Here in northern Virginia, you’re never far from history—especially Civil War history. Indeed, it’s hard to traverse more than a couple of miles without seeing some sort of official marker commemorating a particular battle, or even a skirmish.
The Battle of Dranesville, while hardly even a footnote when compared to such horrific conflicts as Antietam, Gettysburg, or Spotsylvania, is worth remembering, as it puts into sharp relief the absurdity of this war, how a minor victory could energize the North, and how the Confederate commander thought that he had won, as well.
The time was December, 1861. The previous July, the Union had been stunned by its humiliating defeat at Manassas (Bull Run) and subsequent smaller defeats at Belmont, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff. There were few cries at this point of “On to Richmond.” The North needed a “W” in the stats. Meanwhile, the South was feeling nearly invincible, as it approached the first Christmas of the war.
As things now stood, the Federals had retreated to defending Washington, encamped in a line along the south bank of the Potomac River. The Confederates were camped at Centreville, about thirty miles away. Although public sentiment in this northernmost part of Virginia favored the Confederates, there were still some Union supporters, and the entire region was rife with rumors.
One of the stories that got back to Union General George McCall, on 19 December, described the arrest of two Union loyalist citizens of the area, who were being taken to Richmond’s Libby Prison. On the face of this, McCall ordered Brigadier General E.O.C. Ord to proceed the next morning along the Leesburg Pike, in the direction of Dranesville. His goals were “to drive back the enemy’s pickets from the advanced position” and “to procure a supply of forage.”
Ord set up a battery of guns on Drane Hill and could observe a considerable number of enemy. Indeed, a detachment of Confederate soliders, under Colonel J.E.B. Stuart, was guarding a large wagon train, out on the prowl for supplies. Unfortunately, both leaders made more of the situation than they should have. Ord concluded that Stuart’s group was out to cut him off from his retreat back to camp, and Stuart reasoned that Ord’s group wanted to capture his wagons and forage. This, then, precipitated the Battle of Dranesville.
Ord’s positioning of the battery proved decisive, and the 10th Pennsylvania regiment, featuring the famous “Bucktail” sharpshooters, inflicted severe damage on the Confederates. During all this, the wagon train was heading, at top speed, back to the safety of Centreville. And, Union Brigadier General J.F. Reynolds and his First Pennsylvania brigade were on their way to Dranesville to help Ord.
When Stuart heard of this, and knowing that the wagon train was out of harm’s way, he retreated. Otherwise he would have faced at least 10,000 more troops under Reynolds. The next morning, Stuart returned to the now deserted battlefield to gather his dead and wounded. The Federals did not pursue him.
The most reliable figures show 71 Federals and 230 Confederate soldiers dead in the Battle of Dranesville. The importance of this battle was far greater for the North, since they could claim their first victory south of the Potomac, even if it was mostly an accidental conflict. Simultaneously, Stuart felt that by saving his wagon train from imminent attack, HE had won the Battle of Dranesville.
It is noted that during certain of Stuart’s troop movements, the 1st Kentucky and 6th South Carolina regiments became confused and fired upon each other. Civil War buffs will tell you that these tragic incidents of friendly fire occurred with some frequency in the early part of the war.
But my take is that the entire miserable war was nothing but friendly fire, a point of view that is never emphasized enough, in the more than 70,000 books written about The War Between the States.