Great Falls Historical Society, VA website

GREAT FALLS IN THE CIVIL WAR

by Lloyd Thrall

Excerpted from the publication,
Great Falls Historical Society REFLECTIONS — 1994 - 1996

Battle ofDranesvilIe, VA December 20th, 1862. In: FRANK LESLIES ILLUSTRATED FAMOUS LEADERS AND BATTLE SCENES OF THE CIVIL WAR. From the colIection of Linda McCarthy.

orthose who live in the Great Falls neighborhood, the Civil War was, by and large, something that happened someplace else. Although none of the big battles that go down in the history books took place in Great Falls, the area was close to the scenes of major action for a period of over two years, and a number of the eddies that erupted from the central picture swept over the local neighborhood. There was, in fact, one minor engagement fought at the intersection of what are now Georgetown Pike and Route 7, and the Great Falls area was involved in the troop movements that lead up to the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. There were also incidents and clashes as soldiers of both the North and South maneuvered through the area, some of which involved John Singleton Mosby, the famous "Gray Ghost of the Confederacy."

Exhibit 1. Civil War Map of Great Falls and Surrounding Areas. Map prepared by Army Corps of Engineers relevant to defenses of City of Washington. Copied from: THE WAR OF THE REBELLION. Compilation ofthe Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Published by the Government Printing Office, 1880.

In discussing these activities, we are very fortunate to know in unusual detail what the area was like at that time. This is due in large measure to maps prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers in connection with the defenses of the City of Washington. An enlargement of a small section of these maps covering the Great Falls and contiguous communities is found in Exhibit number 1. It shows in great detail the roads and streams that existed at that time, where the woods and fields were, the location of dwellings and the names of many of the families who lived there then.

Georgetown Pike and Route 7 were both established roads, although on different alignments in places. They were then known as the Leesburg-Georgetown and the Leesburg and Alexandria Turnpikes. We shall refer to them as Georgetown Pike and Leesburg Pike hereafter. What are now known as Seneca, Walker and Arnon Chapel roads were in place in more or less their present locations although Arnon Chapel, which now dead-ends at Walker Road, then extended through to join Georgetown Pike. What is now called Beach Mill Road extended from Conn's Ferry on the Potomac, across Seneca Road, but then continued on to feed into Leesburg Pike near Broad Run. Springvale Road existed only north of Georgetown Pike, and Utterback Store Road only between Georgetown Pike and Leesburg Pike.

There was another important road that has since become obscure, which separated from Leigh Mill Road, went by Jackson's Mill and joined Walker Road at an intersection with the Leesburg Pike. This road not only was available for troop movements in the Civil War, but probably was part of the route President Madison took in returning to Washington after he fled the capital during the War of 1812.

Another important road as we shall see later was the Dranesville Ridge, or Ridge Road, which joined the Leesburg Pike near Dranesville. Today it goes by the name of Reston Avenue. There was no Baron Cameron Road at that time.

At the time the map was drawn, there was no identifiable community known as Great Falls, or by the area's former name of Forestville. The strip along Georgetown Pike between Utterback Store and Springvale Roads was identified on the map by the name "Springvale." The principal town in the area was Dranesville and it was located just West of the intersection of the Georgetown and Leesburg Pikes. The Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad was in existence, and Herndon Station, Hunter's Mill and Vienna were stops along it.

Also of interest, as we shall later see, were settlements at Langley and Lewinsville, but there was no town of Mclean.

Some of the names shown on the map are of families that still exist in the area or did until recently, such as Carper, Turner, Ballinger, Follin, Gunnel, Crepin (Crippen), Bicksler, Dickey, Henderson, Leigh, Coleman, Miller, Kidwell and Walker.

 

THE FIRST YEAR OF THE WAR

The Civil War began shortly after the election of Lincoln as President in November 1860. South Carolina seceded from the Union the following month and the first actual firing began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in January 1861. Virginia seceded a few months later, although it may be noted that sentiments were not unanimous on this action. Fairfax County voted for secession, but three of fourteen precincts voted against it. The precinct around Lewinsville voted two to one to stay in the Union. In Dranesville, the vote was nearly unanimous in favor of secession.

Also, in the spring of 1861, Union forces crossed the Potomac and occupied Alexandria and Arlington Heights. Thus began the task of fortifying Washington, which eventually led to the installation of 68 forts and batteries flanked by Forts Marcy and Ethan Allen upriver near Chain Bridge. The Confederates assembled around Manassas setting the stage for the first big battle of the war at Bull Run on July 21, 1861. After the South won this battle, the forces returned to their lines.

