Sunday, September 11, 2011

Perfect Order and Excellent Spirits

In which Stuart and Stevens earn their stars.

George McClellan, major general commanding the Army of the Potomac, had a great deal to crow about on September 11, but somehow it didn't work its way into his daily letter to his wife Mary Ellen. Instead, he groaned to her in boredom about his previous day visiting the Pennsylvania Reserves in Tenleytown. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin had come down to see his pet unit and deliver regimental flags paid for by the state, since he hadn't had time to before with the rapidity of their mobilization. He also had delivered a stirring speech, not unexpected for the nation's most hawkish governor.
All our material wealth, and the life of every man in Pennsylvania, stands pledged to vindicate the right, to sustain the Government, and to restore the ascendency of law and order. You are here for that purpose, with no hope of acquisition or vengeance, nor from any desire to be enriched by the shedding of blood. God forbid! Our people are for peace. But if men lay violent hands on the sacred fabric of the Government, unjustly spill the blood of their bretheren, and tear the sacred constitution to pieces, Pennsylvania is for war--war to the death!
"It was long and fatiguing," was the extent of McClellan's assessment to Mary Ellen. The historian of the Pennsylvania Reserves didn't pick up on his disinterest, instead relating his generosity to Curtin, Reserves commander George McCall, President Lincoln, and Secretary of State William Seward. "At the close of the ceremonies the distinguished visitors repaired to General McCall's tent and partook of a bounteous collation, prepared for them by the commanding general."

McClellan did make sure to note for his wife "how the men brighten up now, when I go among them--I can see every eye glisten. Yesterday they nearly pulled me to pieces in one regt. You never heard such yelling. I did not think the Presdt liked it much." He also took time to respond to one of Mary Ellen's previous letters with shock that his friends Simon Bolivar Buckner and Gustavus W. Smith had joined the Confederate army.

But the closest to a mention of Lewinsville to his wife is a minor description of his movements: "I then rode over the Chain Bridge & back to Fort Corcoran [Rosslyn]." It might be that September 10 had been so busy he penned his letter to his wife on the morning of September 11, instead of his usual habit of writing at night. Whatever the case, McClellan did plenty of crowing to Winfield Scott by telegram from Baldy Smith's headquarters at Chain Bridge.
Gen'l Smith made reconnaissance with two thousand men to Lewinsville, remained several hours & completed examination of the ground. When work was completed & the command had started back the enemy opened fire with shell, killing two men & wounding three... Our men then came back in perfect order & excellent spirits. They behaved most admirably under fire.
We shall have no more Bull Run affairs.
The facts were less sanguine. McClellan had asked Brigadier General William Farrar Smith, better known as "Baldy", to move his brigade across Chain Bridge and scout the Confederate position, since he believed the main Southern invasion was likely to cross the Potomac at Leesburg. Smith would get a better idea of where the rebels were building up and the intel should help McClellan place his troops better.

Smith had sent a detachment to Lewinsville under Colonel Isaac Stevens with his 79th New York (known as Cameron's Highlanders), a battalion each of the 2nd Vermont, 3rd Vermont, 19th Indiana, and 65th New York (a battalion at the time was a collection of companies of any size, in this case two, two, five, and four, respectively), two companies of cavalry, and four guns from Captain Charles Griffin's West Point Artillery (going by Battery D, 5th Artillery more often since their tragic experience at Bull Run). Today, Lewinsville has been swallowed by McLean, but the village center was close to where Lewinsville Park is, near where VA 123 crosses the Dulles Toll Road.

Stevens' men were watched the whole time by the cavalry scouts of Colonel James Ewell Brown Stuart, known by his initials as "Jeb". The Confederate commander, General Joe Johnston, had no intention of launching an invasion of the North (however much his number two, General G.T. Beauregard, fantasized about it) and had only two brigades and Stuart's cavalry close to Washington, to give him plenty of warning in case McClellan started moving. In fact, Johnston didn't even much like that positioning, it was mostly a case of indulging Beauregard. Since both of the brigades of infantry were from Beauregard's old army, Johnston had insisted the cavalry be his own. But he had found to his relief that the man Beauregard had placed in command of this advanced force, Brigadier General James Longstreet, was level-headed and professional.

Stuart, on the other hand, was proving less reliable. Watching Stevens' men, he had sent for the closest men on hand, a handful of companies from the 13th Virginia and a battery of Louisianan artillery. Longstreet, whose headquarters was near present-day Seven Corners, would not have time to comment on Stuart's plan, and there's no record if the brigade commander of the 13th or the artillery did (considering it was Jubal Early, he probably would have given approval anyway).

Stevens, meanwhile, had been readying his men to return to Chain Bridge anyway. Just when they got started moving, approximately 300 Confederates, mixed between horsemen and infantry, charged his line. Rather than deploy his vastly superior force, Stevens kept them on the move, turning around only the 79th New York and Griffin's battery to fight off the Confederates. With a vastly superior infantry force facing them, Stuart called off his own as well as his cavalry, but kept urging the artillery forward as close as possible. It was a strategy that Griffin would appreciate, and his four guns answered shot for shot.

The battle fizzled out after that, with the artillery continuing to exchange fire. In the whole affair combined Stevens expedition lost two killed and three wounded, while Stuart didn't even bother to record if he had losses. But it was the largest engagement around Washington since Bull Run, so both sides decided to make it a PR event. McClellan dramatically rewarded the 79th New York by returning the colors he had confiscated a few weeks before. Longstreet took the opportunity to laud Jeb Stuart and recommend him for promotion for daring action, a cause which Beauregard was pleased to take up as well, and with which Johnston reluctantly acquiesced.

Coincidentally, in his letter to Mary Ellen September 11, McClellan had closed with a note of vanity. "I enclose a card just received from 'A. Lincoln'--it shows too much deference to be seen outside." The card itself became separated from the letter, but historians think it was an undated note from the President asking McClellan, "may I now appoint Stevens a Brig. Genl? I wish to do it."

On September 28, Lincoln would appoint Stevens to the grade of brigadier general of volunteers. Four days after Jefferson Davis appointed Stuart to the same.


For a wonderfully vivid account of the 79th New York at Lewinsville, and how their fighting led to the return of their confiscated colors, check out a post over at All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac last year.

Print Sources:
  • Sears, 98.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout out, and great account of Lewinsville. I particularly like your analysis concerning what happened on the Confederate side in the lead up to the skirmish.