Vienna Railroad Fight

Today is the 150th anniversary of the “Vienna Railroad Fight” or the Battle of Vienna, Virginia.  By later wartime standards, perhaps this engagement is more “spirited skirmish.”  But in 1861, with the country hanging on every newspaper headline, Vienna was big news.

Ron has written a series of excellent posts detailing this action.  To which I would add some photos from the site today.  The location of this action is today part of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Trail, but at the time of the war was along the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad.

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Bend in the Railroad

The photo above looks to the east towards the Alexandria end of the railroad.  The Vienna station lies to the west of this point.  The position chosen by Confederate General Maxcy Gregg deployed his two 6-pdr guns to cover this approach.

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Federal View of the Bend

This view looks from the east end of the bend, or the Federal side of the line.  Note the trail makes a slight rise as it passes up to the high ground around Vienna.  Like much of the northern Virginia countryside, Vienna sits among several slight ridge lines, but by creeks.  In this case the ridge sits between Wolftrap Run and Piney Branch, both tributaries of Difficult Run.  The railroad line ran through a cut here.  The summer foliage covers embankments on each side of the paved path.   Today a connector trail leads across the embankment to the right side of this view.

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High Ground on the North Side of the Trail

If the newspaper drawings are even partially accurate, which of course we always take with a grain of salt, then the Confederate defenders used this rise to their advantage.  Easy to see why the Federals complained of “masked batteries” in their accounts.

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Line of Federal Retreat

Looking further to the east, the trail and old railroad bed drop off as they continue in the direction of Falls Church and Alexandria.  The Federal line of retreat dipped down to Piney Branch.  Again, from the perspective of the Federal movements, it is easy to see where the perception of “masked batteries” came into play.

I have on occasion brought co-workers out to this site for a “battlefield walk.”  It sits conveniently within range of many of our job sites.  So the little “battle of Vienna” makes for an interesting lunch-time hike.  The site also sits within the middle of a typical cosmopolitan Northern Virginia neighborhood – one of the reasons I applaud the anniversary commemoration-reenactment going on today and Saturday in Vienna.  The event does much to raise community awareness to the history of the neighborhood.

Ron has also posted essays on two often cited questions about the Vienna fight – was this indeed the “first” railroad action and were there black Confederate troops employed?

I would add one more – did the Confederates employ a much feared “masked battery” at Vienna?  The Federals seem to cite such batteries from Big Bethel to Manassas to Balls Bluff to Centreville.  Masked batteries became the “boogie man” of any Federal plan in 1861 leading into 1862, according to some historians.  So the real question might be – was this just paranoia on the part of Federal commanders?  Perhaps.  I may look into that in future posts.

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8 responses to “Vienna Railroad Fight

  1. Thanks for providing a virtual tour of the “battlefield.” I haven’t had time to head over and walk over the ground, so it is nice to see how things look today and place it in the context of the battle. I also appreciate the shout out on my Vienna posts.

    I would be interested in your take on the masked batteries in NOVA and elsewhere. The NYT had period editorials indicating that the only reason the batteries were “masked” is because the Federals didn’t pay attention and did not scout ahead for them!

    I am also curious about the ammunition used by the 6-pounders. I noticed that Schenck in the OR refers to the use of shot, shell, and grapeshot. I was wondering if it was grapeshot, or if Schenck meant canister when he used that term.

    • Ron, the mention of “grape” or “grapeshot” are in my opinion the result of what we would call a meme today – “A little more grape, Mr. Bragg.” Grapeshot fell out of disfavor for land service in the 1830s for several reasons. Reality is that Captain Bragg didn’t fire grape at Beuna Vista, but rather used canister and/or double shot. Unfortunately, the term “grapeshot” stuck in the common vocabulary without the proper technical basis. Thus we end up with Schenck at Vienna (and darn near everyone at Gettysburg in 1863!) talking about grapeshot. Sadly, many historians unknowingly perpetuate the notion that grapeshot was in use.

  2. Pingback: Incident at Vienna « Bull Runnings

  3. Thanks for the clarification. I need to go back and do a correction! I had a feeling that was the wrong term. I did notice that thw word “canister” was used in at least one place in the records, but then Schenck said that his troops picked up unspent “grapeshot.” I wondered how he couldn’t know his grapeshot from canister, but like you said, they just called it that at the time.

    • Ron, to some degree spent grapeshot and canister would actually look the same. Both were cast iron spherical projectiles (save the musket balls used in the mountain howitzers). The difference lay with the size of the projectiles and manner of construction of the round.

  4. I’ve lived in Vienna since 2003 and always make it a point to stop and read the plaque to try to imagine how the “battle” unfolded. Next time you give one of your walk and talks, drop me a line. I’d like to hear your perspective.

    • John, I think the most important perspective from the trail is between the marker and the “rest bench” just past that point. From there you can really see the bend of the line and also the rise in the ground. Those factors enabled the Confederate forces to remain “masked” to some degree, from the Federals.

  5. Noel Harrison

    Awesome post, Craig. Thank you. It, and Ron’s, really brought back some great memories…all the way back to navigating this stretch with my dad on bicycles when the abandoned W&OD was still all gravel and cinders. Although I ended up in Civil War history for a career, my first historical article was on the 20th-century trolley line that semi-blighted the Vienna battlefield by leaving behind the “July 1904″ concrete abutments, where the trolley crossed the W&OD. Talk about divided loyalities. Noel