September 28, 1861 – Federals advanced on Munson’s Hill, a few miles southwest of Washington, and discovered that it was not as heavily defended as presumed.
Since the Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had combined the Armies of the Potomac and the Shenandoah into one force consisting of two corps. The former army had become the First Corps of about 24,000 men under General P.G.T. Beauregard. The latter had become the Second Corps of about 16,000 men under General Gustavus W. Smith.
The Confederates mainly held positions in the Centreville area of northern Virginia, with Beauregard’s corps at Fairfax Court House and advance elements within 10 miles of Washington at Munson’s Hill. These elements overlooked Arlington Heights and threatened to disrupt Federal traffic on the Potomac River. By late September, Johnston feared that the forward positions had become vulnerable to attack by the ever-growing Federal Army of the Potomac.
Johnston had reason to fear an attack. Federals had recently conducted a reconnaissance in force around Munson’s Hill and nearby Upton’s Hill, south of Falls Church. Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, sought to clear these points and use them for his planned ring of forts and defensive works around the capital. The two sides engaged in a heavy skirmish, after which the Federals reported that Confederates had constructed strong defenses on Munson’s Hill that included rifle pits and artillery.
The Federals were unaware that these “strong” defenses were mostly a bluff on Johnston’s part. On September 26, he wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin and President Jefferson Davis asking that one of them inspect the army’s positions and help “to decide definitely whether we are to advance or fall back to a more defensible line.” Then, without waiting for either to respond, Johnston ordered the withdrawal from Munson’s Hill and other forward points.
By dawn on the 28th, Beauregard had evacuated both Munson’s and Upton’s hills, falling back to Fairfax Court House and Centreville. McClellan, who had been reluctant to attack such “strong” positions, resolved to seize the hills upon learning that the Confederates had retreated. Heeding false warnings from local residents that Confederates were waiting in ambush, the Federals advanced toward the hills with extreme caution.
The Federals climbed the slopes and discovered that the rifle pits had been abandoned. And to their dismay (and their commanders’ embarrassment), they found that the mighty cannon pointed in their direction for nearly two months consisted only of logs and stovepipes painted black. A correspondent who had hoped to witness a battle resentfully called these “Quaker guns.”
Making matters worse for the Federals, on the night of the 28th, troops of the 69th and 71st Pennsylvania accidentally fired into each other while clearing the woods around Munson’s Hill, resulting in several killed and wounded. This tragic mishap, combined with the ruse on the hills, diminished the Federals’ successful occupation of the supposedly threatening positions.
On the Confederate side, Secretary of War Benjamin responded to Johnston’s invitation to inspect the army a day after the Confederates abandoned their forward positions. Benjamin stated that Davis should visit the army and then admonished Johnston for not submitting “a single return from your army of the quantity of ammunition, artillery, means of transportation, or sick in camp or in hospitals, to enable us to form a judgment of what your necessities may be… (it should be) obvious to you that the Department cannot be administered without a thorough reform in this respect.”
This demonstrated the growing tension between Johnston and his superiors, which would continue into October, after President Davis arrived to inspect the army.
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 39; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 79-80; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 103-04; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 122; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 361-62; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 76-80