Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Confederate Attack on the Contraband Camp at Lewinsville, October 2, 1863

Today marks the 150th anniversary of a little-known attack on the Federal garrison at Camp Beckwith in Lewinsville, Virginia. The encounter embarrassed the Union Army, sparked a War Department investigation, and led to the removal of an officer from command. The Confederates, meanwhile, rode away with a score of prisoners and a welcome supply of horses. Although meriting only a few lines in the Alexandria Gazette, the whole affair stood as yet another example of the guerrilla warfare that was plaguing the Union authorities across Northern Virginia.

Lewinsville (present-day McLean) was a relatively quiet place in the early fall of 1863. The village had witnessed a couple minor skirmishes in September 1861. The following month, Union forces occupied Lewinsville and the surrounding countryside. The massive Union presence ended when the Army of the Potomac left for the Peninsula. Union details continued to picket the area given Lewinsville's proximity to Washington and the strategic river crossing at Chain Bridge.

In June 1863, Union authorities established a contraband farm known as Camp Beckwith on abandoned secessionist lands near the crossroads at Lewinsville.* By the start of October, a mixed garrison of cavalry and infantry kept watch over the farm. 1st Lt. William J. Keays of Co. B, 16th New York Cavalry headed a detachment of 40 enlisted men, one second lieutenant, and one acting lieutenant.** Only 30 of the cavalrymen were fit for duty at the time. The infantry guard consisted of 17 men from Co. C, 111th New York under the command of 2nd Lt. Patrick H. Welch.***

Flank marker, 16th N.Y. Cavalry (courtesy of New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center).

The main house at Camp Beckwith was "used as a headquarters for the officers, and for the workmen on the farm." (OR, 1:29:1, 202.)****  The infantry and cavalry camps for the enlisted men were located a few paces on either side of the dwelling. Welch positioned the camp guard at three picket posts around the house. Dismounted cavalry pickets covered three approaches to the camp: the road to the Alexandria-Leesburg Turnpike (likely today's Lewinsville Rd.); the road to Chain Bridge (current-day Chain Bridge Rd. through the center of McLean); and a wood road leading to the Georgetown-Leesburg Turnpike (modern-day road unknown).  (A map of the camp superimposed on present-day McLean can be found here.) Keays placed two troopers at each location during the day, and three at night. Curiously, the pickets left their horses back at the main camp.

Camp Beckwith was surely a tempting target for the Confederates. After all, the Union military kept and maintained scores of horses on the farm. Local citizens began to report nearby guerrilla activity to Lt. Keays. The cavalry officer, however, took no added measures in response to the warnings.

Lt. Col. Elijah Viers ("Lige") White, commander of the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry (courtesy of Find-a-Grave). Born near Poolsville, Maryland in 1832, White settled in Loudoun County, Virginia following a stint fighting with pro-slavery forces in Bleeding Kansas. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he served with the Confederate cavalry and was eventually given permission to raise his own command. The 35th Battalion performed regular cavalry service and also participated in partisan activities in Northern Virginia. At the time of the raid on Camp Beckwith, White's men were detached from the Army of Northern Virginia.

Unfortunately for the Union garrison at Camp Beckwith, the civilians had legitimate grounds for concern -- Lt. Col. Elijah V. White, commander of the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, had set his sights on the contraband farm at Lewinsville. During the night of October 1, the Confederate partisan led 50 troopers from the direction of Dranesville towards Camp Beckwith.***** They approached in the darkness along an old unguarded pathway through the woods and regrouped on a hill overlooking the enemy encampment. Around 12:40 a.m. on October 2, the troopers dashed towards the Union garrison and descended on the unsuspecting Yankees. A cavalry sergeant on duty tried to wake the officers inside the house, but his efforts came too late to make much of a difference. White overwhelmed the Union force within five minutes. When the attack was over, the Confederate partisans rode away with 20 prisoners and 64 horses, including thirteen work horses used on the farm. (OR, 1:29:1, 203.) Union casualties totaled two dead and three wounded, although White's men escaped without any losses. (OR, 1:29:1, 202; 203.)

Col. John C. Tidball (courtesy of Wikipedia). This picture was taken at Fair Oaks, Virginia in June 1862 when Tidball was a captain.
In the immediate aftermath of the raid, a messenger was dispatched to alert the garrison at Ft. Ethan Allen, about five miles away near Chain Bridge. Upon learning of White's attack at 2:30 a.m., Col. John C. Tidball, commander of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery at the fort, sent 300 men under Lt. Col. Thomas Allcock to assess the situation. At five that morning, Allcock sent additional details about the raid. Tidball dashed off a report to Capt. Thomas Thompson, an assistant adjutant general with the Department of Washington. Tidball concluded his dispatch with a remark about the vulnerability of Camp Beckwith prior to the attack:
The inducement for this raid, as I some time since reported, was so great that I am surprised that the enemy have so long resisted the temptation. (OR, 1:29:1, 201.)
The high command in Washington wasted no time in getting to the root cause of the early morning mishap at the contraband farm.

Up Next

The fallout from the raid on Camp Beckwith and the blame game.


*I recently wrote about the region's contraband camps, including the possible location of Camp Beckwith. See here, here, and here.

**The troopers of Co. B were mainly from Buffalo.

***The infantrymen of Co. C were recruited in the New York counties of Cayuga and Wayne.

****Based on previous research, the home may have been the Windy Hill farmhouse. (See here.)

*****Although Union reports indicate that White had 150 men, White himself reported a force of only 50. (OR, 1:29:1, 200, 202, 203.)


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

Alexandria Gazette, Oct. 6, 1863; Taylor M. Chamberlin & John M. Souders, Between Reb and Yank: A Civil War History of Northern Loudoun County, Virginia (2011); New York State Military Museum & Veterans Research Center, 16th Cavalry Regiment (website); New York State Military Museum & Veterans Research Center, 111th Infantry Regiment (website); Martin W. Rusk, The 111th New York Volunteer Infantry: A Civil War History (2010); Jerry D. Thompson, Civil War to the Bloody End: The Life & Times of Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman (2006); Adrian Tighe, The Bristoe Campaign: General Lee's Last Strategic Offensive with the Army of Northern Virginia, October 1863 (2011).

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