Monday, December 19, 2011

The Confederates Return to Dranesville

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Dranesville.  As readers are well aware, I have covered the engagement here and at greater length in an article for the Civil War Trust.  Dranesville shattered the relative calm that had descended on Northern Virginia by December 1861.  Because I have already discussed the battle itself, I thought that I would dedicate a couple posts to what happened in the Union and Confederate ranks following the engagement.

Dranesville was a tactical Union victory, but that didn't stop Brig. Gen. Jeb Stuart from calling the battle a "glorious success" for the Confederates.  (OR, 1:5, 494.)  After all, the Confederate commander had saved his foraging party from falling into the enemy's hands.   Stuart's self-styled triumph, however, had not come without a cost.  Among his four infantry regiments, one battery, and assorted cavalry units, Stuart lost 43 killed, 143 wounded, and eight missing.  The Union suffered only seven killed and 61 wounded.

Following the two-hour fight on December 20, Stuart's force withdrew from the battlefield towards the Alexandria, Loudoun, & Hampshire Railroad.  When it became clear that his men were out of harm's way, Stuart pushed onward to Frying Pan Church.  There, the Confederates took care of their wounded from the engagement. Meanwhile, the 18th Virginia and 9th Georgia were dispatched from the main camp at Centreville to join Stuart at the church.  The regiments arrived at some point early in the morning.

Frying Pan Church, where Stuart cared for his wounded following the battle.  The church, located along present-day Centreville Road in Fairfax County, was built between 1783 and 1791.  The Baptist congregation included both whites and blacks.  The site is preserved and maintained by Fairfax County.  (See here for more information.)
As dawn broke on December 21, Stuart intended to return to Dranesville.  He soon had the 9th Georgia and 18th Virginia organized and on the way.  As a soldier from the 18th Virginia recalled:
We marched briskly along, it being-quite cold, and we therefore felt the more inclined to exert ourselves to give warmth to our bodies. We had no idea of going so far when we started, but were willing to follow Gen. Stuart anywhere, even to the banks of the Potomac. Onward, still onward we went, winding our way up and down circuitous and zigzag roads, which, though wearisome, were in excellent condition, being entirely free from the stiffing influence of dust. (Richmond Daily Dispatch, Dec. 30, 1861.)
Stuart sent his cavalry ahead to ascertain the presence of the enemy.  The scouts reported that the Union had abandoned Dranesville and that several Confederate wounded were left in town.  The Union commander, Brig. Gen. E.O.C. Ord, had lacked a sufficient number of ambulances and was unable to take all of his wounded prisoners with him to Camp Pierpont in Langley. 

Gen. Jeb Stuart (courtesy of National Park Service)

Stuart, desiring to collect his wounded and dead, pushed his men to Dranesville and arrived around 11 a.m.  Outside of town, in a house not far from the scene of the previous day's action, Stuart's men located between eight and ten wounded Confederate soldiers.  According to the soldier from the 18th Virginia, in front of the home "stood several charmingly looking ladies, who very soon became the paramount attraction":
They were kindly attending our wounded . . . .  They say the Yankees were very kind to our wounded, in bringing them to the house; they also left with them a good many bandages, to be used in dressing their wounds. . . .  These ladies with their mothers had come up from their comfortable homes, bringing with them beds and bed clothes. They also prepared soups and such like delicacies suited to the conditions of the wounded.  (Richmond Daily Dispatch, Dec. 30, 1861).
Stuart ordered his men to place the wounded in ambulances for the return to Centreville.  Two of the men were severely injured, and it soon became clear that they could not survive the long trip back.  Stuart reported that "at their own desire and at the surgeon's advice" the two soldiers "were left in charge of the ladies" in Dranesville  (OR, 1:5, 492.) 

The Confederate general also heard wild rumors about the battle from local inhabitants.  The Union force had consisted of "fifteen regiments of infantry, several batteries, and seven companies of cavalry."  (OR, 1:5, 493.)  In fact, Ord had just five regiments of infantry, one battery, and two squadrons of cavalry, but at the time, Stuart was not entirely certain of the size of Ord's force.  (Some locals may have seen the brigades of John Reynolds and George Meade, who had arrived too late to take part in the fight, and overestimated the number engaged on the 20th.)  The residents of Dranesville also informed Stuart that Ord had left with twenty wagon loads of dead and wounded!

Stuart set about the grisly task of collecting the dead from the battlefield.  The soldier from the 18th Virginia witnessed the carnage.  He wrote:
I was horror-struck by the ghastly appearance of the dead, as they lay all besmeared with their own blood, which in the agents of death they had gotten all over their faces, having as soon as shot clapped their hands to the part affected and drawn across their faces; shots of a more deadly character, I never saw.  (Richmond Daily Dispatch, Dec. 30, 1861.) 
Once the wounded and dead were loaded in wagons, Stuart set out for the Confederate lines at Centreville around 4 p.m.  The colonel of the 18th Virginia gave his men the option of stopping for the night, or going the entire way back to camp.  His men agreed to continue the march.  As the soldier from the 18th Virginia wrote to the Daily Dispatch:
[S]ome of our men complained bitterly of sore feet, made so by traveling so much on this hard frozen ground. Some one or two were so lucky as to get a ride on horseback. Others were obliged to remain the over-night, and come in the following (Sunday) morning. No order as to regularity of marching could be maintained, each getting along as best he could. My Captain, myself, and several others were amongst the first to get to camp — how glad were we to get there. We found hot coffee and warm fires. So, drinking the coffee and toasting our feet, we retired for the night.  (Richmond Daily Dispatch, Dec. 30, 1861.)
Back in Centreville, the Confederates attended to their wounded and buried their dead.  The 11th Virginia, which had fought at Dranesville, was brigaded with the 17th Virginia.  The men of the 17th attended the internment of the 11th's dead, "prompted by the friendly feeling that had existed between the two commands ever since the organization of the brigade."  (Warfield 66.)  As Private Edgar Warfield remembered:
The act brought forth from Colonel [Sam] Garland of the Eleventh a beautiful letter, which was read on dress parade, expressing his grateful appreciation of the soldierly friendship which induced our command to unite with them in paying this last tribute of respect to their dead comrades. (Warfield 66.)
The Confederates recovered from their setback at Dranesville and prepared to celebrate the Christmas holiday.  The battle had been an unsettling experience for many soldiers, including those who visited the scene of the fight on the 21st.  But as 1861 drew to a close, much worse awaited Confederate and Union soldiers alike in the upcoming year and beyond.


Aside from the OR, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for Frying Pan Meetinghouse; Richmond Daily Dispatch, Dec. 30, 1861; Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield, 17th Virgina Infantry (1996 ed.).

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