Saturday, November 19, 2011

More Bravery Than Federal Troops Usually Exhibit

In which we go for a ride along on a cavalry scout

The late fall of 1861 is portrayed in history books as a time of squandered opportunity and stagnation, as both Northern and Southern Armies of the Potomac slouched into winter quarters. This, however, is a hindsight only possible with the knowledge that no major campaign would begin until March. At the time, both armies were restless and planning. On November 19, Confederate General G.T. Beauregard sent orders to Colonel Nathan "Shanks" Evans defending an outpost at Leesburg that clearly anticipated an imminent Union attack. "You should leave, under proper guard," Beauregard told him, "at or about Carter's Mill [Oatland Plantation] all the heavy baggage not already sent back to Manassas and not required by your brigade in a more advanced position." Sending away the baggage, or the wagons and supplies contained that an army relied on for sustenance was the Civil War equivalent of a "red alert."

Beauregard was equally concerned about his other flank at Dumfries, while McClellan's writing shows a concern for his flank divisions of Nathaniel Banks at Point of Rocks and Joe Hooker in Charles County, Maryland. But all the maneuver and concern about the edges of the army, didn't mean that the center was any more settled. On November 18, one of the many skirmishes around the center of the line took place, but this one is rare in that the official reports of both sides survived the war and is printed in the Official Records.

On the Confederate side was a battalion of the 1st Virginia Cavalry under Lt. Colonel Fitzhugh Lee. Lee himself was a native of the area, born in what was then Fairfax County at the Clermont estate, itself a point of local history worth a digression. Now the neighborhood of Clermont Woods in Alexandria (anchored on Clermont Park and Mark Twain Park, across the Beltway from Cameron Run), Clermont was built prior to the American Revolution and survived the destruction that other loyalist estates suffered because of its owner's friendship with George Washington. It was purchased by George Mason's son John, who owned it when Lee was born. Clermont's subsequent owner became a Confederate naval officer. In November 1861, it stood vacant, but would soon be put to work as a smallpox hospital. It would be burned before the end of the war to eradicate the disease and the property would pass through several hands for another eighty years, before it was sold for a housing development.

Lee was the nephew of Robert E. Lee, and, like his whole family, was a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army. He was a gifted horseman and had just been appointed to teach cavalry at West Point when the war broke out and he left to join the Confederacy. During First Manassas, he served as a staff officer for fellow Northern Virginian Dick Ewell in the army of Beauregard. With the arrival of Johnston in command, came a new senior cavalry officer, James Ewell Brown Stuart, and his oversized cavalry regiment of horsemen from the Shenandoah Valley, the 1st Virginia. Stuart had been a protege of Robert E. Lee when the latter was in charge of West Point and over the course of many meals and social calls had befriended his nephew and fellow cadet "Fitz". So when Stuart needed more officers he went to the young Lee and asked him to be his second in command.

By November 1862, Stuart, with the help of Fitz Lee and a gaggle of young cavalry officers (including Fitz's cousin, Robert's son, William Henry Fitzhugh "Rooney" Lee), would revolutionize the use of cavalry in an American army by recognizing its ability to have a strategic impact when massed. But in 1861, Stuart was still using cavalry in the textbook American way. Tactically, cavalry could be used against an army engaged in battle by thundering down behind the men and scaring them, or chasing down fleeing troops to keep them from reforming, or to keep the enemy from doing the same. Operationally, cavalry was used to scout, meaning move forward quickly until the other side fired at you and try to count what fired, or to block the other army from being able to scout you (called a "screen").

On the morning of November 18, Fitz Lee was sent by Stuart from the camp near Fairfax Court-House [City of Fairfax] with a portion of the 1st Virginia (generically called a "battalion", regardless of how many companies it was) to scout the Union position somewhere near Fall's Church (the apostrophe formally got dropped from place names in Virginia in the 20th Century, but Lee's report published in the late 19th Century in the Official Records also dropped it, probably to save ink). They rode down the Fairfax-Fall's Church Road, today named after Fitz's uncle [U.S. 29], until Lee's foremost horsemen reported Northern soldiers were ahead. Lee doesn't record if a friendly resident or stealth revealed the pickets, but either way they didn't spot the Confederates.

