Union Victory Against Jeb Stuart at Dranesville

December 20, 1861 (Friday)

Confederate General Jeb Stuart, typically remembered as a dashing cavalry officer, was given command of a brigade of infantry, a battery of artillery and some cavalry. His mission was to collect as much hay as he could from the Dranesville area, just northwest of Washington, DC.

By dawn, he and his 1,600 men were on the road from Centreville, north to Dranesville, sending his cavalry to the latter town and then southeast to cover the Union outposts. Stuart knew that just east of town was ground that could be easily defended, should this little expedition come to blows. However, as the cavalry neared the town, they discovered a Union force on that very ridge.1

The Union force was that of General Edward Ord, 10,000-strong, sent by General George McCall, who commanded a division in the Army of the Potomac. Ord had been sent on a similar mission to Stuart’s, but was warned of a hundred or so Rebels in the town. Following Ord along the road leading from Alexandria was General John Reynolds’ Brigade, as well as General George Meade’s. General McCall himself was also in the line marching northwest.

When Ord neared Dranesville, he spied the same Confederate cavalry that spied him and sent a small force to clear out the pickets, pushing them back through the town. As the pickets scampered away, Ord received a message telling him that a Rebel brigade was nearby. This was much more than he expected. With a bit of scouting, Ord saw the Confederates for himself, occupying ground to his left.

Confederate artillery then opened fire upon Ord’s line, still moving towards Dranesville. Most of the shots burst harmlessly behind his line. Seeing an opportunity, Ord, a former artillery officer, placed his brigade artillery himself. He gave his artillery officers the distance, elevation and orders to fire. After just two rounds, the Rebel artillery slowed down their firing as the Union guns played havoc upon them.2

The Union artillery was aimed squarely at the Rebel guns posted on the road to Centreville. The guns, caissons, limbers and horses were all exposed to Union fire. They were, in short, about to be decimated. Knowing this, Stuart formed his brigade into line of battle, one regiment on either side of the road, to advance upon Ord, who was also forming up.

He advanced his right wing first, the Alabamans charging with a shout into the left of Ord’s line.3

As Ord’s rear regiment, the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves, known as “The Bucktails,” was forming up, their commander, Col. Thomas Kane saw the Rebels approaching.

“Forward Bucktails!” yelled Kane, “There’s fun ahead!” The regiment crossed the road and began to advance into the woods separating them from the Rebel line, when Kane was hit in the upper jaw. They stopped only long enough for him to wrap his head and carried on.4

In Stuart’s center, a South Carolina regiment gained ground, coming abreast with the Alabama troops, reached a thicket and could see little to their front. Unfortunately, a Confederate Kentucky unit was in the same thicket and also unable to see. One Rebel regiment mistook the other for Yankees and opened fire. Volley after volley was slammed into friends, many of whom fell before the mistake was realized.5

Hearing the gunfire, probably from the Rebels fighting each other, Col. Conrad Jackson and his 9th Pennsylvania Reserves bounded into the woods. Word came, however, that the troops to their front were the Bucktails. Jackson ordered his men not to fire. This idea was reinforced by a voice from the woods calling out, “Don’t fire on us!”

When asked if they were the Bucktails, the voice replied, “Yes, we are the Bucktails. Don’t fire.” There was then a volley let loose by the Rebels, who were very clearly not the Bucktails. Jackson returned the favor.

Following General Ord’s Brigade, General Reynolds had also seen the Confederate brigade. He decided on his own that he must leave the road, cut through the fields and fall upon the enemy’s right. He rode to the head of his brigade, ordered them to take up arms and began marching them at a double-quick away from the road.

Reynolds’ flank attack would have cleared the Rebels from the scene, scattering them to the north and west. But before they could get too far away from the road, General McCall rode at a gallop to Reynolds, ordering him back to the pike.

“Euchered!” roared Reynolds, knowing that McCall was cheating them out of certain victory. He filed them back onto the road and resumed his march towards the fighting.

General McCall rode ahead to join Ord, who was trying to flank the Confederates with the right of his line, hoping to overtake the battery, still being pummeled by the Union guns. When the troops reached the woods nearing the Rebel guns, they found only the dead strewn about the underbrush.6

And then the firing stopped. Stuart, well aware that Union reinforcements were on their way, knew he could not hold and ordered a retreat. The battered artillery was the first to go, and then the cut up infantry.7

Generals Ord and McCall met up with each other on the spot where the Rebel artillery had been posted and nearly destroyed. Several gunners were lying dead, one caisson had been disabled, and another blown up by Union iron. All types of accouterments were left behind by the retreating Confederates.

Ord gave chase, but Stuart had gotten the slip on him. McCall decided to return to camp, down the road to Alexandria. If he did not, he was worried that the Rebels could get between him and the rest of the Army of the Potomac. Returning, he gathered Ord’s dead and wounded, as well as many of the less-seriously wounded Confederates.

Though the fight and the victory were Ord’s, General McCall, much like General McClellan in western Virginia, took the credit, much to Ord’s disdain.

The Battle of Dranesville was the first victory for the Union forces in the east. It was proof to McClellan that his army could put up a fight.

A few days later, in a letter to his wife, General Ord summed up the battle the best he could: “My artillery slaughtered them – while they were cooped up & jammed in a road which I raked. It was the old story – they had an ignoramus for a general, a fool for an artillery capt’n, took it for granted we would run, made no reconnaissance, posted their artillery just where I would have place it to smash it soonest….”8

General Stuart’s Confederates sustained 43 killed, 143 wounded and 8 missing, while inflicting “only” 7 killed, and 61 wounded.9

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p490 — Stuart’s report. []
  2. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p490 — Stuart’s report. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p491-492 — Stuart’s report. []
  6. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p492 — Stuart’s report. []
  8. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. This account is mostly made up of the Union reports from the OR. Focusing upon the Federals, Beatie gives little to no account from the Confederate point of view. I augmented my telling of the battle with General Stuart’s report from the OR. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p489; 494. []
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Union Victory Against Jeb Stuart at Dranesville by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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