Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Forgotten War: Fighting Between the Lines Around Bailey's Crossroads

Earlier this week, I discussed the Confederate capture of Munson's Hill around Bailey's Crossroads in Northern Virginia.  Standing in the Bailey's Crossroads area today, it is difficult to imagine the constant firefighting that erupted here following the Confederate advance.  Nothing remains of the rural landscape, except for an old, forgotten windmill at the intersection of Columbia Pike and VA-7.  And the ground where soldiers marched and died is now occupied by big box stores and apartment buildings.  Only a lone marker recalls the fighting that took place here.

By the end of August 1861, Longstreet's advanced elements at Munson's Hill were dug in only a few miles from the Union position around Hunter's Chapel (now the intersection of Columbia Pike and S. Glebe Rd.). Both sides threw out pickets well beyond the main line, which led to numerous encounters. General Jubal Early recalled that "[t]he pickets were constantly skirmishing with those of the enemy." (Early, 48-49.) Longstreet, still struck by the endless series of skirmishes many years later, wrote in his memoirs that "[w]e had frequent little brushes with parties pushed out to reconnoitre." (Longstreet, 59.)

"Munson's Hill, the Advance Post of the Rebel Army on the Potomac," Harper's Weekly, Oct. 5, 1861 (courtesy of  The soldiers in the foreground appear to be Union scouts or pickets.  The Confederate flag atop the earthworks on Munson's Hill is visible in the background.  This engraving was published after the Confederates had abandoned their advanced positions in Northern Virginia.
In the days that followed Longstreet's occupation of  the high ground near Falls Church and Bailey's Crossroads, the small-scale engagements between the two side became particularly heated. The Union Army began to probe the Confederate picket line almost immediately.  Longstreet's aide, Tom Goree, soon wrote to his uncle and sister that "[n]ot a day passes without several skirmishes." (Goree, 40.)

"Bailey's Cross Roads, Advanced Post of the United States Army, Opposite Munson's Hill," Harper's Weekly, Oct. 5, 1861 (courtesy of
Five straight days of action unfolded for the 2nd Michigan on August 28, 1861, when Brig. Gen. Israel Richardson sent Capt. Louis Dillman with 250 men to Bailey's Crossroads to "occupy and hold the same against the encroachments of the enemy's forces in that vicinity."* (Report of Capt. Dillman, OR, 1:5:1, 120.) Arriving at the crossroads from Hunter's Chapel at 11 a.m., Capt. Dillman threw out his pickets. The Confederates quickly opened fire on the soldiers at the crossroads. Skirmishing lasted all day and into the night, only stopping at around 10 p.m.

The next morning, Longstreet's soldiers greeted the Michigan boys with more gunfire.  The Union soldiers were slow to respond, and the Confederates sent a party of around 80 men to turn Dillman's right flank and cut him off from the main body of his regiment.  The Union pickets retreated, but Captain William Humphrey arrived with 40 men and drove the Confederate forces back.  The skirmishing lasted three more days and gradually decreased in intensity.  Casualties for the 2nd Michigan were light.  Dillman reported only one Union soldier as mortally wounded.**

