Corse, who in the spring of 1861 was a major leading the 6th Battalion of Virginia Volunteers at Alexandria (courtesy of Wikipedia)
The Virginia militia leaders in Alexandria feared a possible Union invasion after adoption of the Ordinance of Secession.  They watched anxiously as the Union military presence in Washington grew.  The Fairfax Rifles, like other units, was assigned to guard the city streets and to keep an eye out for potential movements by Federal troops.  Life was not completely mundane.  The militia soldiers attracted the attention and admiration of the young women of Alexandria.  And at least one picket station was located in close proximity to a local brewery that kept beer on hand for the thirsty militiamen.

Later, in June 1861, Corse's battalion was organized into the 17th Regiment of Virginia Infantry. The Fairfax Rifles were designated as Company D, under Captain Dulany.  It is ironic that Dulany, who feared that secession would bring war to Fairfax's doorstep, was now actively playing a role in events that would ensure the very outcome he most feared.

Note on Sources

The following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Alexandria in the Civil War by James G. Barber (1988).

American Civil War Armies (5): Volunteer Militia by Philip Katcher & Ronald Volstad (1989).

"History of the Seventeenth Virginia Regiment, C.S.A," from the website of the Fairfax Rifles reenactment unit.

17th Virginia Infantry, from the Virginia Regimental History Series, by Lee A. Wallace, Jr. (1990).

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