Skirmish at Fairfax; More at Aquia Creek; A Halt at Grafton

Saturday, June 1, 1861

In the pre-dawn hours, Company B of the 2nd US Cavalry, about fifty strong, rode from Alexandria to Fairfax Courthouse, fifteen miles west. Unknown to Lieutenant Thomkins, company commander, Confederate General Lee had placed a contingent of several hundred infantry and cavalry near the town on May 29th.

As Thomkins and his men approached the town, they stumbled upon a Rebel picket outpost near Little Falls Church Road. Greatly outnumbered, the pickets were easily captured without a shot being fired. After securing the prisoners, Company B proceeded into town when they found themselves surrounded by gunfire coming from the windows and rooftops above.

To their front, they saw a company of Rebel cavalry, and immediately charged forward, driving them out the other side of town. Thomkins attempted to make it to the next town west, Germantown, but the Rebels were joined by two more companies of cavalry and one of infantry, under the command of Lt. Col. Robert Ewell, who at once fired upon Company B. Thomkins men returned the fire, though they knew they were outnumbered.

Company B fell back, reformed and attempted to make a stand. By this time, other Rebels from the nearby camp were on their way to the fray. Thomkins, feeling he was about to be cut off, retreated through the fields, taking down fences as the company, along with the prisoners, headed for Alexandria.

The Confederates sent a company after the retreating Federals, but were unable to catch up.

A few Union men were wounded, a few taken prisoner and a few horses were killed. As dawn broke over Fairfax Courthouse, the Rebels found that Captain John Q. Marr was dead and Lt. Col. Ewell was wounded in the shoulder. Another private was also wounded.1

Captain Marr is believed to be the first Confederate officer killed in the War, however, Captain Stephen Roberts in western Virginia, if officially in the service, beat him to the glory.

This skirmish at Fairfax, for some reason, is not viewed as the first land battle of the Civil War.

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Another Hot Day at Aquia Creek

The fight between the USS Thomas Freeborn and Anacostia and the Rebel batteries along the Potomac River, near Aquia Creek, 40 miles down river from Washington, was resumed in late morning. The USS Pawnee, having been ordered from Washington was also on the scene.

As the steamers approached, the Rebels set fire to the railroad depot in hopes to improving their line-of-site. The firing by the Rebels on the Virginia side was less steady than the day before. The guns along the heights that caused the ships to fall back had been moved towards a railroad depot near the river, rendering them much less effective.

The USS Anacostia and USS Reliance were held back away from the Rebel fire in positions of support should the Freeborn or Pawnee need to be pulled out of harms way.

The fire from the Freeborn and Pawnee set a bridge ablaze and destroyed several houses near the depot.

Even though the Rebel shots were fewer in number, their increased accuracy landed a few on both forward steamers. The Freeborn‘s port wheel was crippled and she had begun to leak badly. The Pawnee sustained some damage to her sails and decking, but nothing that would need immediate attention.

The firing from the Virginia side slackened as the afternoon wore on. Most of the Rebels had taken shelter and only a few were bold enough to brave the incoming Union fire to work their own guns.

When the firing ceased completely, neither side had taken any casualties. The Freeborn, however, was in such a state that she needed to return, along with the Anacostia, to the Navy Yard at Washington for repairs. The Pawnee remained near Aquia.2

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The General Arrives and Changes the Plan

That evening, Union Col. Kelley in Grafton, western Virginia was planning an attack on the Rebels who had retreated to Philippi, fifteen miles south. Kelley wanted to use six companies of the 1st Virginia (US) and most of the 9th Indiana, which had just arrived by rail from Parkersburg.

Along with the 9th came General Thomas A. Morris, placed in command of all Union troops in this theater by General McClellan. Morris and Kelley held a quick meeting and Kelley brought him up to speed on the Rebel positions, numbers and troops at his disposal. Morris, taking charge, decided to wait.

He was convinced that there were spies among them and so he let it be known that Kelley’s planned attack would happen, but in reality, they would wait for most of the Union troops to assemble in Grafton over the next day or so.

While postponing Kelley’s plan, Morris also built upon it. The new plan included a two-pronged attack with one column attacking head on while the other cut off the line of retreat.

By nightfall, two of the three Indiana regiments (7th and 9th – the 6th was in Parkersburg) were in and around Grafton.3

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Patterson Details His Plans to Scott

The day before leaving for Chambersburg, Union General Patterson received a telegram from General-in-Chief Scott. Apparently, Harpers Ferry was to be the point of the Union attack. Patterson was to forget about Cumberland, Maryland and move directly upon the Rebels with the troops at Chambersburg. Once Patterson gave word of his advance, Scott would feign an attack beyond Alexandria.

Patterson replied that while he looked to Cumberland, his plans mostly focused upon Harpers Ferry. He would have no problem crossing the Potomac at Williamsport, taking Martinsburg or Shepherdstown and possibly even attacking the Rebels from their rear.

By the time he reached Chambersburg, hoped Patterson, Scott’s reply would be waiting and he could move out immediately.4



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p59-64. []
  2. Official Navy Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p491-497. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p66. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p657-658. []
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Skirmish at Fairfax; More at Aquia Creek; A Halt at Grafton by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “Skirmish at Fairfax; More at Aquia Creek; A Halt at Grafton

  1. I wonder why the skirmish at Fairfax is not considered the first battle of the war. Is there a general consensus? Who decides how it gets recorded? It seems as though there should be a clear definition. Funny how even the history of the war has some fog to it…

    1. For some reason, Philippi has that honor. I really don’t know why. Maybe it’s because it was planned and organized where Fairfax wasn’t planned at all. But then, neither were many battles.

      No idea at all. The Official Records refer to it as a “skirmish,” and to Philippi as an “action,” but the definition of both is fairly vague.

      This is just pure speculation, but George McClellan might have something to do with this.

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