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The Battle of Dranesville

December 20, 1861 in Dranesville, Virginia

Union Forces Commanded by
Brig. Gen. E.O.C. Ord
Strength Killed Wounded Missing/Captured
± 5,000 7 61 ?
Confederate Forces Commanded by
Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart
Strength Killed Wounded Missing/Captured
± 2,500 43 143 8
Conclusion: Union Victory
��� By mid-December, nearly 5 months of relative quiet had passed in northern Virginia since the Union defeat at the 1st Manassas/Bull Run in July. Except for the Union disaster at Ball's Bluff in October, no significant engagement had occured between the opposing armies. The Federals, under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, a superb organizer, drilled daily in their camps on the Virginia hills opposite Washington, D.C. The Confederates, under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, also trained at Centreville, 25 miles to the west.

With the approach of winter, both McClellan and johnston wrestled with logistical problems. Food and rations for the men and forage for the thousands of horses and mules were a constant need. On December 20, both armies sent foraging parties for hay. Both sides selected the same area, the lush farmland west of Dranesville, a town about midway between Alexandria and leesburg on the Leesburg Turnpike.

At daylight, the Confederate foraging party, composed of virtually every wagon in Johnston's army, rolled out of Centreville, 16 miles south of dranesville. Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, with 150 cavalrymen, 4 infantry regiments, and an artillery battery, accompanied the wagons as an escort. Almost simultaneously, Brig. Gen. E.O.C. Ord left camp Pierpont with 5th Pennsylvania infantry regiments, a battery of 4 cannon, and a squadron of cavalry. Ord had been ordered to capture Confederate marauders and confinscate forage from loyal Confederates.

Having only 12 miles to cover, the Federals entered Dranesville first around noontime. Scattering a few Confederate cavalry, the Union troops occupied the town. An hour later, the 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Rifles, knew the terrain and quickly moved his regiment to a hill near the intersection of Leesburg Pike and the Georgetown Road. Kane deployed his soldiers while informing Ord of the oncoming Confederates. Stuart's approaching troopers soon exchanged fire with the Pennsylvanians.

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Ord and Stuart, both uncertain about the situation, hurried their trailing regiments forward. Ord deployed 3 regiments on the right of Kane, south of the turnpike, keeping the 10th Pennsylvania and cavalry squadron north of the road. The Union battery unlimbered beside the 10th, soon sending its shells toward the deploying Confederates. Stuart, meanwhile, aligned his 4 regiments in the woodlands opposite the 4 Pennsylvania regiments. His artillery unit halted behind the infantry and replied to Ord's gunners.

The infantry action began when the 9th Pennsylvania accidently stumbled into the 1st Kentucky, who had already mistakenly exchanged volleys with the 11th Virginia and 10th Alabama. The Confederates cleared the woods and drove toward kane's men, many of whom occupied a 2-story brick house. A 30-minute firefight ensued, with the Confederates suffering more. Stuart then shifted the 11th Virginia to the right, but the regiment passed across the front of a concealed company of the 10th Pennsylvania, whose slicing volley staggerd the Virginians, sending them back into the woods.

Stuart, with his attack repulsed and certain the wagons were safe, ordered a withdrawal about 3:00 P.M. Masked by the smoke and woods, the Confederates extricated themselves without any additional losses.

Civil War Harper's Weekly, January 11, 1862
DRANESVILLE, December 20—4 P.M.

General Ord's brigade, with the First Regiment of Pennsylvannia Rifles and Easton's battery of artillery, had a brisk affair with the enemy, consisting of fair regiments and a battery of artillery, near this place at 12 M. today. I arrived during the action, and sent for General Reynolds, who was left at Difficult Run. The enemy was defeated, and fled before General Reynolds arrived. We have found forty killed of the enemy and ten wounded on the field. Our loss is two killed and three wounded. We have taken two caissons, with the harnesses, the horses having been killed.

The regiment of rifles behaved finely. Lieutenant-Colonel Kane was very slightly wounded, but is still in the field. I have collected the dead and wounded, and am about to move back to camp.

GEORGE A. McCALL, Brig.-Gen. Commanding.

A correspondent of the Herald adds the following :

Meantime General Ord advanced to Thornton's House, near Dranesville, when his command was suddenly fired upon by a force lying in ambush in dense woods adjacent. This was the signal of battle, and a brisk engagement promptly ensued.

General McCall, who arrived a few minutes previously, took command. In a moment's time Easton's battery was planted alongside the Thornton House, and fired rapidly and with terrible effect in the enemy's ambush. Colonel Kane's "Bucktail Riflemen" were placed in advance, and fired upon the enemy wherever they made their appearance. The rebels, who had a battery of six pieces, returned the cannonading, and replied to the rifles with musketry. The firing was kept up some three-quarters of an hour, when the enemy retreated rapidly, the fire of the whole brigade, rifles and battery, being too hot for them. Our troops stood up bravely under the sharp volleys of the rebels. Their steadiness was praised by General McCall and his officers.

