Thursday, October 13, 2011

Back to Where They Started After Manassas: Johnston Moves the Army to Centreville

As I wrote in a series of recent posts, the Confederates left their advanced positions in Northern Virginia at the end of September 1861 and fell back to Fairfax Court House.  Commander Joseph Johnston, along with Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and G.W. Smith, had recommended an offensive action to Jefferson Davis on October 1, but the Confederate President nixed any plans for a grand invasion across the Potomac.  Johnston was left to contemplate his next move.

The commanding general recognized the vulnerability of his army's position at Fairfax.  As Johnston recalled in his Narrative after the war, "[t]he semicircular course of the Potomac, and roads converging from different points on it to our position, made it easy for the Federal army to turn either of our flanks without exposing its own communications."  (Johnston 77.)  Johnston worried that the Union Army's growing capabilities rendered the Fairfax line "more hazardous" than before.  (Johnston 77.)

According to Alfred Roman's biography of Beauregard, Johnston first suggested that the army establish a new position at Manassas, but Beauregard, "fearing the bad effect upon the army and the people of a retreat to the point held by us before our late victory, proposed Centreville instead."  (Roman 154.)  Given concerns that Centreville "was somewhat commanded by a succession of heights too distant to be embraced within the Confederate line,"  Beauregard also offered to take charge of establishing defensive positions.  Johnston's Narrative does not discuss Beauregard's role in selecting Centreville, and Roman's book, which is likely Beauregard's ghostwritten autobiography, may give Old Bory too much credit.

Johnston finally issued the order for the army to move to Centreville in mid-October.*  The position was less exposed than Fairfax and sat not far from the critical railroad junction at Manassas.  The divisions of James Longstreet and Earl Van Dorn occupied the ground between Union Mills and Centreville, with the position at Union Mills anchoring the Confederate right.  Gen. Smith's division was sent to the heights above the Warrenton Turnpike near Centreville, while "Stonewall" Jackson's soldiers were held in reserve to the rear of the town.  (Jackson himself would soon take charge of the Valley District of the Department of Northern Virginia and head out to the Shenandoah.)  Gen. Jeb Stuart's cavalry force patrolled the countryside in advance of the Centreville line.

Detail of the Centreville area from an 1862 Union Army map (courtesy of the Library of Congress).  The circle at the top indicates Centreville and the hills to the north of Warrenton Turnpike.  The circle at the bottom shows the location of Union Mills, the right of the Confederate line.  Manassas Junction is at the bottom left of the map.
Johnston immediately set to work on the defenses at Centreville, but not all was as formidable as it appeared:
The engineers were directed to fortify the summit of the hill near this village— that, by holding it, the strongest and salient point of the position, with two or three thousand men, the army itself might be free to manoeuvre. As we had not artillery enough for their works and for the army fighting elsewhere, at the same time, rough wooden imitations of guns were made, and kept near the embrasures, in readiness for exhibition in them. To conceal the absence of carriages, the embrasures were covered with sheds made of bushes. (Johnston 78.)

"Centreville, Va., Fort on heights, with Quaker guns," photograph taken in March 1862 after Union occupation (courtesy of  Library of Congress).

Private Edgar Warfield recalled the withdrawal of the 17th Virginia to Centreville:
It was with real regret that we left Fairfax. We had spent many pleasant hours at the place, and it was so near home for many of us. But such is a soldier's lot. Previous to leaving camp details were named from several regiments to move telegraph wires and take them to Centreville. The next morning [October 17] found us pitching our tents on our new camp grounds on the heights near the village of Centreville. (Warfield 63.)
The Confederates settled in for a long fall and winter.  During the months after First Manassas, many soldiers, including the 17th Virginia, moved eastward to Fairfax Court House and beyond.  This ground had been taken with no real bloodshed, but had also been given up without a fight.  Now, the views of the unfinished Capitol dome from Munson's Hill were but a memory, and the Confederates sat not far from the very battlefield where they had beaten the Union Army back in July. 

*Most accounts indicate that the Confederates fell back sometime between October 16-19.  Johnston and Longstreet, for example, mark the event as occurring on October 19, while an October 18 letter home from Longstreet aide Tom Goree indicates that the army headed to Centreville sometime before the 19th.  Private Edgar Warfield's memoirs state that his regiment received Johnston's order on the night of October 16 and arrived the next morning at Centreville.

Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Thomas J. Goree (1995); Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Actions During the Late War Between the States (1874); James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox (1896); Alfred Roman, The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 1861 to 1865, Vol. 1 (1884); Lee A. Wallace, Jr., 17th Virginia Infantry, from the Virginia Regimental History Series (1990); Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield, 17th Virginia Infantry (1996 ed.); Jeffry D. Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Solider (1994).


Walk Forrest Walk said...

Hello Ron, Just letting you know that I so much enjoy your Civil War Posts. I check in about once a week for your updates. I'm 600 plus miles into my virtual Lewis & Clark Expedition. A comment on Sept 11, by Kara Hoag really was right on how people like us have such a passion for history..... quote "You have depicted my view of it fully. It is the single person that actually lived, the moments in time that happened in a place that still exists." unquote.
Good health to you and your family..Jim aka "Forrest"

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Jim! Good to hear from you. I also look at your blog, and think you have a great concept going there.

I really think Karen did get to the heart of idea that all history fanatics can relate to!