Aware that prepared infantry meeting horses head-on with bayonets was a cavalry man's worst nightmare, and that learning the position of only a single regiment was barely worth it, Lee reported:

Learning that a picket of the enemy obstructed my route, I resolved, if possible, to capture them and prevent my presence being discovered and allowing them to advance in numbers upon me, while gaining the desired knowledge.
Depiction of 14th Brooklyn soldier
On the other end of the road was Lt. Colonel Edward Fowler of the 14th New York State Militia. Fowler had grown up drilling in the militia, rising from a private to lieutenant colonel well before the war. New York had a very strong militia system, similar to today's National Guard (in fact, New York would pioneer use of that term well before it was adopted for the national militia system) and at the beginning of the war was able to call up and equip so many units so fast, because they were already well drilled and prepared. Made up of tradesmen and firemen, the regiment called itself the 14th Brooklyn after the borough they were from.

The regiment famously adopted a Zouave uniform after seeing a similarly clad drill team just before the war broke out (coincidentally led by Elmer Ellsworth, destined to be an early martyr, killed on the site of the Monaco Hotel in Old Town Alexandria in the war's early days) and would be one of the few regiments to continue wearing it throughout the war instead of switching to standard blue. The regiment would also continue to call itself 14th Brooklyn, even after the War Department officially designated it the 84th New York Volunteer Infantry in March 1862.

The 14th had fought fiercely at Bull Run as part of Andrew Porter's brigade, beginning the day with the early action on Matthew's Hill and remaining through the collapse on Henry's Hill (they later claimed that their nickname the "red-legged devils" had been bestowed on them by Stonewall Jackson himself). In the fighting their colonel had been wounded and captured, and so Lt. Colonel Fowler was leading the regiment on November 18. He wrote:

At about 3 pm, a body of cavalry numbering about 300 appeared in front of our outpost on the road leading from Falls Church to Fairfax Court House. When first discovered, they were deployed occupying a front of at least one quarter of a mile, with a column by platoon in rear of their center on the road. They dashed up to our outpost, driving our pickets in the woods, some of whom they surrounded.
Lee's initial strike had resulted in several prisoners who might yield valuable intelligence about the disposition of the Union Army, but he had failed to keep the remainder from notifying the regiment. The next move was a stronger attack. He describes the charge:
Accordingly, getting as near as possible, I charged them, they retiring rapidly toward the woods and pines while we quickly lessened the distance, driving one picket upon another, and both upon the reserve, which retreated toward a thicket upon the side of the road and poured in quite a destructive fire upon us from their sheltered position. 
Fowler was a short distance away in Fall's Church when the fighting started.
I was at the village when the firing was heard, and on riding up the road I received intelligence from a scout (Sherman) that the cavalry were upon us, numbering 500 or more. I immediately marched up the reserve, consisting of three small companies of infantry, to check their advance down the road.
Lee was already in over his head, though. His troopers were only lightly armed, relying on the shock of a mass of galloping horses as their primary weapon, and sabers, revolvers, and perhaps small, light, and inaccurate rifles called carbines only when necessary. Infantry, on the other hand, had the ability to pack dozens of muskets next to each other and fire off a hail of bullets at large targets (since shooting the horse was just as debilitating as the rider, especially since Confederates had to provide their own horses).

