On this day (December 20) in 1861, a short but sharp battle took place in the small Northern Virginia town of Dranesville. Over the last few years, I’ve been able to “study” the battle in a unique kind of way. Contemplating the terrain while sitting in traffic! The battlefield sits astride the Leesburg Pike (modern Virginia 7), a major commuter artery into the beltway. Two historical markers, a Virginia state marker and a Civil War Trails wayside, reference the battle.
As seen in this section of the 1862 “McDowell Map” (see the full map on file at the Library of Congress on-line map section), Dranesville sat at an important intersection on the pike:
Of course, the topographical engineers misspelled “Drainsville.” I’ve traced the Leesburg Pike on the map in blue. Running due east from Dranesville is the Georgetown Pike (modern day VA 193), traced in green. A couple of parallel routes run south from the town, the eastern most runs down Dranesville Ridge, and was the most important with regard to the battle, and is traced here in red. Today Reston Avenue (CR 602) approximates that road. Several dwellings and buildings of importance to the battle are referenced on this map – the Colman and Thornton houses south of the town, Liberty Church, and Jackson’s Tavern. Looking at the same area today, the road structure is similar, but the true courses have shifted to accommodate motor vehicles.
The battle itself was really a small affair, with each side in brigade strength. In effect, this was a meeting engagement by forces foraging around the “no-man’s land” that existed between the lines in Fairfax County in late 1862. Federal Brig. Gen. George McCall dispatched a Brigade under Brig. Gen. E.O.C. Ord, reinforced with two cavalry squadrons and a battery of artillery, to forage in the vicinity of Dranesville. At the same time, Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart patrolled north from Centreville with four regiments of infantry (including the 1st Kentucky Infantry), a detachment of cavalry, and an artillery battery. The two forces met at Dranesville.
A good synopsis of the battle, along with copies of the official report is located on the Shotgun’s Home of the Civil War site. The Cliff Notes version is Ord got to the intersection first by way of the Georgetown Pike. Stuart had an opportunity to work behind Ord. But the Federal commander acted swiftly to block, and positioned his artillery on the high ground north-east of the intersection. Depending on which account one reads, Stuart skillfully disengaged and retired, OR was driven from the field in a near route. One interpretation holds that Stuart was the victim of a trap, being duped by some turncoats. Regardless, the end result was Stuart left the field to Ord.
Casualty figures were minor compared to other battles – 194 Confederates and 68 Federals. However out of proportion of the numbers involved, this battle was widely reported both north and south. In the North, this action was heralded as the first victory on southern soil. In the South, some reported the battle as a disaster, others as a gallant action saving the army from some terrible calamity.
Today the battlefield is much different than that facing Ord and Stuart. The road structure is, at best, an approximation of the 1861 courses (the widening of Highway 7 was perhaps the most serious change). The important sections of the battlefield is now covered with houses, convenience stores, and other modern structures. Today the intersection of the Leesburg and Georgetown Pikes is still an important intersection:
The service road to the left is a portion of an “older” road bed, but might not be the wartime path (the story of Leesburg Pike is one of continual adjustments to meet transportation needs since the time of Braddock’s expedition). The Georgetown Pike enters from the right of frame, just in front of the treeline. The 9th and 12th Pennsylvania Infantry were positioned west of the intersection, where the ground drops off. Their lines would sweep forward in the later stages of the battle.
Looking north from the same location, across the divided lanes of the Leesburg Pike. The junction of the 10th and 6th Pennsylvania was in the area on the far side. Although the ground on there is certainly higher in elevation, at the time of the battle, it was even higher. The crest, as with much in the surrounding area, was leveled over time by road and building construction.
Ord originally posted one section of Battery A, 1st Pennsylvania Artillery (Captain Easton) on the west side of the intersection. However, with the appearance of Stuart’s force, the guns were deployed on high ground opposite the Colman and Thornton homes. Again, the terrain here has been altered since the war, making the elevations less pronounced. The parking lot on that side of the highway is square in the middle of the most valuable real estate on the battlefield – the side that held that point had the high ground.
Looking south down Reston Aveune. Captain Easton’s gunners fired at the Confederate battery deployed, generally speaking, down the road. My best guess is the Sumpter Artillery was about 300 yards down the road, but that is based more on dead reckonings than place-mark worth mentioning. The Federals complained they could not actually see their targets during some phases of the battle, and only fired into the smoke and haze. Also note the Confederate position is at a distinct disadvantage in elevation.
About 1 mile west on Leesburg Pike is the only true landmark dating to the time of the battle. And even that was moved for highway expansion! The Dranesville Tavern was operated by George W. Jackson, and known as the Jackson Hotel at the time of the war. The structure was moved 125 feet to the southwest in the 1960s as the pike was widened. The site is now a county park.
Dranesville was not a major action by any definition of the term. However it was widely reported and at the time provided the North with a counterbalance to memories of 1st Manassas and Balls Bluff during the winter of 1861-62. Today two markers and the Tavern stand as reminders of the action. Battlefield stompers must brave the traffic jams to view even those. McMansions now stand where the two sides fought in 1861.