Sunday, December 4, 2011

Old Ravensworth

In which a skirmish occurs near Burke

A quick programming note: the internet has been almost unusable at home (it's Comcastic!) and work has kept me from having much time to write anyway, so we've missed several events in the area. Most importantly, in the "now" of 150 years ago, Congress was back in session. Disunion turned to Ted Widmore to not embarrass itself too badly and cover the event.

As November turned to December, the agitated calm that had characterized the relationship between the two armies continued unabated. On December 2 and December 4 two more skirmishes broke out in the no-man's land between the two armies, an arc of territory that ran from Dranesville on the Potomac, down to Vienna, on to Burke's Station, then Springfield Station, and finally followed the course of Pohick Creek back to the Potomac [the mouth of which is today at Ft. Belvoir].

For approximately five miles on either side of that line, cavalry patrols roamed. After that, the pickets of both armies were stationed, ready to run or ride back to the main armies if a sizable force appeared. Both sides' leaders assumed that any day a massive army would drive them in for a major attack, and both sides' leaders knew they wouldn't be ready for an attack until the spring. So the fighting was confined to cavalry patrols riding until they found the enemy's pickets, charging, then returning to their lines with prisoners to try to collect intelligence.

Central to this campaign of pickets and patrols were the fields of old Ravensworth. In 1650, Virginia's colonial governor (Sir William Berkeley) had made a land grant to Colonel William Fitzhugh, a wealthy Englishman, of a massive internal tract of land in the little settled tributaries of the Potomac. Today, this area is North Springfield, Annandale, Burke, and the surrounding area. Fitzhugh called this estate Ravensworth, after his family estate in England, but it would be another twenty years before he ever saw it. Even then, Fitzhugh preferred to live in King George County, though with the money he was making cultivating tobacco at Ravensworth, he was able to become one of the richest and most influential men in America. The road his property managers built to roll his tobacco hogsheads down to Accotink Creek is a link to this history. Today it is Rolling Road, evolved from the Ravensworth Rolling Road.

At the colonel's death, his sons split the lucrative property. The southern half went to William and the northern half (including Annandale) to Henry, and continued in the family. The Fitzhugh descendents built three great estate houses in the area, Oak Hill (which is still open to tours in Annandale), Ossian Hall (burned down in 1959 for training by the Annandale Fire Department), and Ravensworth (burned down suspiciously in 1925). The last of these became the home of another William, great-grandson to the first, who was a close friend of George Washington's. Because of his business and political interests, he kept a townhouse on Oronoco Street in Alexandria too.

The importance of the Fitzhughs' properties had led to several major roads running through the subdivided Ravensworth land-grant. One was an old track left over by the evicted natives of Ravensworth, that was expanded and improved, cutting east-west across the property, right next to William Fitzhugh's Ravensworth (the mansion). Local legend said that General Edward Braddock had followed it to his doom, though Braddock actually marched through Maryland himself. A small detachment traveled a southern route, but historians today do not believe Braddock Road was the course taken. Another important road cutting through the territory was to the small village of Scotsmen that had sprung up, Annandale. The Little River Turnpike (also built on improved Virginia Indian roads) established a toll booth there on an improved toll-road that went from Alexandria to Fairfax Court-House, and then out to Aldie on the frontier.

William's son, William Henry Fitzhugh, moved to Ravensworth full-time, renting out his house in Alexandria to a distant relative, Harry Lee. When Lee died after being injured during a riot in Baltimore, William Henry became something of a family protector for Lee's widow and his children, including the teenage Robert Edward, who frequently spent time at Ravensworth. It was there that he got to know William Henry Fitzhugh's beloved niece, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, well, and it was William Henry that successfully lobbied Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to let Robert E. Lee into West Point. After William Henry died, he willed the estate to Mary, by that time the wife of Robert and mistress of Arlington. Mary named their eldest son after her uncle, William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, but the boy usually went by "Rooney" (regular readers will recall his similarly named cousin, Fitzhugh Lee, from a cavalry skirmish on the ancestral grounds of the family he was named after).

Fitzhughs, Lees, and Custises aside (and without dwelling too much on Randolphs), the land of Ravensworth had become no-man's land as early as October 1861. Oddly enough, this probably saved the mansions of the Fitzhughs from damage, since they didn't have the inevitable companies of bodyguards stationed in them and weren't used as headquarters. In fact, Mary Custis Lee had briefly set up her house at Ravensworth when Arlington fell to Northerners, but moved on when she became afraid that her presence there might make her uncle's house a target.

