The Military Situation in Northern Virginia

Federal Lieutenant Charles H. Tompkins and 50 troopers of Company B, 2nd U.S. Cavalry were assigned to ride west out of Alexandria and secure Fairfax Court House, some 15 miles away. They moved out before dawn on the 1st, capturing Confederate pickets outside Fairfax and then driving the remaining enemy force through the town. However, Confederate reinforcements unexpectedly came up, and after a brief fight, Tompkins’s contingent was forced to return to Alexandria.

This was little more than a light skirmish, but it was technically the first land battle of the war. During the action, Captain John Q. Marr had been shot through the heart by a random bullet, thus becoming the first Confederate officer killed in combat. His men discovered his body a few hours after the fight; it was taken to Warrenton and interred with full military honors.

The next day, Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate hero of Fort Sumter, replaced Brigadier General Milledge L. Bonham as commander of the Department of Alexandria. The department, also known as the Potomac Department, or the Army of the Potomac, included all Confederate forces in northern Virginia on the Alexandria line, from which the Confederates expected the Federals would invade northern Virginia. There were about 6,000 men in Beauregard’s command, but thousands more were rushing to join him, some from as far south as Louisiana.

Beauregard recognized that if the Federals moved out of Alexandria, their first target would be Manassas Junction, the vital railroad intersection 30 miles west. Major General Robert E. Lee, the overall commander in Virginia, warned Beauregard: “Manassas Junction is a very important point on your line, as it commands the communication with Harper’s Ferry, and must be firmly held.”

This would be hard to do because, according to Beauregard, the area was surrounded by “open country, traversed by good roads in every direction, without any strong natural features for the purposes of defense.” He posted troops at Centreville and Fairfax Court House to guard against any Federal advance from Alexandria. He also had troops guarding the fords at Bull Run.

As he strengthened his positions, Beauregard was informed by a prominent Alexandria attorney that Federals in his town were committing atrocities against citizens who supported the Confederacy. The general responded by issuing a proclamation to the people of northern Virginia:

“A reckless and unprincipled tyrant has invaded your soil. Abraham Lincoln, regardless of all moral, legal, and constitutional restraints, has thrown his abolition hosts among you, who are murdering and imprisoning your citizens, confiscating and destroying your property, and committing other acts of violence and outrage too shocking and too revolting to humanity to be enumerated. All rules of civilized warfare are abandoned, and they proclaim by their acts, if not on their banners, that their war cry is ‘Beauty and booty.’ All that is dear to man, your honor, and that of your wives and daughters, your fortunes, and your lives, are involved in this momentous contest.”

Beauregard sounded a call to “rally to the standard of your State and country, and by every means in your power compatible with honorable warfare to drive back and expel the invaders from your land.” Those who had knowledge of enemy intentions were asked to “give the earliest authentic information to these headquarters or to the officers under my command.”

Meanwhile, the Federal commander ordered his men to refrain from harassing civilians. Major General Irvin McDowell, heading the Department of Northeastern Virginia at Arlington, issued General Orders No. 5:

“Unless under the special orders in each case of a commander of brigade or superior authority it is forbidden to any officer or soldier within this department to arrest or attempt to arrest any citizen or citizens under the plea of their being secessionists, or for any cause whatsoever save that of being at the time in arms against the United States. Nor will any officer or soldier without the like authority forcibly enter, search or attempt to search any house or the premises of any peaceable resident or other persons not in arms against the United States. The military or police force will arrest any one found trespassing even on the premises of any citizen without the department.”

On the 17th, McDowell sent the 1st Ohio west out of Arlington to seize the railroad at Falls Church and Vienna. The troops, traveling by train, were fired upon by Confederate artillery and were forced to disembark. Once off the train, they were forced to retreat by troops of the 1st South Carolina. The Ohioans lost eight killed and four wounded. The main Federal army would remain stationed at Alexandria and Arlington for now, while Beauregard’s Confederates waited at Manassas.

By the time June began, the Federals were able to freely move troops from the northern states through Maryland to Washington. However, Confederates blocked the waterway from Chesapeake Bay to the U.S. capital. The Federals’ inability to clear a water route to their own capital was an embarrassment to the Lincoln administration, and it was therefore decided to break the Confederate hold on the waterway.

The Federal Potomac flotilla enlisted the help of the gunboats U.S.S. Pawnee and Thomas Freeborn to try to break the Confederate blockade of the Potomac River. Federal troops landed at Mathias Point on the 27th, but Confederate infantry quickly came up and drove the landing party off. Federal Commander James H. Ward, a former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, was killed in this engagement; he became the first Federal naval officer killed in combat.

The next day, Confederates led by Navy Captain George N. Hollins and Army Colonel Richard Thomas seized the commercial side-wheeler St. Nicholas in Chesapeake Bay as she made her scheduled run from Baltimore, down the bay, around Point Lookout, and then up the Potomac to Georgetown. Thomas had disguised himself as a woman, Hollins and the other men had boarded the vessel as passengers at various stops along the route.

The Confederates had observed the St. Nicholas making runs to supply the gunboat Pawnee, and they hoped to use this vessel to capture that Federal warship. However, after the engagement at Mathias Point, the Pawnee had pulled back closer to Washington, too far up the Potomac for the Confederates to go. The St. Nicholas went back down into Chesapeake Bay, where she captured the Federal steamship Margaret and brought her up the Rappahannock River in northern Virginia.

The exploits of the St. Nicholas did little damage to the Federals, other than add to their embarrassment at having failed to secure the water outlet for the capital. As the month ended, the Lincoln administration faced increasing criticism for not preventing the construction of Confederate batteries on the Potomac River.


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  • Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide. James M. McPherson, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
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  • Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

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