- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

Men living in the Western territories during the Civil War, and eager for military action back East, knew that if they enlisted in the West they would likely be sent to fight Indians or deal with military matters in California, Texas or New Mexico.
With that in mind, a group of Californians headed by Capt. J. Sewall Reed contacted Gov. John A. Andrew of Massachusetts and proposed to raise 100 volunteers to form a separate company in a cavalry regiment that was being raised in Massachusetts. The governor consented, and the first 100 men left San Francisco on Dec. 11, 1862. They officially became known as Company A of the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry or, more popularly, the "California Hundred."
The California Hundred would spend most of the war fighting throughout Virginia, one of its main assignments being the capture of the infamous guerrilla Col. John S. Mosby.
Indeed, the 2nd Massachusetts' first major engagement would be against Mosby and his band of Partisan Rangers on Feb. 22, 1864, on the Route 7 Turnpike in present-day Sterling. The fight also would prove to be Mosby's second largest, the one he called Second Dranesville (also known as the Battle of Ankers Shop; the First Dranesville fight was at the Miskel Farm).
On Feb. 20, 1864, Mosby and three of his men were at breakfast at a private home just outside Middleburg. Before Mosby had completed his meal, a young man burst into the room yelling, "The Yankees are on the pike; it's just blue with 'em." The men mounted and raced to the Little River Turnpike (today's Route 50). There Mosby discovered a raiding party of about 250 men. They proved to be Cole's Maryland Battalion. Falling back, Mosby sent a messenger to gather the rest of the troops. At the same time, word spread that Mosby and only three of his rangers were trying to hold off 250 Federal troops.
At the turnpike, one of Mosby's men, Jake Lavinder, handed Mosby and John Munson weapons, and the two fired, taking down a horse and his rider. Other of Mosby's men arrived, and they started after the Yankees in a running fight for miles into Loudoun County. Mosby's losses were one man killed and a few captured.
The Confederates assembled the next day for their comrade's funeral when a scout brought word that the Union forces were again nearby. The rangers left the funeral immediately to find them. That afternoon, they were able to determine that the Union forces were a part of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry under Reed, including about 50 of the Californians with a total of about 200 men compared to Mosby's 150. Sam Underwood was sent ahead to follow the Union cavalrymen and report their whereabouts to Mosby. When the Federals camped at nightfall at Belmont Plantation, along the Alexandria Turnpike (modern Route 7), Mosby and his men bivouacked on their trail about two miles east toward Dranesville.
On the morning of Feb. 22, George Washington's birthday, Mosby's Rangers were on the south side of the Alexandria Turnpike near the present-day Loudoun campus of Northern Virginia Community College. Walter Whaley was sent to the top of Little Stoney Mountain (the Guilford Signal Station) to keep watch for enemy movements. From there, he could see both the turnpike and the old county road (Vestals Gap Road).
Mosby and his men, meanwhile, waited in a strip of pines just off the turnpike in anticipation of word from the little mountaintop above.
At about 11 that morning, Whaley noticed a detachment of the Federals moving slowly along the turnpike toward Dranesville. The Massachusetts men were in high spirits and could be heard laughing and joking. Whaley sent word to Mosby. The men of Company A, with part of Company B, under Lt. Frank Williams, were now placed along the edge of a thick pine woods, in columns of four, to charge the Union van; Company C, with the balance of Company B, under Capt. William Chapman, were to charge their rear; while 15 dismounted men, under Capt. R.P. Montjoy, were posted in the pines along the road at about the center of the partisan position.
As a diversion, Mosby placed two pickets atop a hill (present-day Mirror Ridge) on the north side of the turnpike to attract the attention of the blue cavalry. It would be these two men that the 2nd Massachusetts would see first and who it was hoped would draw them into the line of fire. Mosby was still in high spirits.
"Men," he said, "the Yankees are coming, and it is very likely we will have a hard fight. When you are ordered to charge, I want you to go right through them. Reserve your fire until you get close enough to see clearly what you are shooting at, and then let every shot tell."
Soon the Federal cavalry came into view on the pike. Reed, alert to the possibility of running into Mosby and his men, had his party moving in three bodies to prevent ambush four troopers 100 yards or so in the advance, followed by a sergeant and 14 men, with the main body 200 to 300 yards in the rear. "He was marching as we always march," Maj. Caspar Crowninshield wrote.
The advance party passed by Mosby and his men. Coming upon the pickets, the Union vedette raised his carbine and fired. Turning, he then saw Mosby's men lined up along the edge of the pines. Mosby blew a shrill whistle, his order to charge. The sound hung in the air for a mere moment. A hard volley then poured into the advancing Federal column. With Mosby heading the charge, Company A and part of Company B moved down the pike, scattering the advance and coming upon the main body.
