Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hot Haste

Wherein a multiethnic force clears Hunter's Mill of rebels

Much has been written about the families that were torn apart by the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, for example, had four brothers-in-law from his wife's family that all fought in the Confederate Army, and one more that married Mary Todd Lincoln's sister. But it was also a war marked by the unfamiliar, one in which people from backgrounds quite different from the Anglo-Saxon or Scots-Irish backgrounds that make up a large part of the warfare we most often remember.

The 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry was one such unit. It had been recruited for three years at the beginning of July 1861 by Max Friedman, a German Jew who had immigrated to Philadelphia when his liberal politics left him on the wrong side of the '48. His key staff had similar backgrounds, and they were able to quickly recruit men among other German immigrants, who tended to be patriotic and particularly anti-slavery (not the least because slave labor undercut their wages). Freidman was made colonel, and named his regiment of cavalry the Cameron Dragoons after then-Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a favorite Pennsylvania politician of the immigrant community in Philadelphia.

Cameron didn't return the respect immediately, choosing not to muster the regiment into service, until the loss at Bull Run expanded the number of authorized regiments of volunteers. In deference to Pennsylvania's odd enumeration system, it was renumbered the 65th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, but it continued to be called the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry or Cameron's Dragoons. After traveling to Washington, the regiment encamped on 7th Street, not far from today's Verizon Center, and Friedman named a Jewish regimental chaplain, to the ire of the YMCA and several Members of Congress. By February 1862, Friedman was still in hot water, and spending less and less time running his regiment, and more defending his Jewishness against Christian zealots.

So on February 7, it was not Friedman that led the regiment out for their mission, but Major Joseph L. Moss, who was acting as his second in command since the resignation of Lt. Colonel Philip Becker in November. Not much data is available on Moss without a deeper search, but his name indicates that he could be of Anglo-Saxon or East German Jewish descent, both of which are possible in the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The regiment was divided up into five squadrons of two companies each, under himself, Major Edward Boteler, Captain William Heuser, Captain D. P. Hagameister, and Captain Jacob Wilson. Wilson is definitely an English or Scottish name, though like Moss not enough information is readily available to know Jacob's background. He may even have been among the significant minority or the 5th's Irish-born members, of which there were quite a few in his Company F.

But Moss had at least two guests on his trip. Brig. General W.F. "Baldy" Smith considered their mission important enough that he had sent three staff members to ride along. The first was his Assistant Adjutant, Captain Leonard Douglas Hay Currie. Currie was an Englishman, born in London in 1832, who had had enough means to purchase himself a commission in the British Army. As an honorary major in the 19th (1st North Riding of Yorkshire) Regiment of Foot he had marched with the Light Division in the Crimean War (not to be confused with the famous Light Brigade of cavalry) and been wounded at the Battle of Alma in 1854. When war broke out in the United States, Currie had sold his commission and crossed the Atlantic to beg a commission in the Northern army, despite his government's tepidly pro-Southern leanings. He must have known someone, because he got one and drew the esteem of George McClellan, who placed him with one of his favorite subordinates, Baldy Smith.

Fellow Brit and famous correspondent for The Times (including in Crimea), William Howard Russell, recorded an encounter with Currie when he stopped by Smith's headquarters one day in mid-December 1861:
[We] set out via Chain Bridge just as ye people were coming from church & rode round to Smith's at Smoots House where we found Currie major and Scrimser a.d.c. who rec'd us at whiskey & water & a smoke & a chat. Smith very unwell I regret to say & away. Camps look neater, men better, a great deal of horse butting with fir & pine branches. Currie was in our 19th Rt and & was brigade major at Aldershot, wounded at Alma... Currie told amusing stories [about Smith's division] of utter want of subordination, mutiny in refusing to go on guard or on duty, &c.
Lieutenant James A. Scrymser was a New Yorker with West Point experience who had helped then-Captain Baldy Smith with some of his engineering responsibility. When Smith had been promoted, he had requested Scrymser become his aide-de-camp, a general purpose staffer to help with any number of duties a general might have. Smith probably sent Scrymser on the raid because his engineering experience would have helped scout the ground.

Captain Robert d'Orleans
The other staff officer that set off with the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry was known as Captain Robert d'Orleans, though he was more properly known as Prince Robert Philippe Louis Eugène Ferdinand d'Orléans, the Duc de Chartres. Robert had been orphaned at a young age and was raised by his grandfather, King Louis-Philippe of France. When the French Revolution of 1848 led to the establishment of the Second Republic, Robert had joined his grandfather in his exile in Britain. A restless young man who grew up expecting to lead, he joined his older brother Philippe as a dragoon officer in the army of King Vittorio Emmanuele II of Piedmont and fought in the wars that made him the unified king of Italy.

When the American Civil War broke out, the two princes joined their uncle in a trip to Washington. He became enamored with McClellan, and begged positions for his son and nephews on his staff, which the general-in-chief was happy to agree to (he told his wife: "I admire him more than almost any one I have ever met with--he is true as steel--like all deaf men very reflective--says but little & that always to the point..."). McClellan called Robert "the Little Duke" and came to trust him personally. On February 7, Robert d'Orleans rode along to serve as McClellan's eyes and ears.

The 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry rode out of camp at 4:00 am, before dawn, for Freedom Hill [Tyson's Corner]. The goal was to clear the road of Confederate cavalry from Flint Hill [Oakton] up to Hunter's Mill [near the intersection of Lawyers Road and Hunters Mill Road] and to capture pickets at the house of a local named Peck for interrogation.

To accomplish this, Joseph Moss broke up the regiment. Jacob Wilson took his two companies southwest to Flint Hill [Oakton], roughly down the path of today's Chain Bridge Road [VA 123], with Leonard Currie and Robert d'Orleans accompanying him. Captain Heuser led his squadron down "Sawyer's Road" [either  a lost road or road name, or else Currie misheard "Lawyer's Road"--the latter is my own belief], accompanied by Lieutenant Scrymser. Moss left himself two squadrons for reserves and to keep him connected to Smith's picket line (Major Boteler at Vienna, and Captain Hagemeister back at Freedom Hill), and himself split the stretch of road from Flint Hill to Hunter's Mill by heading straight to Johnson's Hill [near the intersection of Vale Road and Stuart Mill Road]. He was joined by another aide-de-camp, only identified as Lieutenant Carey, who may have also been on Smith's staff.

Jacob Wilson's squadron ran into the Confederates first. As they road towards Flint Hill, a Confederate picket sounded the alarm. Leonard Currie appears to have taken charge of the squadron pretty early in the operation. As soon as the Confederate picket rushed to inform his mates at Flint Hill
...I immediately ordered Captain Wilson to charge with his company, taking Capt J.O'Farrell, with his company, in support. The rebels ran before Captain Wilson's company, which went in pursuit, Captain O'Farrell's company following. I then ordered Captain O'Farrell to bear away with his company to the right of a wood, and join Captain Wilson in pursuit.
Though he was violating Army regulations, Currie's tactics were sound, attempting to use Wilson's company to drive the Confederates, while the other swept around to cut them off. But the Confederates didn't stand and fight, and Currie called on Wilson to stop his men, who were almost to Germantown. Currie decided to head back to Flint Hill and continue with the mission of depriving the area to Confederate pickets.
After hunting the rebels across the country for a couple of miles in the direction of Germantown, leaving Fairfax Court-House on our left, the company was halted. I then ordered the company (Captain Wilson's) back to the barn at Mrs Shaley's, which according to your instructions was fired and burned.
The other company that he had sent around to cut off the Confederates had not returned still by the time Wilson's men finished burning the barn. Currie was concerned, but felt time was ticking and he had to get on with clearing the road, so he ordered Wilson's company off alone towards Hunter's Mill at a trot.
After passing Vibart's Mill about a mile, the advance guard came across the rebel vedette [picket]. At the same time we saw a horse picketed at the house, for which Captain Wilson, Capt Robert d'Orleans, and myself immediately made. The advance guard fired at the vedette we saw, who ran. We tried to cut him off, when the other men of the rebel picket rushed into the house and began firing at us.
Jacob Wilson took a shot in the head from a Colt repeating rifle being used in the house. Major Moss described it in his after-action report as "a serious and very painful wound from a rifle ball, which entered the ear, glanced around the skull bone, and came out at the back of the head." Amazingly, Wilson would live, but he was out of action for the moment. Currie ordered the men to dismount and charge the house, which they did, killing one of its defenders and taking the other four prisoners. The men turned out to be from the 1st North Carolina Cavalry, who had ambushed their fellow Pennsylvanians in the same area a few months earlier.

Currie continued on to the final house on his circuit, that of a family named Brooks, and found it abandoned, and so headed back to Vienna, where he joined up with Captain Heuser's squadron, which had completed its mission with no encounters. But Major Botelor's two companies supposedly in reserve at Vienna were nowhere to be found. Frustrated, Currie sent orders for Captain Hagemeister's reserves all the way back at Freedom Hill to quickly ride to Flint Hill and find the lost cavalry company of Captain O'Farrell.

