Friday, November 15, 2013

Visiting Gen. Hancock and the Fortifications on Mackall's Hill

A few weeks ago I wrote about Dr. Richard C. Mackall. By the time of the Civil War, this prominent Maryland-born physician had settled in Fairfax County. His 129-acre farm sat along the road from Chain Bridge to Lewinsville. As the Union Army pushed deeper into the Old Dominion at the start of October 1861, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock established his headquarters at Mackall's home. Hancock's brigade, consisting of the 5th Wisconsin, 6th Maine, 43rd New York, and 49th Pennsylvania, belonged to William F. "Baldy" Smith's division. Hancock's regiments, along with the others in Smith's division, established Camp Griffin on the farms around Lewinsville. The Union Army arrested Mackall on suspicion of disloyalty. Hancock apparently secured Mackall's release, and the doctor returned afterwards to his childhood home in Maryland.

A war correspondent for the New York Times paid a visit to Hancock's headquarters not long after Smith's advance. His lengthy dispatch, found here, is well worth reading in its entirety. The reporter described Hancock's brigade as sitting at "the extreme western limits of our encampments." (N.Y. Times, Oct. 18, 1861.) The general was "on the outermost verge -- standing next to the foe, and in his front." (N.Y. Times, Oct. 18, 1861.) The correspondent made no secret of his admiration for the brigade commander:
The Germans say that "the future of every man is written on his face." If there is not honor and glory broadly written on the face of Gen. HANCOCK, I misinterpret the language of faces. He has a name that would make a man fight, whether he had or had not the will. He evidently has the will, and that is backed by the experience of Cerro Gordo, Molino del Rey, Contreras and Cherubusco.* I have no doubt that he will prove himself, when opportunity occurs, worthy of the post of honor and of danger in which the instinct of Gen. MCCLELLAN has placed him. (N.Y. Times, Oct. 18, 1861.)*
The article was not far off the mark, although perhaps I reveal my own biases!

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock (courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
The correspondent also observed how the war had dramatically transformed Mackall's property since the arrival of the Union Army:
Even around the outposts, that necessity which knows no law is fiercely predominant. The house in which Gen. HANCOCK has his quarters stands on the pinnacle of the knoll, or cone, I have described. It was originally one of the most comfortable and convenient of any hereabouts. The cone was covered with timber -- not the small, second growth of the surrounding country, but real ancestral oaks -- grand old monarchs of the last century's forests. On all the slope; that faced toward Miner's Hill,** and towards the supposed lurking-place of the enemy, the soldiers have cut away the trees, and turned them into an abattis. Around the house, and half-way up the slope, a deep rifle-pit has been dug, from which thousands of men could deal death upon an advancing line. On the lawn stand Parrott guns and howitzers, and limbers and caissons, and the smooth sod and the walks are tramped up by the picketed horses. It has evidently been the labor and the pride of years. Any one who had dug and delved, and planted and watched, with the hope and the prospect of enjoyment, can appreciate the feelings of one who sees all the labor of years thus cast down, as it were, in an hour. I could but think, as I saw the old trees prostrated, of the little home far away on the peaceful shores of the Hudson, and hope that it might neither witness the carnage nor the devastation of war. (N.Y. Times, Oct. 18, 1861.)
According to the Times, the Confederates were keeping their distance from the Union lines, but Hancock was unlikely to let them go unchallenged:
Since our army advanced, the enemy have been shy of showing themselves around Lewinsville. Occasionally [Romeyn] AYRES drops a shell where it is possible they may be, or [Thaddeus] MOTT sends to their late haunts a messenger by the mouth of his rifled Parrotts. But they don't respond. Whether they are shy or only sullen, neither AYRES' shell nor MOTT's conicals can determine. If they don't respond soon, it is possible that Gen. HANCOCK may look for them in person, accompanied by a few friends, and I shall hope to be present at the interview. (N.Y. Times, Oct. 18, 1861.)

Detail of 1862 Union Army map of Northeastern Virginia showing property of Dr. Richard C. Mackall along the road  to Lewinsville (courtesy of Library of Congress). The "knoll or cone" mentioned in the New York Times article was known locally as "Mackall's Hill." A present-day map of McLean showing the location of the former Mackall property (in red) can be found here
"General Hancock's Headquarters, Artillery in Foreground, Camp Griffin." (A special thanks to the staff at the Vermont Historical Society, who graciously agreed to provide me with a copy of this rare photograph from "A Very Fine Appearance": The Vermont Civil War Photographs of George Houghton by Donald H. Wickman) The Mackall  house sits atop Mackall's Hill in the distant background. At the time Houghton took the photograph, several trees were still standing on the rise. Wickman's book identifies the cannon and limber as possibly belonging to Ayres' Battery F, 5th U.S. Artillery.
Although Hancock and his men never saw much action while encamped near Lewinsville, in October 1861 all eyes were turned to Northern Virginia and the possibility of another major clash between the armies. Meanwhile, civilians like Mackall saw their lives and property radically transformed by the advancing troops. Today Mackall's farm is marked by nondescript commercial and residential development. But 152 years ago, a general destined for greatness at Gettysburg looked out from his perch on that same spot and contemplated his next move.


*Battles of the Mexican War that took place in 1847 during the U.S. campaign to capture Mexico City.
**Minor's Hill is an elevation located a few miles to the southeast of Mackall's Hill in present-day Arlington County.


Beth Mitchell, Fairfax County in 1860: Property Owners (original map book available at Virginia Room, City of Fairfax Regional Library) ("1860 Map"); N.Y. Times, Oct. 11, 1861; N.Y. Times, Oct. 18, 1861.

No comments: