Celebrating in no-man's land
"There is a tremendous pressure being brought to bear on McClellan," Brig. General George Meade had written his wife on December 22, "And there is no telling how long he can or will stand it."
Meade was writing her a follow-up letter to give her more details on the minor battle that had occurred at Dranesville a few days earlier in which he had had a tiny supporting role (kudos to Ron for a fantastic write-up). It was a tumultuous crossroads for Washington's war policies, when decisions were being made that would effect the shape of the conflict for the next few years.
In Congress, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War was committing itself to a course of partisan activism through the decision to focus on Charles P. Stone. Heading the War Department, Simon Cameron had decided earlier that month to cast his lot with anti-slavery forces and support the enlistment of black soldiers, probably because he would otherwise become a target of the Joint Committee's investigations for his corrupt awarding of contracts. Consequently, Lincoln was being forced to make a decision about whether to publicly rebuke his top military adviser or endorse a similar anti-slavery position himself.
Both Lincoln and Cameron were meanwhile leaning on general-in-chief Maj. General George McClellan to provide a victory to sooth the erupting political turmoil, which meant McClellan had to decide whether to launch a winter offensive or have his men continue building shelters. Everything was overshadowed by the ongoing Trent Affair, wherein the seizure of two Confederate envoys off a British civilian ship had led to an ultimatum from Great Britain to return the men or to face war. An invasion force was readying in Canada to prove it was no bluff.
"No one can predict the future for twenty-four hours," Meade had advised his wife, "and all we can do is to endeavor to be ready for all contingencies. Good-by! God bless you all and give you a happy and as far as possible a merry Christmas!"
It was Christmas 1861, and the war continued, despite the holiday. Soldiers both North and South did their best to celebrate the holiday, which was at the time (as it is now) both a pious holy day and a raucous good time. As well documented at All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac the 3rd Pennsylvania Reserves of Meade's brigade had a feast on care packages sent from home. Their brigade commander's thoughts turned to home too, when he wrote to his wife that "though absent from you in body, that I am with you and my dear children in spirit and thought."
Meade also held a familiar Christmas wish:
As this day is the anniversary commemorating the great promise held out to all mankind, let us hope it may promise speedy peace and happiness to us in this world as well as the one to come. God grant it may be so!If it was to be so, it wasn't on December 25, 1861, when the business of war continued unabated. Almost twenty-four hours before Meade and his men were celebrating their Christmas feast, Lieutenant Henry Schickhardt had prepared to scout the enemy lines.
Schickhardt was part of the 31st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, veterans of Bull Run, and a predominantly German-immigrant unit from New York City in the brigade of McClellanite Brig. General John Newton, and the division of McClellanite Brig. General William B. Franklin. The brigade was stationed at Fort Ward overlooking Braddock's road in present-day Alexandria, though it was Fairfax County in 1861. Census records show another Henry Schickhardt of an appropriate age living in Philadelphia in 1880, who died in 1889 and was buried in a National Cemetery in Hampton and may have been the same (there are no other Schickhardt's recorded as part of the Union army in the NPS Soldiers and Sailors System). If so, he was older than average, in his mid-30s when the war began, and an immigrant from Wurttemberg, most likely because he had taken part in the 1848 revolution, one of the several revolutions that year whose failure resulted in mass emigration of Germans to the United States.
Informed speculation aside, on December 24 Henry Schickhardt was lieutenant of Company E, and had been asked to take three other men to see whether the Confederates were planning a Christmas surprise, since they had been moving regiments around for the last several days (including the incident that turned into the Dranesville affair). He picked two men from his own company and Lieutenant Frossard, either Eugene Frossard of Company B, or his brother, the regiment's acting adjutant, Edward Frossard. Given the mission, it was probably Edward, so he could be the eyes and ears of the 31st's Colonel Calvin Pratt. Edward Frossard, as adjutant, would not have had any authority to command in his own right, and would have needed a line officer, such as Schickhardt, in order to provide legal commands to the men.
Schickhardt and his three men set off after noon on Christmas Eve.
