Saturday, November 26, 2011

Skirmish on the Road to Hunter's Mill

Wherein a young captain tries to make his name

As the excitement (or misery, depending on your point of view) of the Grand Review of the North's Army of the Potomac at Bailey's Cross-Roads wore off, things were getting back to normal in the division of Brig. General Fitz John Porter. Porter, one of general-in-chief Maj. General George McClellan's favorites, had played a prominent role in the review, only a day after men in his division had come under attack by Confederate cavalry near Fall's Church. The men had done well and driven off the scouting expedition of cavalry before they could determine more about his force structure, but it certainly must have underscored for Porter the need to be more vigilant himself.

So he stepped up patrols by his own cavalry. In 1861, the prevailing opinion on cavalry was that it was for intelligence gathering or counterintelligence work, and for timely attacks on your opponent's flanks or rear. So McClellan had split his cavalry (and artillery, too) up among his divisions, to give each division commander a scouting force. Porter had two regiments of Pennsylvanian horsemen, the 3rd and the 8th, who divided up responsibility for scouting beyond the picket line (the extent of the area considered "safe" Union territory, called colloquially "the lines").

Mostly men from Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania, the 3rd Regiment was commanded by Colonel William W. Averell. When the 3rd had been formed originally, it had been deemed a Kentucky regiment. Pennsylvania had exceeded its quota for sending troops to the Federal government, and some of Pennsylvania's excess troops had been bled off by assigning them to represent states' whose loyalties were questionable, such as Kentucky. But after Bull Run, the regiment had been reclaimed by Pennsylvania, and mustered into Federal service as the 3rd Pennsylvania (though in the Keystone State itself it would confusingly be known as the 60th Pennsylvania, because of a decision not to enumerate cavalry and infantry in separate sequences on the state books).

Averell was a U.S. Army cavalry officer and a former cavalry instructor, and had been asked by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to take command of the rowdy unit and instill some discipline. Averell grouped the companies of the 3rd into squadrons of two each, helping him more tightly rule the regiment with an iron fist. At Camp Marcy, located a few miles south of Chain Bridge, the 3rd Pennsylvania learned discipline the hard way. Remembered the regiment historian, a member of Company B, "Our drills, mounted and dismounted, were incessant. Mutterings of dissatisfaction because of these were loud and unceasing."

By the time of the Grand Review the 3rd was in considerably better shape discipline-wise. As members of Porter's Division, they were part of the spectacle, and the historian at least believed that Averell's work had paid off in a favorable comparison with the professional soldiers of the U.S. Army:
The Third, gotten up in well fitting uniform jackets with brass shoulder pieces, the horses well groomed, and arms and equipments in the best condition, made a grand showing. At the proper time we took our place in line and passed in review before President Lincoln and General McClellan with as much precision and pride as did any of the regular troops in the line, at least we thought so.

But Averell wasn't just trying to shape the men, he was also concerned about the officers. Like most regular army officers, he was appalled at the state militia practice of electing officers, and considered the practice one of the reasons for the poor showing at Bull Run. Part of his drill and discipline strategy for the men involved pressuring those officers out of the service. Remembered the historian about the Fall and Winter of 1861:
The officers who were opposed to these exacting and continuous duties, or were restive under the severe old time Regular Army discipline insisted upon by our martinet of a Colonel, or were deemed incompetent or otherwise unfitted for their positions, were induced or compelled to offer their resignations, which were readily accepted.
One of the officers in Averell's pressure cooker who might go either way was Captain Charles Bell, who commanded the Sixth Squadron, his own Company F and Company M. Both were Philadelphia companies, and on November 26 they set out from Camp Marcy at 9:00 am and proceeded to Porter's headquarters at Hall's Hill (today the site of the Taco Bell on US 29) for instructions on where to scout that day. The group numbered 94 men and was led by 4 officers: Bell, leading both the Squadron and his own Company F, and assisted by his first lieutenant, James Lodge; and Lieutenant Peter Lane, leading Company M, whose captain had been among those officers chased out by Averell, and assisted by the second lieutenant, John Ford.

Porter's mission was for Bell's squadron to sweep along a path from Vienna to Hunter's Mill, located not far from where Difficult Run crossed the Loudoun and Alexandria Railroad [W&OD Trail]. "The object of the march," Bell recorded that night, "was to ascertain, if possible, the location of the enemy's pickets, together with that of a force of their cavalry, which was supposed to be lurking near the road from Vienna to Hunter's Mill [Lawyers Rd and Hunter Mill Rd]." He proceeded cautiously. Before he had even crossed outside of the picket line, he deployed 12 men under a non-commissioned officer 600 yards in advance of the squadron to act as an advanced guard and warn them of any enemies encountered, with a group of four men at both 200 and 400 yards, in order to maintain visual contact at most times.