At the time of the first Battle of Bull Run and for some months thereafter, it appears that the Great Falls and contiguous areas were largely a no-man's land, although there are reports of a number of encounters between the opposing forces during this period. One skirmish occurred at Lewinsville, where the Confederate leader, Jeb Stuart, found outposts of the Federal Army. There also exist two reconnaissance reports made by small Union parties in the latter part of October. Those reports covered the area between Dranesville and Herndon Station. Both reported encountering the Confederate pickets at the railroad stations along the Loudoun & Hampshire railroad.

On the other hand, Union General McClelland sent an order to Brigadier General Stone dated October 20, 1861 in which he stated that Brigadier General Ord had occupied Dranesville and was sending out heavy reconnaissance through the countryside. If the Union forces had actually occupied Dranesville with any significant force, such occupation was short lived, for on November 27, another Union officer reported on another expedition to certainty, it is thought this Dranesville, where a Confederate picket force was stationed. He stated that he captured two pickets stationed there.

The officer also reported that he arrested six of the citizens of Dranesville, "who are known to be secessionists of the bitterest stamp." He gave their names, and they are of some interest: John T. Day, M.C.; RH. Ganel, (Gunnel) Great Falls; John T. D. Bell; C. W. Coleman; W. B. Day, M.D.; and J.B. Farr. Returning with the prisoners some five miles from Dranesville, the Union party was ambushed from a thick pinewood. They suffered at least three casualties and lost several horses. The Union force then surrounded the woods, killing two and capturing four of the assailants. Although not known with certainty, it is thought this action took place where Georgetown Pike crossed Difficult Run.

A few words about the old town of Dranesville are in order, as it was obviously of much greater importance then than it is at the present time. Exhibit 2 depicts the town as it was. It indicates some 50 structures in the town, be they dwellings, barns or pig sties. Being at the juncture of three roads, it was important as a stopover for traffic to and from the country to the West. There are records of some five taverns having been located over time at Dranesville, one as early as the 1730s.

 

THE BATTLE OF DRANESVILLE

Less than a month after the arrest of the six secessionists, General Jeb Stuart, Chief of the Confederate Cavalry, proceeded through Dranesville on an expedition to get hay for the army's horses. He proceeded up Reston Avenue (Ridge Road) and turned onto the Leesburg Pike towards the town of Leesburg. Stuart had with him about l,200 troops, four pieces of artillery and essentially all the wagons of the army that could be spared.

Exhibit 2. Map showing Action at Dranesville, December 20, 1861. From: Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. THE WAR OF THE REBELUON. Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Published by the Government Printing Office, 1880.

Click Here for Larger Map

Somehow the Union troops got word that the Confederates were out in force, and General Ord was directed to head for Dranesville to intercept them. It appears that Ord may have taken some foraging wagons with him also, and that he was irritated that the Confederates were invading what he considered to be his foraging ground.

When General Stuart learned of the approach of the Union forces, he ordered his troops to return and take up positions across Ridge Road on the south side of the Leesburg Pike near the intersection of Georgetown Pike. He also ordered the wagons to return to their base, using a road to the rear of where he stationed his troops.

The Union forces arrived with about 3,000 troops and some three or four pieces of artillery and confronted the Confederates. The artillery was set up on the hill between Leesburg and Georgetown Pike, since known as the triangle, and in a position to fire down Ridge Road. The disposition of the opposing forces is also shown in Exhibit 2.

A hot fight ensued for about an hour or two. After Stuart had his wagons safely behind him and on the way back to the Confederate base at Centerville, he withdrew his forces. The Union troops pursued him for a short distance and then broke off the engagement. They took up their own dead and wounded and returned to their camps. The Confederates had to leave their dead and wounded on the field, returning the next day to gather them up.

It was a rather bloody little encounter, the losses reported depending on who did the counting. One evaluation was that the Union lost seven killed and 61 wounded, while the Confederates lost 43 killed and 143 wounded. Apparently, essentially all the casualties were removed, although there is a sole grave of a Confederate soldier in the yard of the nearby church.

Both sides claimed victory; the Federals because they forced the Confederates to retreat, the rebels because they succeeded in saving their wagons.

 

RUSTICS IN REBELLION

There was an English author, or writer, who followed the Union troops during the war and wrote a book entitled, "Rustics in Rebellion. " Shortly after the Battle of Dranesville, he rode through the Great Falls area. He crossed the Chain Bridge, went through the Federal Camps at Langley, down Georgetown Pike across Difficult run and then on to an outpost at Hunter's Mill. Although outside the immediate Great Falls area, some of his comments about the Chain Bridge and Langley areas give an idea of what the general area was like. As he left the bridge he wrote,

"The wildness of the surrounding landscape was most remarkable. Within sight of the Capital of the Republic, the fox yet kept the covert, and the farms were few and far apart. It seemed to me that little had been done to clear the /country of the primeval timber."