O'Farrell had had an eventful afternoon of his own. After splitting with Wilson, he had been unable to get behind the pickets he had originally been chasing, but had serendipitously stumbled upon another bunch of them. He reported:
I then, pursuant to instructions, took through the fields for about 2 miles in the direction of Hunter's Mill, making a dash on the rear of a log hut, where I discovered that a portion of their reserve guard was stationed. When about 50 yards from it and coming towards their rear they opened upon us a brisk fire, which lasted for several minutes before we managed to dislodge them, although we promptly surrounded the hut and returned their fire with vigor. The firing of the enemy was rapid ,but mostly at random, which accounts for the few casualties on our side... They being under shelter where our balls could not penetrate had every advantage We took 6 prisoners, with their arms, horses, and equipments, some of which we lost in returning, on account of the difficulty we had in bringing in our prisoners as their pickets, who were now alarmed, kept firing on us from different directions as we returned, having gone some distance inside their lines.
He found Major Botelor at Flint Hill. The good major had heard the firing from the initial charge ordered by Currie and headed immediately for it, in order to provide reinforcements. But Currie, with Wilson's company, had circled around towards Hunter's Mill and passed right past him along parallel paths. Now the major helped O'Farrell secure his prisoners and tend to his wounded, and then led all towards Hunter's Mill to join up with the rest of the regiment.

While Currie was dealing with the Confederates holed up in the house, Botelor and Moss rendezvoused at the Brooks House. O'Farrell's wounded were still at Flint Hill, so Moss decided to take the five companies he now had with him back there (which is why Currie found no one when he came by the Brooks House a little later). Moss recounted:
...the whole command returned to Flint Hill, and from there started in the direction of Fairfax Court-House. When within a mile of this place, the pickets to the number of 15 or 20 again made their appearance, about a half mile in our advance. Immediately upon seeing them, I ordered Captain Brown with 10 or 15 men in one direction, and Lieutenant Cromelien with the same number of men in another, to capture them if possible. They pursued them to within a mile of Germantown, wounding 2 and capturing 3 of them, together with a valuable four horse team, which was used for hauling forage to the rebel troops.
A true cavalry officer, Moss was not content until he pushed his luck to the maximum.
In the mean time, I ordered Lieutenant Hart, with 20 men, to make a charge through Fairfax Court-House, having first reconnoitered to the right and left of the village and satisfied myself that there were but few, if any, troops there. I then advanced with the whole force into the village, remained there about half an hour, and took the road to the left leading through Falls Church, thinking I might still get in the rear of their pickets; but they had all fled, leaving their fires burning, leading me to suppose they had left in hot haste for parts unknown. 
Such a move was not merely one of a cavalry officer's love for daring stunts, but also could yield valuable intelligence, as in this case:
The village of Fairfax appears to have been, with one or two exceptions, entirely deserted, and has a very dilapidated look. I did not think it expedient to have the houses searched, as the enemy could in a very short time get a strong force down the pike from the neighborhood of Centreville. The enemy have dug 3 or 4 extensive rifle pits to the right of the road leading from Flint Hill to the Court-House, and immediately in front of the same. 
Meanwhile, Captain Hagemeister had found O'Farrelly's wounded at Flint Hill, who told him of the junction under Moss. He reported back to Currie, who then made arrangements to evacuate the wounded and prisoners, as well as positioned the Wilson's company and Hagemeister's two companies in a defensive position at Flint Hill, with his own bevy of pickets stretched out over the cleared territory to provide warning of any big movements.

"I take much pleasure in expressing my general satisfaction at the good conduct of the officers, non-commissioned officers, and men during the day," Moss reported a few days later. Because Currie was Baldy Smith's adjutant, Moss's report was actually addressed to him, and he took care to note Currie's part in the action, while also noting that "it is impossible to particularize any one as they all themselves in a most creditable manner."

Currie wrote his own official report as well, addressed to Baldy Smith himself, and he was more liberal with praise, including for the wounded Jacob Wilson. He added, "I would also wish to thank Capt Robert d'Orleans, aide-de-camp to the Major General Commanding the Army, for his coolness, assistance, and advice on this somewhat trying occasion."

The Brit, the Frenchman, and the Irish and German immigrants had had a good day fighting for American unity.

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1 comment:

  1. L.D.H. Currie has an interesting epilogue. He only stayed on Baldy Smith's staff for about another month after this incident, after which he went to New York and recruited the 133rd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment in New York City (Staten Island and Brooklyn). When it was completed, in September, Currie was named its colonel, and led it through some forgotten (for good reason) campaigns in Louisiana. His path will briefly cross ours again when the 133rd is transferred to Washington to meet the threat of Jubal Early in 1864.

    When the war ended, Currie returned to England and lived there into the 20th Century. When he died, his obituary was run in the New York Times.