All the World is Laughing

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 good 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, 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.

Gens G.B. McClellan and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit:

The Federals were unaware that these “strong” defenses were mostly a bluff on Johnston’s part. Despite the bluff, Johnston “became convinced that the increasing strength and efficiency of the Federal army were rendering the position of the outposts at Munson’s and Mason’s Hills more hazardous daily, and therefore had them withdrawn.” He wrote 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 September 28, Confederates 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, learned that the Confederates had retreated and ordered an advance to seize the hills. Heeding false warnings from local residents that Confederates were waiting in ambush, the advance toward the hills was made 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.”

An article in the New York Tribune noted bitterly: “In the terrible batteries behind the hill there is but a derisive log, painted black, frowning upon the Federal army.” London Times correspondent William Russell wrote that “All the world is laughing.” Russell wondered “if McC is all they think,” or if he was just “the ‘little corporal’ of unfought fields.”

To make matters worse for the Federals, on the night of the 28th, while clearing the woods around Munson’s Hill, men from a Pennsylvania regiment accidentally fired into another Pennsylvania regiment that was uniformed in gray. This friendly fire resulted in several killed and wounded. One of the men involved called it a “midnight horror at Munson’s Hill… Who is responsible for sending upon such an expedition men dressed in the garb of the enemy?”

But neither the tragic mishap nor the ruse on the hills shook McClellan’s confidence or did serious damage to his reputation. He triumphantly wrote his wife Ellen, “They can no longer say that they are flaunting their dirty little flag in my face, & I hope they have taken their last look at Washn.” This did nothing to satisfy northerners growing increasingly impatient for decisive action against the Confederates.

On the Confederate side, Johnston wrote to Secretary of War Benjamin proposing that President Davis come to army headquarters at Fairfax Court House to inspect the army and discuss the prospects for launching an offensive before winter. Benjamin replied that Davis would 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 Davis arrived to inspect the army.


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