Monday, July 18, 2011

The 17th Virginia at Blackburn's Ford

As many of you, I am looking forward to this week's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of First Manassas.  I plan to attend several events later in the week, including the commemoration ceremony at Manassas National Battlefield Park on Thursday and the large-scale reenactment on Saturday.  I also hope to visit many of the Manassas-related sites around Prince William County.  I will be taking plenty of pictures and will be sure to report back when the dust settles. 

In the meantime, I would like to take a look at an action that preceded the big show by a few days.  The Battle of Blackburn's Ford occurred 150 years ago today, when Union troops under Col. Israel Richardson clashed along Bull Run with Confederate forces under Brig. Gen. James Longstreet and Col. Jubal Early.  Many authors, including Ethan Rafuse and William Davis, have covered this action in detail as part of their larger studies on the First Manassas Campaign, and I don't plan to discuss the intricacies of the battle here.  However, I'd like to examine a few connections that Blackburn's Ford has to other aspects of Northern Virginia's Civil War history that should be familiar to many readers.

The 17th Virginia Infantry, comprised of volunteers from Alexandria, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William and Warren Counties, was one of the Confederate regiments engaged at Blackburn's Ford.  The 17th Virginia was officially created on June 10, 1861 out of volunteer militia companies from Northern Virginia belonging to what was then called the "Alexandria Battalion."  In April and May 1861, most of these men were stationed at Alexandria and were forced to evacuate the city during the Federal invasion at the end of May.  The Fairfax Rifles became Company D under the command of Captain William Dulany, who had served as Fairfax's delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention.  The Warrenton Rifles were assigned to the regiment as Company K.  This unit was originally under Captain John Q. Marr, the Fauquier delegate to the Virginia Convention, who was killed during a skirmish at Fairfax Court House on June 1.  Montgomery Corse, who once led the Alexandria Battalion, became colonel of the regiment, and George William Brent, who represented Alexandria at the Virginia Convention, served as major.

The 17th Virginia was assigned in mid-June to Col. George Terrett's brigade of the Confederate Army of the Potomac.  Longstreet replaced Terrett at the start of July.  Within a few weeks, the 17th Virginia would face its first test in battle.

General James Longstreet, brigade commander of the 17th Virginia (courtesy of Wikipedia)
On July 18, 1861, a Union division under Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler entered Centreville and discovered that the Confederates had abandoned their defensive position there.  Tyler pushed Col. Richardson's brigade forward to reconnoiter along Bull Run.  Around midday, Federal artillery shells began to fall on Longstreet's men at Blackburn's Ford.  After thirty minutes of artillery fire, Tyler ordered Richardson's infantry to engage the Confederates at the ford, and companies of the 17th Virginia, along with other units, were rapidly thrown into the fray to counter the Federal attack.

Wartime drawing of Blackburn's Ford (courtesy of Library of Virginia)
After beating back soldiers from Massachusetts and New York, Longstreet directed some of his men in the front line to advance across the stream.  According to Corse,  "Company A, Captain [Morton] Marye, was . . . ordered to cross the run and deploy as skirmishers on the opposite bank.  Company C, Captain [George] Head, and Company F, Captain [George] Hamilton, were subsequently ordered to cross also and sustain this movement." (OR, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, pp. 33-34.)  As Longstreet wrote in his official report, "[a] few small parties, under command of Captain Marye, Seventeenth Regiment Virginia Volunteers, who behaved with great gallantry, met parties of the enemy on the other side of the stream with the bayonet, and drove them back."  (OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 462.)  Longstreet, however, believed that his men were likely shaken after taking accidental fire in the rear from Jubal Early's troops, who had been brought up in support of his brigade.  Unsure of whether his advanced elements could press the attack, Longstreet finally recalled the 1st and 17th Virginia from the opposite bank.  The 17th Virginia brought back seven prisoners along with their wounded.  Tyler, meanwhile, ordered a withdrawal of his forces from the field.  As Richardson's men retired, artillery dueling between the two sides ensued until about 4 p.m.

