Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Camp Life at Hunter's Mills and Flint Hill

As I wrote in my last post, divisions under George McCall and "Baldy" Smith left their winter camps on March 10, 1862 and advanced towards Centreville. The soldiers were excited at the prospect of beating Joseph Johnston's Confederates, who had just evacuated their lines around Centreville and Manassas.  By noon, Smith's men had reached the area around Flint Hill, where they stayed for night.  McCall's division, meanwhile, stopped in the neighborhood of Hunter's Mills that same evening. 

Federal commander George McClellan was about to disappoint his men.  The Union soldiers encamped at Hunter's Mills, Flint Hill, and elsewhere soon learned that Johnston had withdrawn beyond the reach of the Army of the Potomac and that McClellan had halted their advance.  As Gen. George G. Meade, commander of McCall's Second Brigade told his wife, "the prospects of another Bull Run battle are much dissipated, unless [the Confederates] have, as the French say, only reculer pour mieux sauter."  (Meade 251.)*  Private A.F. Hill of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves remembered that when his regiment got the news, "[w]e didn't half like it, for we had hoped to assist [the enemy] in leaving" Centreville and Manassas.  (Hill 204.)  Smith and McCall would now stay put until further orders.**

View of the neighborhood of Hunter's Mills as shown on an 1862 Union Army map of Northeastern Virginia (courtesy of Library of Congress).  The main road through the area (current-day Hunter Mill Road) linked the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike with Flint Hill and Fairfax Court House to the south.  The Alexandria, Loudoun, & Hampshire Railroad (present-day Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail) intersected the road to the north of Difficult Run.  The three brigades of the Pennsylvania Reserves encamped on land surrounding Hunter's Mills.  The soldiers dubbed the camp "Smoky Hollow."  (Sypher 168.) 

Intersection of Hunter Mill Road and the W&OD Trail (Alexandria, Loudoun, & Hampshire Railroad at the time of the war).  The crossroads is located in the center of the 1862 map, above.  Generals McCall, Meade, and E.O.C. Ord had their headquarters to the north of this intersection, and Gen. John F. Reynolds located his headquarters to the south. 
While at Hunter's Mills and Flint Hill, the soldiers received shelter tents for the first time. Each man was issued half a tent, which was attached with buttons to a half belonging to another soldier. Sticks or rifles were used as poles. Corporal Dan Mason of the 6th Vermont, part of the Vermont Brigade, welcomed the protection that the tents provided against the wet March weather. He told his fiancee that "they make quite a comfortable shelter to crawl under in a climate like this." (Ltr., Mason to Fiancee, Mar. 31, 1862.) Most soldiers would have begged to differ. According to a history of the Pennsylvania Reserves, "[t]he men, accustomed to the comfortable tents and huts at Camp Pierpont, received the shelter tents with much dissatisfaction." (Sypher 169.) The soldiers nicknamed the tents "dog houses." (Sypher 169.)  Private Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont, derisively called the shelter tent a "hencoop with the ends open." (in Zeller 56.) Hill remembered his own experience with the newfangled tents while at Hunter's Mills:
. . . it rained most mercilessly; which rain, aided by a brisk wind, succeeded in entering our frail abode in torrents, drenching us completely. March rains are no delicacy, even in the sunny South; so we huddled together within our narrow house, bumping each other's heads, knocking each other's caps off, and looking very glum. The fact is, these tentblankets, as described, do not constitute a very spacious apartment. (Hill 203.)
Historical marker commemorating the camp of the Pennsylvania Reserves at Hunter's Mills.  This marker is located to the right of the above intersection.  For more information, see the entry on the Historical Marker Database.
During the march from camp, some of the Pennsylvania Reserves had "foraged quite liberally" from the farms along the way.  (Sypher 168.)  The men stole chicken, milk, and whatever other provisions they could find.  At Hunter's Mills, orders were issued to prohibit foraging, and the Reserves stationed guards to prevent soldiers from leaving camps.  Over at Flint Hill, Private Fisk of the 2nd Vermont recalled that "orders at dress parade gave us to understand that stealing, plundering private dwellings, house burning, and such unsoldierlike depredations would be visited by severe and speedy punishment."  (in Zeller 57.)  The efforts at combating foraging were not altogether successful. As the Philadelphia Press reported, "all the pigs and chickens had mysteriously disappeared from the barnyards" within a few days of the Pennsylvania Reserves' arrival.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 17, 1862.) 

The "Old Miller's Home" located on a rise next to Hunter Mill Road. This house, now on private property, served as brigade headquarters for Gen. Meade in March 1862.  The left side of the house dates to the 18th century.  On March 11, Meade wrote to this wife: "I have been in the saddle all day, posting troops and pickets, and making all the preparations to meet the enemy, though, from the reports in existence and believed, there is not much probability of his showing himself about here ."  (Meade 251.)

