Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lewinsville, Round 2: The Confederates Encounter "Baldy" Smith's Men Once Again

Last year I wrote about a skirmish that occurred in Lewinsville a couple weeks after the better-known encounter there on September 11, 1861. (See here.)  While researching the September 25 engagement, I noticed the lack of sources telling the Confederate side of the story. In fact, the OR does not appear to contain any official Confederate reports on the skirmish. I was left wondering about the identity of the Confederate units who attacked Brig. Gen. "Baldy" Smith's men near the tiny Northern Virginian hamlet. Following additional research, I recently uncovered more about Confederate involvement in this minor and relatively bloodless action. So, for my 150th anniversary post, I'd like to take a closer look at the Confederates who participated in the skirmish at Lewinsville.

Around nine in the morning of September 25, Smith led a Union force of 5,100 infantry, 16 guns, and 150 cavalry on a reconnaissance and foraging mission to Lewinsville. Smith deployed his men and guns along the road from Langley to Lewinsville and directed the quartermaster to start loading his wagons with forage. Not long afterwards, a body of Confederate cavalry appeared just east of Lewinsville. Capt. Thaddeus Mott's artillery opened fire on the troopers and drove them away.  In all likelihood, the cavalry scouts returned to the Confederate advanced line near Falls Church to warn of the Federal expedition.

The Confederates quickly prepared for battle. Gen. James Longstreet assembled a force consisting of the 1st Georgia, 9th Georgia, 2nd South Carolina, 13th Virginia, 17th Virginia, 1st Virginia Cavalry, and Capt. Thomas Rosser's Washington Artillery of New Orleans. (Gernand 94-95; see also Wallace 21.)*  Three of these units -- the 1st Virginia Cavalry, 13th Virginia, and Washington Artillery -- had fought Smith's men only a few weeks earlier at the first "Battle of Lewinsville."  The soldiers organized around The Falls Church and set out on the road to Lewinsville (likely today's Great Falls Street). The Confederates also loaded all of their wagons and sent them to Fairfax Court House, presumably to avoid capture of supplies in the event of a Union victory.  As Longstreet's aide, Tom Goree, told his mother a couple days later, the Confederates were "expecting to have a very severe fight."  (in Cutrer 45.)

By three in the afternoon, Smith had gathered an incredible 90 wagon loads of forage.  The general recalled his skirmishers and sent the wagons back to the Federal lines.  At about 4 p.m., just as Smith's men were preparing for their return to camp, the Confederates struck.  Smith described the opening of the skirmish in his official report:
[W]e could see advancing over the hills from the Falls Church road what seemed to be a large regiment, marching rapidly in close column and others deployed as skirmishers, with the apparent intention of turning our flank. At the same time they opened fire with seemingly one gun on our extreme left, but at too great distance for any effect, which ceased entirely. . . . Their cavalry was seen in small bodies, moving through the corn fields and woods to our left and on the Lewinsville road. (OR, 1:5, 216.)
Rosser, likely realizing that his guns were having little impact, moved them into position to the right of the Union force "at about 2,500 yards," where he opened fire on Mott's section at Mackall's House. (OR, 1:5, 216.)  Federal artillery under Mott and Capt. Charles Griffin answered the Confederate guns.  Some of the Union rounds fell among the infantry gathered at the graveyard of the Lewinsville Presbyterian Church.  The two sides exchanged about 30 rounds before the skirmish ended with little, if any, participation by the infantry.  Smith recalled that "we could see their dust as they retreated on the Falls Church road."  (OR, 1:5, 216.)  Smith's men moved slowly back to camp, where they arrived about seven that evening. 

Thomas L. Rosser, commander of the Confederate artillery at Lewinsville, who rose to become a cavalry general (courtesy of Wikipedia).
The Confederates, however, had not left the scene entirely. Rosser hauled one gun to a hill overlooking the crossroads at Langley and around dusk fired four or five shots.  Smith sent a scout to investigate, but by the time he arrived, the Confederates were gone.  First Sergeant W.H. Andrews of the 1st Georgia remembered that the Confederates returned to Falls Church "as proud as if we had really been in a battle of some consequence."  (in Gernand 95.)

Smith reported that one man was wounded "slightly in the arm" by a bursting shell.  (OR, 1:5, 217.)  Tom Goree wrote to his mother on September 27 that the Union Army "got some of the best of this fight, as they killed one of our men, and took another prisoner, who rode up to them mistaking them for friends."  (in Cutrer 45.)  Andrews' account differs in that he recalled that two men, both from the 2nd South Carolina, were killed during the skirmish.  In all, casualties had been light, just as in the encounter of September 11.

Clearly the armies were restless, and many soldiers must have felt the anticipation of a big battle approaching. Within a period of just two weeks, Confederate and Union forces had clashed at Lewinsville, a village not far from Longstreet's advanced line. The second skirmish involved even greater numbers than the first. As Goree wrote on September 27, "I think, Mother, that the fight will come off somewhere in a very few days. We will either advance or the enemy will." (in Cutrer 45.) The young aide was probably not alone in his sentiments as the two armies headed into the first autumn of the war.

*According to a first-hand account by First Sergeant W.H. Andrews, his regiment, the 1st Georgia, marched to Lewinsville with the 9th Georgia, 2nd South Carolina,13th Virginia, "Col. [Jeb] Stuart's Regiment of Black Horse Cavalry" (1st Virginia Cavalry), and Rosser's battery.  (Gernand 95.)  Wallace's history of the 17th Virginia places the 17th at Lewinsville along with the 2nd South Carolina and two guns of the Washington Artillery.  (Wallace 21.)

"Another Important Reconnoissance [sic] Near Washington," New York Times, Sept. 26, 1861; 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); Lee A. Wallace, Jr., 17th Virginia Infantry, from the Virginia Regimental History Series (1990).

Addendum, September 26, 2011
Thanks to reader Dudley Bokoski for pointing out a reference to the September 25 skirmish at Lewinsville in a report from Gen. James Longstreet in which he blamed Col. Joseph Kershaw of the 2nd S.C. for not striking a decisive blow.  (See OR, 1:51:2, 314.)  As Longstreet said, "I am inclined to think that the failure of the effort is due entirely to Colonel Kershaw's getting on a different road from the one I intended he should have taken. Had he been up to time there is no doubt but there would have been one more Bull Run affair.  As things miscarried, the enemy discovered us in time to get a good start."  Unfortunately, neither Kershaw's nor Stuart's reports of the skirmish survive.


DTB-56 said...

This skirmish was also notable as one of the first times James Longstreet blamed someone else for his failure to strike a blow against the enemy. In this case, he said the failure was "...due entirely to Colonel Kershaw's getting on a different road from the one I intended he should have taken."

Ron Baumgarten said...

Dudley--Thanks for pointing this out! You have located a lost trace of the Confederate reports in the OR. (See OR, 1:51:2, 314): Unfortunately, Longstreet didn't say much more, and Stuart's and Kershaw's reports are lost. I wonder what "different road" Longstreet is referring to? The main one to Lewinsville was the current Great Falls St. Smith's report, interestingly enough, doesn't seem to support Longstreet's assertion, as his men were already getting ready to head back to Camp Advance, and Rosser opened fire pretty quickly upon Smith's men, which would have eliminated any surprises.