The Battle of Chantilly on Sept. 1, 1862, was an ugly brawl, at times disintegrating into the brutality of hand-to-hand combat, and fought in drenching rain. It claimed 83 Confederate and 138 Union lives and left 418 wounded and 15 missing from Confederate ranks, 472 wounded and 69 missing from Union troops.
Among the Union dead were Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny and Brig. Gen. Isaac Stevens, each of whom died trying to move their men forward.
Both armies were worn from the Second Battle of Bull Run, as David Welker recounts in “Tempest at Ox Hill.” The Union forces under John Pope were retreating from Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Pope, who was more a politician than a fighter, was struggling to maintain his lines of communication with Washington and in particular to control the “Jermantown” intersection of Warrenton Pike and Little River Turnpike in his rear. Jackson’s “foot cavalry” had covered 45 miles on Aug. 25 and 26 and fought the Second Battle of Bull Run from Aug. 28 through 30. By the night of Aug. 31, the Confederate troops had not been issued rations for three days: They ate what they could forage, including food taken from the bodies of the dead. Though Jackson, too, wanted the Jermantown intersection so that he might either destroy Pope’s Army of Virginia, threaten Washington or do both, his troops covered only three miles in half a day.
By the afternoon of Sept. 1, Jackson had been checked at Jermantown and, deep in enemy territory, decided to protect his flanks before renewing his assault. Two Union cavalry guides, unsure of the terrain and trying to lead the Union’s IX Corps to Little River Turnpike, instead led that corps up the narrow and muddy track of Ox Road. Commanding its 1st Division was Stevens. Rather than wait for reinforcements, he decided to attack Jackson’s right flank to draw Confederate attention away from Jermantown.
When the attack stalled, Stevens took command of his old regiment, the 79th Infantry, known as the Highlanders. Although five color bearers already had been shot, Stevens seized the fallen colors and led his Highlanders in renewed assault on the Confederate position. He was very quickly shot through the head. Enraged, the Highlanders broke the Confederate line, apparently giving little quarter, even to those who begged for it.
The Confederates beat back the disorganized survivors of Stevens’ division, and Jackson straightened and strengthened his entire position. At that moment, Stevens’ aide brought up reinforcements. They were not from IX Corps’ 2nd Division, but III Corps’ 1st Division, commanded by Kearny, the one-armed veteran of the Mexican War. He ordered the 21st Massachusetts to bolster his own right flank, unsupported in the middle of the cornfield that separated the combatants. The 21st’s skirmishers quickly became involved in a firefight with those of the 49th Georgia and were stopped cold.
Furious that the colonel of the 21st could not follow a simple order to post on the Union right, Kearny went forward to reconnoiter a way through the cornfield so the Massachusetts infantrymen might take station. “Kearny had been here before, face-to-face with the enemy where every second and every move counted.” He, too, was killed promptly. Soon after, reinforcements came up and stabilized Kearny’s right wing, securing the Union position.
By noon the next day, Pope received the orders he had solicited to withdraw to Washington, and on Sept. 3, Lee began to march his army north into Maryland.
Mr. Welker’s narration of the events leading up to the pivotal engagement at Ox Hill is competent, although his prose is marred by such lines as, “Stevens’ blood poured from the wound, forever staining the Highlanders’ colors with the last evidence of Isaac Stevens’ life.” His analysis of the fight at Ox Hill, both by itself and in its larger context, is curiously unsettled.
At first glance, the battle was a draw, and the author’s analysis reflects that. Mr. Welker, a military analyst for the federal government, argues that both the Union and Confederate forces achieved their tactical and strategic objectives and that if Lee and Jackson had really wanted to cut off Pope’s army and destroy it, they would have pushed their men faster. In reality, of course, flesh and bone can only bear so much.
A deeper look at the battle reveals it to have been a tactical and strategic success for the Union. Badly outnumbered (6,000 to 11,000 Confederates), Stevens launched a spoiling attack on the Confederate positions. Although he suffered more casualties, both absolutely and relatively, he checked Jackson’s efforts to take the Jermantown intersection and cut off Pope from Washington. Although it cost him his life, Kearny maintained pressure on the Confederates and continued to strengthen the Union position. Moreover, this was accomplished with troops who had been defeated previously by their enemy.
Mr. Welker argues that both men forgot their roles as general officers to play rifleman, but it is far more likely that both Union generals knew the Jermantown intersection was worth keeping at any price and so led their men with an otherwise imprudent aggressiveness. They paid with their lives, but they prevented the Confederates from flanking the Union force. Conversely, the battle was both a tactical and strategic failure for the Confederates, who failed in their attempt to destroy the Union forces or to menace Washington.
Mr. Welker focuses on some details, such as Jackson moving his artillery train west, or the terrible suffering of the wounded, while ignoring others, such as the probable exhaustion of Jackson’s troops. Greater attention to what the defeat of the Union army there would have meant for both the Union and the Confederacy would have made this a stronger book, despite the pleasure it will afford readers.
Erin Solaro is a Washington-based candidate for a master’s degree in diplomacy and military science at Norwich University.