Saturday, October 19, 1861
General George McClellan had spent most of his time in Washington preparing his Army of the Potomac to defend the capital against a Confederate attack. After Bull Run, the Confederates had inched closer and closer, but over the past few days, it seemed as if they were withdrawing towards Fairfax and Centerville.
This was further confirmed by General Charles Stone, commander of a division guarding the upper Potomac, from just north of Washington to Harpers Ferry. A mulatto teamster that escaped from Col. William Barksdale’s 13th Mississippi regiment, brought into camp the previous night, met with Stone on this date. The previous week, the teamster was at Manassas, where the Confederates had erected solid fortification. He was also at Fairfax Court House and Goose Creek, and saw that the Rebels were expecting an attack at any moment. Leesburg, thought the Confederates, was susceptible to an assault by Stone. They believed that the force on nearby Harrison’s Island was being bolstered and that if defeated in Leesburg, they would fall back to Manassas.1
As Stone was getting information from the teamster, General George McCall’s Division, ordered by McClellan, advancing north from Langley. McCall, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, commanded the northern-most of the divisions on the Virginia side of the Potomac. McClellan, willing to attempt small jabs at the enemy, ordered the division to move from their base at Langley to Dranesville, thirteen miles distant.
This was a mission of reconnaissance. McCall was to guard the team of topographical engineers mapping the roads towards Leesburg. McCall’s push to Dranesville was unopposed. He halted his division on and around Broad Hill, a few miles north of town. His reasoning for moving farther away than ordered was that he heard rumors of a Confederate attack coming from the direction of Centerville. To avoid receiving such an attack, McCall established his base three miles north of Dranesville. This was an odd decision to make, since if the Confederates attacked, they could cut off his line of retreat without firing a shot.
McClellan, with Smith’s Division near Lewinsville, roughly twenty miles away from McCall, received word that the Rebels had vacated Leesburg. Though it wasn’t true, McClellan figured that McCall’s reconnaissance must have scared them away. He saw an opportunity and hoped to capture the town the following day.
Before turning in for the night, McClellan sent another order to McCall, telling him to stay in Drainsville all the next day and to send out scouting parties two or three miles in every direction and four or five miles towards Leesburg.
Elsewhere along the Union line, General Heintzeman’s Divison, holding the left flank of the Army, sent a small party to Occoquan Creek (near Woodbridge). Also, General Wadworth’s Brigade of McDowell’s Division advanced from Munson’s Hill to Fairfax Court House, recently abandoned by the Rebels.2
It was clear that McClellan’s move across the Potomac was causing the Confederates to fall back to Centerville and Manassas. Still, the area around Leesburg was foggy. McClellan, not convinced that the Rebels had left the town, wrote to his wife, “I hope to make them abandon Leesburg tomorrow.”3
More Stalemate in Western Virginia
When we last left the Western Virginia campaign, 1,800 Confederates under General Henry Jackson had victoriously defended their position near the Greenbrier River against General Reynold’s 5,000 Union soldiers. Though it was a rare victory for the Confederates, it worried General Lee, commanding nearly 100 miles away on Sewell Mountain.
Were the Federals renewing operations along the Cheat Mountain and Greenbrier front? Lee had ordered General Loring from the Greenbrier River area to bolter his Sewell Mountain position. Most of all, Lee wanted Union General Rosecrans to attack him. Lee was in a formidable defensive position atop Sewell Mountain and was quickly realizing that Rosecrans, who had moved his army back to Gauley Bridge, would never attack it.
Lee had sent General Floyd on a mission to turn Rosecrans’ right flank, leaving Lee on Sewell with General Loring’s troops and General Wise’s old Legion, which was in no shape to do much of anything. The conditions on Sewell Mountain were deteriorating fast. Floyd had taken all of the wagons with him to New River, leaving Lee’s men more or less cut off from their base at Meadow Bluff, fifteen miles away.
General Lee realized that things were not going well and that a change was needed. He would sleep on it and see what transpired over the next day or so.4