Friday, March 9, 2012

Good Bye to Camps Pierpont and Griffin: The Union Army Moves Out

As frequent readers of this blog are aware, I have devoted considerable attention to the Union Army camps that were established near Langley and Lewinsville, Virginia in October 1861.  After all, I live near the very area in present-day McLean where thousands of blue clad troops spent the first winter of the Civil War.  Camp Griffin served as the base for Gen. William "Baldy" Smith's division, including the famous Vermont Brigade.  The Pennsylvania Reserves under Gen. George A. McCall considered Camp Pierpont their home.

This week marks a 150th anniversary that pales in comparison to the Battle of Pea Ridge and the clash of the ironclads in Hampton Roads.  However, in my quiet little corner of the Civil War universe, the Union Army bid farewell to Lewinsville and Langley.  The units encamped here went on to participate in the storied history of the Army of the Potomac, and many became famous in their own right.  But it was at Camps Pierpont and Griffin that they drilled, paraded, and otherwise prepared for the campaigns ahead.

As I wrote in my last post, Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston withdrew his army from Centreville and Manassas on March 9, 1862.  Word of the evacuation soon reached Union commander George McClellan in Washington.  That night he issued a general order for the divisions of his army to advance towards Manassas and Centreville.  In the first instance, the commander felt that he "might be able to take advantage of some accident and bring Johnston to battle under favorable circumstances."  (McClellan, Own Story, 222.)  However, recognizing that Johnston may have escaped altogether, McClellan felt that he could also use the advance to "break up the camps, give the troops a little experience in marching and bivouac before finally leaving the old base of supplies, to test the transportation arrangements and get rid of impedimenta, and thus prepare things" for his upcoming campaign.  (McClellan, Own Story, 222.)   As an added bonus, the movement could possibly throw Johnston into a state of confusion about the Union Army's true intentions.

The Vermont Brigade at Camp Griffin learned at midnight that they were to march at three in the morning on March 10.  The men were directed to prepare two days' rations.  The news of an advance "was received with cheers and rejoicing throughout the brigade."  (Benedict 241.)  The Vermonters were finally striking camp, and many soldiers became excited at the thought that they might soon have a chance to fight and defeat the Rebels.  The men raced to ready their knapsacks for the march. They also set fire to equipment and supplies that they could not easily take with them.  Some soldiers even dashed off letters to loved ones back home. 

Camp of the 3rd Vermont at Camp Griffin, Lewinsville, Virginia, by George Houghton (courtesy of Vermont Historical Society)
The brigade assembled with the rest of the division in a large field and set out in a "drizzling rain" at sunrise.  (Benedict 241.)   The snaking column of Smith's division moved through Lewinsville and continued southwest to Vienna, site of an early skirmish in 1861.  The men walked mainly on the side of the road to make way for wagon trains that accompanied the division.  Corporal Dan Mason of the 6th Vermont felt that the rain "made it muddy & hard walking."  (Ltr., Mason to Fiancee, Mar. 31, 1862.)  After a march of around ten miles, the division was halted north of Fairfax Court House at Flint Hill (present-day Oakton).  As the minutes turned into hours, the soldier surely began to wonder what was happening.  Near the end of the day, the Vermont boys heard "a whispered rumor that there was no enemy in front to be attacked."  (Benedict 241-42.)  Disappointed in the news, the men prepared to spend the night at Flint Hill.

The Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont received the orders to march around midday on March 10.  As Private A.F. Hill of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves recalled:
Instantly all was bustle and excitement. Coffee-pots were kicked over; a few extra provisions were thrust into haversacks; knapsacks were hurriedly packed, and in fifteen minutes the regiment was formed. . . .  (Hill 200).
The Bucktail regiment also "broke camp in good spirits."  (Thomson & Rauch 89.)  Just like the Vermonters who had left Camp Griffin that morning, the Pennsylvania boys hoped that they were on their way to fight the enemy. 

McCall's division left Langley around 1 p.m.  As Hill described the departure of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves, "[t]he band struck up a favorite air, we moved as one man, and uttering one wild farewell cheer, we marched from Camp Pierpont—forever."  (Hill 200.)  The soldiers moved along the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike in the direction of Dranesville, a place where many of them had fought the previous December.  The rain soon gave way to clearer weather.  Hill observed that due to the rough conditions of the march, "many extra great-coats, many blankets, and much superfluous clothing were abandoned by the way—left lying at the road-side."  (Hill 201.)

