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Commemoration of the Battle of Dranesville, Virginia

Posted on Friday, January 12, 2018 at 12:39 pm

Lithograph of Union artillery at the Battle of Dranesville.

Since 1993, on the Sunday closest to the date of the Battle (Dec. 20, 1861), the Dranesville Church of the Brethren holds a commemoration of the battle that took place on its current property. There was no church there in 1861; the current church structure was built in 1912. Also the Brethren, like the Quakers and Mennonites, have a history of pacifism. They have a connection to the Dunker Church on the battlefield of Antietam. General Stonewall Jackson said of the Brethren, “You can draft them into the army. You can teach them to shoot a musket. They just won’t shoot at people.”

The church is located on well-traveled Leesburg Pike, which connects Tysons Corner to Leesburg. The program took place on Sunday, December 17, 2017. It began at 6 inside the church, as winter twilight settled on the Virginia countryside. It was a Peace Service, with hymns (Rock of Ages, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Amazing Grace), and a Civil War ballad (Tenting on the Old Camp Ground). The pastor, Doug Wantz, gave a message on the Peace given by Jesus Christ. There was also a dramatic reading from the words of Civil War writers. The service ended with a reading of the names of those killed in the battle. The church was darkened as candles were extinguished for every person read, until the church was dark. Then one candle was brought up as a symbol of the Light of the World, which can not be put out. Fellowship followed in the church basement, with a display of Civil War relics from local author and speaker Jim Lewis.

History of the Church of the Brethren

The Church of the Brethren started in Germany in 1708, part of the Reformation tradition that believed in adult baptism. Because Brethren immersed believers three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they were given the name “Dunkers.”

Brethren in the United States first arrived in Pennsylvania, then migrated south and west. At the Civil War battle of Antietam, the heaviest fighting swirled around the Dunker Church. The Brethren farmers nursed soldiers on both sides.

Brethren moved to Northern Virginia from the Shenandoah Valley in 1883, opening a church at Midland. Dranesville traces its roots to Midland by way of Brethren churches at Nokesville, Manassas, and Oakton, Dranesville’s parent church. The Dranesville congregation — one of five started in 1905 by Oakton — first met in private houses and, occasionally, in the Dranesville United Methodist Church, formerly Free Union. In 1912, the congregation built its church beside Route 7.

Like all Christians, Brethren believe Jesus is the Son of God, our Lord and Savior. They also believe:

Make the New Testament our rule of faith and practice.
Observe the Christian rites of believer’s baptism, Communion, Love Feast, and anointing for healing.
Participate with all Christians who witness to the salvation of Christ.
Emphasize simple living.
Believe in peace and pacifism.

The church supports the ideal of conscientious objection. According to the church’s website: “As young men, and possibly young women someday, reach the age of 18, they are required by law to register with the Selective Service System (SSS), an agency of the federal government responsible for a military draft in the event the nation needs more military personnel than it can recruit as volunteers.

“If the United States Congress decided to reinstate a military draft today, young people would have only days, two weeks at most, to gather evidence to convince Selective Service they have an established moral or religious opposition to killing and should be classified as conscience objectors. This website is a resource for youth (male and female) who want to prepare now to ‘make a defense for the hope that within them’ (1 Peter 3:15).

“Four sessions help youth think through their beliefs as taught by the Church of the Brethren:
1. The difference between allegiance to God and allegiance to the state
2. Biblical teaching on war and peace
3. The church’s historic and living peace position
4. Making a case for conscientious objection”

The Battle of Dranesville

Small was the victory, yet the semblance of success went far toward relieving the gloom of the disastrous rout at Manassas (July 1861) and the bloody repulse at Ball’s Bluff (Oct. 1861). The collision of five regiments of Federals with four of Confederates on December 20, 1861, constitutes this battle. That first Christmas of the war was approaching, and the joyous memories of this happy festival emphasized the sorrow in countless homes, both North and South, where anxious hearts awaited its coming oppressed by the lengthening shadow of the great national tragedy that had already begun. Two deadly engagements had claimed their victims, and many a home was desolate.