The rebels took the direction of Fairfax Court House, leaving on the field a number of their killed and wounded. Our troops pursued them a short distance, and returned.

The scene in the woods presented all the horrors of a sanguinary battle-field, and the dead and dying lying strewn in various directions. Forty dead bodies of the rebels were picked up, and fifteen wounded prisoners were taken and placed in Hunter's and other houses in Dranesville.

General Ord captured eight wounded prisoners and two caissons with ammunition. In their haste the enemy left behind arms of all descriptions, clothing, etc.

Their loss is estimated at 150 killed and wounded. Among their killed was Colonel Tom Taylor, of Frankfort, Kentucky, and commander of the First Kentucky Regiment of rebels. The forces of the enemy consisted of three infantry regiments, First and Eleventh Kentucky, and Tenth Alabama, with a cavalry regiment and a battery, all under command of Colonel John H. Forney, of the Tenth Alabama, Acting Brigadier-General. The dead rebels were left on the field.

The loss on our side was six killed and eight wounded, most of whom belonged to the Bucktails. Colonel Kane received a slight wound.

Reports of Brig. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, C. S. Army
DECEMBER 20, 1861.---Engagement at Dranesville, Va.
O.R.-- SERIES I--VOLUME 5 [S# 5]

DRANESVILLE, VA., December 21, 1861

Gen. D. H. HILL.

We had a hard-fought battle here yesterday. I had four pieces and four regiments, say 1,200 strong. The enemy had from five to ten regiments, six or seven pieces artillery. They said 3,100. Finding heavy re-enforcements arriving, I withdrew my command in perfect order from the field, carrying off nearly all the wounded. The enemy's loss was over 50 killed; our killed 27. They evacuated at dark. I will return to Centreville to-day.

In haste.

- - - - -

December 23, 1861.

Assistant Adjutant-General.

MAJOR: I have the honor to report that on the 20th instant I was placed in command of four regiments of infantry, 150 cavalry, and a battery of four pieces of artillery, viz, Eleventh Virginia Volunteers, Col. S. Garland, jr.; Sixth South Carolina Volunteers, Lieutenant Colonel Secrest; Tenth Alabama Volunteers, Col. J. H. Forney, and First Kentucky Volunteers, Col. Thomas H. Taylor, making an aggregate force of 1,600 infantry; Sumter Flying Artillery (four pieces), Capt. A. S. Catts; One hundred [men of the First] North Carolina Cavalry, Major Gordon, and fifty [men of the] Second Virginia Cavalry, Captain Pitzer, for the purpose of covering an expedition of all the wagons of our army that could be spared (after hay) to the left of Dranesville.

I proceeded at once by the nearest route at daylight towards Dranesville, and the accompanying sketch will show the route as well as the relative situation of other objects of interest in what I am about to narrate.

Knowing the situation of the enemy's advance posts, I sent the cavalry forward far in advance of the infantry, to take possession of the two turnpikes to the right of Dranesville, leading directly to the enemy's advanced posts, so as to prevent any communication of our movements reaching them, and with the main body I followed on to take a position with two regiments and a section of artillery on each turnpike, also to the right of Dranesville, and close enough to their intersection to form a continuous line.

Such a position I knew I could hold against almost any odds, but as my cavalry came in sight of the turnpike, Captain Pitzer discovered the enemy at the point (A) on the ridge and sent me word immediately. I galloped forward at once, and, reconnoitering for myself, found that portion of the enemy was in possession of the ridge, and I could hear distinctly artillery carriages passing up the Georgetown turnpike in considerable numbers, and presently saw the cannons mounted on limber-boxes passing up towards Dranesville, about 200 yards from the intersection (A). I knew, too, that the enemy's infantry were in advance, and I at once suspected that he was either marching upon Leesburg or had received intelligence through a spy of our intended forage expedition and was marching upon it. In either case our wagons would have fallen an easy prey to him, and I saw at once that my only way to save them was to make a vigorous attack upon his rear and left flank and to compel him to desist from such a purpose.

I sent back for the infantry to hurry forward, and sent Captain Pitzer with his detachment of cavalry to gain the roads towards Leesburg, give notice to our wagons to return at once to camp, and keep between them and the enemy, threatening his front and flank; and I will state here, parenthetically, that this duty was performed by Captain Pitzer and his gallant little detachment in the most creditable manner; all our wagons reaching camp safely.

