Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Rebels Evacuate Alexandria for the First Time (Part 2)

As discussed in Monday's post, Lt. Col. Algernon Taylor ignored an order from his direct commander, Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cocke, and evacuated Alexandria with his force of Virginia volunteers on May 5, 1861.  Cocke ordered Taylor back to Alexandria from Springfield, Virginia.  He was on the verge of arresting Taylor for disobedience, but first sought permission from Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander-in-chief of Virginia forces.

Robert E. Lee, from an 1861 edition of Harper's Weekly (courtesy of
Lee was a bit more willing than Cocke to hear Taylor's excuses.  On May 8, Lee sent word to Cocke through Virginia Naval officer J.M. Brooke, acting aide-de-camp, that "[t]he general commanding directs that you will not arrest Colonel Taylor, but require from him an explanation."  A day later, Taylor wrote his detailed response to Cocke as to why he had abandoned Alexandria.

Taylor first attributed his retreat to "the inefficient condition of a large proportion of the troops and my exposed and indefensible position."  He explained that many of the soldiers under his command were poorly armed and equipped.  Two companies of "raw Irish recruits," for instance, carried only "the altered flint-lock muskets of 1818, and without cartridges or caps."  One of his cavalry companies had only a few Colt revolvers, but otherwise possessed "no arms or equipments of any kind."

Taylor also asserted that his men, many native to Alexandria, "were becoming almost useless from home influences." Their commander feared that they "were necessarily scattered over the city," and that "it would have been impossible to have assembled the command at any particular point in time to have defended itself with the slightest possibility of success, or even to have made anything but a disastrous and demoralizing retreat in the face of an enemy."

Last of all, and probably most importantly, Taylor believed that Alexandria faced an imminent attack.  He wrote to Cocke:
I was possessed of, apparently, such reliable information that the Government at Washington would occupy Alexandria on the 6th or 7th instant, and knowing that a large force was being concentrated at Fort Washington and that two steamers were anchored off Mound Vernon, I was induced to suppose that from that point an attempt would be made, in concert with a force from Washington City, to hem in my small and inefficient command, and thereby the services of good material be lost to my State and our cause.
As evidence of the planned Federal movement, Taylor enclosed a copy of an alleged order that he obtained secretly from a former War Department employee that "shows the intention of the Federal Government as to Alexandria."  (The order was lost by the time the OR were compiled.)

Cocke was far from pleased with Taylor's justification, however well-grounded it was. His subordinate had disobeyed a direct order to remain in Alexandria unless forced to retreat by "overwhelming and irresistible numbers." In doing so, he had left the city dangerously exposed to a Union advance. Taylor was relieved of command on May 10, and replaced by Col. George H. Terrett, a former U.S. Marine.  Curiously, Cocke did not forward Taylor's report to Lee until May 13, so it appears that the insubordination issue was settled outside the channel of official correspondence.

Note on Sources

The entire text of correspondence related to this story can be found in the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, pp. 23-27.

Additional informaiton is available in Alexandria in the Civil War by James G. Barber (1988) and 17th Virginia Infantry, from the Virginia Regimental History Series, by Lee A. Wallace, Jr. (1990).


Tim Kent said...

Great blog. If you'd like to read my blog on Philip St. George Cocke it is at


Ron said...

Thanks, Tim. And thanks for the link to the interesting post on your blog. I had read that Cocke committed suicide, but had not seen the entire story. A tragic end to a rather successful life.