Saturday, September 28, 1861
It had been over two months since the Confederate victory at Bull Run. Since then, General Joseph E. Johnston had struggled to keep his Confederate Army of the Potomac afloat, while rebuilding and reorganizing it. Thousands of recruits had joined its ranks, swelling its numbers to over 40,000 men.
Prior to the battle in July, Generals Johnston and Beauregard commanded independent armies, the Army of the Shenandoah and Army of the Potomac, respectively. Over time, both of the Armies were merged into one, the Army of the Potomac, under the nominal command of Johnston, from the Army of the Shenandoah. Beauregard commanded the First Corps, consisting of 24,000 men, mostly from his old Army of the Potomac, while General Gustavus Woodson Smith took the reigns of the old Army of the Shenandoah.
General Johnston’s concern, aside from feeding his legions, was military strategy. While the main body of the Army was anchored at Centreville, Beauregard’s Corps had moved to Fairfax, with regiments as close to Washington as Munson’s Hill, which overlooked the capital. Beauregard pushed for the entire Army move north to Fairfax, but Johnston insisted that it was not yet strong enough to move anywhere.
Beauregard’s advanced location made Johnston nervous. He described their position as defensively unsound. Either of their flanks could be assailed by Union General McClellan’s troops. He asked, on September 26, for either Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin or President Davis himself to come to Fairfax “to decide definitely whether we are to advance or fall back to a more defensible line.”1
Before he received a reply, Johnston ordered the defenses closest to Washington to be abandoned. By dawn of this date, most of Beauregard’s troops had vacated Munson’s and Upton’s Hills. They retired to Centreville, leaving a few companies of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry to act as a rear guard.
Munson’s Hill, which could be clearly seen from the capital, had been a constant reminder of the defeat at Bull Run. The hill was lined with what appeared to be rifle pits and large cannons. Above the artillery, floated a large Confederate Flag. General McClellan had been planning on capturing the hills and had twice sent heavily-armed reconnaissance parties to probe the Rebel lines. This was probably what convinced General Johnston to vacate Munson’s Hill.
Knowing that the Confederates had abandoned the hills west of Washington, General McClellan crossed the Potomac to see for himself. Now assured that it was safe, he ordered the brigades of Richardson and Wadsworth, both having skirmished with the Rebels for the past few weeks, to advance and take the hills.
A local woman informed Richardson that while it seemed as if the hills were vacant, two Confederate regiments were hidden in the fortifications and six others were nearby. This stopped everything. The Union picket lines encircled the hills, were scattered in houses, buildings and a school. For hours they waited, but no command came. There was some minor skirmishing with some Confederate cavalry, but the two regiments supposedly manning the Confederate works never showed themselves.
Someone, not Richardson, yelled “Forward!” and nearly his entire brigade advanced upon Munson’s Hill. Unable to stop them, Richardson followed. Meanwhile, Wadsworth’s brigade also moved forward.
Both brigades discovered that the local woman was lying. No Confederates, not even the few cavalrymen, occupied either Munson’s or Upton’s Hills. The dishonesty, however, did not end there. The deep entrenchments the two Rebel regiments were supposedly hiding behind turned out to be nothing but ditches constructed to fool Union onlookers.
Even more embarrassing, the numerous cannons, mouths pointed at the spires and government offices of Washington, were nothing but wooden logs and stovepipes painted black. The ruse had worked, keeping the Union forces at bay for weeks.
Wishing to not only occupy, but fortify the hills, General McClellan issued orders for more troops to advance. Though it was dark, Lt. Col. Isaac Wistar maneuvered the 71st Pennsylvania past the Vanderburgh House, three miles north of Munson’s Hill. Along the way, the regiment cleared downed trees from their path and eventually came across pickets from a New York regiment. Wistar thought that he was already beyond the Union outposts.
The road bent to the right and he found pickets from a Michigan regiment. His men then entered a thick forest, which opened up on the right side of the road. Suddenly, from their left, muzzle flashes lit up from the woods. The 71st turned and fired into the darkness where the flashes had been. Wistar, who was convinced that no Rebels were in the area, implored both sides to stop firing, that they were each firing at friends.
Ignoring him, both sides fired at close range for nearly two minutes, until the troops in the woods backed off. Wistar ordered his men to take care of the wounded and prepared to march on. Suddenly, the troops from the woods returned, pouring a volley into the 71st at only six yards distance. The fighting again commenced.
This time, the horses pulling the artillery that was traveling with the 71st were hit and sent into a blind panic. They bolted to the rear, running over some of Wistar’s men to escape. Quickly, Wistar formed Company G and advanced them into the woods, but the “enemy” was gone.
The 71st suffered four killed and fourteen wounded (some mortally), while another nearby Pennsylvania regiment had one killed and three wounded.
Discovering that the Rebel artillery on Munson’s and Upton’s Hills was fake, combined with a deadly incident of friendly-fire, made the capture of the hills over Washington a bitter-sweet accomplishment for McClellan.2