December 6, 1861 (Friday)
Since the Union defeat at the sad disaster on Ball’s Bluff on October 22, the town of Dranesville, eighteen miles south, had been mostly left alone by the Federals. It was only in the past week or so that Union scouts had the pleasure of being fired upon by several Dranesville citizens of the “bitterest secessionist stamp.”
A few of the secessionists were killed or caught, and on the next expedition, a few days later, Generals George Meade and John Reynolds took their respective brigades on a foraging party. They saw no Rebels, but captured fifty wagons and a farmer named R.H. Gunnell, a “bitter secessionist.” Gunnell had promised his crop to the Southern Army and General George McCall (Meade and Reynolds’ division commander) was insistent that it go to the Union men.
McCall, who commanded the force near Dranesville just before the battle at Ball’s Bluff, ordered yet another foray towards the town. Meade, along with a squadron of cavalry, was ordered to march at 6am, heading for Gunnell’s Farm, two miles north of Dranesville. Once he arrived, he was to arrest the two nephews of Mr. Gunnell and carry away whatever forage he could find before it could be used to feed the Confederates. While this Gunnell character was, according to General McCall, “a bitter secessionist,” his two nephews were “bad men.”1
The two younger Gunnells had been a part of the Confederate Army, but had more recently taken to firing upon Union pickets from across the Potomac. They had, apparently, shot two Federal stragglers and “left them for the hogs to devour.”
Two brigades of infantry, two batteries and a squad of cavalry should be enough to arrest two rebels, General McCall must have thought.
By dawn, Meade was on the road, with cavalry scouts and flankers deployed to discover any Rebels hidden among the brambles. Finding nothing on their way to the farm, they arrived safely around noon and promptly captured the two “bad men” and three more secessionists.2
While Mr. Gunnell was absent, his sister and their slaves watched helplessly as the Union soldiers, feeling that the secessionists must be punished, exacted retribution. Meade deployed the bulk of his brigade in a defensive position around the farm, while the remainder, according to Meade himself, “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.”
“We Loaded all the wagons with corn and wheat and oats hogs potatoes and everything we could get,” wrote a member of the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves. The tally included 2,000 bushels of corn, thirty hogs, ten horses, two buggies and a yoke of oxen. By 6pm, the wagons were full and, with a light snow about to fall, Meade began the march back to camp. Two of the Gunnell’s slaves were liberated and soon found work at cooks in the Union Army.
General Meade admitted to his wife that he had been unable to keep his foragers under control. He confessed that “it was with considerable trouble they could be prevented from burning everything.” This kind of war was not in Meade’s blood. “I never had a more disagreeable duty in my life to preform,” he said of the day’s work. “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.”3
Jackson’s Plan Might Take Awhile Longer
Stonewall Jackson’s plan for a timely early winter campaign was, in his mind, quickly expiring. He had requested General Loring’s Army of the Northwest, dug in among the hills of Western Virginia, and Loring had agreed, but knew that it would take time to move from the Greenbrier River to Winchester, Jackson’s base of operations.
Secretary of War Judah Benjamin was acting as a go-between for Jackson and Loring, relating to Jackson that Loring was heading in his direction, “which will place at your disposal quite an effective force for your proposed campaign.” This news must have thrilled Jackson, though he likely cringed upon reading, “although I regret to observe that his movement cannot be made as promptly as I had hoped.”
This (mostly) good news came mixed with some (possibly) bad news. Secretary Benjamin had received reliable information that Union General Banks, near Frederick, Maryland, would combine with the Federal forces at Romney and attack Jackson at Winchester. This was part of what Benjamin believed to be McClellan’s grand plan of attack. He, of course, admitted that he could be wrong, but hoped that once Loring arrived in Winchester, Jackson would be able to promptly “turn the tables handsomely on the enemy by anticipating his purpose.”4
- Three Years in the Bloody Eleventh by Joseph Gibbs, Penn State Press, 2002. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p455-456. [↩]
- Three Years in the Bloody Eleventh by Joseph Gibbs, Penn State Press, 2002. The Meade quotes were taken as they were printed in this book. They originally came from a letter written to his wife on December 8, 1861. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p982-983. [↩]