Bell doesn't record at what time he reached Vienna, but does say he stopped the whole command in the town while he looked for a guide to take them the rest of the way to Hunter's Mill. "Everything being quiet in, and seemingly so, around Vienna," Bell reported, "we thought it but little dangerous to proceed to Hunter's Mill." Before leaving the town, Bell sent James Lodge to command the advanced guard, presumably because he knew him best and trusted him. As the second highest ranking officer, Peter Lane would command the right flank if they deployed into a battle line and stayed near Bell in the center. John Ford was responsible for the rear of the squadron

Arrangements for defenses made, Bell got ready to set off down the road to Hunter's Mill [Lawyer Rd], a narrow track hemmed in by trees that would force the horsemen to ride double-file down it. "After cautioning my men to be vigilant, keeping a watchful eye on both sides of the road, and preparing ourselves we started."

Meanwhile, a Confederate patrol had been stalking Bell's men. Colonel Robert Ransom had left his camp at 9:00 am as well, with a similar mission, but with a larger force. Ransom had six companies of his 1st North Carolina Cavalry, but due to problems of manning and equipping troops in the Confederate War Department they numbered only about 120 men. Ransom had been patrolling from modern-day Herndon, through Reston, and down the path of the Loudoun and Alexandria Railroad [W&OD Trail] until he reached Hunter's Mill. A local told him that approximately 150 Union cavalry had passed that way and Ransom decided to set off to find them and turn back their patrol before it gathered too much intelligence.
We here saw the tracks [of the horses] and followed them for about a mile. They then turned directly to the left and in a direction of where we were told the enemy was in force of from 5,000 to 10,000. Their camp is supposed to be not far from a place known as the Old Court House. 
The Old Court House references Fairfax County's first Courthouse, which is assumed to be somewhere along Leesburg Pike, between Tyson's Corner and Wolf Trap (and Ransom's report suggests he assumed it was closer to Wolf Trap, despite the assertions of the Fairfax County Library). Ransom was certainly not about to charge the Union picket line and so went looking for another course of action.
Supposing that they had gone to their camp, I deemed it best to proceed in direction of Vienna, and it was fortunate that we did. A few hundred yards from Vienna a road entering the one we were on indicated that the enemy bad just passed, and that we were immediately in his rear. A moment after my advance guard reported him in sight. The column was marching by twos. I at once formed fours expecting to be upon him almost instantly. We passed Vienna at the trot.

Ransom followed Bell up the road to Hunter's Mill without John Ford's rear-guard spotting him. "The advance guard of 6 or 8 men was ordered to fire, with a view to disconcert him ,and I at once charged his column with 120 men."

Bell was indeed caught by surprise.
I think we had proceeded about 1 mile on that road, when I heard a report from a loaded piece, the report being repeated in quick succession five times. The alarm was at once given, the attack being made in the rear, and ran from left to right like an electric shock. Immediately after, a volley was fired by the enemy, and some one in the rear cried out, "Run for your lives; they're on us!"

Chaos reigned among the Pennsylvanians, and crammed into the road two abreast made it hard to maneuver into a battle line. Still, Ransom had been able to move four-abreast, and Bell's account might be more self-serving than accurate:

Everyone seemed seized with a panic, and a rash was at once made by the rear guard on the left of the squadron, and commencing on the left the horses started at a trot. I looked around, my horse being at a walk, and gave the command "Halt" just previous to a second volley being fired on us. The enemy was then just behind us, and there was a general cry from the rear, "Go forward!" at which everyone started at a full gallop. It was then utterly impossible to halt the men, so much confusion existing.
Ransom was happy to give chase:
The enemy kept the road upon which we found him for about a mile or little more, and then turned short to the right through a lane leading in the direction of his camp. We pursued him for a mile or two upon the new road, when the rally was sounded.
Bell's account is more detailed:

We advanced about 1 mile, when the guide, by a right turn, led us in a new direction. I was then about the center of the fourth platoon, and, after turning the corner, stopped my horse, all in front running at full speed. I again gave the command "Halt!" and, after a few efforts, was successful in rallying about 20 men. I was just on the eve of giving instructions, when, upon glancing around, I observed a much larger body than the other coming from the direction in which we had previously been moving forward, and seeing that an attempt to defend ourselves would prove fruitless, I gave the command to retreat.
It's not clear what other body of cavalry Bell spotted, unless he mistook some of Ransom's pickets that had been uninvolved so far coming from Hunter's Mill. More likely, Bell had either simply gotten turned around and confused Ransom calling in his reserves with a new force, or was outright lying. Either way, the pursuit continued. Bell, again:
We did so [retreat], the distance between us and the enemy remaining about the same. Firing at will, on both sides, was very heavy for several minutes. The road on which we were retreating was in miserable condition and stumbling among the horses was frequent, some falling and throwing their riders, and then running away at full speed, leaving their riders to retreat the best they could on foot. Lieutenants Lodge, Lane, and Ford were near the head of the column, endeavoring to persuade the men to halt, but they, the men, would listen to no commands until we had retreated about 2 miles, when I again rallied a number of them, but our number being small and the enemy approaching us closely, we started through the woods towards the main road, the guide of course being in front.
Ransom does not record a second rally, but given the intermittent stopping and firing both sides were apparently doing, it is not suspicious for him to omit it. Sometime soon after, Bell was close enough to the picket line that Ransom decided to call off further pursuit. "I am happy to state," he reported, "that not one [North Carolinian] was hurt by the enemy. One man received a slight injury from the fall of his horse." The Pennsylvanians, on the other hand, Ransom thought, had "lost 1 man killed (said to be a Lieutenant Lane [it wasn't]), 6 wounded, and 26 taken prisoners. One of the wounded was so badly injured that we were compelled to leave him at a farm house." More importantly for the chronically under-equipped Confederates, "we captured 17 horses and equipments, 26 sabers, 25 pistols (revolvers), and 15 Sharp's carbines."

His prisoners reported accurately being from Companies F and M of the 3rd Pennsylvania, but for whatever reason some told the Confederates that they had actually been three companies strong. Several prisoners of Company M were wearing caps with "K" on them, due to over-recruitment for that company in the summer (they had never been given their correct caps), so Ransom dutifully reported both possible unit strengths to his headquarters. Ransom had the distinction of having won the first cavalry-to-cavalry combat between the rival Armies of the Potomac, and J.E.B. Stuart insisted on a lengthy accounting of it, so Ransom closed a report that would make its way all the way up the chain to Richmond almost apologetically:
This report is much more lengthy than I considered the importance of the pursuit demanded, but it is made with pleasure, in conformity with the wishes and commands of the generals commanding the brigade.
Bell, meanwhile, did not have such a happy conclusion to his report.

Upon reaching a place of safety I spoke to the squad about going back to look for those who were missing and probably hurt by a fall from their horses, but our horses would not stand much longer, so we approached slowly our pickets. Upon arriving at our pickets on the Leesburg turnpike I found 7 of our men on horses awaiting us. We rested our horses for a few moments and then started for camp. 
Shortly after crossing the picket line, Bell had the misfortune to run into Fitz John Porter and was required to orally report the story. Porter ordered him to return to camp, and so Bell set off down the Leesburg Pike, but had not gone far before he ran into Colonel Averell himself, out with another squadron, and again had to repeat his miserable tale. He made it back to Camp Marcy at 8:00 pm, where he had to write out the whole thing again.

The historian of the 3rd Pennsylvania remembered:

Those who were fortunate enough to get away came back to our lines sadly crestfallen. Their return to camp was anything but joyful. The escaping remnant reported to Colonel Averell, and the officers endeavored to explain away the affair, but no explanation was satisfactory to him. When mounted dress parade was held that evening, the remaining members of the unfortunate companies were paraded on the left of the line dismounted, and the wrath of Colonel Averell seemed to be expressed in every command he gave.
Knowing that McClellan would be casting a sharp eye on the failure of his regiment, Averell included his own attempt to explain away the affair when forwarding Bell's report up the chain of command:
It is hoped that the general commanding will take into consideration the fact that this squadron was never under fire before, and that from want of an infantry support, knowledge of the country, and the critical position of the force, it is a wonder that the panic did not prove more disastrous.
Porter added his own cover note, working at cross-purposes to Averell's attempts to downplay the incident:
From the best information I can get, and listening to the statement of those who were dismounted at the first alarm and who came in today, I infer that the force which made the attack was small, but the panic of the rear guard spread to main body, and in the anxiety to escape, confusion reigned and the men knocked down and ran over each other. The party was not on the road which they were directed to take and were negligent.
McClellan's commentary is not recorded. But Bell would not make it to the spring as captain of Company F, resigning on March 8 after struggling through the winter to be the officer that Averell wanted. Lieutenant James Lodge of Company F - after surviving a court-martial for neglect of duty - would be discharged in July 1862, after fighting through the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days. The historian is silent as to whether it was from wounds or illnesses from campaign or because he was unfit for command. Lieutenant Peter Lane would not be given command of Company M after the debacle, it would go to the first lieutenant of Company C instead, and Lane would be dismissed from duty in June, in the middle of the Peninsula Campaign. Only John Ford, commanding the rear-guard would move up, eventually becoming the first lieutenant for Company B, and fighting with the 3rd Pennsylvania until its term expired in August 1864 (and here's a picture of him, on the right).

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