Lee tried to make the most of the shock power of the cavalry to scatter the Brooklyn men:
Followed by a portion of my command, I got in between them and some tents visible and completely surrounded them another detachment having been ordered up on the other side. Thus hemmed in, the enemy still fought with bravery and desperation, and made it necessary to dismount some of my men and dislodge them.
Dismounting cavalry was one way to lessen the advantage infantry had over them, but in addition to weaker cavalry weapons it also had the disadvantage of removing one out of every three troopers to hold the horses of the others. The men of the 14th Brooklyn told Fowler a different story about the second phase of the skirmish, which he passed on in his report:
They then advanced within our lines about 300 or 400 yards, when, after halting for a short time about ten minutes, and taking a cart from Benz's house to carry off their dead and wounded, they retired rapidly in several directions.
While this was occurring, Fowler was preparing for a larger attack. His pickets had been far enough away from the regiment that when he led his battalion out to rescue them they would all be cut off from immediate reinforcements. He had to make sure Lee's cavalry couldn't make that devastating charge on his flanks or rear.
After advancing about a mile, thinking this might be only a feint to cover a more important movement, I halted and deployed a company as skirmishers on the right flank, which I knew to be wholly unprotected, and deployed skirmishers on both sides the road. I then sent to the rear to give information of the attack at headquarters and also to notify General Porter's pickets.
Flanks secured and the rest of the army notified, Fowler turned to the problem at hand:
I then advanced under Major Jourdan a body of skirmishers to the outpost that our pickets were driven from, and followed with the main body, picketing the road as I advanced. On our arrival at the outposts the enemy were not in sight.
Lee had determined that the usefulness of further attacks had passed:
When the action ceased it was so late in the day, I deemed it inexpedient to carry out the object first in view, encumbered as I was with prisoners and wounded men, and returned slowly to camp.
Fowler's superiors weren't so sure that Lee was done. The New Yorker recorded the long, cold November night that was ahead of his men:
Shortly after [my] arriving at the outpost, General Wadsworth and Colonel Frisby [of the 30th New York, probably the officer of the day] came up and gave directions that the pickets should occupy the same position for the night, and they were so posted.
Both sides overestimated casualties of the other. Fowler:
They were seen to carry away 3 dead men (1 an officer) in a cart, and several wounded men were conveyed to their rear on horseback by their comrades. One valuable horse is lying dead near the scene of action ,and several horses were seen galloping through the fields without riders. Our list of casualties is as follows: 2 killed, 1 wounded, and 10 missing, all of Company H, which was the only company engaged. During the skirmish none of the pickets fell back except on the point attacked.
And Lee:

Our loss was 1 private killed and 2 slightly wounded. I also report with deep regret that Mr. John C. Chichester, my brave, gallant guide, was dangerously wounded, and has since died. I lost one horse ridden by Sergt. Jasper N. Jones of Company L, having run off after the sergeant had dismounted to fight. The horse of Lieut. James S Larrick, Company A, was severely wounded, and my own horse killed under me during the action. The loss of the enemy as far as I could ascertain was 7 killed, and 1 left mortally wounded, being shot through the body. Ten were made prisoners, including the lieutenant commanding and the first sergeant, 3 being wounded, 2 severely and 1 slightly shot in the arm.
At this point in the war, over the next few weeks Confederate authorities would gradually communicate to Northern authorities the names of those captured, and would begin wrangling over prisoner exchanges. In the meantime, the Confederates would be trying to get their prisoners to talk to gain intelligence on the Union forces in front of them and salvage something from the scouting expedition, since Lee had been unable to provoke a response from more than a single regiment.

All that was left was for both sides to try to figure out what the skirmish had meant. Wrote Fowler:
My impression is that the enemy had an object in view besides the cutting off of a small outpost, and losing more than they gained, and that they found us in stronger force than they expected.
Lee's prisoners shared at least some information with him:
The enemy were a portion of the Fourteenth New York State Militia of Brooklyn, and fought with much more bravery than the Federal troops usually exhibit. It is the same regiment that so thickly dotted the field of Manassas upon the 21st with red.
Stuart praised Lee and his men and forwarded the report, which went on to Richmond, but the 1st Virginia would have to go out scouting again.

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