Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Civil War News and Views: The Advanced Confederate Line, September 1861

Now that the Sesquicentennial is over, I look forward to revisiting the earlier war period in Northern Virginia. As readers may recall, I spent a lot of time a few years ago examining the Confederate advance closer to Washington at the end of August 1861, when forces under Gen. James Longstreet occupied the high ground on Munson's Hill and Mason's Hill. Not long ago I came across the following report from the September 6, 1861 edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch concerning the new position within sight of Washington:
Confederate States Army, Fairfax Station, Va., Sept. 1 
Last evening I returned from Mason's Hill, seven miles south of Washington, D. C. Mason's Hill derives its name from the gentleman's name (Capt. Mason, now in the Confederate service at Norfolk, Va.,) who is the proprietor. Mason's Hill is a very high and commanding position, and about two miles from Munson's Hill, both of which are now fortified and in possession of the ‘"rebels."’ 
In a straight line from Mason's Hill stands the Capitol at Washington, and which can readily be seen with the naked eye. Whilst beholding the dome of the Capitol, I feel like one looking upon the ‘"promised land,"’ where shortly, I hope, ‘"may our possessions be."’ I had the pleasure of seeing Prof. Lowe's balloon, and am sure his observations were of little account to him. The Yankee experiment of ballooning came near receiving a great ‘"pull back,"’ by the firing upon the balloon spy by the Washington Artillery. Several shots were fired at it, when it immediately ‘"went down."’ Don't suppose, however, ‘"anybody was hurt."’ But, nevertheless. somebody was scared, for the balloon suddenly disappeared and did not come up again.
Camping at Mason's Hill is interesting and exciting — not a day passing away but a few Yankee pickets ‘"bite the dust."’ Whilst I was there, in one day eight were gathered by our boys, who keep a sharp lookout for the chaps, and give them a dead shot on sight — Several prisoners have been sent to General Davis' institution at Richmond for safe keeping. By the way, we will soon have a Yankee army on hand. 
On the morning of the 30th a large Federal camp, about two miles from Alexandria, broke up and retired, thinking, probably, the ‘"rebels"’ were getting too close for comfort.--They built a large fire, the smoke of which served to cover them as they broke up their camp.
Fine views are obtained from both Munson's and Mason's Hills, of the surrounding country, and also of the Potomac. Upon the Potomac, large vessels.
There has been considerable sickness in our camp; but, with the cool weather, the health of all the men is improving, and all will be on their feet soon, with musket in hand. No news at present that I dare tell you. Pen.
N. B.--Envelopes are very scarce. The man who goes into the manufactory of envelopes in the South, will make a fortune P. (courtesy of Perseus Digital Library)
An engraving of the Confederate fortification on Munson's Hill, Illustrated London News, Oct. 5, 1861 (courtesy of Emory University).
Foreign correspondents also took an interest in the advanced Confederate line. A piece in the October 5, 1861 edition of the Illustrated London News, accompanying the above illustration, contained the following account of the Rebel position at Munson's Hill:
 This is the point in Virginia at which the Unionists and the Confederates are nearest each other, and whilst our Artist was making his sketch, crouched beneath the shelter of the foliage, within hailing distance of the enemy's pickets, a continual spattering of bullets fell round the spot. More than halfway up the road towards the hill is a barricade, from behind which a Secessionist sharpshooter is having some pot shots, and, screened by the hedges in the cornfields, others are doing the same. In the foreground are the Union advanced pickets, furnished by the Michigan Regiment, one of whom is in the act of firing at two or three men beyond the barricade. A Michigan soldier just shot lies in the road. The Confederates have some rifled cannon on the earthwork, and whenever they see a number of Federalists together they send in a dose of shells.
A New York paper thus describes the Confederate position on Munson's-hill:—"Munson's-hill is probably the highest eminence within ten miles of the Potomac, immediately opposite Washington. It is about six miles from the Capitol, the intervening space being covered with a succession of gently rolling hills, crowned principally with forest trees, although here and there dotted with churches, farmhouses, and country villages. The streams are unimportant and the roads dusty. The hill presents its most abrupt side towards the national capital, and, unlike those around, has but few trees on its summit. Many of those which originally existed have no doubt been felled while the intrenchments were in progress. At present an immense Confederate flag—the red, white, and blue stripes in which are at least five feet wide each—is the most prominent object upon the top of the eminence Two of the trees which have been allowed to remain were used as an observatory. The Confederate defences are constructed entirely of earth, fifteen feet being the highest elevation. The sloping hillside in front of the fort is clear of underbrush or trees, and is sufficiently extended to allow 3000 men to parade. The distance from the cover of the woods to the summit of the hill is not so great but that a quick movement would drive the enemy from their guns with very little loss of life. The flank defences of the fort consist of three batteries. It is believed that earthworks have been thrown up on another portion of the hill commanding the road to Fairfax Courthouse. The fort is intended more particularly to command the road leading from Alexandria to Falls Church, the road from Washington to Fairfax, just mentioned, the railroad from Alexandria to Vienna, and the position of Bailey's Cross-roads."
With little to report in the way of large-scale battles, newspapers turned their attention to the Confederate lines within view of the nation's capital. Munson's and Mason's Hills were popular topics. Add in the thrilling ascent of Lowe's balloons or the tension of the picket war, and correspondents had plenty of material to keep their readers interested and entertained. The Confederates abandoned the advanced position by the end of September 1861, and not long afterwards, both sides settled in for a long fall and winter in camp.

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