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.|
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.|
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.
*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).