On the night of December 4, the house was finally threatened when a skirmish occurred practically in its front yard. Not long before midnight, Captain Fred Waring took 23 men of Company F of the 6th Virginia Cavalry out of the Confederate picket lines for a scout. Two days before his fellow Confederate horsemen had surprised Union pickets near Annandale and captured several of them. Embarrassed that his men had assumed the cavalry were their own, the division command, the McClellanite Brig. General William Franklin, had stepped up Union patrols in the area, making Confederate scouting expeditions more difficult.

So Waring was slipping out at night, hoping to ride through the morning in order to try to turn back some of Franklin's increased patrols and keep the general from getting too good an understanding of the Confederate lines (in particular they wanted to convey the impression that the Confederates were still based at Fairfax Court-House). Waring was unusual for a Virginia cavalryman in that he was actually from Savannah, Georgia. He and all of Company F were actually Georgians from the famed Georgia Hussars (a type of light cavalry), established by James Ogelthorpe himself. The unit had fought in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War (and would fight in both World Wars and Korea as part of the Georgia Army National Guard) and it was a coveted militia position. The Hussars had been added to the 6th Virginia in order to bring it up to strength quickly and was a bit out of place with the local Prince William and Fairfax men that made up the bulk of the regiment. At least their colonel was a Kentucky native.

Waring doesn't include their exact route, but the Hussars probably headed out across the old Ravensworth land grant to Burke's Station on the Manassas Gap Railroad, then cut up to Braddock's Old Road [Braddock Road]. They continued about two miles east of Burke's Station until they reached a spot close to Ravensworth house, by which point it was about 1:00 am. There, Waring records,
the advance guard, consisting of two men, found a wire stretched across the road. Owing to that portion of the road being a bog, the main body had caught up to the men in advance. As soon as the latter encountered the obstacles they turned their horses and communicated the fact to me. The words were not out of their mouths before a fire was opened upon us from the front and right, and then taken up by the left.
The Hussars had run right into an ambush set by them by one of Franklin's fiercer unit commanders, Colonel George Taylor of the 3rd New Jersey Infantry. Taylor and his men were part of the New Jersey Brigade, one of the brigades raised after Bull Run, when the War Department had had enough new regiments coming in to brigade them by state. It was under the dauntless, one-armed Brig. General Phil Kearny, who had been a close friend of Taylor's during the Mexican War. Kearny and Taylor had specifically expected a Confederate patrol to make use of Braddock Road and laid the ambush accordingly with about 50 hand-picked men. Taylor reported back to Kearny with satisfaction:
Last night about 1 o’clock I encountered them about two miles this side of Burke’s Station, on the old Braddock road. The result was that at the first discharge of our pieces, loaded each with fifteen large buck- shot, nine or ten saddles were emptied, as about that number of horses were seen to go off riderless and plunge into the swamp near the road.
The horses may have fled, but Waring reported his men did not:

The men, although taken completely by surprise, returned the fire promptly. The fire then opened on both flanks and then in the rear. Seeing the detachment completely surrounded, I gave the order to charge. With a cheer the men dashed forward, and the enemy broke and fled.
Taylor does not mention fleeing exactly, but acknowledges that the ambush had accomplished its result and so the infantry departed.

Four or five of our men being wounded in the melee, our attention was turned exclusively to them, and the light being dark with a dense wood surrounding, we did not wait to look up the enemy’s wounded, though there were heard groanings in the swamp when we left.
The men were not left groaning, though, Waring saw to them.
Halting about fifty yards beyond the line of fire, the wounded and dismounted were picked up. Eight men were missing; out of the sixteen remaining three were wounded, and I saw that it was madness to return. At the first fire four horses went down and were left for dead by their riders. Five other men were dismounted by their horses tumbling over fallen horses.
Waring lists the names of his losses and pegs Taylor's at three killed, two wounded, and one captured.
From the prisoner it was ascertained that Colonel Taylor, of the Third New Jersey Regiment, had prepared the trap by stretching two telegraph wires across the road, and had selected ten men from each company in his regiment to slaughter his unsuspecting foe. That he was not successful was owing to the wild firing of his men.
Waring also concludes his report with a commendation for his men, and one of his aides in particular:
I cannot close this communication without testifying to the gallantry of Orderly Sergt. Thomas H. Dunham, who was shot from his saddle while in the act of charging the enemy, and to the good conduct of the men under the trying emergency of a surprise at midnight by a force of picked men five times their number and under the immediate eye of their colonel.
Sergeant Dunham had, in fact, survived the skirmish, but as a prisoner of Taylor's. The New Jersey man's report:
We brought in Orderly Sergt. T. H. Dunham, of Captain Waring’s Georgia Hussars. I send his orderly book. His regiment is the Sixth Virginia, Colonel Field’s.... P.S. I send the orderly sergeant’s papers, some of which you will find interesting, especially a private letter.

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