Monday, August 8, 2011

The 17th Virginia in Fairfax and Falls Church, August 1861

As I wrote in my last post, the 17th Virginia arrived in Fairfax Court House on August 10, 1861 during heavy rains.  According to Private Edgar Warfield of Company H, that first night "the camp ground was completely soaked."  (Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield, 17th Virginia Infantry, p. 58 (1996).)  Warfield soon became sick, but he was not alone.  In just over a week's time, Thomas Goree of General Longstreet's staff wrote to his mother:
It is truly to be regretted that we have now so much sickness in our army.  The cause no doubt is owing to the damp rainy weather we are now having and have had since the battle of Manassas.  It has been raining and is raining now, nearly all the time.  And it makes those who have recovered from the measles relapse into a kind of typhoid fever.  Many deaths occur daily from this horrible disease. (in Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Thomas J. Goree, p. 34 (1995).)    
Goree reported that Longstreet's brigade, including the 17th Virginia, was "comparatively healthy," with about 400 to 500 on the sick list, "and some of them seriously ill." However, the enemy was "suffering as much, or more, from sickness, than we are."

A few days after arriving in Fairfax, Warfield's company was sent about ten miles forward to the village of Falls Church.  Here, the soldiers performed picket duty in close proximity to the Union lines.  Warfield remembered that "we were very much amused in the morning listening to the roll call of the company of the enemy in front of us as it was called off by the sergeant." (Warfield, p. 59.)

Taylor's Tavern, Falls Church, VA, during the Civil War (courtesy of Library of Congress).  The tavern, built in the 1850s, was located along the Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike (VA-7), just to the west of today's Seven Corners.   Before First Manassas, the area around Falls Church was under Union control.  On June 24-25, 1861, Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe made the first aerial reconnaissances in U.S. military history from a balloon floating above Taylor's Tavern (see historic marker here).
Duty along the advanced picket line proved a little more interesting than camp life in Fairfax.  Not long after arriving in Falls Church, a handful of men from Company H, accompanied by a scout from Texas known simply as "Fort," beat back a handful of Federal pickets around Taylor's Tavern to the east of the village.  Goree recounted to his mother on August 19 that Confederate pickets at Falls Church "have a skirmish with the picket of the enemy nearly every day."  (in Cutrer, p. 35.)  Warfield remarked that "[w]e felt it almost our bounded duty to have a little fight every day at the Peach Orchard on Munson's Hill" just outside Falls Church.  (Warfield, pp. 59-60.)  Goree also mentioned a "very fine peach orchard just beyond Falls Church over which the two pickets fight nearly every day." (in Cutrer, p. 35.)

Goree headed to that peach orchard one day looking for fruit and encountered a couple of Union soldiers.  Goree ordered them to halt, but seeing that he was without a musket, the two men took off for the Union lines.  The staff officer, who was alone, felt that the two well-armed enemy soldiers "could have shot me with all ease had they not been so cowardly."  (in Cuter, p. 35.)

The men of the 17th spent their days back in Fairfax "performing ordinary camp duties" and dealing with the monotony and hardship of army life.  (Warfield, p. 59.)  As the days passed during the dreary month of August,  Goree told his mother that the men were "becoming very impatient to move forward." (in Cutrer, p. 35.)  He added, with a bit of exaggeration, that the soldiers were "fearful that if we delay too long, we will not be able to quarter this winter in Philadelphia."  (in Cutrer, p. 35.)  Unfortunately for the anxious soldiers in the Confederate Army at Fairfax and Falls Church, swift action was not the name of the game.

Other sources consulted:
Bradley E. Gernand, A Virginia Village Goes to War: Falls Church During the Civil War (2002); Lee A. Wallace, Jr., 17th Virginia Infantry, from the Virginia Regimental History Series (1990); Jeffry D. Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Solider (1994).

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