Detail of 1862 Union Army map of Northeastern Virginia showing the area around Flint Hill where Smith's division set up camp (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Hunter's Mills sits roughly a half dozen miles to the north of Flint Hill.  The road from Flint Hill led to Fairfax Court House, where McClellan established his headquarters.
Overall, the Pennsyvlanians' stay at Hunter's Mills had a dramatic impact on the neighborhood and the civilians living there.  Correspondent George Alfred Townsend of the Press told readers that "[a] few nights' occupation, by an army, changes the whole appearance of a country."  (Phila. Press, Mar. 17, 1862.)  He observed:
The quartermasters here, for instance, have already opened up new roads and parts of roads to avoid quagmires or steep hills; the timber is cut away for acres; huts and structures of brush dot the bleak summits and slopes; and the untenanted houses are being despoiled for purposes of fuel, and all the fences are torn up. (Phila. Press, Mar. 17, 1862.)   
News of the Union Army's presence spread throughout the region, and contraband slaves began to "arrive hourly."  (Phila. Press, Mar. 17, 1862.) 

Prior to the arrival of the Reserves,  Confederate pickets and scouts populated the area around Hunter's Mills.  Some of these Confederates returned, "either by accident or design."  (Phila. Press, Mar. 17, 1862.)   The Pennsylvanians arrested them, or "compelled" them to take an oath of allegiance to the Union.  (Phila. Press, Mar. 17, 1862.)  At least in one instance, a Confederate scout was spotted and shot dead by Union soldiers.  The Pennsylvanian troops cheered upon learning the news.  As Townsend later described the scene, "[t]housands of brave men were shouting the requiem of one paltry life."  (Townsend 31.)

On March 13, McClellan rode from his field headquarters at Fairfax Court House to Flint Hill, where he conducted a review of Smith's division.  As surgeon Alfred Castleman of the 5th Wisconsin wrote in his diary, about 10,000 men gathered on "a large plain" for the event.  (Castleman 97.)  He considered the review "the most beautiful. . . that I ever beheld."  (Castleman 97.)  Private Fisk walked away inspired, writing that McClellan's "very looks. . . are sufficient to enkindle a spirit of energy and bravery in the hearts of the troops under his command."  (in Zeller 57.)  McClellan reported that night to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he found Smith's division "in admirable condition and spirits."  (OR, 1:5, 751.)

While in camp, both McCall and Smith got new bosses.  On March 8, 1862, President Lincoln had ordered McClellan to organize five army corps with the men under his command.  McClellan protested to Secretary Stanton that the imminent march on Centreville prevented him from effectively carrying out the President's order.  Stanton relented.  On March 13, when the dust had finally settled on the movement towards Centreville, McClellan issued General Orders No. 101, which assigned his separate divisions to five army corps.  McCall's division was placed with Gen. Irvin McDowell's First Corps, while Smith's division was placed in the Fourth Corps under Gen. Erasmus Keyes.  (McClellan, Report, 58-59.)

McClellan was also busy plotting his next move.  On March 13, the general's new corps commanders endorsed his revised plan to advance on Richmond by way of the Peninsula between the York and James Rivers.  (OR, 1:5, 55-56.)  The soldiers encamped at Hunter's Mills and Flint Hill would soon be on the march again.


*This phrase can best be translated as "to give way a little in order to take up a stronger position."
**Based on sources used in compiling this post, it is unclear how much the Union troops initially knew about the advance and Johnston's retreat.  When McClellan ordered his divisions forward on March 10, he had received intelligence that Johnston was withdrawing from Centreville.  However, enlisted men may have known little of what was happening, other than that they were apparently on their way to meet the enemy.  High-level officers like Meade presumably had more knowledge of the situation, but even Meade's letter of March 11 to his wife indicates a degree of surprise that a battle was unlikely.


A special thanks to historian Jim Lewis of the Hunter Mill Defense League (HMDL).  Jim was kind enough to show me around the Hunter Mill Road corridor a couple weeks ago and to discuss the history of the Union encampments in the area with me.  The HMDL does excellent work and has produced a guidebook and documentary about the Civil War history of Hunter Mill Road.  Jim also conducts the popular Hunter Mill Road Corridor History Tour.  The HMDL played a key role in the installation of several historical markers in the Hunter Mill road area, including the one pictured above.  For more information about the HMDL, click here.

The following sources were useful in writing this post:

Russel Beatie, Army of the Potomac: McClellan's First Campaign, March-May 1862 (2007); George Grenville Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, Vol. 1, (1886); Alfred I. Castleman, Army of the Potomac: Behind the Scenes, A Diary of Unwritten History (1863); M.D. Hardin, History of the Twelfth Regiment Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps (1890); A.F. Hill, Our Boys: The Personal Experiences of a Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (1864); James G. Lewis, Jr., Hunter Mill Road Civil War Self-Guided Tour (2008); George Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol. 1 (1913); George B. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story (1887); George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (1864); Philadelphia Press, March 17, 1862; Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992); J.R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps (1865); O.R. Howard Thomson & William H. Rauch, History of the "Bucktails" (1906); George Alfred Townsend, Campaigns of a Non-Combatant (1866); Vermont Historical Society, On-Line Collection of Letters of Dan Mason; Paul G. Zeller, The Second Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 1861-1865 (2002).

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