Friday, November 11, 2011

The 17th Virginia Gets a New Brigade Commander and Settles Into Camp

This blog has traced the history of the 17th Virginia Infantry throughout the first year of the Civil War.  I have taken a particular interest in this regiment given that it was composed of men from across Northern Virginia, including Fairfax County.  By way of a quick recap, the militia companies that eventually formed the 17th  gathered in Alexandria not long after the Virginia Convention voted to secede on April 17, 1861.  They left town when Union forces invaded Virginia the next month.  Assigned to Gen. James Longstreet's brigade, the 17th Virginia played a leading role at Blackburn's Ford on July 18.  Following First Manassas, the 17th moved forward to Centreville and then Fairfax Court House.  The regiment served with Longstreet's advanced forces around Falls Church and at Mason's and Munson's Hills during August and September.  In  mid-October, the regiment fell back to Centreville as part of a general withdrawal of Confederate troops.

Autumn 1861 brought change at the top for the 17th Virginia.  Even before moving to Centreville, the men of the regiment lost their brigade commander.  In mid-October, Longstreet received a promotion to major general. After drilling his men one final time on October 12, Longstreet said his good-byes, and the soldiers responded with a loud cheer for the general who had led them through the Manassas Campaign and the recent picket war.  (Wallace 23.)  The next day Longstreet issued General Order No. 17, in which he  "express[ed] his sincere thanks to the officers and soldiers of the command for the kindly patience, the soldierly fortitude, and the cheerful obedience which they have invariably exhibited during the many hardships and privations of a long and trying campaign."  (Warfield 61.)  He concluded that "[t]he command of a brigade second to none is well worthy the boast of any general, and even regret may well be felt at promotion which removes it a step, at least, from him." (Warfield 61-62.)

Gen. Charles Clark of Mississippi replaced Longstreet, but his tenure at the top was short-lived.  On October 22, not long after the 17th moved to Centreville, the Confederate War Department organized the Department of Northern Virginia out of the forces currently operating in the area stretching from the mouth of the Potomac River to the Shenandoah Valley. The new department's Potomac District was composed of divisions under the command of Earl Van Dorn, Gustavus W. Smith, Longstreet, and Edmund Kirby Smith.  Longstreet's old brigade, including the 17th Virginia, was placed under Gen. Richard S. Ewell and was eventually assigned to Longstreet's new division.
Gen. Richard S. Ewell, the 17th Virginia's new brigade commander (courtesy of Wikipedia)
The 17th Virginia passed the time in Centreville "drilling, mounting Quaker guns, standing picket duty, and doing our part in the details set to the work of throwing up breastworks," but not all was so uneventful.  (Warfield 63.)  In late October, Virginia Governor John Letcher visited Centreville to present the flags of the Commonwealth to the Virginia regiments encamped there.  As Letcher handed a flag to the 17th, he urged the regiment to "[t]ake it, and when you go into Alexandria drive out the invaders of our soil." (Wallace 24.)   The 17th Virginia's commander, Col. Montgomery Corse, promised to plant the flag "on the ramparts of Ft. Ellsworth" in Alexandria, or "the blood of the Seventeenth shall flow freely in the attempt." (Wallace 24.)  The next day the 17th Virginia participated in a grand review of Virginia troops by the governor as spectators crowded the surrounding hills to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. 

Confederate winter quarters at Centreville, VA (courtesy of Library of Congress).  This photograph was taken in March 1862 after the Confederates had abandoned the area.

According to Private Edgar Warfield of the 17th, "the night of November 1 we experienced one of the most terrific storms of wind, rain, and hail that we had to contend with during the war."  (Warfield 64.)  Warfield recalled:
The storm continued throughout the night.  Every tent in the camp except two was thrown down and the contents were scattered.  The storm did not cease until the afternoon of the 2nd, and during that time the men were without shelter, thoroughly drenched, and unable to cook their meals.  (Warfield 64.)
Conditions improved by the end of the month, when the 17th began to construct log cabins in preparation for winter.*  The men of the regiment cut trees and brought them to camp in the quartermaster's wagons.  One soldier considered this work "the hardest I ever performed."  (Wallace 24.)  The small log huts, like those pictured above, served as home for the soldiers during the harsh, cold days ahead.

A battle flag of the 17th Virginia, marked with engagements from the 1862 Peninsula Campaign (courtesy of the Fairfax Rifles)

November ended with the presentation of the famed Confederate battle flag to the 17th Virginia and the other regiments at Centreville.  Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, in characteristic bombast, told the men: "Under its untarnished folds, beat back the invader and find nationality, everlasting immunity from an atrocious despotism, and honor and renown for yourselves, or death." (Warfield 65-66.)   But first, the army had to survive the winter weather, and all the misery that camp life could bring.

*Throughout October and November 1861, Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston bickered with the War Department over the provision of assistance in building winter quarters.  Johnston saw the War Department as neglectful of his pleas, while Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin accused Johnston of turning away help.  In the end, the soldiers appear to have taken matters into their own hands.  See OR, 1:5, 891, 896-97, 934, 941-42, 948-49, 951; see also this post at Living in the Past concerning the dispute.

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).

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