Friday, September 9, 2011

The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Lewinsville

This upcoming Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of the so-called "Battle of Lewinsville." Living right down the street from Lewinsville, which is now a part of McLean, Virginia, I have taken a particular interest in the minor fight that occurred there on September 11, 1861. Not long after starting this blog, I began to research the Battle of Lewinsville and wrote a few posts about some interesting aspects of the engagement.

As a quick recap, on September 11, Union Brig. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith sent a force of about 1,800 men, accompanied by four guns, to conduct reconnaissance at Lewinsville. The soldiers, under the immediate command of Col. Isaac Stevens, left Camp Advance around 7:30 a.m. and arrived in the village about two and a half hours later. Around 2 p.m., the mission was complete, and recall was sounded. As the Union soldiers prepared for their return to camp, over 300 Confederates under the command of Col. J.E.B. Stuart launched an attack from the direction of Falls Church. Heavy artillery dueling ensued as the Union force fell back towards Washington.  Smith himself arrived on the scene with two additional artillery pieces. Both sides claimed victory, and casualties were light.

As we approach the anniversary of the Battle of Lewinsville, I thought I would direct readers to a few posts that I have done on the subject:

*Last summer, I looked at the role the 79th New York "Highlanders" played at Lewinsville. The regiment's story is one of redemption following a disgraceful mutiny in August 1861. See here for a post on how the 79th lost its colors, and see here for a detailed account of the 79th in action at Lewinsville. 

*Jeb Stuart won accolades for his performance at Lewinsville, where he led a small force of the 1st Virgina Cavalry, 13th Virginia Infantry, and two guns of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans against far superior Union numbers.  Stuart apparently lost no men.  Check out this post on how Stuart was promoted to brigadier general in part because of his bold (and some may say reckless) leadership at Lewinsville.

*Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, reacted very favorably to the Union Army's performance at Lewinsville.  In June of last year, I discussed McClellan's boast to President Lincoln on the day of the skirmish.

A few books discuss the Battle of Lewinsville, but I have found some inaccuracies. One book, for example, places the engagement in Vienna, Virginia at the same site as the Confederate attack on the 1st Ohio in June 1861! (See Russel H. Beatie, Army of the Potomac: McClellan Takes Command: September 1861-February 1862, p. 7 (2002)). The best and most accurate account I have read so far is "A Civil War Action in Lewinsville, Virginia, 11 September 1861," by Edgar R. Hon in the Yearbook of the Historical Society of Fairfax County, Vol. 29 (2003-04). 

Unfortunately, current visitors to Lewinsville have little way of knowing what occurred there 150 years ago. I understand that a Civil War Trails marker or a Fairfax County historical marker commemorating the Battle of Lewinsville is going to be installed in McLean. I will let readers know when I find out more, but such a marker would be a welcome sight. 

A current view of  the Gilbert house, where the Confederate attack on pickets of the 79th New York unfolded at Lewinsville.  Jeb Stuart placed his guns to the right of the house and opened fire on the retiring Union soldiers.  Known today as "Meadowbrook," the home is located in Lewinsville Park off Chain Bridge Road in McLean. The Fairfax County Inventory of Historic Sites lists the date of construction as circa 1860, although according to Carole Herrick's history of McLean, the farmhouse dates to 1847.  The house was damaged during the Civil War, and in 1941, the owners made  numerous additions. Fairfax Country acquired the property in 1973. 

A Word About 9/11

The Battle of Lewinsville, which has always lived in the shadows of the larger engagements of the Civil War, now shares an anniversary date with the tragedy of 9/11.  It is sometimes difficult for us to imagine a battle occurring in a place that has been so transformed since the mid-19th century.  But think how hard it would have been for a soldier at Lewinsville to grasp that in 140 years to the day, a united America would experience one of the most violent and traumatic attacks in the nation's history.  That horrible day ten years ago is still very much with us, both individually and collectively as a country.  I remember distinctly standing on the top floor of my law firm in downtown DC, looking out at the smoking Pentagon across the Potomac.  I remember too not knowing whether the White House, right next door, would be a target for the terrorists.  The fear gripped me, and like hundreds, if not thousands, of others in Washington, I joined the exodus out of town by foot.  I still get choked up just thinking about it all.  As I conclude this post, I'd like to remember all those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks of a decade ago.  You are in our thoughts and prayers.  America, and the world, will never forget.


Dudley Bokoski said...

I very much enjoy this blog for the way it makes sense out of the geography of the events of 1861 in Northern Virginia. In reading of places like Lewinsville and Munson's Hill I'm struck by how the vistas from these locations are described, and in some cases pictured in illustrations. At Lewinsville, the Union had moved troops up to where they had a view across the plain to Vienna (according to the O.R.). You just can't imagine, and certainly can't visualize, these views today. Again, great work.

As for 9/11, while the soldiers of the Civil War couldn't imagine the technology and destructive power of the attacks, the better read among them would remember the Barbary War of 1801 and the way it eerily put on display the attitudes and rhetoric which would come to the world's attention in such a horrific way 200 years later.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Dudley--Thanks for your comment. I couldn't agree more that it is hard to imagine the vistas that existed at the time of the Civil War in Northern Virginia. I guess the disappearance of farmland, modern development, and increasing congestion have clouded many of the views. Before writing some of my posts, I drive through the area, trying to visualize what it must have looked like. If I had computer graphics skills, I would love to attempt a recreation, but alas, I am not that tech savvy!

Interesting point on the Barbary War. A lot of Americans forget that earlier encounter and how it foreshadowed current tensions with that region of the world.