The Federal army, disorganized and routed at Manassas, had retreated to the defenses of Washington. A line, stretching from the Chain Bridge to Alexandria along the south bank of the Potomac, formed a bulwark of forts between the capital and the victorious Confederates encamped at Centreville, some thirty miles away. Union General McClellan had spent the summer and autumn in the task of transforming a uniformed mob of citizens into a well-disciplined army of soldiers. The guns of Manassas had quieted the clamorous cry of “On to Richmond,” and the North was awaking to the fact that the road to the Confederate capital, if traveled at all, must be traveled by a well-trained army and was not to be attempted by a motley mob.

The Federal right, encamped at Langley, a few miles in advance of the Chain Bridge (three miles above Washington), consisted of the First Pennsylvania Reserves, commanded by Brigadier General George A. McCall, a West Pointer, who had seen active service in the Mexican War. The Reserves were formed in three brigades and commanded by generals who would earn distinction later in the war: the First, by Brigadier General John F. Reynolds; the Second, by Brigadier General George G. Meade; and the Third, by Brigadier General E.O.C. Ord. The Confederates were wintering at Centreville a few miles in advance of the line of Bull Run.

This was the environment when the Battle of Dranesville was fought. The tedium of winter quarters was relieved in both camps by sending out foraging parties, which also gathered information on the enemy. The arena of these sporadic operations was that portion of Fairfax County lying between Washington and Centreville. This strip of territory for months was no man’s land—a region where terrifying rumors and dire alarms were continually afloat.

The citizens whose homes stood between the lines of the two opposing armies were divided in political sentiment. A few remained Union to the core, while the majority was heart and soul with the Confederacy. This division of sentiment filled the days and nights with a turmoil of excitement. Credence was given to the most improbable rumors, and accurate information was at a decided discount. A serious report reached McCall at Camp Pierpoint (Langley, the right of the Federal line) that a considerable body of Confederate cavalry was between Dranesville and the Potomac, menacing the Federal picket line and harassing Union citizens residing in that locality. In fact, it was known that two Unionist citizens had been arrested and had been sent on to Richmond to enjoy the hospitality of Libby Prison. Stirred by this rumor, on December 19, McCall issued an order to General Ord, commander of the Third Brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves (Sixth, Ninth, Tenth and Twelfth Regiments), to proceed the next morning at 6:00 a.m. with his brigade on the Leesburg Pike in the direction of Dranesville. Kane’s famous “Bucktail” Regiment; Easton’s Battery A, First Pennsylvania Artillery; and two squadrons of the First Pennsylvania Cavalry were directed to accompany this expedition.

The object of this demonstration, as indicated in McCall’s order, was twofold: “to drive back the enemy’s pickets from their advanced position” and to “procure a supply of forage.” The latter was to be procured, according to the orders of the day, “at Gunnell’s or any other rank secessionist in the neighborhood.”

Movements of the  Troops

The First Brigade, commanded by General Reynolds, was ordered to move to Difficult Run, a small stream that crossed the road between Dranesville and Langley, so as to be in supporting distance should Ord need assistance. It is humorous that in McCall’s serious caution to Ord, he is ordered to bring his troops back to camp before nightfall without fail. It was evidently considered dangerous at this period to leave small bodies of troops out overnight.

Following orders, the expedition started at 6:00 a.m. on December 20. The day was cold, bright and clear. On the march, Ord learned that the Confederate marauders had decamped but that there was a respectable picket at Dranesville, which might be captured. Moving forward cautiously, he entered Dranesville about midday. He was accompanied by his cavalry and artillery, the infantry moving up at some distance in the rear. Upon Ord’s approach, the Confederate cavalry picket stationed in the village fled and scattered but remained in the distance, watching the movements of the Federals.

