Skirmishing in the Hills Around Washington

Monday, September 23, 1861

It had been over two months since the Union defeat at Bull Run. Since then, General George B. McClellan had taken command of the Army of the Potomac and defenses of Washington. As he built his Army, filtering new regiments into the fold, he constructed a ring of fortifications around Washington. His plan called for forty-eight forts to be garrisoned by 60,000 soldiers.

Though McClellan had an incredible talent for building and maintaining a garrisoned army, he also had a knack of grossly overestimating the Confederates, still near the plains of Manassas. Though their numbers were no more than 45,000, McClellan estimated their total to be anywhere from 100,000 to 190,000 (McClellan’s force was around 120,000 at this time).

It was this wild overestimation, however, that drove McClellan to hurriedly fortify Washington. Within this ring of forts and outposts were Munson’s and Upton’s Hills, just south of Falls Church, still held by the Rebels. The two hills, towering over Arlington Heights, could be viewed from the capital. Sporadic and sometimes voracious skirmishing happened all along the lines around the capital and on the shores the Potomac River.

Truces between picket posts were not uncommon. Around Munson’s Hill, Union and Confederate officers had established a ceasefire that lasted nearly a week before breaking down into heavy firing.

On this date, the skirmishing at Bailey’s Crossroads, just south of Munson’s Hill intensified. Many Union soldiers fired their alloted twenty rounds of ammunition. Much of the Confederate fire went high, but towards afternoon, they burned two homes that fell between the lines. This was done, presumably, to keep any wily Union sharpshooters from getting any ideas.

In return, the Union soldiers burned the outlying barns and haystacks to deny the Confederate sharpshooters any similar advantage.

For the time being, it appeared as if the Confederate works on Munson’s Hill, complete with, what appeared to be, solid rifle pits and artillery, would remain in Confederate hands.1

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Union Advance Upon Big Sewell; General Lee Still Unsure

General Isaac Cox marched east with two Union brigades along the James River & Kanawha Turkpike. His scouts had reached the former Rebel camp on Big Sewell Mountain and he was advancing to hold the position. Two miles east from the old camp (formerly General Floyd’s camp), was the summit of Big Sewell. From the summit of Big Sewell, there was a ravine, and perched a mile away, on the opposite side was General Wise and his 1,200 or so Rebels.2

Cox’s advance of infantry, artillery and cavalry was seen by Wise as it crested the summit of Big Sewell. He sent off a quick dispatch to General Lee, twelve miles east at Meadow Bluff. He estimated the force to be around 3,000 strong. He felt compelled to make a stand.

Lee was worried about Union troops from Carnifex Ferry, under General Rosecrans, slipping around Wise’s right and attacking General Floyd at Meadow Bluff. Wise addressed it by calling the notion “simply absurd.”

General Lee shortly replied. He told Wise that the choice to defend his position was up to him, but that he should send his wagons to the rear. Lee also informed Wise that it had been reported by scouts that General Rosecrans was advancing around his right flank to hit General Floyd. If that were true, wrote the commander, “General Floyd cannot advance to your aid, but may have to retire.”

The enemy before Wise, thought Lee, could be a feint, set up to keep the Army of the Kanawha divided. Therefore, he directed Wise to fall back if he could not disperse the Union forces to his front.

While Wise and Lee exchanged letters, one of Wise’s officers had gone into the Federal lines under a flag of truce. There, he learned that the Union troops on Big Sewell were just those of General Cox. Rosecrans’ men were nowhere to be seen. He informed General Lee of this development.3

This news, while good for Wise, wasn’t necessarily good for Floyd. Nobody seemed to know the whereabouts of General Rosecrans. If he was not with Cox, was he then marching around the Confederate right flank to attack Floyd? Lee had a decision to make. Ordering Wise to retreat in the face of an enemy would be difficult and demoralizing to his troops. Ordering Floyd forward when Rosecrans may attack could leave the rear unguarded, allowing the entire Army of the Kanawha to be swallowed up.

Thankfully for Lee, General Loring, commanding the Army of the Northwest, was on his way with four regiments. These additions would certainly even the odds, giving Lee direct command over 9,000 soldiers, or slightly more than Rosecrans and Cox combined. If things could be held together, General Lee might just be able to orchestrate the first Confederate victory in Western Virginia.4



  1. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie, Da Capo Press, 2004. []
  2. Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, Volume 1 by Jacob Dolson Cox. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p873-875. []
  4. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
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Skirmishing in the Hills Around Washington by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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