The whistle had blown too soon, however. What was assumed to be the main body of the cavalry proved only to be the advance guard. When Chapman finally charged, he was abreast of the main body, which, by this time had turned and was beginning to retreat.
Capt. George A. Manning of the 2nd Massachusetts described the ensuing fight:
"I noticed that the rear of the column was straggling badly, and I rode back to the head of Company B, urging the officers to keep the men closed up. I stopped a few minutes to talk to [Lt.] Dabney and light a cigar, and as I left him I took out my watch and noticed that it was 10:50 o'clock. When I again reached the head of the column Maj. Reed was riding about 40 yards in advance with Charley Binn, a supposed deserter from Mosby's rangers, who was acting as guide. At that place there was a thicket of small pines on our right, and on our left a rail fence enclosing an open field. I had hardly time to take in the situation before I heard a single shot followed almost at once by a volley coming from the thicket on the right just in advance of the place where Maj. Reed was riding. Thinking that the advance guard had been attacked, I gave the command 'forward!' The words had scarcely left my lips before a volley reached us from the thicket, and my command faced to the right to receive an expected charge from the enemy."
At this point, Reed rode back through the Union column, but because the rear lagged so far behind, the front echelon found itself cut off, the reports of gunfire heavy in the air. He gave the order nevertheless to form platoons. The men rose to the call. A Prussian, Baron von Massow of Mosby's command, who preferred fighting with his sword as opposed to a revolver, made a lunge at Reed, who had been dismounted when his horse was shot. He made a sign that the baron interpreted as one of surrender and motioned Reed to move to the rear. As the baron turned to ride away, Reed drew his revolver and shot him.
Chapman instantly shot Reed in the arm and then fatally in the eye. Massow and Reed lay on the road within yards of each other. Massow was carried to Oatlands, where he stayed until well enough to return to his native home.
Manning immediately assumed command of the 2nd Massachusetts. Binn, the deserter from Mosby, escaped at the beginning of the battle.
Accounts of subsequent events vary widely. There undoubtedly was a great deal of confusion both on the pike and along the northern fence line. The fencing on the north side of the pike was ordered taken down by Manning. Earlier in the skirmish, many of the Massachusetts men could be seen trying to jump the fence to escape, although they did continue to fight; one of these was a California officer named William E. Poe (aka William A. Wilson).
Some of the new recruits were poor riders, their horses green and unmanageable. "These riders could be seen running up and down the fence, holding onto the pummel of the saddles and the Rebels shooting into them as one would into a flock of frightened sheep," said DeWitt Clinton Thompson of the California Hundred.
The 2nd Massachusetts' account differs greatly from that of Mosby and his men. In the account of the 2nd Massachusetts, Manning said that Mosby's men could be seen leaving the safety of the thicket to fire a volley, retreating and then repeating the tactic. After about the fourth charge, one of Mosby's men left the thicket with his horse, according to Manning, coming out into the road. He fired two shots at Manning, one of which struck his horse in the neck, unseating the captain and knocking him unconscious.
James Williamson and John Munson report in their respective memoirs that the Federal cavalry forces held their line only long enough for the fence to be taken down and then they scattered, leaving their dead and wounded in the turnpike. Munson remembered Mosby weaving "in and out of the fighting mass like a ferret, fighting hand-to-hand with every man who would stand before him."
When the wounded Manning recovered consciousness, he found himself not only stripped of all personal belongings but staring into the barrel of a gun. The body of Reed also had been stripped, including his cavalry boots. Reed's body was returned to his wife who had been staying in camp with her husband for the past two months in that sorry condition. The body was sent to Washington for burial preparation and then moved to Dorchester, Mass., for its final resting place. Manning eventually petitioned and was granted the return of all personal items.
Ironically, Manning had been on a scouting mission in the valley just the month before, with instructions to arrest every male member of a family named Hutchison old enough to shoot a gun. Among family members rounded up was a boy of 14 or so whose case was pleaded emotionally by his mother and sister. Manning released the boy only to find him standing over him one month later at the battle with a gun in his hand threatening to shoot Manning for taking his father prisoner. Manning's life was spared, but he would subsequently find himself in Libby Prison in Richmond.
Mosby's losses were minimal one dead, eight wounded. The 2nd Massachusetts' casualties were slightly higher eight dead, seven wounded and 70 or so taken prisoner. These numbers also vary from account to account. The California Hundred and 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry would have other opportunities to go up against Mosby and his Partisan Rangers. The next time would be a similar ambush at Mount Zion Church in Aldie, Va., five months later. They never did capture the elusive Mosby.

Rebecca Fitzgerald lives in Sterling with her husband and two children.

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