Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Confederates Evacuate the Advanced Line, Part II

The order came on the evening of September 27, 1861.  Confederate commander Joseph Johnston worried that his current position left his army exposed and vulnerable.  Unless the government in Richmond was prepared to provide the men and materiel for an offensive action, Johnston saw little value in remaining so far forward.  Gen. James Longstreet also reported on the twenty-seventh that he received information that his advanced position would be attacked by "a very strong force in a few days."  (OR, 1:51:2, 317.)  Perhaps this is all Johnston needed to hear.  Rather than risk a possible engagement along the forward line, the commander sent his men packing.  The Confederates occupying Munson's, Mason's, and Upton's Hills, Falls Church, and other advanced positions were told to fall back towards Fairfax Court House.

The withdrawal played out during the course of the night. According to Longstreet's aide, Tom Goree, "before midnight we had abandoned all the splendid positions (Mason's, Munson's & Upton's Hills) . . . which we held in front of the enemy and in sight of the Potomac & Washington."  (in Cutrer 47.)   The Confederate Army had surrendered the high ground without a fight.

The 17th Virginia was doing duty in Falls Church when the order came. The regiment marched about three miles outside of town and camped for the night, only to return the next day. The 17th finally left the town for Camp Harrison in Fairfax Court House on the twenty-ninth. A couple soldiers posted a note on the gate to The Falls Church addressed to prospective Union occupiers:
Having been resident denizens of Falls Church for some time, we to-day reluctantly evacuate, not because you intimidate by your presence, but only in obedience to military dictation. We leave you a fire to cook potatoes, also to warm by, as the nights are now uncomfortable on account of their chilling influence.  (in Wallace 22.)
Goree wrote that the Confederates regretted leaving the advanced positions, "not only on account of being so pleasantly situated, but we all liked the excitement which our proximity to the Yankees produced."  (in Cutrer 47.)   He wrongly speculated that "the move was a strategic one, made to try and induce the Yankees to make an advance on us and give us battle in an open field."  (in Cutrer 47.) 

"General McClellan Occupying the Confederate Position at Munson's Hill," from a period engraving (courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery).  The Union commander wasted no time in crossing the Potomac and riding out to the front upon learning that the Confederates had withdrawn from the area around Munson's Hill.
Goree's boss was not far off the mark as to Union intentions. Around the time the Confederates were marching towards Fairfax, Maj. Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac, ordered Brig. Gen. Israel Richardson to advance from his position around Bailey's Crossroads and seize Munson's and Upton's Hills from the Confederates. Troops from Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell's division were to support the right flank of Richardson's brigade. On September 28, Federal soldiers stormed the empty Confederate works on Munson's and Upton's Hills without a fight. The capture of Mason's Hill soon followed. As McClellan wrote to his wife on September 29, "The moral effect of this advance will be great & it will have a bad influence on the troops of the enemy. They can no longer say that they are flaunting their dirty little flag in my face, & I hope they have taken their last look at [Washington]." (Sears 104.)  The Confederates, meanwhile, had to determine their next move, but the chances for a fall offensive were not looking so good.

Russel H. Beatie, Army of the Potomac: McClellan Takes Command: September 1861-February 1862(2002); Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Thomas J. Goree (1995); Bradley E. Gernand, A Virginia Village Goes to War: Falls Church During the Civil War (2002); James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox (1896); George B. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story (1887); "Munson's Hill Evacuated by the Rebels," New York Times, Sept. 29, 1861; "The Occupation of Mason's Hill," New York Times, Oct. 2, 1861; Stephen W. Sears (ed.), The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence 1860-1865 (1989); 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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