While stationed at Bailey's Crossroads, a couple men of the 2nd Michigan had an opportunity to scout the Confederate position.  As Dillman told Richardson:
Two privates of Company D-J. Austin and P. F. Walworth-straying from camp, passed through the enemy's lines and up to within some forty rods of the rear of their earthwork on Munson's Hill. Seeing two rebels near, they watched their chance, each picked his man, fired, and brought him to the ground. They returned safely to camp. They report seeing about 500 men around the works. There were no tents in sight, but some twelve or fifteen wagons and two pieces of artillery were lying on the back of the hill.  They also report seeing a large number of field officers busy looking over their maps and charts. (OR, 1:5:1, 120.)
The 3rd Michigan was also engaged at Bailey's Crossroads for part of the same time period.  On August 30, Maj. Stephen Champlin of the 3rd Michigan spotted two companies of Confederates marching from Munson's Hill towards the Union picket line to the right of Bailey's Crossroads.  About 100 Confederates hit the Federal pickets, who fell back towards the cover of Dillman's command at the crossroads and a reserve force stationed halfway between Arlington Mill and Bailey's Crossroads along the Columbia Turnpike.***  Champlin took action to reverse the course of the skirmish, using both Dillman's command and soldiers from the 3rd Michigan.  As he reported to Richardson after the battle:
I directed Captain Dillman to march one company of his men on the table-land to his right to a point opposite the enemy in the woods and deploy them as skirmishers, advance them across the road, and engage the enemy on their flank, while I brought up and engaged the enemy's front with the reserve stationed half way to the mill. . . and also with a portion of Capt. [S.A.] Judd's command, stationed near Arlington Mill. The order was executed, and the enemy retreated before the skirmishers, and would not and did not wait an engagement. Our pickets were re-established, and the forces of both sides are again in the same position they respectively occupied this morning. (OR, 1:5:1, 119.)
All told, no Union soldiers were killed, and only one or two were slightly wounded.  Champlain saw the Confederates carrying away three men, who were either dead or wounded.

Today these skirmishes are for the most part forgotten sideshows of the Civil War.  But at the time, all eyes were fixed on Bailey's Crossroads.  As the New York Times reported on August 29, 1861,  "[t]he Washington Star has several rumors of engagements near Bailey's Cross-roads, and from other sources general rumors are current of skirmishes having taken place. There appears, however, to be nothing reliable."  The next day, the Times told readers that "[t]he reported engagements at Bailey's Cross Roads. . . appear, upon investigation, to have been simply affairs of pickets, with little if any bloodshed."  Nevertheless, rumors and speculation still abounded in the anxious capital city.  The paper reported that "[t]he movement is. . . regarded in some quarters as indicative of an immediate advance of our forces. . . ."   Union commander George McClellan, however, was still far from undertaking a major offensive against the Rebels forces in Virginia.


*Captain Dillman's report to Col. Richardson in the OR indicates that he left Hunter's Chapel on "Thursday, August 28."  However, in 1861, the 28th fell on a Wednesday, so either Dillman got the day of the week, or the date, wrong.  The Atlas to Accompany the Official Records indicates that the 2nd Michigan was in position around Bailey's Crossroads starting on August 28.  (See plate 5.)

A dispatch by a New York Times correspondent dated August 29, 1861 reports that "our picket forces advanced to Bailey's Cross-roads yesterday [August 28], and drove those of the Secessionists a mile and a half beyond, where, it is said the latter have taken possession of a commanding eminence, and are throwing up intrenchments [sic]. There was much firing during the day, but without fatal results."  However, no mention is made of the units engaged on the 28th.  A special dispatch published in the New York Times on August 29, 1861, indicates that an intense, all-day skirmish took place in Bailey's Crossroads involving the 5th Maine, the 37th and 38th New York, and "a New-Jersey regiment." The 2nd Michigan is not mentioned. 

**Owing to the lack of clarity in Dillman's report, his estimates of Confederate losses are a bit confusing.  On one day of fighting, he reported  "6 or 8 killed and wounded," and then noted that the enemy carried off  "some twelve men killed and wounded."  It is uncertain whether the sets of numbers should be added together, or whether the six or eight is to be counted among the twelve.  On another day of fighting, he noted that the Confederates "were seen to carry a number off the field."

***This action appears to be part of the same Confederate flanking movement described in Dillman's report to Richardson and discussed earlier in the post.


Aside from the OR and New York Times articles cited above, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Thomas J. Goree (1995); Jubal Anderson Early & R.H. Early (ed.), Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (1912); Bradley E. Gernand, A Virginia Village Goes to War: Falls Church During the Civil War (2002); James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox (1896); Charles P. Poland, Jr., The Glories of War: Small Battles and Early Heroes of 1861 (2004).

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