He described the military road that had been built to replace a turnpike as "little more than a cart track," and described Langley as:

". . .a few plank houses, clustered around a tavern and a church—is one of those settlements whose sounding names beguile the reader into an idea of their importance. A lonesome haunt in time of peace, it had lately been the winter quarters of fifteen thousand soldiers, and a multitude of log huts had grown up around it."

He spoke of the officers, who bragged of their personal prowess at the battle of Dranesville, and stated few officers he met, "did not ascribe the victory entirely to their own individual gallantry. " He opened the door to the church there, and saw the seats of painted pine had been covered with planks. A sick man, presumably including the wounded at Dranesville, lay above every pew. Medicines were kept in the altar-place, and a doctor's clerk was writing requisitions in the pulpit. The sickening smell of the hospital forbade him to enter. Continuing down the Georgetown Pike, he wrote,

"I entered a region of scrub timber further on, and met with nothing human for four miles, at the end or which distance, I reached Difficult Creek, flowing through a rocky ravine, and crossed by a military bridge of logs. Through the thick woods to the right, I heard the roar of the Potomac, and a fmgerboard indicated I was opposite Great Falls. Three or four dead horses lay at the roadside beyond the stream, and I recalled the place as the scene of a recent cavalry encounter. A cartridge box and a tom felt hat lay close to the carcasses: I knew that some soul had gone hence to its account."

This, then, apparently was the scene of the ambush of the column taking the Dranesville civilian rebels to jail that had occurred a short time before.

The author continued on to Hunter’s Mill, but later on his return got lost. It appears likely he took the road past Jackson's Mill and turned left on Georgetown Pike at the Leigh Mill Road intersection. To those of us who are inclined to think of the Great Falls area as attractive, his description of his ride through our neighborhood is revealing:

“The soil hereabout was of a sterile red clay, spotted with red cedars. Country more bleak and desolate I have never known, and when at noon the rain ceased, a keen wind blew dismally across the barriers. I reached a turnpike at length, and turning as I thought toward Alexandria, goaded my horse into a canter. An hour’s ride brought me to a wretched hamlet, whose designation I inquired of a cadaverous old woman—‘Dranesville’ said she. ‘Then I am not upon the Alexandria Turnpike.&rsquo ‘No. you’re sot for Leesburg. This is the Georgetown and Chain Bridge Road.’”

 

MOVEMENTS TO ANTIETAM

After the disastrous first battle of Bull Run in July 1861, the Union had elected to undertake the capture of ichmond from the direction of Norfolk, supporting their troops from the sea in what became to be known as the Peninsular Campaign. This effort also was a disaster to the Union cause, and by mid 1862, the scene had shifted back again to Northern Virginia. In late August 1862, and some eight months after the engagement at Dranesville, the second battle of Bull Run was fought very close to the location where the first battle of Bull Run had occurred. This resulted in another victory for the Confederate cause, and the emboldened Confederate commander General Lee, decided to invade the North in a campaign that culminated in a Union victory at the Battle of Antietam.

It is inferred from the historical marker on Leesburg Pike at Dranesville that, in proceeding to Antietam, he main body of Lee's Army came up Ridge Road, turned towards Leesburg, and crossed the river into Maryland. The Confederate cavalry was positioned between the main body of Lee's forces and those of the Union to screen and protect Lee's movement.

On or about September 2, 1862, General Wade Hampton's brigade, which was a part of Stuart's cavalry, assed from Hunter's Mill onto Leesburg Pike and encamped near Dranesville. By one report, the camp was somewhere between Springvale and Dranesville. Robertson's confederate cavalry brigade camped near the same place on the same night. To disguise Lee's intentions, feints and demonstrations were kept up by these units against the Washington defenses towards Chain Bridge, Lewinsville, Pimmit Run, Falls Church and elsewhere. The chief of the Union cavalry reported encountering the rebel pickets three-quarters of a mile east of Difficult Run, and received reports that about 15,000 men under Stuart and Hampton marched from the Leesburg Turnpike, taking the road by Jackson's Mill (Leigh Mill Road) onto the Georgetown Turnpike. To some extent, at least, these feints were successful, for the Union Chief of Staff wrote General McClelland that,

"Until we can get better advices about the numbers of the enemy at Dranesville, I think we should be very cautious about stripping too much of the forts on the Virginia side. It may be the enemy's object to draw off the mass of our forces and then attempt to attack from the Virginia side of the Potomac. Think of this."

In any event, the roads through the Great Falls area were obviously swarming with military traffic in umbers unmatched up until our present day traffic jams.

As Lee moved north, the cavalry shield followed him. On September 8, the Union Commander General McClelland received a report that the Union cavalry had scouted to Dranesville and the rebels had gone. In fact, the rebel cavalry had crossed the Potomac on the afternoon of September 5.