The division continued across Difficult Run.  Around three miles from Dranesville, the men turned left onto a smaller road through the woods and crossed the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike.  Around eight that night, the Pennsylvania Reserves entered the neighborhood of Hunter's Mills (current-day Hunter Mill Road area of Reston), north of Fairfax Court House.  The men had marched around fifteen to eighteen miles since setting out.  As one Bucktail told to a local newspaper a few days later, "[t]his was one of the hardest marches for a short one, that we ever had, and it was worse because we had been confined in camp so long. . . ."  (Wellsboro Agitator, Mar. 19, 1862.)   The division was halted, and the men bivouacked for the night in the cold and damp weather.

Meanwhile, other elements of the Union Army had reached Centreville and Manassas and found that Johnston was long gone.  McClellan considered that "it was now evident, from the information received, that it would be impossible to reach the enemy within a reasonable distance from Washington."  (McClellan, Own Story, 224.)  The commanding general therefore decided to keep his divisions where they stood and returned to planning for his upcoming campaign.   The men sleeping at Flint Hill and Hunter's Mills would have to wait a while longer before they had the chance to beat Joe Johnston.

Up Next:  Life in the camps at Hunter's Mills and Flint Hill.

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);  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); 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); 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); Vermont Historical Society, On-Line Collection of Letters of Dan Mason; Wellsboro Agitator, March 18, 1862; Paul G. Zeller, The Second Vermont Volunteer Infantry Regiment, 1861-1865 (2002).


Age of Reason said...

Its always amazing to think of the confederate army being in line sight of the capitol building's construction. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on Johnston's strategic calculation to fall back not once but several times, especially as well provisioned as he was. Was the decision out of concern for the enemy's perceived numerical advantage, the difficulty of defending the terrain he held at Centerville, a combination of these, or simply that he was "the cautious General"?

Given the proximity of confederate forces to the Union capital, and what capturing the enemy's capital meant in the military convention of the day, its amazing to think that such a garrison of men and materiel chose to fall back without first engaging Union forces in pitched combat.

Can only imagine that Jefferson Davis must have been furious at Johnston's decision.

Would also be curious to know if Union troops' thirst for engagement and battle with the rebels, as you note in reception of McClellan's order to march on Centreville and Manassas, lasted much longer beyond initial posturing of belligerents in early 1862. That is, did thirst for battle among the common soldier wane as the war dragged on, and the embarrassment of the first battle of Bull Run gave way to realization that this would be a brutal war?

As always, pictures and first hand accounts are much appreciated and give your posts life.


Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your comment, and I am glad you are enjoying the posts.

From the research I’ve done, the initial Confederate lines around Muson’s and Mason’s Hills seemed a bit far forward and more geared towards a possible offensive. Beauregard was always pushing Johnston to be more aggressive, and Johnston, ever the cautious general, never seemed that comfortable being so close to Washington. When it became clear that Johnston lacked the necessary resources to take on McClellan, and that the Confederate government could not supply them, I think Johnston appropriately pulled the army back to Centreville, which was more easily defensible than Fairfax, and certainly more so than the area around Munson’s Hill/Mason’s Hill/Falls Church. As you might have seen from a post I wrote the other day, Johnston evacuated Centreville somewhat prematurely. Davis didn’t expect him to leave so soon, and in fact, Richmond was prepared to send more reinforcements. I think that Centreville would have been a perfect place to defend against a direct Union frontal assault, but Johnston would have been foolhardy to march on Washington, in particular given the strong defenses of the nation’s capital and the vastly larger Union force in and around the nation’s capital. Of course, if Johnston hadn’t left, I wonder if McClellan would have actually pulled off his Urbanna plan.

The Union soldiers were tired of winter camp and wanted to take the war to the Rebels and defeat them once and for all. The legions of men who arrived in the area after First Bull Run had not seen combat. As you point out, the enthusiastic attitude likely changed once the soldiers were exposed to the horrors of battle on the Peninsula and realized that the war was going to be a long, hard slog.