Between the hours of 3 and 11 pm on that day, we traversed the whole section of country lying between Accotink Creek and the Little River turnpike [VA236], but without going farther north than the Falls Church and Fairfax Court House road [US29 for part of the distance and Old Lee Highway for the remainder], without seeing an enemy, although their many tracks gave evidence of their frequent passage in almost every direction.The New York men were traveling through the no-man's land that had already been the site of several cavalry skirmishes that month. Many hours after the early December sunset, Schickhardt stopped his tiny scouting group for the night. Based on context clues in his report, they probably picked a site somewhere near today's Fair City Mall, but they certainly went without the warm fire and revelry that soldiers on both sides were enjoying. Schickhardt describes what must have been a miserably nerve-wracking night, without betraying any such emotion to his superior officers:
During the entire night we heard heavy firing in a southwesterly, also in a northeasterly direction. We also heard noises which evidently came from a scouting party of the enemy on the railroad grading which runs from Annandale to Fairfax Court House [W&OD Trail].It is probably that the heavy firing was celebratory, coming from Confederate outposts and possibly even Meade's men and their comrades at Camp Pierpont. But the scouting party was probably truly a close call, since the railroad was a favorite path for Confederate cavalrymen to sweep across the no-man's land.
As dawn broke Christmas morning, Schickhardt was already on the move, treading close to the Confederate picket line that began just beyond Fairfax Court-House.
On the 25th, about 5 am, we advanced cautiously through the woods on the north side of the Little River turnpike, when, just beyond the trees felled near the road, we discovered the enemy's advanced pickets, seemingly extended in a line running from north to south about [one and three-quarters] miles this side of Fairfax Court House. There were no fires to be seen along this line, and the line appeared strong and well guarded, as we saw parties of 25 or 30 men stationed at single points.Some of the Confederates had also spent a cold and probably harrowing Christmas Eve waiting for a strike by their opponents. Finding the picket line, Schickhardt had accomplished his mission and so retraced his steps. But the lieutenant ignored the temptation to rush back to camp and join the celebrations, and instead took the time to interview the unhappy residents of the no-man's land about the Confederate movements.
According to the statements of some farmers professing loyalty, it appears that the scouting parties of the enemy consist mostly of cavalry, which is used almost exclusively for outpost duty. Whenever the rebels expect an attack on their line they draw their pickets within about half a mile of Fairfax Court-House, and from what I saw and learned I have reason to believe that they would not make a stand this side of their barricades. I would state that from what I learned I am convinced that at the recent advance, on the 18th instant, of the enemy, their entire force consisted of only three companies of infantry, two of cavalry, and one piece of artillery. This movement was executed with great rapidity.Whether he realized it or not, Schickhardt had indirectly provided McClellan a great Christmas present through his diligence, by relieving some of the pressure to instantly make a decision. If the Confederates were not about to attack, then he had more time to decide for himself what course of action to take.
Mission truly completed, the little scouting party returned to Union lines at 11 am by way of the Little River Turnpike, and from there to Fort Ward and whatever Christmas festivities continued. Schickhardt could not refrain from adding a complaint about his fellow soldiers who had been celebrating while he was risking his life:
In returning from our scouting expedition when near the bridge beyond Annandale [today enveloped by the I-495 interchange] we met a party of some 15 men belonging to the Thirty-fifth Pennsylvania, who were out without a commissioned or other responsible officer, and whose carelessness was such that had a party of the enemy come down the road they could have easily killed or captured them all. This party was also engaged in burning a barn situated on the Little River turnpike about 1 mile beyond Annandale. The carelessness of the outposts of Blenker's division in giving and receiving the countersign signals is in my opinion highly reprehensible.Probably drunk, and celebrating with the characteristic destruction that would bring infamy to Blenker's division in the Shenandoah Valley several months later, Schickhardt can hardly be blamed for his frustration. But he did get the unit wrong, since the 35th Pennsylvania was actually part of the Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont in Langley. Either Schickhardt or the typist setting the Official Records probably confused it with the 75th Pennsylvania, which was stationed at Annandale and was composed of German-American immigrants, many of whom fled after the Revolutions of 1848, possibly just like Schickhardt himself.
A final note on an interesting, but forgotten soldier: Lieutenant Henry Schickhardt continued with his regiment as it fought on the Peninsula as part of the VI Corps. By the time the regiment disbanded in 1863, Schickhardt had made captain, and chose to sign up with the newly formed 5th New York Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment, formed from the cores of all the best New York Regiments, including Duryea's Zouaves and the 14th Brooklyn. Schickhardt was Captain of Company C and fought with the regiment in its first action at Bethesda Church, where he was incorrectly reported mortally wounded. He survived and returned at the latest by Spring 1865. For his actions at Five Forks he was promoted to major, and was present at Appomattox for the surrender of the army he had first fought at Bull Run.