Sunday, June 12, 2011

Battle of Vienna, June 17, 1861: An Overview

This upcoming Friday marks the 150th anniversary of the so-called "Battle of Vienna." This little-known encounter in Northern Virginia is now getting its fair share of attention, at least in the D.C. area.  The Town of Vienna will even be putting on a reenactment of the battle this Saturday, complete with a locomotive brought in from the Shenandoah Valley.  (More on the train a little later....)  There are some interesting angles to explore in connection with this early action in the Civil War, so I've decided to dedicate the entire week to the skirmish.
General Robert Schenck (courtesy of Library of Congress)
On June 17, 1861, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commander of the Union Department of Northeastern Virginia, ordered Brigadier General Robert Schenck to undertake a reconnaissance mission in the direction of Vienna.  Schenck selected the 1st Ohio, and set out with his troops on the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad.  At a wagon crossroads near Falls Church, he relieved the 69th New York with two companies.  He sent two other companies to patrol Falls Church, and dispatched an additional two companies to guard the railroad and bridge between the crossroads and Vienna.  With the remaining four companies of 271 men, Schenck proceeded slowly towards Vienna.  A locomotive pushed the train along the tracks.  Most of the soldiers sat on platform cars, while Schenck rode in a passenger car with Col. Alexander M. McCook, commander of the 1st Ohio.

Col. Maxcy Gregg (courtesy of Wikipedia)
The day before, Col. Maxcy Gregg, head of the 1st South Carolina, was ordered to conduct a reconnaissance towards the Potomac River.  He set out from camp near Fairfax Court House with about 575 soldiers and 70 cavalrymen.  At Frying Pan Church, Gregg met an additional 70 cavalry, as well as an artillery detachment of 34 men and two guns.  The force proceeded towards the Potomac, where on June 17 Gregg "went in person to the bank of the river to reconnoiter," but he "could see but few troops of the enemy, and no boats prepared for crossing the river." (Gregg Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 129.)   The Confederate troops began the long march back towards camp.  In Vienna, Gregg expected to see the enemy, who had recently sent an expedition to the area, but detecting no Federals, he ordered his men to proceed to Fairfax Court House.  At around 6 p.m., however, "a distant railroad whistle was heard." (Gregg Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 129.)  As Gregg wrote in his battle report:
I marched the troops back, placing the two 6-pounder guns on the hill commanding the bend of the railroad, immediately supported by Company B, First South Carolina Volunteers. . . . . The rest of the regiment . . . was formed on the crest of the hill to the right of the guns. The cavalry were drawn up still farther to the right. (Gregg Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 129.)
As the 1st Ohio turned the curve outside of Vienna, the Confederate battery opened fire with shot, shell, and grapeshot.  The first platform car was untouched, but the second and third cars received the deadliest fire.  The train encountered some mechanical difficulties, and the engineer could not pull the train out of range of the guns.  (By some accounts, the breaks had locked when the engineer slammed them at the outset of the attack.)  The soldiers, coming to the realization that they were sitting ducks, "left the cars, and retired to right and left of [the] train through the woods."  (Schenck Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p.126.)  Meanwhile, to Schenck's disgust and amazement, the engineer "instead of retiring slowly, as I ordered, detached his engine with one passenger car from the rest of the disabled train and abandoned us, running to Alexandria." (Schenck Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p.126.) Believing that his force was badly outnumbered by as many as 1,500 Confederates, Schenck threw skirmishers out along his flanks and retired towards Arlington.  Without the train, his men were forced to carry the wounded on litters or in blankets.
Fanciful sketch of the Battle of Vienna, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Gregg dispatched two companies to skirmish with the retiring Union soldiers, but seeing that they were slipping out of his grasp, he sent cavalrymen in pursuit.  As Gregg later recounted, "[f]rom the lateness of the hour, however, the nature of the ground, and the start which the enemy had, they could not be overtaken." (Gregg Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 129.)  He also may have been convinced that he was outnumbered by a larger Union force.  Under orders "to avoid any unnecessary engagement, and not to remain absent from my camp more than one night," Gregg marched his regiment back to Fairfax after burning the railroad cars that were abandoned in Vienna. (Gregg Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 129.)

A Unionist from Vienna eventually loaded six of the dead into his wagon and took them to Schenck's camp.  In all, Schenck reported eight dead and four wounded in the engagement.  The casualties came entirely from Companies G and H, which had been positioned on the second and third rail cars.

In the immediate aftermath of the skirmish, McDowell wanted to move in force upon Vienna.  As he wrote in his official report, "[h]ad the attack not been made, I would not suggest this advance at this time; but now that it has, I think it would not be well for us to seem even to withdraw."  (McDowell Report, OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 125.) General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, however, opposed the idea of sending more troops in the direction of the town.  He would soon recall Brigadier General Daniel Tyler from an advanced position at Falls Church, which Scott viewed as too exposed and vulnerable.

The news of the skirmish at Vienna spread across the North. The New York Times was particularly critical of the defeat, which followed closely on the heels of the Union loss at Big Bethel.  According to a June 20, 1861 article, a local man had flagged the train near Vienna and warned the 1st Ohio of an impending disaster, but Schenck did not halt the train or prepare his soldiers for an attack.  (Schenck makes no mention of this episode in his report.)  The Times also questioned the failure of the Union force to send scouts or skirmishers ahead of the train to ascertain any dangers.  As the Times wrote on June 19:
In the present case an entirely inadequate body of men was actually within the enemy's lines, in a railroad train, with no more careful exploration of the country than a traitorous engineer, or an accidental glance from a car-window, might furnish. . . .   Surely, the simplest knowledge of military matters must condemn so heedless a movement as to the last degree reckless and unscientific, and may fairly sit in judgment upon those who planned it. The entire policy of these detached and apparently purposeless expeditions is questionable. If they are understood to be what are technically known as reconnaissances in force, they should have force in the possession of flying-artillery, and dragoons. To enter upon doubtful territory, where the enemy may be in the greatest strength, without precaution, is simply foolhardiness.
Such reporting fed concerns about the preparedness of the Union volunteers camped around Washington.  As journalists dissected the action at Vienna, however, the Union high command was busy contemplating its next move.  

Note on Sources

The Battle at Bull Run by William C. Davis and The Glories of War: Small Battles and Early Heroes of 1861 by Charles P. Polland, Jr. contain fairly detailed accounts of the Battle of Vienna.


Anonymous said...

Great job...just posted this to the Fairfax Civil War Facebook page!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks! I am glad you liked it, and I appreciate you letting others know.

Walk Forrest Walk said...

I tip my hat to you Ron...Ditto's to the previous comment.GREAT JOB..After reading the account of Vienna, I thought I could smell gun power....Jim (Michigan)

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Jim. Glad you enjoyed the post.