Ord placed two guns of Easton’s Battery on the hill near the [Methodist] church. From this vantage point, he scanned the open country lying before him in the direction of Leesburg. The scurrying of the Confederate pickets along a road in the distance and their return for observation convinced him that a considerable body of the enemy was near at hand. He was not mistaken in this conjecture. General Joe Johnston had sent out from his camp at Centreville nearly all the wagons of his army into upper Fairfax and lower Loudoun to gather much-needed supplies. The protection of this wagon train was entrusted to General J.E.B. Stuart. As a guard for the wagons, he had under his command four regiments of infantry (the Tenth Alabama, Sixth South Carolina, Eleventh Virginia and First Kentucky) one battery of four guns, the Sumter Flying Artillery of Georgia, and about 150 cavalry.

The two combatants, thus unexpectedly facing each other, were both seized with consternation. Ord came to the conclusion that the Confederate force in his front had been sent out to intercept his retreat to camp and capture his command. Stuart, on the other hand, could only interpret the presence of such a large body of the enemy as an attempt of the Federals to capture his wagons and forage.

He fully realized the danger of his position, as his wagons were scattered about the country gathering hay and corn, while the enemy could easily interpose between him and Johnston’s camp at Centreville. Thus, both commanders, misconceiving the purpose of the other, immediately took steps to avert the imagined danger. These precautionary measures brought on the collision that is dignified by the name of the Battle of Dranesville. After the battle, both sides laid claim to the victory. This is now easily understood, for Ord felt that the battle had saved his command, and Stuart felt that it had saved all the wagons of Johnston’s army and a valuable amount of supplies. Each accomplished what he conceived to be the main purpose of the battle, which, after all, was a misconception on the part of both, as Ord was not in pursuit of Stuart’s wagon train and Stuart had no designs against Ord’s line of retreat.

Ord, in entering the village and placing a section of his artillery on the church hill, had passed the junction of the two roads on the higher hill some six hundred yards in his rear. This place, known as Drane Hill, is the military key of the situation, as it commands all of the surrounding country. Stuart knew this and immediately started to gain it by a circuitous march through the woods around Ord’s flank. Stuart afterward stated that, had he gained this point with his four regiments, he could have held the whole Federal army in check.

Ord surmised, correctly, that the Confederates were moving around to his rear in the hope of seizing this coveted position. He immediately ordered the section of artillery that had taken its position near the church to withdraw and, with the other guns of the battery, to take position on Drane Hill, near the junction. This was done with commendable speed; the guns went at a sweeping gallop to the top of the hill and took a new position with muzzles pointing south. In this direction, the advance of the Confederates was driving in the Federal skirmish line. The Centreville Road entered the Alexandria Pike a short distance from the junction of that road with the Washington Pike.

The Confederate advance was along this Centreville Road, and Easton’s Battery arrived in the nick of time to cover this important approach. Ord’s foresight and promptness had secured for his troops an overmastering superiority of position. The Confederates, owing to the length and many difficulties of their circuitous march, had failed to reach the crest of the hill in advance of the Federals. Finding the enemy in secure possession of the coveted position, Stuart placed his battery in the Centreville Road some five or six hundred yards distant from the Federal artillery. This battery was placed behind a slight swell of ground, the muzzles of the guns just clearing this slight elevation. It came into action at once and poured a heavy fire into the ranks of the Federals, but this fire did little damage, being aimed too high.

Captain Easton, in command of the Federal battery, had no other target than the rising smoke, yet training his guns on the point where he thought the opposing battery ought to be, at the third fire he completely disabled the enemy’s guns. One gun was put out of action, a caisson was exploded and many men and horses of the battery were killed, while many more were dangerously wounded. General Stuart, in his report of the battle, wrote, “Every shot of the enemy was dealing destruction on man, limber and horse.”

The two batteries thus engaged marked the centers of their respective lines. The Tenth Pennsylvania was placed in support of Easton’s Battery and rendered effective aid in protecting the Federal left. The other four regiments were placed in advantageous positions. The famous “Bucktail” Regiment held a position around a brick house, near Easton’s Battery, known as the Thornton House. The “Bucktail” sharpshooters took possession of this building, and from every door and window poured a destructive fire into the ranks of the Confederates.