In the mean time the enemy's skirmishers took possession of the dense pine in our front, and as our infantry was met by my messenger three-fourths of a mile back, it was some time coming up. Colonel Garland's regiment, leading, was directed to deploy two companies on each side of the road to clear the ground of the enemy's skirmishers. One of these companies, having mistaken its direction, went too far to the right, and Colonel Garland had to replace it with another. The pines were cleared at doublequick, and the battery was ordered in position at (B), and fired very effectively during the whole of the engagement to the front.

The infantry were placed in position as follows: Garland's regiment on the right of the road, a little in advance of the artillery; Secrest's (South Carolina) on the left of the road. Forney's regiment, arriving later, replaced Garland's, which moved by the flank to the right, and the First Kentucky, Colonel Taylor, at first intended as a reserve, was ordered to take position on the left of the Sixth South Carolina.
As our infantry was well secured from the enemy's view, their artillery fire, which opened about fifteen minutes after ours began, had little effect upon the infantry, but played with telling effect along the road, as from its position (C) and the straightness of the road in our rear it raked the latter with shell and round shot completely. Their caissons and limbers were behind in a brick house completely protected from our shot, while our limbers and caissons were necessarily crowded and exposed. There was no outlet to right or left for a mile back by which the artillery could change its position. When our forces took their position the fire of the artillery caused great commotion in the enemy's lines and a part evidently took to their heels.

The right wing was ordered forward, and the Tenth Alabama rushed with a shout in a shower of bullets, under the gallant lead of their colonel (Forney) and Lieutenant-Colonel Martin, the latter falling in the charge. A part of this regiment crossed the road and took position along a fence, from which the enemy felt the trueness of their aim at short range. The colonel was here severely wounded and had to retire. In his absence the command devolved upon Major Woodward.

The Eleventh Virginia, holding position on the right of the Tenth Alabama, were not so much exposed to the fire of the enemy, and consequently suffered less. The Sixth South Carolina gradually gained ground also to the front, and being, together with the Tenth Alabama, exposed to the fire of the enemy's sharpshooters from a two-story brick house, suffered most.

My orders to Colonel Taylor, First Kentucky, were given through Colonel Forney, and I soon knew by the commotion on my left that it was in place. The thicket where the Sixth South Carolina and First Kentucky operated was so dense that it was impossible to see either [their] exact position or their progress in the fight, and I regret to say that the First Kentucky and the Sixth South Carolina mistook each other for the enemy, and a few casualties occurred in consequence, but with that exception the whole force acted with admirable unison, and advanced upon the enemy with the steadiness of veterans, driving him several times from his position with heavy loss.

When the action had lasted about two hours I found that the enemy, being already in force larger than my own, was recovering from his disorder and receiving heavy re-enforcements. I could not, with my small numbers, being beyond the reach of re-enforcements, force his position without fearful sacrifice, and seeing that his artillery, superior to ours in numbers and position only, was pouring a very destructive fire into Cutts' battery, I decided to withdraw the latter at once, preparatory to retiring from the field, judging, too, that I had given our wagons ample time to get out of reach of the enemy.
The battery suffered greatly. Its position was necessarily such that it could fire only to the front, and the caissons and limbers had no cover whatever from such a fire. Three or four cannoneers had been shot at their posts and several wounded, and every shot of the enemy was dealing destruction on either man, limber, or horse.

The conduct of the brave, true, and heroic Cutts attracted my admiration frequently during the action--now acting No. 1, and now as gunner, and still directing and disposing the whole with perfect self-command and a devotion to his duty that was, I believe, scarcely ever equaled. He executed my orders to withdraw his battery under a ricochet fire of great accuracy.

One piece I found it necessary to detail some infantry (Eleventh Virginia) to assist in conducting to the rear, which was done by them under great personal exposure.

Having secured the artillery, I sent orders to the four regimental commanders to disengage themselves from the enemy and retire slowly and in perfect order to the railroad, where a stand would be made. This delicate duty was performed admirably, and our troops marched back leisurely,' bringing with them all the wounded that could be found.

The men gathered up their blankets as they passed the points where they had been deposited before the fight. I regret to say, however, that one of the regiments reached the road this side of their blankets and knapsacks, thus missing them entirely; a circumstance which the enemy will construe into precipitate flight. The enemy was evidently too much crippled to follow in pursuit, and after a short halt at the railroad I proceeded to Fryingpan Church, where the wounded were cared for.

