Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mosby's Attempt to Raid the Contraband Camp Near Falls Church

Last fall I wrote about a Confederate attack on the contraband farm at Camp Beckwith in Lewinsville. The contraband camps in Northern Virginia made inviting targets for Confederate guerrillas, who could surprise and overpower the small Union garrisons and ride away with horses, crops, and prisoners. Even before the Lewinsville raid in October 1863, the Confederates set their sights on another contraband camp close to Falls Church. The episode involved none other than the Gray Ghost, John S. Mosby, and his partisan rangers.

At the start of the Civil War, Major William D. Nutt resided in Alexandria County (present-day Arlington), just across the border from Falls Church.* He worked as a clerk at the U.S. Department of the Treasury until resigning in April 1861. An ardent secessionist, Nutt fled his property as Union troops arrived in September 1861. Not long afterwards, his home was burned to the ground by Gen. Louis Blenker's men. As a soldier from the 21st New York described the scene, "[t]he remains of a fine piano and other heavy furniture litter the grounds; the garden and outbuildings are sacked and destroyed, and the stock appropriated by the ravagers." (Mills 121.) Nutt ended up in Richmond, where he took a position as a clerk with the Confederate Treasury Department.**

On May 30, 1863, the Union Army took Nutt's property for use as a contraband farm named Camp Rucker. The camp was one of five established across Northern Virginia during the same time period. The former slaves quartered on Major Nutt's land numbered 105 by the end of June 1863.

Mosby and some of his Rangers (courtesy of Wikipedia). Mosby is seated in the center, with a plume in his hat.
Meanwhile, Mosby and his band continued their attacks on Federal targets throughout Northern Virginia. Mosby's most daring and well-known exploit involved the March capture of a sleeping Union general in Fairfax Court House. The summer brought more trouble for the Union authorities. In mid-August, the Alexandria Gazette carried an item entitled, "MOSBY'S LATEST RAID." (Alex. Gazette, Aug. 19, 1863; all citations hereinafter to same unless otherwise indicated.) The paper had learned the details from "a gentleman residing near Falls Church, not far from Bailey's Cross Roads."

Detail from 1862 Union Army map showing the general area of Mosby's raid of August 16 1863, including Falls Church, Maj. Nutt's property (Camp Rucker), Ft. Buffalo, and Bailey's Cross Roads (courtesy of Library of Congress). The Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike is the road running through Falls Church past Munson's Hill to Bailey's Cross-Roads.
On Sunday, August 16, "just about daylight, Mosby and fifty-four of his men were seen about a mile from fort Buffalo, with three Union soldiers and some horses with harness that they had captured from a train of sutlers early in the night before." The group "disappeared suddenly in the woods," but at 9 o'clock that night Mosby and fifteen of his men, along with the three prisoners, resurfaced "at the northwest end of Falls Church village." The raiders then rode outside of town, "through by the contraband camp on Major Nutt's place," and joined the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike (today's VA-7)  near Ft. Buffalo. They proceeded down the pike to a point one mile below Bailey's Cross Roads before doubling back.

Mosby stopped when he got to Camp Rucker. The Gazette reported what happened next:
Mosby and six men dismounted and approached the contraband camp, when the guard halted him; he gave some reply and moved on, when the guard shot and one of the Union prisoners made his escape. Moseby [sic] then fell back and moved through Falls Church up the turnpike to a little tavern, where they stopped, and was telling the keeper of the hotel where they had been, and that they could go where they pleased, when a detachment of the California cavalry came up and drove them beyond Difficult run four miles from Dranesville.***
Assuming the Gazette had the story right, Mosby and his band went on quite a ride the night of August 16. The article doesn't report much in the way of booty aside from what the Confederates seized when they attacked the sutler train earlier in the day. Mosby obviously had a raid on Camp Rucker in mind when he stopped at Maj. Nutt's place, but quick action by an alert Federal guard foiled the potential disaster and allowed one prisoner to escape. Only a few months later, Elijah White and his men would have a bit more success in attacking another contraband farm at Camp Beckwith.


*Nutt's farm was somewhere in the vicinity of the modern-day East Falls Church Metro Station.

**Some sources indicate that Nutt entered the Confederate military. I have not uncovered Nutt's service record. At the very least, Nutt worked for the Confederate Treasury Department based on information contained in Confederate citizens files in the National Archives.

***This unit was likely the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, which was comprised on some troopers from California. The 2nd Massachusetts was doing duty in the Department of Washington at the time.


Alexandria Gazette, Apr. 11, 1861, May 11, 1861, Jan. 10, 1863, Aug. 19, 1863; Bradley E. Gernand, A Virginia Village Goes to War: Falls Church During the Civil War (2002); James O'McClure, "The Old Twenty-First: Interesting History of the 'First Buffalo Regiment,'" Western New Yorker, Jan. 21, 1897; J. Harrison Mills, Chronicles of the Twenty-First Regiment, New York State Volunteers (1863); Beth Mitchell, Fairfax County in 1860: Property Owners (original map book available at Virginia Room, City of Fairfax Regional Library); N.A.R.A., Files for William D. Nutt in Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms, 1861-65 (available at; New York Times, Aug. 9, 1863; Oliver Willcox Norton, Army Letters, 1861-1865 (1903); "2nd Massachusetts Cavalry,"  Civil War in the East (website);

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