Friday, September 2, 2011

General "Baldy" Smith's Soldiers Enter the Old Dominion State

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I have devoted considerable attention to the Civil War history of present-day McLean, Virginia.  During the first winter of the war, two Union divisions encamped on the farmlands around Langley and Lewinsville.  As we near the 150th anniversary of various happenings in and around my adopted hometown, I thought readers might be interested in the origins of the Union Army's presence around here.

In some recent posts, I've discussed how the Confederates moved ever closer to the nation's capital during August 1861.  By the end of the month, Confederates were entrenched on the hills near Falls Church, where they could look across the river to Washington and the unfinished Capitol dome.  The Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, was well aware of the Confederates in his midst.  He had already started strengthening the initial defenses of Washington not long after taking charge of the army, but the Virginia side of the Chain Bridge -- around 10 miles from Falls Church and the Confederate line -- was not yet heavily fortified as September got underway.

The strategic situation would soon change.  As McClellan wrote in his memoirs:
On the 3d of Sept., while reviewing troops east of the Capitol, I received dispatches to the effect that the enemy had appeared in force opposite the Chain Bridge and towards Great Falls; also that they were probably on the point of advancing along their whole line. After giving the necessary orders at other points I rode to Gen. [William F. "Baldy"] Smith's headquarters at the Chain Bridge, and determined to move his brigade across the river during the night and to entrench a position on the Virginia side as the surest method of saving the bridge. (McClellan, 95.)
Smith prepared his men for the march to the Old Dominion State.  Starting late at night on September 3, and continuing into September 4, the Union soldiers slipped across the Chain Bridge and climbed the steep incline of the Leesburg & Georgetown Turnpike.  The regiments included the 2nd and 3rd Vermont, 19th Indiana, 33rd and 79th New York, and the 2nd and 5th Wisconsin.  Smith's men stopped a mile or so past Chain Bridge and encamped on high ground not far from Langley, Virginia.

Brig. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith (courtesy of Wikipedia).  Smith was born in St. Albans, Vermont in 1824 and graduated from West Point in 1845.  He was instrumental in organizing the famed Vermont Brigade of the Army of the Potomac in 1861.  Smith rose to become a division and corps commander. 
Some of the soldiers thought that McClellan was moving to pounce on the Confederates at Falls Church, but they soon learned that they would be clearing the land and building earthworks and forts.  The men immediately got to work constructing what were to become known as Ft. Marcy, northwest of Chain Bridge, and Ft. Ethan Allen, to the south.*  Both of these strongholds were built on the property of Gilbert Vanderwerken, who owned an omnibus line in Washington and had purchased over 1,300 acres of pastureland in Virginia for his horses.

The men called their new home, "Camp Advance." The name likely originated from the fact that the brigade had moved so far forward into Virginia. (Zeller, 43.)  However, according to another account, "the somewhat formidable title of 'Camp Advance' was given, under the impression that the movement meant a speedy advance upon Richmond." (Benedict, 91-92.)

Smith's men suffered from the endless rain at the start of September. As Alexander Campbell of the 79th New York wrote to his wife on September 6, "[i]t has been damp and dissegreable [sic] weather." (Johnston, 39.) The misery for some soldiers was compounded by the lack of adequate shelter. Both the 2nd Vermont and 5th Wisconsin, and perhaps other regiments, waited about two weeks until they received tents.   

"Gen. Smith's Brigade--from Fort Marcy. Chain Bridge, Va.," by Arthur Lumley, Sept. 1861, sketch for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery).  Based on the caption and date, this sketch appears to depict Camp Advance, or a portion of it.  Smith was a brigade commander in September and was still encamped close to Ft. Marcy.  In October 1861, as a division commander, Smith pushed his soldiers to a position that would likely have been farther west than is seen in this sketch.  This view from Ft. Marcy to the encampments beyond is from the western side of the fort.  The Potomac River and Leesburg & Georgetown Turnpike are visible to the right of the sketch.

Close up of above sketch, showing wagons moving down the turnpike with the Potomac River beyond the tents to the right.  This part of the pike is today's VA-123.
Aside from digging entrenchments and felling trees, the men at Camp Advance spent their days on picket duty or on scouting missions in the surrounding countryside.  Occasionally, the soldiers on reconnaissance brought back Confederate prisoners, horses, and contraband.  The men assigned to picket duty also confronted possible dangers, as the Confederates were equally as curious about the Union men who had encamped just over the Chain Bridge and also sent scouting parties to the area.

Detail from an 1862 Union Army map showing the area around Chain Bridge, Ft. Marcy, Ft. Ethan Allen, and Langley (courtesy of Library of Congress).  The encircled portion of the map represents the approximate position of Camp Advance based on the sketch above and first-hand accounts of soldiers from the regiments encamped there.  Today, the area around the camp and Ft. Marcy is bisected by the GW Parkway.
On September 10, President Lincoln, General McClellan, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin rode out from Washington to pay a visit to the soldiers at Camp Advance.  The men were thrilled to see Old Abe and McClellan, and many soldiers rushed to shake hands with the dignitaries in their presence.  The very next day, some of the men would be tested in battle for the first time.  But for now, they were just happy to have the monotony of camp life broken by a visit from such esteemed guests.


*In his A Report on the Defenses of Washington to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army, Brevet Major General John Gross Barnard notes that Smith crossed Chain Bridge on September 24, 1861 and began building the two forts.  (p. 14.) The reference to the 24th shows up in several sources, including the well-known work on the defenses of Washington, Mr. Lincoln's Forts.  However, this date is contradicted by numerous primary and secondary sources, which indicate that Smith entered Virginia on September 3-4 and set to work on the forts shortly thereafter.  Perhaps Barnard slipped a "2" before the "4," accidentally, and the mistake stuck!


Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Wisconsin for the Year Ending September 30th, 1863 (1863); John G. Barnard, A Report on the Defenses of Washington to the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army (1871); George Grenville Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, Vol. 1 (1886); Civil War in the East (website with army and unit information); The Civil War Letters of Forrest Little (website); Benjamin Franklin Cooling III & Walton H. Owen II, Mr. Lincoln's Forts: A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington (2010 ed.); Terry A. Johnston, Jr., "Him on the One Side and Me on the Other" (1999) (collection of soldiers' letters);George B. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story (1887); NRHP Nomination Form for Ft. Ethan Allen;  Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry (website with soldiers' letters); Kerry A. Trask, Fire Within: A Civil War Narrative from Wisconsin (1995); Vermont in the Civil War (website with unit information); Paul G. Zeller, The Second Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 1861-1865 (2002).


Lynda said...

Your 9/2/11 post is fascinating to me as I have a letter from my great, great uncle to my great, great grandfather, written on Oct. 19, 1861, where he first comments that "it's rather rainy here today and we don't have to do much." He then goes on to relay a story about an officer from the 36th NY approaching their camp and failing to provide the "countersign." The man was nearly shot! The officer went on to ask "who built that fort?" Your blog adds more detail to this story. My GG uncle was from MA; my GG grandfather served with the 42nd MA Infantry and the 60th MA.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Lynda--Thanks for your comment. What a priceless family treasure you have. Such letters certainly connect us to the past and provide avenues for discovery into little-known corners of history. Do you know what regiment your GG uncle was in? Does the letter give any indication of where it was written, such as at the top with the dateline? With such info, we may be able to track down more specific info on your ancestor.

James A. Golff said...


First of all, in the year 1967 when I was but a lad aged 10, I attended Franklin Sherman Elementary School and I became obsessed with all things Civil War. Around that time the first edition of the book “McLean Remembers” found itself on countless coffee tables in the area. I was fascinated in particular with the Salona
House – because my friends and I would hike through the woods and approach the property in a stealth like manner, from the rear, pretending to be Confederate spies. Early on into these adventures, we happened upon old ruins, what we called “The Civil War Fort” which was in actuality some old crumbling stables, with stone and mortar columns attached to a partial stone and mortar wall– all of which were in fact from that era. One thing led to another and I do not remember how, but Mrs. Clive Duval graciously granted me an interview in her living room – to which my mother drove me – the interview was for a 5th grade project – a report on the history of Salona. This is when I learned about James and Dolly Madison, and so on. I don’t know if those ruins are still there, I would guess they are not – and the report itself lost or discarded long ago.

Secondly – regarding Camp Griffin and the rock on Kurtz Road – which by the way was where I smoked my first cigarette in 1969, when it wasn’t covered in ivy and vines– if you walk about a mile towards the horizon in either photo, where Waggaman Circle curves up past Smoot Drive and descends to around the 1400 – 1500 house numbers on your right–
mine was 1450 – if you trespass through any of those back yards, you will find a rather steep incline, leading down the hill to a flat field area with power lines running down the center. At the field edge you are at Pimmit Run, which has over time cut a deep bed, its pathway winding through the woods over rapids and sometimes calm tranquil ponds, emptying into the Potomac a few miles downstream. As kids we found musket balls and rusty bridles, stirrups, buttons that crumbled to the touch and odd twisted pieces of metal rusted beyond recognition – usually when we would dig around the banks of the creek creating forts and inlets
and whatever it is kids dig for. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to consider that being only a mile away from Camp Griffin and the 5th Vermont, patrols or annexes of some type traversed this area of Pimmit Run – what with the steady flow of fresh water, and during the spring heavy rains transforming the diminutive creek into a raging muddy river overflowing its banks. The 5th and 6th Vermont from the photos you provide look to be nearly 1000 troops, mounted officers and support personnel. Perhaps
there may have been 75 - 100 steeds and mules in various roles. Surely Pimmit Run was essential for the copious amounts of water needed for drinking, bathing , washing and the like. I remember an old timer used to walk his dog along the banks and up the dirt road at the end of Brookhaven Drive and tell us with absolute certainty that there were “unmarked Union graves” around there.

And that would explain those old musket balls us kids found. For 50 years it was
all a mystery, our parents chalking it up to youthful imagination. I remember
my father saying “The Civil War battles and skirmishes were fought elsewhere, not here in McLean!” I live in Ventura, California now, moved away from McLean in 1976 – thanks for the comprehensive fascinating study on my hometown’s rich Civil War history. . and for finally clearing up the mystery of Pimmit Run. My dearly departed father would have smiled and said “Well, whaddya know. I’ll be damned, you kids were right..”

James Anthony Golff

Ron Baumgarten said...


Thanks so much for taking the time to write and share your wonderful stories. I really like hearing from people who grew up around here and who had a chance to discover some of the hidden Civil War sites (above and underground!). As you note, these remnants are likely long gone, the victim of continual and intense development over the years.

I agree that Pimmit Run was a water source for Camp Griffin, and was probably one of the reasons the camp was placed where it was. I have done additional research on Camps Griffin and Pierpont and have even more detail on where they were exactly located. I haven't yet posted all of this information here on the blog, but will do so in the upcoming months.

Thanks for reading the blog, and I am glad you found it informative!