Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Collecting Forage, Building Huts, and Marching in Little "Grand Reviews": Camp Pierpont, December 1861

As December 1861 got underway, thousands of soldiers from Pennsylvania called Camp Pierpont in Langley their home away from home.  Federal commander George B. McClellan had sent Brig. Gen. George A. McCall's division to Langley back in October as part of an advance into Northern Virginia.  Now McCall's division had the privilege of occupying the far right of the Union lines, not far from the banks of the Potomac River.  But with such responsibility also came the monotony of camp life, consisting mainly of drills, picket duty, and all around bad food, not to mention disease.  The harsh winter weather also loomed just around the corner.  Things were pretty quiet along the Potomac, although the men occasionally had the chance to experience something a little more interesting.

A Few Excursions to the Environs of Dranesville

The Pennsylvania Reserves required forage, and McCall knew perfectly well that a ready supply awaited him on the secessionist farms lying in the no-man's land between the Union and Confederate armies.  At the start of December, he dispatched two expeditions to the area near Dranesville, about ten miles down the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike (today's VA-193) from Langley.  The first expedition on December 3, with the brigade of Brig. Gen. John F. Reynolds in the lead, succeeded in carrying away 50 wagons full of forage.

A few days later, on December 6, Brig. Gen. George G. Meade headed to the farm of "bitter secessionist" John Gunnell, two and half miles northeast of Dranesville. (OR, 1:5, 455.)  Meade was to collect forage and arrest two of Gunnell's nephews, who were "reported . . . to have shot two stragglers of [Nathaniel] Banks' division, and left them for the hogs to devour."  (OR, 1:5, 456.)  The brigade of Brig. Gen. E.O.C. Ord followed behind, just in case.

Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Second Brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves and later head of the Army of the Potomac (courtesy of
Meade's brigade set out early in the morning from Camp Pierpont.  An anonymous soldier from the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves described what happened at Gunnell's in a letter to the Ebensburg Alleghanian:
Companies A and D . . . were detailed to take charge of the farm and loaded the wagons of which latter articles we had about sixty. The boys immediately fell to with a will and in a comparatively short space of time every wagon was loaded down with wheat, corn and potatoes. In addition we captured eleven head of horses, a pair of oxen and wagon, thirty-eight hogs, averaged two hundred pounds each, two buggies, a splendid carriage and a lot of excellent light harness. Two negro slaves, the property of said Gunnell were also taken in tow and brought into camp. They were exceedingly glad to be afforded opportunity to effect their liberty and are now, I understand, employed as cooks in some of the regiments.
As prisoners, Meade's men brought back Gunnell's nephews and three other "rank secessionists." (OR, 1:5, 456.)   The entire expedition returned to Langley by around six that evening.

Meade was not fully satisfied with his day's work. The general had experienced more than a few disciplinary issues with his men, who "got into their heads that the object of the expedition was the punishment of a rebel, and hence the more injury they inflicted, the more successful was the expedition."  (Meade 234.)  As he lamented to his wife, "it was with considerable trouble they could be prevented from burning everything" that was not carried away.  (Meade 234.)  Meade, whose conciliationist sensibilities were offended, was "ashamed of our cause." (Meade 234.)

McCall painted a somewhat different picture.  In his official report, he informed McClellan about "the very exemplary conduct of all the troops on this occasion" and "commend[ed] from personal observation the good discipline maintained."  (OR, 1:5, 456.)   Perhaps McCall was still bristling from "a very severe letter" he received from McClellan in November commenting on the poor state of the discipline in his division and wanted to avoid even the suggestion of lax behavior of the part of his men. (Meade 226.) 

Winter Quarters

Back in camp, the Pennsylvanians prepared for the season ahead.  As the unknown soldier from the 11th wrote to the Alleghanian, "[t]he weather here is becoming pretty cold and winter-like, but considering that
 . . . the climate is not far different from that of Pennsylvania and in fact of the Alleghenies, we should not expect it to be otherwise."  The troops ensured that they would be well protected from the elements by constructing crude log huts topped with tents.   According to solider from the 11th, "some of them boast of the possession of stoves; others compromise on homemade fire places called 'California stoves.' Between the two we are right comfortably situated."

Photograph of a Union winter camp showing typical log huts, similar to those described in the letter to the Alleghanian (courtesy Library of Congress)
The Grand Review

McCall's entire division participated in a military review in front of Johnston's Hill near Langley on December 12.  The Philadelphia Press noted that since the Grand Review at Bailey's Crossroads on November 20, "there has been no such military display on the line of the Potomac."  Many officers from other divisions attended, although it is uncertain whether McClellan himself was present. The regimental bands "by their inspiring music, gave patriotic zest and liveliness to the occasion."  (Phila. Press, Dec. 14, 1861.)  The  Press could not help but notice that the soldiers' movements "were marked with the precision of old and long-drilled regulars."  Apparently McCall had instilled some degree of discipline, at least for the purposes of parading.  The review ended after two hours, and "all who witnessed it pronounced it a brilliant success."  (Phila. Press, Dec. 14, 1861.)  In a little more than a week, some of these same soldiers would be sent on another expedition to Dranesville, and would score even greater accolades.


Ebensburg Alleghenian, Dec. 26, 1861; Meade, George Gordon, ed., The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 1 (New York, 1913); Philadelphia Press, Dec. 14, 1861.

A few other good accounts of the foraging expeditions to Dranesville can be found here and here.  In an upcoming post, I also hope to explore the secessionists of Dranesville in more detail.

No comments: