Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Time of Skirmishing: Pohick Church, August 18, 1861

Leafing through my volume of the OR covering the summer and fall of 1861 after First Manassas, I am struck by the number of skirmishes that took place across Northern Virginia. Pick a place, and chances are, something happened there during the last half of 1861. Locations that are better known today for strip malls, soccer fields, and housing developments were the scene of minor but intense clashes between small Union and Confederate forces. 

This upcoming Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the cavalry skirmish at Pohick Church in Fairfax County involving troopers from the 1st New York Cavalry Regiment.  Pohick Church, about twelves miles south of Alexandria, sat near two roads leading in the direction of Fairfax and Centreville. The Confederates, worried about a Union flanking movement along these roads, always made sure to to guard the area around the church.  The stage was set for an encounter.

Company C of the 1st New York Cavalry left Philadelphia for Washington City on July 22, 1861, the day after the disastrous Federal defeat at Manassas.  The 1st New York Cavalry, also known as the "Lincoln Cavalry," was organized by Carl Schurz, a former German revolutionary of 1848 and confidant of President Lincoln.  Company C, led by Captain William H. Boyd, was comprised of men from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Nine other companies were raised in New York City, and four of them were composed entirely of Germans, Poles, and Hungarians.  The two remaining companies came from Grand Rapids, Michigan and Syracuse, New York.

Company C initially encamped on Capitol Hill, but at the start of August, the troopers left Washington and moved across the Long Bridge to Alexandria  The men settled at Camp Elizabeth on the western side of the town.  The unit reported to Brig. Gen. William B. Franklin, who would later serve as a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac.

On the morning of August 18, 1861, Franklin ordered Boyd  "to proceed on a scout down the Mount Vernon road and vicinity of Accotink, to capture, if possible, 27 cavalry of the enemy."  (OR, Series 1, Vol. 5, Part 1, p. 113.)  The wording of the order is a bit strange and begs the question of why 27? -- presumably an earlier reconnaissance had reported precise numbers of the enemy in that direction.  Boyd set out at 10 a.m. with 46 men, as well as Lt. William Hanson, a Lt. Gibson of Franklin's staff, and Dr. Herrick, a surgeon.

An 1862 sketch of Pohick Church by Union soldier Robert Sneden (courtesy of Virginia Historical Society).   Pohick Church was founded sometime prior to 1724 and served as the first permanent church in colonial Virginia north of the Occoquan River.  The structure standing during the Civil War, and still standing today, was completed in 1774.  George Washington, who supervised the construction, worshipped at Pohick Church.  For more information on the church's history, see here.
The scouting party moved in the direction of Accotink, "interrogating all pedestrians and examining all houses and outbuildings on our way thither." (OR, 1:5:1, p. 114.) At Accotink, Boyd learned that Confederate cavalry had been seen a bit farther west at Pohick Church. Company C rode immediately in the direction of the church. One of the company's advance pickets came rushing back to the main body, shouting to the men that a whole Confederate army was up ahead. This misinformation caused a "stampede" among the men. (OR, 1:5:1, p. 114.) Soon, "another of the advance came on, and his excited manner tended to quicken the pace of the retreating men." (William Harrison Beach, The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry, from April 19, 1861 to July 7, 1865, p. 36 (1902)). A third picket raced back to inform Boyd, who was now in the rear, that "he had been near enough the rebels to see them all" and that in fact, "[t]here were no more of them than there were in their own company, and he felt sure that our men could whip them." (Beach, p. 36.)

Detail of 1862 Union map of Northeastern Virginia, showing Accotink, Pohick Church, and the surrounding area.  Alexandria is located off the map to the northeast, or upper right.  The full map can be found here (courtesy of Library of Congress).
Learning that his troopers had a fighting chance, Boyd rallied his men, who wheeled around and rode back towards the Confederate cavalry force, about 20 in number.  When he caught site of the enemy along the road, the captain ordered his men forward, and they "shouted, cheered, and charged."  (OR, 1:5:1, p. 114.)  The Union cavalrymen rode towards the enemy, firing their revolvers as they went.  The Rebels got off one volley and fell back.  Company C pursued the retreating Confederates down three separate roads just beyond Pohick Church, but as Boyd reported to Franklin after the skirmish, the enemy cavalrymen "were well mounted, had very superior horses, and were enable to outfoot us."  (OR, 1:5:1, p. 114.) 

Company C experienced light casualties.  Trooper Jacob Erwin was killed and two others were missing after being thrown from their horses.  Erwin is supposedly the first Union volunteer cavalryman killed in the Army of the Potomac. (Beach, p. 37.)  The OR contains no Confederate account of the encounter, and Boyd was not certain of the enemy casualties.  No prisoners were taken.  (The Southern cavalry unit also remains unidentified in the sources I have reviewed.)  Boyd took home a lesson from the skirmish at Pohick Church. As he reported to Franklin,  "[i]t is my opinion that had we some infantry with us we would have been able to outflank them and taken some prisoners." (OR, 1:5:1, p. 114.)

A regimental historian also recalled:
The men of this company never in the four years that followed forgot the lesson of their first fight [at Pohick Church]. In a fight of cavalry against cavalry the advantage is with the party that moves first. It is difficult to withstand the impetus and momentum of a well-directed cavalry charge. There was always a stimulus in a lusty and hearty cheer. The men of the regiment learned that in a charge, the sabre was more effective than the revolver or the carbine. (Beach, p. 37.)
Company C gathered Erwin's body and returned to camp at Alexandria.  The cavalrymen's performance did not go unnoticed.  A few days later, on August 22, Maj. Gen. George B.McClellan praised the men of Company C at a review of Franklin's troops.  By the middle of September, the remainder of the 1st New York Cavalry was in the field around Washington, but Company C would have the honor of being the first to fight.

Note on Additional Sources:

The Glories of War: Small Battles and Early Heroes of 1861, by local historian Charles P. Poland, Jr. has a discussion of the focus of the armies on Pohick Church.

For more information on the 1st New York Cavalry, see the Civil War in the East website (here) and the New York State Military Museum website (here).

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