Thursday, December 20, 2012

"Baldy" Smith's Division and Dranesville

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Dranesville.  I've written a few times about this engagement that pitted Gen. E.O.C. Ord's brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves against a smaller force under Gen. Jeb Stuart.  I even authored the lead piece on the battle for the Civil War Trust's website.  Not too long ago historian John Hennessy sent me a period newspaper article that has shed some additional light on the events surrounding the fight at Dranesville.

Ord's men, accompanied by the famed Bucktails and a force of artillery and cavalry, set off from Camp Pierpont in Langley, Virginia during the early morning hours of December 20, 1861.  Gen. George A. McCall, commander of the Pennsylvania Reserves, ordered Gen. John F. Reynold's brigade to follow in support.  Ord ran into Stuart's men at the tiny hamlet of Dranesville, and a brisk fight ensued.  Reynold's troops, who were stopped at Difficult Run along the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike (VA-193), marched towards the battlefield.  Gen. George G. Meade's brigade of Reserves also left Langley and headed down the pike to Dranesville.  Both brigades arrived too late to participate in the fight, which resulted in a Union tactical victory.

The role that Reynolds and Meade played (or did not play) is well known.  Thanks to the article that John Hennessy sent my way, I recently learned that the Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's division also got involved in the day's events.  Smith's men were quartered for the winter at Camp Griffin, in the same general vicinity as Camp Pierpont (today's McLean, Virginia).  His command included the Vermont Brigade and another brigade under Gen. Winfield S. Hancock.  According to a December 24, 1861 account from a soldier-correspondent of the 6th Vermont:
On Thursday last, Gen. McCall had a fight with some 8000 of the enemy.*  About one o'clock, on that day, our brigade was drawn up, together with Gen. Hancock's brigade, the batteries of [Capt. Thaddeus] Mott and [Capt. Romeyn] Ay[res], also some Maine regiments, for the purpose of proceeding to the scene of action and if possible to flank the enemy on their retreat. ** We marched at a rapid pace some ten or twelve miles in the vicinity of Hunter's Mills and Drainsville [sic], but come to a sudden halt on account of a bridge being burnt.  All we had to do was to "about face" and march back, reaching camp a little before eight, tired enough to rest.  The next morning at four we were tramped out on picket. ("A March," Vermont Journal (Windsor), Jan. 4, 1862, courtesy of John Hennessy.)
This article intrigued me, as I didn't recall coming across any references to Smith's men playing a role, however remote, in the engagement at Dranesville.  I at once searched for additional references and found a letter that Corporal Dan Mason, Co. D, 6th Vermont sent to his fiancee, Harriet B. Clark.  The facts in this correspondence closely track the details from the Vermont Journal article.  On December 27, 1861, Mason wrote:
I dare say you have heard of the battle at Drainsville a few days since We heard the firing from our camp. Gen McCalls division of Penn soldiers went out in the morning on a foraging & scouting expedition (this Div is encamped about a mile north of our camp) Our division started about 2 oclock P M. to assist them if nessessary We marched 12 miles we came to a branch of the Potomac the rebels had burned the bridge so that we were compelled to face about & march homeward the boys were in the best of spirits until the order to about face came. that made them look disappointed quite a number fell out by the way & were picked up the ambulances which follow an army to pick up those that are wounded or sick & are not able to march. . . . (spelling and grammar as in original; courtesy of Vermont Historical Society, On-Line Collection of Dan Mason Letters.)
Co. D, 6th Vermont Volunteer Infantry at Camp Griffin (courtesy of Library of Congress)
Both of these accounts explain that the march to Dranesville was interrupted when Smith's men stumbled upon a destroyed bridge.  Given that the Pennsylvania Reserves moved freely back and forth along the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike, including the portion that crosses the Potomac tributary of Difficult Run, it appears that Smith's men took a different route towards Dranesville.  Their line of march towards Dranesville may have continued due west from Camp Griffin (today's McLean) in the direction of Hunter's Mills, or could have turned northwest onto the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike (current VA-7).  Both routes passed over creeks, and Confederate soldiers may very well have burned the bridge at any of the crossings.  (For a detailed map, see here.)

The mobilization of Smith's men on the afternoon of December 20 makes sense.  A fight had erupted at Dranesville between a Union brigade and a Confederate force of unknown size.  As word reached the camps around Langley, Smith took action to render assistance to the Pennsylvania Reserves.  Of course, Ord beat Stuart without needing help from other brigades.  In any event, Smith's men were blocked at the site of a burned down bridge, and it is unclear how much they could have contributed that day.


*The Battle of Dranesville occurred on a Friday, not a Thursday.  The correspondent greatly exaggerated the size of Stuart's force, which consisted of 1,600 infantry, 150 cavalry, and a four-gun battery of artillery.  (OR, 1:5, 490.)
**"Our brigade" means the Vermont Brigade.  Two Maine regiments --the 6th and 7th Maine-- belonged to Smith's division. The 6th Maine was part of Hancock's brigade.  (See George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (1864).)


BuckeyeDDS said...

Hunter's Mills or Hunter's Mill?

Ron Baumgarten said...

Good question, and one that I have wondered about for quite some time. Period letters, like the one above; reports in the OR; and Union military maps call the area "Hunter's Mills." However, there was only one Hunter's mill. Today, of course, the area is known as "Hunter Mill." Check out the subject tag for Hunter's Mills to read more about activity in the area during the war.