Overall, losses were rather modest compared to later battles in the Civil War.  Longstreet reported 63 killed or wounded, while Richardson recorded 83 killed, wounded, or missing.  Corse described the 17th Virginia's casualties in his report on the battle:
I regret to add that Captains Dulany and [Stephen] Presstman were severely wounded whilst at the head of their companies. Captain [Benjamin] Shackelford, commanding Company K, and Lieutenant [Charles] Javins, of Company E, were slightly wounded. Private Thomas R. Sangster, Company A, was killed, and four privates severely and six slightly wounded. (OR, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p. 34.)
Due to the serious nature of his injuries, Dulany never returned to active service with the 17th Virginia following the battle.  He left the regiment in March 1862, and served as a Judge Advocate for the Marines and Navy.  Dulany tried unsuccessfully to obtain quartermaster or commissary positions in the Confederate Army.  Apparently recovered from his wounds by April 1863, he asked to receive a commission to raise a cavalry company and ride "with Capt. Mosby on our lines in Fauquier, Prince Wm., Fairfax & Loudoun."  (Letter to Sec. of War James Seddon, April 16, 1863.)  Instead of returning to military service, however, Dulany ended up serving the remainder of the war as a member of the Virginia State Senate.

Officers of the 17th Virginia won the praises of their superiors for their performance at Blackburn's Ford.  Longstreet noted that several officers in his brigade, including Corse, Lt. Col. William Munford, and Brent from the 17th Virginia, "displayed more coolness and energy than is usual amongst veterans of the old service."  (OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 463.)  He was "particularly indebted to Lieutenant-Colonel Munford and Major Brent, who having a spare moment and seeing my great need of staff officers at a particular juncture, offered their assistance." (OR, Series 1, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 463.)  Corse also singled out Munford and Brent, among other officers, for their "gallant conduct" where "the fire was hottest." (OR, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p. 34.)

Soldiers of the 17th Virginia had finally experienced combat, but the remainder of the Manassas Campaign was a bit anticlimactic for the regiment.  The 17th remained around Blackburn's Ford, and engaged only in light skirmishing on July 21, the day of the Battle of First Manassas.  Longstreets's brigade joined in the pursuit of the retreating Federals, but much to Longstreet's consternation, his men were ordered to stop, and then return to their position along Bull Run.  The 17th Virginia may have largely missed First Manassas, but would see much more action over the next four years.

Note on Sources

The following books contain thorough accounts of the Battle of Blackburn's Ford:

William C. Davis, Battle at Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War (1977.) and Ethan S. Rafuse, A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas (2002).

For more information about the 17th Virginia, see Lee A. Wallace, Jr., 17th Virginia Infantry, Virginia Regimental History Series (1990).

The service record of William Dulany can be found in the Civil War Soldier Service Records collection on


Bill Ulle said...

Enjoyed reading this post of the Battle of Blackburn's Ford. It is the most detailed account that I have found. My ggg grandfather, Pvt. George H. Lyles was shot in the foot during that battle. His shoe that still has the cannister shot lodged in it's soul is on display at the Manassas Battle Field Museum. He was born, raised and died in Alexandria in 1900. He was a shoe maker and most likely made that shoe.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Bill. I really enjoyed researching and writing this post. Relatively little attention is paid to Blackburn's Ford, given that it came right before the first major land battle of the war. What a wonderful family connection. Next time I get to the museum, I will look for the shoe!

Denise Williams Habib said...

I have just discovered your post while researching my third great grandfather, Abel Davis Warfield. He was a member of the 17th Virginia, Company A and was one of the 6 privates of that company "slightly wounded" at Blackburn's Ford. This is a nice, concise account for the non-military historian. Thank you!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for writing, and glad you liked the post. Is your 3rd Great Grandfather related to the Warfield who wrote the famous memoir of his time with the 17th VA?

Richard Bowers said...

My great grandfather, William H. Fowle, Co H, 17th VA was at Blackburns Ford, advanced in a skirmish line across the Ford. I have letters to him after the war from Col. Herbert, Gen. Corse and Gen. Lee, attesting to his gallantry in service and efficiency as an officer. He was wounded at seven pines and later at Drewry's bluff.

Ron Baumgarten said...


Thanks for sharing. What a great family history.


dclocal said...

No, we are not related, but my family probably knew him.