Engagement At Dranesville, Virginia
December 20, 1861
(Image from Harper's Weekly, January 11, 1862)
By mid-December 1861, nearly 5 months of relative quiet had passed in northern Virginia since the Union defeat at First Bull Run in July. Except for the Federal disaster at Ball's Bluff in October, no significant engagement had occurred 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. 25 miles to the west at Centreville, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's Confederates also trained.
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. 5 days before Christmas, 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 on December 20, the Confederates 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 cavalryman, 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 5 Pennsylvania infantry regiments, a battery of four cannon, and a squadron of cavalry. Ord had been ordered to capture Southern marauders and confiscate forage from loyal Confederates.
Having only 12 miles to cover, the Federals entered Dranesville first, about noon. Scattering a few Confederate horsemen, the Union troops occupied the town. An hour later the 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Rifles spotted Stuart's approaching force to the south. Lt. Col. Thomas L. Kane, commander of the Rifles, knew the terrain and quickly moved his regiment to a hill near the intersection of the 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.
Ord and Stuart, both uncertain about the situation, hurried their trailing regiments forward. The Union brigadier deployed 3 regiments on the right of Kane, south of the turnpike, keeping the 10th Pennsylvania and the cavalry squadron north of the road. The Federal battery unlimbered beside the 10th, soon sending its shells toward the deploying Southerners. 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 accidentally stumbled into the 1st Kentucky, who had already mistakenly exchanged volleys with the 6th South Carolina. Stuart then attacked with the 11th Virginia and 10th Alabama. The Confederates cleared the woods and drove toward Kane's soldiers, many of whom occupied a 2-story brick house. A 30-minute fire fight 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 staggered the Virginians, sending them back into the woods.
Stuart, with his attack repulsed and certain the wagons were safe, ordered a withdrawal about 3 o'clock. Masked by the smoke and woods, the Confederates extricated themselves without additional loss. Stuart 194 casualties; Ord lost only 68. The next day both commanders returned to their camps.
Source: "Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War" edited by Patricia L. Faust
Battle of Dranesville Detailed description taken from the Southern Historical Society Papers Harper's Weekly Article from Harper's Weekly, January 11, 1862 about the battle.
From the Official Records:
Report of Brig. Gen. E. O. C. Ord, U. S. Army
Report of Capt. Hezekiah Easton, Battery A, First Pennsylvania Reserve Artillery
Report of Col. John S. McCalmont, Tenth Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry
Reports of Capt. Thomas McConnell, Tenth Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry
Report of Col. John H. Taggart, Twelfth Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry
Report of Col. Conrad F. Jackson, Ninth Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry
Report of Lieut. Col. William M. Penrose, Sixth Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry
Report of Col. Thomas L. Kane, First Pennsylvania Reserve Rifles
Reports of Brig. Gen. George A. McCall, U. S. Army
Return of casualties in the Union forces
Reports of Brig. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart
This page last updated 03/25/05