Thursday, August 4, 2011

Longstreet and the 17th Virginia Advance to Centreville and Fairfax

This spring and summer I have written a number of posts about the17th Virginia Infantry during the early months of the Civil War.  This regiment was composed of men from Fairfax and other areas of Northern Virginia that are familiar to me and many readers of this blog.  I felt that the 17th offered a good way to tell the story of locals who were called to defend the very region where they lived and worked before the war arrived on their doorstep.  Over the next few weeks and months, I will occasionally explore life in the 17th Virginia during the period of relative calm between July 1861 to March 1862.  This narrative will fit nicely with my previous posts about the Union regiments that were quartered around present-day McLean at the same time.

Shortly after the Confederate victory at the Battle of First Manassas, General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered General James Longstreet to advance his brigade to Centreville from its position along Bull Run.  Longstreet's brigade, consisting of the 17th Virginia, as well as the 1st Virginia, 11th Virginia, and 5th North Carolina, established camp near the town.  In a reorganization of the Confederate Army of the Potomac on July 25, Beauregard reassigned the 5th North Carolina to another brigade and sent the 7th Virginia to join the 17th Virginia and the other regiments of Longstreet's brigade.

Longstreet's aide-de-camp, Thomas Goree, seemed pleased with the new surroundings.  He wrote his mother in an August 8 letter that "Centreville is a very high, healthy place, with a plenty of good water. I believe that I never before saw a place so well supplied with good springs."  (in Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Thomas J. Goree, p. 32 (1995).)    Longstreet, however, may have disputed Goree's description of Centreville as "healthy"-- he spent the last week of July recovering from illness that kept him confined to headquarters.

Centreville during the war.  This photograph was taken in the spring of 1862, after the Confederates had moved out (courtesy of N.Y. Public Library Digital Gallery).

The 17th and the rest of Longstreet's men spent the days in Centreville drilling.  Goree felt that Longstreet "has about the best Brigade in the service."  The young staff officer told his mother that it was "truly a splendid looking sight to see our brigade out in the evening on drill with our splendid band of music."  The drills frequently "attract[ed] a large crowd of spectators."  Around August 9, the brigade even took part in a grand review for Prince Jerome Napoleon, a cousin of French Emperor Napoleon III, who had passed through the Union lines at Alexandria.  The boys from Fairfax and other rural counties in Northern Virginia surely never could have imagined that one day they would be parading for European royalty on the fields near Centreville. 

The encampment at Centreville was short lived.  On August 10, acting on orders from Beauregard, Longstreet took his brigade to Fairfax Court House, farther to the east.  This movement was part of a general advance that Beauregard ordered "to prevent any coup de main from [Union Gen. George] McClellan."  (Beauregard to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, Aug. 11, 1861, Manassas, VA, in Alfred Roman, The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 1861-1865, p. 473 (1884).)  The general believed that from his new positions, "we could at any time concentrate our forces for offensive or defensive purposes."  He even suggested to General Joseph E. Johnston, his superior, that "by a bold move, we could capture the enemy's advance forces at Annandale; and, should he come out to their support, give him battle—with all the chances in our favor."  Johnston, always cautious and inclined to remain on the defensive, never endorsed such a plan.

The march to Fairfax from Centreville was relatively short, but the soldiers baked in the summer heat during the ten mile march.  Edgar Warfield, a private from Alexandria with Co. H ("Old Dominion Rifles"), 17th Virgina, remembered later that the regiment "arrived . . . during a heavy downpour of rain." (Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield, 17th Virginia Infantry, p. 58 (1996).)  The 17th Virginia picked a spot to the east and south of Fairfax Court House and established what soon became known as "Camp Harrison."  Longstreet and his staff were quartered in a large house nearby.  The 17th Virginia settled once again into the dull routine of camp life, although not without an occasional moment of excitement. 

Up Next: The 17th Virginia at Fairfax and Falls Church.

A Note on Sources

Aside from the sources cited above, the following books were useful in compiling this post:

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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