Early next morning, with the two fresh regiments furnished me (the Ninth Georgia and Eighteenth Virginia), and a detachment of cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Baker, I proceeded towards the scene of action of the previous day, the cavalry being sent in advance. Learning that the enemy had evacuated Dranesville and had left some of our wounded there, I pushed on to that place to recover them and to take care of the dead. I found our dead on the field, and proceeded at once to remove them all to Centreville for interment. The wounded (about 10) were left by the enemy at a house at Dranesville, who intended to send for them the next day. They had been cared for with the utmost devotion by several of the ladies of the place. They were also removed to Centreville, except two, who were not able to survive the removal, who at their own desire and at the surgeon's advice were left in charge of the ladies.

As to the strength of the enemy, if the concurrent statements of the citizens residing on his route of march can be credited, he had fifteen regiments of infantry., several batteries, and seven companies of cavalry. The latter had started in the direction of our wagons just before the action began, but were then recalled.

Our wounded, who were for the time prisoners, say that the enemy's loss was acknowledged by them to be very heavy, and among the officers killed or mortally wounded was Colonel Kane, of Utah notoriety; and citizens living below declared that they carried off twenty wagon loads of killed and wounded, besides many dead before them on their horses, and that as soon as their dead and wounded were removed they left the field precipitately, leaving behind much of the material which we left on the field, but which we recovered next day.

I cannot speak in too high terms of Colonel Forney, that gallant son of Alabama, whose conspicuous bravery, leading his men in a galling fire, was the admiration of all; nor of his lieutenant colonel (Martin), who, with the battle-cry of forward on his lips, fell, bravely encouraging his men. Nor can I do more than simple justice to the officers and men of that regiment, who seemed determined to follow their colonel wherever he would lead.

Colonel Garland and Major Langhorne, of the Eleventh Virginia, behaved with great coolness under fire, and the men of that regiment, though deprived by locality from sharing as much of the danger of the engagement as the Tenth Alabama Regiment, yet acquitted themselves to my entire satisfaction.
The Sixth South Carolina and First Kentucky were, I regret to say, too much screened from my view to afford me the privilege of bearing witness, by personal observation, of individual prowess, but that the Sixth South Carolina, under the fearless Secrest, did its whole duty, let the list of killed and wounded and her battle flag, bathed in blood, with its staff shivered in the hand of the bearer, be silent but eloquent witnesses. Their major (Woodward) was painfully wounded, but bore himself heroically notwithstanding; while the telling report I could distinctly hear from the left assured me that the First Kentucky, under the gallant Taylor, the intrepid Major Crossland, and daring Desha, was all right.
Our battery's loss in killed and wounded was great, and the men deserve great credit for their devotion to their pieces under such perilous circumstances.

The detachment of North Carolina cavalry, under Major Gordon, was of great service in watching the approaches to our flanks, though the ground was extremely unfavorable for cavalry.

The attention of the general commanding is respectfully called to the detailed reports of commanders of regiments and corps, and to the special mention made by them of individual prowess.

Colonel Taylor became separated from his regiment in passing from its left to its right and found himself beyond the enemy's lines, but by great coolness and presence of mind he extricated himself and joined his regiment that night.

My thanks are due to my adjutant-general, Captain Brien; my aide, Chiswell Dabney, jr.; Lieutenants Throckmorton and Johnson, of the Fairfax Cavalry, and Lieutenant Jackson (aide to General Jones), volunteers for the occasion, for valuable services on the field. Lieutenant Throckmorton accompanied Captain Pitzer and was conspicuously useful during the day, and Lieutenant Johnson was of great service to me.

Corporal Henry Hagan, of [the] First Virginia Cavalry, was of great service in showing the First Kentucky its position in line, and proved himself on this as on every other occasion worthy of a commission.
Redmond Burke, Chief Bugler Steele, Privates Lewis, Barnes, Harris, Barton, Landstreet, Routh, Brigman, Thompson, and Carroll, of my escort, deserve my thanks for their promptness and accuracy in conveying orders and instructions.

Had we effected the safety of our wagons---constituting the greater part of the available means of transportation of this army---with great loss to ourselves, without inflicting much on the enemy, alone would have been a triumph of which the brave men of the four regiments under my command could be proud; but when it is considered what overwhelming odds were against us, notwithstanding which we saved the transportation, inflicted upon the enemy a loss severer than our own, rendering him unequal to the task of pursuit, retired in perfect order, and bringing with us nearly all our wounded, we may rightly call it a glorious success.
Our entire loss is as follows:

Officers and men Killed Wounded Total
Eleventh Virginia Volunteers 6 15 ---
Sixth South Carolina Volunteers 18 45 ---
Tenth Alabama Volunteers 15 45 6
First Kentucky Volunteers 1 23 2
Cutt's battery 3 15 ---
Cavalry --- --- ---
Total 43 143 8

The list of killed has been materially increased by deaths which have occurred since the battle, as the number found dead on the field was only 27.

I have the honor to be, major, respectfully, your obedient servant,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

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