Sunday, August 24, 2008

Battle of Dranesville - Part Three

In Richmond, J.B. Jones worked as a clerk in the War Department. He was put in charge of issuing passports to any citizen desiring to pass between North and South. He believes the system is being abused. He makes many entries correlating how Confederate troop dispositions are mentioned in Northern papers soon after certain "citizens" were granted their passes.

On December 4, 1861, he records in his diary... "We are now tasting the bitter fruits of a too indulgent treatment of our enemies. (This would be the issuing of passports to applicants who desire to return to the North) Yesterday General Stuart's cavalry and the 6th Regiment S.C. volunteers met with a bloody disaster at Dranesville. It appears that several of the traitors arrested and sent hither by General Johnston were subsequently discharged by General Winder, under the instruction of Mr. Benjamin, and sent to the homes, in the vicinity of Dranesville, at the expense of the government. These men, with revenge rankling in their breasts, reported to General Stuart that a large amount of forage might be obtained in the vicinity of Dranesville, and that but a few companies of the enemy were in the neighborhood. The general believed these men to be loyal, since they seemed to have the confidence of the War Department, resolved to get forage; and for that purposed started some 80 wagons early in the morning, escorted by several regiments of infantry and 1000 cavalry, hoping to capture any forces of the enemy in the vicinity. Meantime in Dranesville, traitors had returned to their homes the preceding evening, and sent off intelligence to the headquarters of the enemy of the purpose of General Stuart to send out in the direction, early the next day, a foraging party consisting of so many wagons, and small forces of infantry, artillery, and cavalry.

The enemy hastened away to Dranesville an overwhelming force, and ambuscaded the road, where it entered the woods, with artillery and men of all arms. Their line was the shape of a horseshoe and completely concealed from view.

General Stuart had not entered far into the jaws of the trip, before some of his trusty scouts reported the presence of the enemy. Believing it to be only the pickets of a few companies previously reported, the general advanced still farther; but at the same time ordering the wagons to retire. He was soon undeceived by a simultaneous and concentric fire of artillery and musketry, which brought down many of his men. Nevertheless, he charged through the lines in one or two places, and brought his guns to bear with the effect of such portions of the enemy's line as were not wholly protected by the inequalities of the ground and the dense growth of the woods. He quickly ascertained, however, that he was contending against vastly superior numbers, and drew off his forces in good order, protecting his wagons. The enemy did not pursue for Stuart had rather more men than the informers reported to the enemy. But we lost 200 men, while the enemy sustained but little injury; their killed and wounded not exceeding 30.

This is the first serious wound inflicted on the country by Mr. Benjamin's policy.

December 5 - The account of Dranesville massacre was furnished me by an officer by an officer of the 6th S.C. Regiment, which suffered severely. The newspaper accounts of the occurrence, upon which, perhaps, the history of this war will be founded, give a different version of the matter. And hence, although not so designed at first, this diary will furnish more authentic data of many of th events of the war that the grave histories that will be written...

December 6 - It is rumored today, I know not on what authority, that the President mentioned the matter of the Dranesville disaster to the Secretary of War, and intimated that it was attributed to the machinations of the Union men discharged from prison here. It is said Mr. Benjamin denied it -- denied that any such men had been discharged by General Winder, or had been concerned in the affair at all. Of course the President had no alternative but to credit the solemn assertions of his confidential adviser. But my books, and the register of the prisons, would show that the Dranesville prisoners sent hither by General Joseph E. Johnston were discharged by General Winder, and that their expenses homes were paid by the government; and officers of unimpeachable veracity were ready to testify that General Stuart was misled by these very men.

My first concern with Jones' accounts are the dates. Looking at the Official Records only one battle at Dranesville is listed, but it takes place much later than Jones' entries suggest. But, Jones is speaking of the fight Stuart was engaged in.

Jones introduces an element that was not mentioned by Thomason in his seminal work about Stuart. Whereas Thomason contributes Stuart's loss to mistakes Stuart committed, Jones says the fault lies with 1) the collusion between Secretary Benjamin and General Winder's policy of granting passports to known spies/traitors. 2) These traitors deliberately misled Stuart in hopes of ambushing his troops. 3) It almost worked but Stuart's skill allowed him to withdraw the majority of his troops and wagons but not before he was bloodied.

The only thing as a historian that I will have to confirm is that Stuart did not make two forages to Dranesville. The date discrepancy in Jones' diary needs to be resolved. With the limited literature and records I have so far gathered on Stuart, it would seem that Jones' diary date is wrong. More research would have to be done on this.

If Jones is correct, then Thomason's conclusions become more suspect. It is the job of the historian to analyze and assess... but reading Thomason's biography, I find a tendancy on Thomason's part to brand Stuart as a commander who allows his vanity to affect his judgement. Since Thomason did not leave a bibliography or footnotes in his work, instead telling the reader that "I have not wanted to clutter my pages with footnotes and reference numbers... I will be happy to furnish specific sources to any person who is sufficiently interested to write me about any given point." Since Mr. Thomason is dead, I am unable to do this. Without his sources, it is hard to verify the claims he makes.

Next, we will look at the official records of the battle from both Stuart and his Northern opponent.