The ground on either side of the position of the Confederate battery was covered with woods and dense undergrowth.

Stuart placed two of his regiments on either side of the Centreville Road, facing north. The Sixth South Carolina and the First Kentucky were to the left and the Tenth Alabama and the Eleventh Virginia to the right of the road. The South Carolina and the Kentucky regiments, in moving to their assigned positions by different routes, came into collision and, through ‘friendly fire,’ poured a destructive volley into each other—a mistake that occurred with tragic frequency in the first battles of war.

When moving forward to attack the enemy, Stuart sent a few of his cavalrymen scurrying about the country to gather the wagons and hurry them toward Centreville. Wagons swept along the roads from every direction, the loads of hay rocking and swaying over the rough frozen ground while the air grew resonant with the vehement cries of the teamsters urging their horses to their utmost speed. Residents who witnessed the event testified that the driving done that day by the drivers was a sight not to be forgotten.

While the teams were heading tumultuously for Centreville, the opposing forces on Drane Hill were becoming more hotly engaged. The Ninth Pennsylvania, as it came into position on the Federal right, was confronted by troops partly concealed by the underbrush on their front and right. To avoid the fatal mistake of firing into friends, an injudicious member of the Ninth called out, “Are you the Bucktails?” “Yes, we are the Bucktails,” came the ready response from the brush. Almost instantaneously with the response came a hot volley of musketry. The troops surmised to be “Bucktails” by the Pennsylvanians were bred in Old Kentucky, being the first Confederate regiment of that state. The confusion caused by this blunder was soon allayed, and the Ninth held its ground until the end of the fight.

Stuart, seeing his battery partially, if not wholly, disabled by the Federal fire, ordered the Sixth South Carolina and the Tenth Alabama to charge forward toward the brick house held by the “Bucktails.” He hoped, by a vigorous charge upon their center, to dislodge the enemy from their strong position. These two regiments responded with alacrity, but the forward movement brought them into the open field, where they became an easy target for the sharpshooters in the Thornton House, the battery on the hill and the opposing lines of infantry. This destructive fire was too much for the Southerners, so they retired to their original position near the disabled battery.

About this time, a report reached Stuart that a large force was moving on the Washington Pike to Ord’s assistance. This report was correct, for Reynolds, with the First Brigade, had started for Dranesville at the sound of the first firing. Stuart, being outnumbered and hard-pressed, and knowing that his wagons were now safely beyond the reach of the enemy, determined to withdraw. This he did without any further loss, his disabled gun being carried off by hand. The enemy made no serious attempt at pursuit, and Stuart went into camp for the night at old Frying Pan Church, about six or seven miles from the field of battle.

It is true that Stuart left the field in possession of the enemy, but had he delayed his withdrawal until the arrival of Reynolds, he would have found himself confronted by at least ten thousand troops, and his situation would have been extremely hazardous. Ord and Reynolds, gathering their dead and wounded, returned to Camp Pierpont that night. On the morning of December 21st, Stuart, reinforced by the Ninth Georgia and the Eighth Virginia, returned to Dranesville, but finding the Federals gone, he gathered his wounded and dead that remained and returned to Centreville.

The same uncertainty that attaches to the statistics of other battles of the war confronts us when we attempt to sum up the numbers engaged and the killed and wounded at Dranesville. Ord reported his losses as 7 killed, 61 wounded and none missing for a total of 68. Stuart reported 43 killed, 143 wounded and 8 missing for a total of 194. The Federal forces must have numbered at least 5,000 and the Confederates between 2,000 and 2,500. The engagement lasted about two hours. The colors of the Federal regiments here engaged were taken to Washington City, and on each flag, “Dranesville, December 20, 1861” was painted in golden letters.

-By William S. Connery


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