In which George Meade forages in Great Falls
The major drama of December 1861 revolved mostly around the ongoing saga of the Trent Affair, an international incident caused when a U.S. Navy vessel boarded a British vessel and removed two Confederate diplomats. The actual combat in the Potomac Watershed, meanwhile, was largely constrained to cavalry skirmishes in the no-man's land between the two rival Armies of the Potomac and daily harassment of shipping on the Potomac by batteries at Evansport [Quantico]. But skirmishes were not the full extent of operations occurring. December 6 provides a good example.
Brig. General George Meade spent the first few days of December contemplating horses. "The most important piece of intelligence I have to communicate is that I have bought another horse," he wrote to his wife on December 2. "He is a fine black horse that was brought out to camp by a trader, for sale. I bought him on the advice and judgment of several friends who pretend a knowledge in horse flesh, of which I am entirely ignorant."
Meade already had one horse, Old Baldy, who he had purchased when he arrived in Washington and learned he was to command a brigade, not work in the engineers. Old Baldy had been ridden by then-Colonel David Hunter at Bull Run and been wounded, so Meade was on the lookout for a better horse that he could ride into battle. Showing the sensibilities of a child who had seen his family's fortune disappear, he groaned at the cost, which he estimated to be about $250 (almost $6,000 in today's money).
December 4, with his new horse, Meade led his brigade our of their camp towards Dranesville. The infantry men were responsible for collecting "forage", food for the massive numbers of horses and livestock that made an army's movement possible. Meade's brigade followed behind the brigade of Brig. General John F. Reynolds, mostly operating in support while his men collected the forage. "We collected some fifty wagons of forage," Meade wrote, "but heard and saw nothing of the enemy."
Back by nightfall, Meade went into town to visit friends. The next day, he received a note from his division commander, George McCall, that there was to be another expedition towards Dranesville, which Meade believed was probably for more forage. This time, though, Meade proudly reported to his wife, that he was "to have the command and to be in front this time, and should not object to having a little brush with the enemy, if there are any about the neighborhood where we are going." He also was excited after putting his new mount through a few tests on the previous outing. "I am very much pleased with my new horse, all except the price, which is pretty digging."
The morning of December 6, Meade set out towards Dranesville, with 57 wagons for forage, and the third brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves, that of Edward O.C. Ord, in support. Their target was the house of John Gunnell, still standing today next to Riverbend Golf and Country Club in Great Falls. John and his nephew, George Coleman, were ardent secessionists, who had campaigned in the area for Virginia to leave the Union, a fact that was relatively well-known.
There were clearly no tears shed by Meade's commanding officer over the family. "Gunnell is a bitter secessionist," McCall wrote in his official report after the day's events, "and his nephews (Colmans [sic]) are bad men. The former is now in the Confederate army; the latter, formerly of that army, have more recently been in the habit of watching the Potomac between Great Falls and Seneca and firing on our pickets." And then McCall tagged them with the greatest sin, unsubstantiated as it usually was, but also plausible in a war that was never quite as clear-cut as we remember: "They are reported to me by my guide to have shot two stragglers of Genl Banks' division, and left them for the hogs to devour."
McCall wanted Meade to capture Gunnell's nephews (and Gunnell himself if he was around -- he wasn't, he was a sergeant in Eppa Hunton's 8th Virginia stationed near Carter's Mill [Oatlands]) and to bring in the forage from the farm that would otherwise be going to the Confederate army.
Meade's brigade arrived at the farm at about noon, and arrested George Coleman and his brother, along with several other men that were at the farm house. Then the brigade turned to collecting forage, "stripping the place of everything we thought would be useful to the enemy or that we could use ourselves," he told his wife when safely back in camp on December 5.
McCall himself arrived about 3:00 pm, and noted with satisfaction in his official report that Meade "had captured the Colmans and three sons of Poole, rank secessionists, and, after making the necessary dispositions to resist an attack, commenced loading the train, which work was soon completed and the command returned, arriving here at 6 pm." The Confederate military never showed up, despite Meade's earlier hopes. McCall included a glowing postscript in his report:
It is with pleasure that I refer to the very exemplary conduct of all the troops on this occasion, and can commend from personal observation the good discipline maintained. There was no straggling or lagging behind during the march out or returning.Meade did not agree. "I never had a more disagreeable duty in my life to perform," he complained to his wife.
The man was absent, but his sister, with his farm and house servants, were at home. The great difficulty was to prevent the wanton and useless destruction of property which could not be made available for military purposes. The men and officers got into their heads that the object of the expedition was the punishment of a rebel, and hence the more injury they inflicted, the more successful was the expedition, and it was with considerable trouble they could be prevented from burning everything.A conservative man, who had also lived through the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars in Spain, Meade wanted a war that respected private property (including the "right" of slave owners, referred to by Meade as servants in the common euphemism of the South). "It made me sad to do such injury," he lamented, "and I was really ashamed of our cause, which thus required us to make war against individuals."
He concluded with his trademark cynicism: "The enemy were within ten miles of us, but did not make their appearance, and we returned to camp with our booty by nightfall."