This upcoming Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the cavalry skirmish at Pohick Church in Fairfax County involving troopers from the 1st New York Cavalry Regiment. Pohick Church, about twelves miles south of Alexandria, sat near two roads leading in the direction of Fairfax and Centreville. The Confederates, worried about a Union flanking movement along these roads, always made sure to to guard the area around the church. The stage was set for an encounter.
Company C of the 1st New York Cavalry left Philadelphia for Washington City on July 22, 1861, the day after the disastrous Federal defeat at Manassas. The 1st New York Cavalry, also known as the "Lincoln Cavalry," was organized by Carl Schurz, a former German revolutionary of 1848 and confidant of President Lincoln. Company C, led by Captain William H. Boyd, was comprised of men from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Nine other companies were raised in New York City, and four of them were composed entirely of Germans, Poles, and Hungarians. The two remaining companies came from Grand Rapids, Michigan and Syracuse, New York.
Company C initially encamped on Capitol Hill, but at the start of August, the troopers left Washington and moved across the Long Bridge to Alexandria The men settled at Camp Elizabeth on the western side of the town. The unit reported to Brig. Gen. William B. Franklin, who would later serve as a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac.
On the morning of August 18, 1861, Franklin ordered Boyd "to proceed on a scout down the Mount Vernon road and vicinity of Accotink, to capture, if possible, 27 cavalry of the enemy." (OR, Series 1, Vol. 5, Part 1, p. 113.) The wording of the order is a bit strange and begs the question of why 27? -- presumably an earlier reconnaissance had reported precise numbers of the enemy in that direction. Boyd set out at 10 a.m. with 46 men, as well as Lt. William Hanson, a Lt. Gibson of Franklin's staff, and Dr. Herrick, a surgeon.
|An 1862 sketch of Pohick Church by Union soldier Robert Sneden (courtesy of Virginia Historical Society). Pohick Church was founded sometime prior to 1724 and served as the first permanent church in colonial Virginia north of the Occoquan River. The structure standing during the Civil War, and still standing today, was completed in 1774. George Washington, who supervised the construction, worshipped at Pohick Church. For more information on the church's history, see here.|
|Detail of 1862 Union map of Northeastern Virginia, showing Accotink, Pohick Church, and the surrounding area. Alexandria is located off the map to the northeast, or upper right. The full map can be found here (courtesy of Library of Congress).|
Company C experienced light casualties. Trooper Jacob Erwin was killed and two others were missing after being thrown from their horses. Erwin is supposedly the first Union volunteer cavalryman killed in the Army of the Potomac. (Beach, p. 37.) The OR contains no Confederate account of the encounter, and Boyd was not certain of the enemy casualties. No prisoners were taken. (The Southern cavalry unit also remains unidentified in the sources I have reviewed.) Boyd took home a lesson from the skirmish at Pohick Church. As he reported to Franklin, "[i]t is my opinion that had we some infantry with us we would have been able to outflank them and taken some prisoners." (OR, 1:5:1, p. 114.)
A regimental historian also recalled:
The men of this company never in the four years that followed forgot the lesson of their first fight [at Pohick Church]. In a fight of cavalry against cavalry the advantage is with the party that moves first. It is difficult to withstand the impetus and momentum of a well-directed cavalry charge. There was always a stimulus in a lusty and hearty cheer. The men of the regiment learned that in a charge, the sabre was more effective than the revolver or the carbine. (Beach, p. 37.)Company C gathered Erwin's body and returned to camp at Alexandria. The cavalrymen's performance did not go unnoticed. A few days later, on August 22, Maj. Gen. George B.McClellan praised the men of Company C at a review of Franklin's troops. By the middle of September, the remainder of the 1st New York Cavalry was in the field around Washington, but Company C would have the honor of being the first to fight.
Note on Additional Sources:
The Glories of War: Small Battles and Early Heroes of 1861, by local historian Charles P. Poland, Jr. has a discussion of the focus of the armies on Pohick Church.
For more information on the 1st New York Cavalry, see the Civil War in the East website (here) and the New York State Military Museum website (here).