Monday, August 18, 2008

The Battle of Dranesville

This week, we are going to look at the Battle of Dranesville, which Stuart fought on December 20, 1861. From Jeb Stuart, by John W. Thomason, Jr., one of the most popular biography’s on Stuart, comes our first account of the battle.

“General Stuart was placed in command of a detachment of four regiments of infantry, 1600 muskets, and 150 cavalry – say, two squadrons, and a battery. His mission was to cover a wagon train, sent up from Centreville to collect forage, reported to be abundantly gathered on the farms west of Dranesville, which is a village on the Leesburg-Washington Pike, 20 miles west of the Capitol, and five miles south of the Potomac at Rowser’s Ford. The same morning, it happened that there marched from the Federal lines west of Arlington a blue column, Ord’s brigade of McCall’s division, and a Pennsylvania rifle regiment, 3950 strong, with two more of McCall’s brigades in support. Their mission was to drive off Confederate patrols, who had been reported around Dranesville, and to gather in the same forage.

The Federals, their advance not burdened with a wagon train, reached Dranesville first, and chased off the Confederate pickets found in the place. These gentlemen-at-arms retired only as far as they had to, and hung around the skirts of the blue columns, not thinking to send back any message to Stuart, who came on serenely. Short of the town, he directed his wagons to the west, and kept on to Dranesville, intending to take position there to cover the foragers from the side of the enemy. Later in the war, he would have examined the region carefully before he passed his wagons from the rear; now he was learning.

His cavalry found Dranesville full of Yankees, provoked by the stubborn gray pickets into battle formation, and already stretching out an arm toward the wagons, which had been seen west of the town. Stuart had to attack at once, to save his foragers. His cavalry detachment rode to the left, to round up and draw off the wagons, and his four regiments were deployed and sent forward, into a zone of effective fire from the United States regular battery with Ord. There followed two hours of fighting, in which the raw Confederate regiments became intermingled, fired into each other, and otherwise did most of the things that green troops do in their first action. Ord stood fast in the village and volleyed mightily. The wagons were collected and escorted back to safety and Stuart drew off his infantry in fair order, the artillery covering its retirement. One regiment left its knapsacks and blankets on the field where it had deployed for action, and these were the Federal trophies of the fight for they remained in position until the Confederates were gone.

An infantry captain wrote a letter about the affair, it which he described Stuart, the last man in the retirement, riding out alone, his saddle draped with a harness cut by him from the fallen horses of his battery, for harness was scarce in the Confederacy. He retired five miles, halted, and sent for reinforcements. That night, Johnston ordered up to him two infantry regiments and some more cavalry, and he marched angrily back to Dranesville in the morning. The enemy had departed, leaving the Confederate dead on the field, and some of the wounded. Stuart’s losses was 194 killed, wounded, and missing, and Ord’s, 68."

Since I am preparing my own biography on Stuart, I am reading my hands on everything I can find on Stuart. My notes on the battle as written by Thomason leaves me with the following impressions.

1) That the battle happened because Stuart made a large mistake. He did not reconnoitered the area. This is an amateur mistake that Stuart would not repeat in later years.
2) He orders up reinforcements because he is angry.
3) The failure of the pickets who had been driven from the city by Ord did not notify Stuart that Union soldiers occupied the city. While Thomason does fault these pickets for failing to perform their duty, the blame seems to lie with Stuart for not reconnoitering the area.

If my entire knowledge of Stuart came from reading this biography, I would conclude that Stuart made an amateur mistake that resulted from lack of experience and that this amateur mistake was more costly than the pickets’ failure to notify him of Ord’s presence in the city. I would also conclude that Stuart angrily (or recklessly) ordered up reinforcements and returned to Dranesville. It’s the adverb angrily that does the most harm. How does Thomason know Stuart is angry? And why does Thomason choose that adverb, which to me, paints Stuart in a negative light? Of course I don’t know the answer. The text doesn’t tell me why.

With these questions in mind, I will read other accounts from McClellan, Blackford, and the Official Record. I also have Stuart’s letter on the battle. I will print that next so we can see how Stuart viewed the battle.