Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Day in the Life of the War: The 17th Virginia Skirmishes with Soldiers from New Jersey

This summer I have written a few posts tracing the movements of the 17th Virginia across Northern Virginia after the First Battle of Manassas. The regiment, part of General James Longstreet's brigade, marched from Centreville to Fairfax Court House, where the soldiers established Camp Harrison in early August 1861. The men of the 17th performed occasional picket duty along Longstreet's advanced line, which by the end of August extended to Falls Church and Mason's and Munson's Hills. The 17th Virginia got caught up in the endless series of skirmishing that took place along this part of the line, including an encounter with 3rd New Jersey on August 31. Although lasting less than ten minutes, this skirmish has received its fair share of attention, both in the OR and in Confederate memoirs.

Col. George W. Taylor, commander of the 3rd New Jersey (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Taylor would later be promoted to brigadier general and lead the First New Jersey Brigade during the Second Manassas Campaign.  He was mortally wounded on August 27, 1862 as he defended a section of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.
Early in the morning of August 31, Col. George W. Taylor of the 3rd New Jersey set off with about 40 men to cut off the Confederate pickets who had been "extremely annoying to our outposts on the Little River turnpike and on the road leading from thence to Chestnut [Mason's] Hill." (OR, 1:5:1, 121.)* Taylor's men were forced to "cross a fence and a narrow cornfield." (OR, 1:5:1, 121.) A company of the 17th Virginia, however, was prepared and waiting. As Taylor reported to his commander, Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny:
While in the corn we were suddenly opened upon by a rapid and sharp fire, which our men, whenever they got sight of the enemy, returned with much spirit. Scarce two minutes elapsed when I found 3 men close to me had been shot down. The enemy being mostly hid, I deemed it prudent to order my men to fall back to the woods, distant about 30 yards, which I did. At the same time I ordered enough to remain with me to carry off the wounded, but they did not hear or heed my order except two. With these we got all off, as I supposed (the corn being thick), but Corporal Hand, Company I, who, when I turned him over, appeared to be dying. I took his musket, also the musket of one of the wounded, and returned to the woods to rally the men. I regret to say that none of them could be found, nor did I meet them until I reached the blacksmith-shop, three-quarters of a mile distant. (OR, 1:5:1, 121-22.)
Taylor was determined to retrieve his missing men from the cornfield. He quickly reinforced the part of his command under Capt. Leonard Regur with twenty-five soldiers from the picket line and sent the men to gather whatever dead and wounded they could find. Approaching the scene of the recent skirmish, Regur worried that the Confederate force had grown larger and turned his men around rather than enter the cornfield. In his report to Kearny, Taylor defended Regur's decision as "justified." (OR, 1:5:1, 122.)

The sentiment in the Confederate camp was one of victory.  Private Edgar Warfield of the 17th Virginia remembered the skirmish as a "brisk fight."  (Warfield, 61.)  He noted that the 3rd New Jersey was repulsed "with some little loss" to the Union side.  (Warfield, 61.)  In the meantime, General Jubal Early had arrived in the area with the 5th North Carolina and 24th Virginia to relieve the 17th Virginia.**  Early dubbed the the skirmish "a very sharp fight" in which a company of the 17th Virginia had "repulsed the enemy and inflicted a severe punishment on him."  (Early, 48.)

General Kearny, the Union brigade commander, apparently had a hard time just leaving the soldiers who had fallen near Mason's Hill.  Some time after the skirmish ended and Early's pickets had taken the place of the 17th Virginia, Early was told that "a flag of truce had appeared at the outside picket, where the fight had taken place in the early morning." Early rode to a home near the site of the skirmish.  As he recalled:
I . . . had the person bearing the flag brought to me blindfolded. He proved to be a Dr. Coxe, surgeon of the New Jersey regiment, a detachment of which had been engaged in the above named affair. He stated that he came on the part of Colonel Tyler [sic] of the 3rd New Jersey to get the bodies of several men who were missing, and that he was informed that General Kearney [sic], who commanded on that part of the line, had directed Colonel Tyler [sic] to send the party with the flag.  (Early, 49.)***
Early was at first unsure of what to do.  He informed the doctor "of the irregularity of the proceeding."  (Early, 49.)  However, "after some conversation in which I endeavored to leave him under the impression that we had a large force in the vicinity, I gave him permission to carry off the dead bodies, two of which he had picked up outside of my picket, and two others having been brought in to the picket before his arrival."  (Early, 49.)****  The burial party then arrived and retrieved the Union soldiers who had died in the morning's skirmish. 

This story reminded me of how small events in a big war can still leave a very lasting impression on participants. Of all the skirmishes Early and Warfield experienced in one way or another, they never seem to have forgotten the brief firefight around Mason's Hill and the efforts that the Union Army made to ensure that the 3rd New Jersey's dead received a proper burial. It is these seemingly inconsequential actions that marked time 150 years ago this month in Northern Virginia.


*The OR records the skirmish as taking place "at Munson's Hill, on Little River Turnpike, Va."  However, Munson's Hill was located next to the Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike, not the Little River Turnpike.  Mason's Hill sat astride the Columbia Turnpike, which intersected with the Little River Turnpike farther to the south.  Mason's Hill was also known as "Chestnut Hill."  Given the description of the roads in Taylor's report, and his use of the name "Chestnut Hill," it appears that the OR misnamed the skirmish.  Confederate sources cited in this post confirm the location of the action as near Mason's Hill.

**Early stated that his regiments arrived "before light on the morning of the 31st of August," while Warfield remembered that the 17th Virginia was relieved by the two regiments  "[d]uring the night of August 31."  (Early, 48; Warfield, 61.)  Perhaps this discrepancy is due to a lapse in time before Early's men actually moved into position to relieve the 17th.  Alternatively, Warfield may have remembered the early morning darkness of the 31st as the night.

*** Warfield also recalled that the 3rd New Jersey "sent over a flag of truce for the purpose of getting their dead."  (Warfield, 61.) 

****The OR states that the nominal list of Union casualties "shows 2 killed and 3 wounded."  (OR, 1:5:1, 122.)


Aside from the OR, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Jubal Anderson Early & R.H. Early (ed.), Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (1912); Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield, 17th Virginia Infantry (1996 ed.).


Steven said...

Thanks Ron. Another great post. The action at Munson's and Mason's Hills certainly generated a lot of attention across the river in Washington as reported in the Washington National Republican at the time. http://www.facebook.com/notes/civil-war-washington-dc/confederates-still-occupy-munsons-hill-fairfax-county-150-years-ago/165640823515019

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Steven. Interesting article from the Washington paper at the time. It seems like everyone was on edge around here! Thanks for passing along the link.

Unknown said...

When the New Jersey Brigade entered the abandoned Confederate stronghold in Centreville in March 1862 they found papers regarding Dr. Cox's questioning by Gen. Early. He got thrown into the Old Capitol Prison, though he had already become quite unpopular in the regiment by that point.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Michael--That is fascinating. Thanks for sharing the story. Why was he placed in Old Capitol?