As winter approached, the Federal and Confederate Armies of the Potomac struggled to find provisions for their men and animals in northern Virginia. Both sides targeted the land west of Dranesville, about halfway between Leesburg and Alexandria on the Leesburg Turnpike, as ideal for foraging. Confederate Brigadier General James Longstreet noted, “It was known that food for men and horses could be found in the vicinity of Dranesville.”
In early December, one of Major General George A. McCall’s Federal brigades under Brigadier General George G. Meade foraged in that area and looted the farm of “bitter secessionist” R.H. Gunnell. Meade’s troops surrounded the barn and stole 2,000 bushels of corn, 30 hogs, 10 horses, two buggies, a yoke of oxen, and two of Gunnell’s slaves.
According to Meade, his men “got into their heads that the object of the expedition was the punishment of a rebel, and hence, the more injury they inflicted, the more successful was the expedition.” Meade later wrote his wife that “it was with considerable trouble they could be prevented from burning everything. I never had a more disagreeable duty in my life to perform. It made me sad to do such injury, and I was really ashamed of our cause, which thus required war to be made on individuals.”
McCall later dispatched another brigade under Brigadier General John J. Reynolds to forage in the Dranesville area as well. Both had returned by the night of December 19, when McCall received intelligence that a force of about 100 Confederates was operating in that vicinity. He directed a third brigade under Brigadier General E.O.C. Ord to advance up the turnpike the next morning, followed by Meade and Reynolds.
That same day, Confederate Brigadier General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart received orders to take 1,600 men (an infantry brigade, an artillery battery, and cavalry) and collect hay at Dranesville. Though they were greatly outnumbered by the 5,000 Federals converging on the town, they were more than the 100 that McCall and Ord expected to be there.
At 6 a.m. on the 20th, Ord led his brigade (a regiment, an artillery battery, and a cavalry squadron) out of Camp Pierpont, 12 miles from Dranesville, and up the turnpike. That same morning, Stuart moved out from Centreville, 16 miles south of Dranesville, with nearly every wagon in the Confederate army. Ord, having less ground to cover, arrived first around 12 p.m. An hour later, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas L. Kane of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Rifles observed Stuart’s Confederates approaching. He notified Ord, who hurried the rest of his troops forward.
Stuart, unaware of the enemy force awaiting him, continued advancing until Federals fired upon his men in the woods. Stuart deployed his troops and continued advancing, pushing the Federals back to the cover of their artillery. Both sides exchanged cannon fire, but while the Confederate gunners missed their targets, Ord, a former artillery officer, did not miss his. Federal artillerists began wiping out the exposed Confederate cannons. Stuart later reported of “every shot of the enemy… dealing destruction on either man, limber, or horse.”
To offset the artillery disadvantage, Stuart formed a line of battle and surged forward. Federal infantry moved up to meet the threat; Kane led his Pennsylvanians while yelling, “Forward Bucktails! There’s fun ahead!” Kane was shot in the jaw, but he tied a bandage around his head and continued forward. Confederates in the woods mistook each other for the enemy and sustained friendly fire.
Reynolds arrived on the scene and prepared to lead his men off the turnpike to launch a flank attack. However, McCall rode up and ordered him to return his brigade to the road. Reynolds, certain that a total victory had been squandered, yelled, “Euchered!” but complied with McCall’s order. McCall, seeing that Ord had the fight well in hand, returned to Alexandria.
The Confederates launched another assault, but the Federals held firm beside a two-story brick house. Stuart then tried a flanking attack but was repelled by Federals concealed in the woods. Realizing that Federal reinforcements were coming, Stuart verified that his wagons were out of danger before falling back around 3 p.m. The heavy smoke and woods prevented a Federal pursuit as the Confederates withdrew toward Centreville. Both sides returned to their respective camps the next day.
This was the largest clash between the opposing armies since Ball’s Bluff in October. To Ord’s dismay, McCall took credit for this, the first significant Federal victory in northern Virginia. Ord wrote his wife, “My artillery slaughtered them–while they were cooped up & jammed in a road which I raked. It was the old story–they had an ignoramus for a general, a fool for an artillery capt’n, took it for granted we would run, made no reconnaissance, posted their artillery just where I would have placed it to smash it soonest…”
Jeb Stuart’s first test as a combat commander ended in defeat, as he sustained 194 casualties (43 killed, 143 wounded, and eight missing). Ord lost just 68 (seven killed and 61 wounded). Longstreet later admitted, “It was the first success that had attended the Union arms in that quarter, and was magnified and enjoyed on that side.” The New York Herald called the engagement outside Dranesville “a splendid little affair.” It also demonstrated the strengthening poise and discipline of the Federal army.
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