Thursday, July 24, 2014

Passing Through the Old Stomping Grounds, July 1864

Following Jubal Early's defeat at the gates of Washington in July 1864, the Army of the Potomac's VI Corps pursued the Confederates westward to the Shenandoah Valley. Among the Union ranks were men who had spent the first winter of the war at Camp Griffin near Lewinsville, Virginia. They belonged to various units, including the 5th Wisconsin, 7th Maine, 43rd New York, 49th New York, 49th Pennsylvania, and 77th New York, as well as the famed First Vermont Brigade. My ancestor, Pvt. William Baumgarten of Co. K, 102nd Pennsylvania also marched with them. He had only joined the army in March 1864, but had already seen his share of horrific combat during the Overland Campaign.

A stereoscopic view of the 43rd N.Y. at Camp Griffin (courtesy of Wikipedia).

July 20-21, 1864: The Valley to Goose Creek

After suffering defeat at Rutherford's Farm on July 20, Early withdrew up the Valley to Fisher's Hill. The Federal commander, Gen. Horatio Wright, considered the Confederate threat eliminated and ordered the VI Corps and the rest of his force to return to Washington. There the Union soldiers could rest, resupply, and await further orders. (OR, 1:37:2, 419-20.)

Gen. Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following Gen. John Sedgwick's death at Spotsylvania (courtesy of Wikipedia). He led his men to the defense of Washington and battled Early at Ft. Stevens.

The VI Corps, along with elements of the XIX Corps, set out during the evening of July 20 from their position near Berryville. The Second Division, including William and the 102nd Pennsylvania, took the lead position in the VI Corps' line of march. [1] Headquarters directed that "[t]he troops will be made to understand that their rations must last them until they reach Washington." (OR, 1:37:2, 406.) After wading across the Shenandoah River, the men pressed on through Snicker's Gap and marched the entire night in wet clothes, taking "brief halts for coffee." (Benedict 492.)

As the sun rose over the Northern Virginia countryside, the columns continued to snake along the turnpike. The tired men of the the 49th Pennsylvania decided to stop in Hamilton for breakfast. According to one diarist from the regiment, "the citizens waved the stars and stripes as we passed through the little village; our bands played and our colors were unfurled." (in Westbrook 213.)

In the afternoon the VI Corps marched through Leesburg and halted near Goose Creek. Here the soldiers rested their sore feet and camped for the night. Those lagging behind on the march were not so fortunate. As the diarist from the 49th Pennsylvania wrote that day, "[John] Mosby is reported in the rear, gobbling up stragglers." (in Westbrook 213.)

July 22, 1864: Goose Creek to Difficult Run & Environs

The wagon train got underway at 4 a.m. on July 22, followed by the VI Corps and the XIX Corps. The day's route took the troops along the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike (today's VA-7). Seeking to protect his columns, Wright ordered that "[t]he cavalry under Colonel [Charles Russell] Lowell. . . be kept well out to the front, flanks, and rear, and endeavor to break up the guerrilla parties in the line of march." (OR, 1:37:2, 412.)

The divisions filed past Dranesville, where the Lees burg-Alexandria Turnpike intersected the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike (today's VA-193). Both roads led towards Washington. To avoid any confusion among his commanders, Wright made clear in his orders that the two corps were to continue on the Leesburg-Alexandria Turnpike.  

After another long march through heat and dust, the Federal force halted for the night in the vicinity of Difficult Creek. Some of the troops progressed as far as Freedom Hill and Peach Grove Post-Office (today's Tysons Corner) before setting up camp.

