Friday, June 17, 2011

Surprise at Vienna

At approximately 6:00 pm on June 17, South Carolina Colonel Maxcy Gregg heard something. His men had marched to Vienna from Fairfax Court House (City of Fairfax) on local reports that the Union had been snooping around the area the previous two days. Gregg spent all day waiting for the Northerners to appear, and when they hadn't, decided to wreck the water tank at the station to slow down their trains and call it a day.

From Gregg's report:

Towards 6 o'clock pm, just as we were moving off, a distant railroad whistle was heard. I marched the troops back, placing the two 6-pounder guns on the hill commanding the bend in the railroad, immediately supported by Company B... The rest of the regiment was formed on the crest of the hill to the right of the guns. The cavalry were drawn up still further to the right.
The train was full of Union soldiers from Ohio and had been sent by Irvin McDowell to near present-day Ballston down the Alexandria, Loudon, and Hampshire Railroad. From their, their commander, Brigadier General Robert Schenck, was supposed to march them down the Leesburg Pike to Falls Church and then Vienna to see what the Confederates were up to in the area (unusually, neither Schenck nor Gregg were West Pointers, despite the technicality of their responsibilities on June 17). In the 19th Century battlefield, this was called a reconnaissance-in-force. The idea was to force the enemy to respond to your force with their own, so you could get an idea how many soldiers they had. It was both faster and more accurate than sending spies, who could be captured or compromised at any time.

But Schenck had bungled his orders, either deliberately or by accident, and continued to move his men by train all the way to Vienna, with the exceptions of detachments left behind to guard bridges so the train could return in a hurry if necessary. The train proceeded down the track, today the path of the W&OD Trail for bikes and joggers running through Fairfax County, until it approached Vienna.

Schenck's account:

On turning the curve slowly, within one-quarter mile of Vienna, were fired upon by raking masked batteries of, I think, three guns, with shells, round-shot, and grape, killing and wounding the men on the platform and in the cars before the train could be stopped. When the train stopped, the engineer could not, on account of the damage to some part of the running machinery, draw the train out of the fire, the engine being in the rear. We left the cars and retired to the left and right of train through woods... We fell back along the railroad, throwing out skirmishers on both flanks... The engineer... detached his engine with one car from the rest of the disabled train and abandoned us, retiring to Alexandria.

Gregg recounted the situation after Schenck's men had escaped from the train: "From the lateness of the hour, however, the nature of the ground, and the start the enemy had, they could not be overtaken." He retired instead to Fairfax Court House.

The site of Gregg's ambush today.
The railroad embankments are still clear.
Gregg suffered no losses, but Schenck had eight dead and four wounded, part of the train (burned by Gregg's men) and a large collection of government issued equipment abandoned by the Union men. The effect on the psyche of Northern leaders was greater. Schenck reported at least 4,000 men had faced him at Vienna (it was closer to 800) and that they were now gathering at Fairfax Court House.

General-in-chief Winfield Scott felt dragged back down the hole he had just clawed his way out of, with Washington again under siege. "We are pressed here," he snapped to the dawdling Robert Patterson in Hagerstown in a two sentence message. "Send the troops [to Washington] that I have twice called for without delay." (Patterson cheekily wrote back that he would send them, if Scott would send him rail cars to transport them).

In Poolesville across from Confederate-held Leesburg, Charles P. Stone also received a request to send a regiment to Washington. The Confederate artillery from the morning had opened fire again around the same time Schenck's train was getting ambushed, and though his two guns from the West Point battery had been more than equal, Stone was becoming nervous that it was the prelude to a major river crossing of some kind. He had already repositioned his troops to prepare for the attack.

"As I have conflicting reports about the enemy now firing in front of my position," he replied for the request for troops, "And no positive assurance there is not a force above [up-river], I do not feel authorized to weaken the force here by a withdrawal of a regiment, as I might thereby expose Washington to an attack from this direction, and at the same time put my command in desperate condition."

Confederates coming from Vienna and Confederates coming from Leesburg, and Scott seemed to have no field commanders he could trust outside of Stone -- and he couldn't provide Scott what he most desperately seemed to need -- more men.

No comments:

Post a Comment