 

MOSBY'S ACTIVITIES

After Lee's defeat at Antietam, he retreated back to Virginia, and in 1863 the armies of the North and South ook up positions along the Rappahannock River around Fredericksburg. Activities in and around the Great Falls area in the first half of 1863 related primarily to actions of John S. Mosby and his Confederate guerillas. He was a thorn in the flesh of the Union units left behind to guard Washington, disrupting communications, destroying supplies and capturing soldiers.

The Union forces were deployed in small units extending from Dranesville by way of Centerville, to the otomac, South of Washington. According to Mosby, some 300 Union troops were then posted at Dranesville. He and his men made raids on Fairfax City, Frying Pan, Chantilly and Herndon Station, as well as at Dranesville, On February 7, his group rendezvoused on Goose Creek, followed a Union foraging party of seven and captured them a few miles from Dranesville. The next day, they surprised and captured another group of 15 men near Dranesville.

On March 21, having learned that Union pickets had been pulled back behind Difficult Run, Mosby moved owards Dranesville seeking forage, and about 10 PM found feed at Meskel Farm in what is now Broad Run Estates. As the story goes, a woman who had seen him pass by, dispatched her brother to warn the Union troops. A Major Taggart, who commanded the post behind Difficult Run, set out with 150 men of the 1st Vermont Cavalry to capture Mosby and his smaller force of some 70 men. According to the story, Mosby was sleeping on the couch at Meskel farm when Taggart's troops surprised him. There were two rows of fences about the place. The Union horsemen charged through a gate in the first fence but were checked by a gate through the second. With his pistol and his sword drawn, Mosby opened the second gate and ordered his men to charge. Though the details are unclear, it seems the Union troops jammed up against the fIrst fence and could neither maneuver or escape. It was a complete victory for Mosby. He captured some 82 of the larger Union force together with their horses. The beautiful old Meskel farm house is still there, and obviously has been lovingly cared for. There is an historical marker along the road.

On June 11, Mosby crossed the Potomac near Seneca. He burned a boat on the C&O canal, and then ttacked and destroyed the camp of a more numerous force of Union cavalry before returning to Virginia. This bold maneuver caused some consternation in Washington and troops were rushed up the river.

 

MOVEMENTS TO GETTYSBURG

Returning to the main theater of the war in the East, following Antietam, the Confederate forces repulsed he Union Army at Fredericksburg, and then was again victorious at the Battle of Chancelorsville in May 1863. Lee then decided to invade the North again, and so began the maneuvers which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee's main body moved northward up the valley west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with Stuart's cavalry posted to the east to screen the movement from the Union Army.

On June 23, Mosby met Stuart and reported on the disposition of the Union Troops. He reported that eneral Hooker's headquarters was at Fairfax, and his army stationary.' The various units of the Union army were spread out over Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun Counties, and were so scattered that it would be easy for Stuart's cavalry to pass between the units and cross the Potomac at Seneca.

Stuart acted on Mosby's advice and moved out of Rector's Cross Roads on the evening of June 24. Before e could proceed, however, the Union forces became aware of Lee's move up the Shenandoah Valley, and had headed north on the 25th. This forced Stuart to change his plans. He made a wide detour as far as Fairfax Courthouse, then followed Hooker to the north. The roads in Great Falls must have been crowded with troops again on June 24, 25, 26 and 27. A resident of Great Falls must have wondered to see column after column of the Union Army passing through his neighborhood in pursuit of Lee, followed by the Confederate cavalry.

Stuart crossed the Potomac at Rowser's Ford near Seneca on the 27th and went into bivouac on the Maryland shore. On the same night the Union cavalry crossed at Edward's Ferry, some 10-12 miles above. The next morning Stuart ran across boats the Federals sent up the C and 0 Canal and also a long wagon supply train to Frederick, Maryland. He burned the boats and took the wagons and their supplies.

Shortly thereafter, the Battle of Gettysburg occurred, Lee was defeated and again retreated to Virginia. As n interesting footnote, an article appeared much later in the Fairfax Herald on July 10, 1903, telling of a visit to the Gettysburg battlefield, and of the participation of a Virginia Infantry regiment in Picket's charge. Company G of that regiment was from Fairfax County and went into the charge with 25 men, every one of whom with the exception of the commander, was killed or wounded. Some of the names of the casualties provoke memories in the Great Falls area today, such as Bicksler, Read, Money, Gunnell and Robey.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the principal actions of the war in the east shifted to the south and on to ichmond, Petersburg and the surrender at Appomattox.

Although Mosby remained active in Northern Virginia until the end of the war, there is little of record on activity in the Great Falls area after that time.

F. Lloyd Thrall, 1996

 

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