July 23-26, 1864: Lewinsville, Langley, and Beyond

The next day, July 23, followed a similar pattern. The two corps began their march around 4 a.m. Before long, they would enter the tiny hamlet of Lewinsville (part of today's McLean). Their route took them past the battlefields where some of the men had fought J.E.B. Stuart in September 1861. They also moved over the very ground once occupied by Camp Griffin. Some of these soldiers had lived here during winter 1861-62 as part of Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's division. The diarist from the 49th Pennsylvania observed a few differences from those early days:
 [O]ld Camp Griffin has been changed into contraband farms, and our old parade ground is growing a crop of corn. . . . (in Westbrook 213.) [2]
Union Army map showing Lewinsville and vicinity (courtesy of Library of Congress). Wright's men took the road from Peach Grove P.O. (far left), through Lewinsville (center), to Langley (far right). There the VI and XIX Corps picked up the Leesburg-Georgetown Turnpike to Chain Bridge. Camp Griffin sat on the Mackall, Johnston, and Smoot properties and the surrounding land. Living in this area, I am moved to think that 150 years ago, my ancestor was marching past my very neighborhood on his way to Chain Bridge. How the world is small, even across time!
Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont even located his former campsite. As he wrote in a letter on August 8, 1864:
There was the same excavation that we had made for the floor of our tent, the same fire-place and chimney and the same log basement. There was my old bedstead made of barrel staves nailed to two poles, and there was my old stool, which I remember used always to be in the other boys' way and which was always a reproach upon my woeful lack of ingenuity. I found too, the identical cup which has served me with coffee many times -- a good one once, but now rusty and half filled with dirt; and there were many other things that I saw around that little spot, uninteresting to others though quite interesting to me. . . . .  An eventful  season of war and strife has passed since we left that ground, and many that were with us then have been laid low by rebel hands; but peace comes not yet. Our regiment was full and strong when it left Camp Griffin, but not one-tenth of those men are with us now. (in Rosenblatt 243-44.)
Continuing along the pike beyond Langley, the VI Corps headed in the direction of Chain Bridge. Some of the men entered familiar territory once again -- on the high ground near the bridge was where soldiers under Gen. Smith had established Camp Advance and started construction of defensive works in September 1861.

Proceeding down a steep hill, Wright's corps reached Chain Bridge, crossed the Potomac, and halted in a rough line stretching from from Battery Vermont to Fort Gaines and Tennallytown. The general immediately took steps to ensure that his corps received adequate supplies. He urged his commanders to "have the wants of their men supplied as rapidly as practicable." (OR, 1:37:2, 425.)

In the end, Wright spent very little time around Tennallytown. Instead of returning to the front before Petersburg, he was dispatched to deal with a new threat from Early. By the morning of July 26, the men were once again on the move. They broke camp and marched that day to Rockville. The campaign against Early was entering a new and prolonged phase.


The march of the VI Corps through Lewinsville and Langley was a bittersweet homecoming for some. By summer of 1864, the war had taken a terrible toll, and many soldiers never lived to see the old campgrounds for a second time. Others had left the ranks due to wounds, disease, or the end of enlistment. The survivors also looked upon a landscape that had undergone a revolutionary transformation. In place of picket lines, drills, and military parades were contrabands, marking the transition from slavery to freedom. A return to the "stomping grounds" of 1861-62 symbolized just how far the war had progressed since those early days of relative calm and innocence, before the massive bloodletting and the fight for emancipation.


[1] Incidentally, William received a head wound in skirmishing around Snicker's Gap a few days before and may possibly have made the trip by ambulance. The exact timing and circumstances of William's wounding is somewhat uncertain based on available sources.

[2] By summer 1864, the contraband farm, Camp Wadsworth, sat on land where Camp Griffin was once located. (See my post here for more information.) Camp Beckwith, another contraband farm, sat north of the village of Lewinsville.


George Grenville Benedict, Vermont in the Civil War, Vol. 1 (1886); Butler County PAGenWeb, "Genealogical Inquiries" (contains excerpt on Wm. Baumgarten from 1889 book, Presidents, Soldiers and Statesmen, Vol. 1); John H. Niebaum, History of the Pittsburgh Washington Infantry: 102nd (Old 13th) Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and Its Forebears, 1792 to 1930 (1931); Official Records, 1:37:1, 406-457 & 1:37:2, 272 et seq.; Emil & Ruth Rosenblatt, Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk (1992 ed.); Robert Westbrook, History of the 49th Pennsylvania Volunteers (1897).

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