- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

One of the oldest thoroughfares in the Washington area is Leesburg Pike, Virginia Route 7, which makes its way from Alexandria to Leesburg. Alas, the auto dealerships and shopping malls that have made the route a bustling highway have all but obliterated its historical associations.

In the first year of the Civil War, however, Leesburg Pike figured prominently in a small but sharply contested clash that has come down to us as the Battle of Dranesville.

The engagement had its origin in a major foraging expedition by the Confederates, prompted by the need to supply their army in Manassas. Word of the foraging south of Leesburg reached Brig. Gen. George McCall, who commanded a division of Pennsylvania Reserves attached to the Army of the Potomac.

Probably after consulting the army commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, McCall ordered Brig. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord to take his brigade up the pike toward Leesburg. McCall’s order was explicit:

“The object of this expedition is twofold: in the first place to drive back the [enemy’s] pickets which have recently advanced within four or five miles up our lines … and carried off two good Union men and threatened others; and secondly to procure a supply of forage.”

Ord was to leave the Dranesville area before nightfall, “as I do not wish any part of your command to remain out overnight.” A cautious order indeed.

Ord began his march on the morning of Dec. 20, 1861. Winter rains had packed down the road and made for good marching. Along the way, the Federals were reinforced by a squadron of cavalry and a battery of Pennsylvania light artillery.

Ord’s advance guard entered Dranesville on schedule, shortly before noon, but there were signs of trouble. Word reached the Federal commander that an enemy force was approaching from the south on the Centreville road.

The force in question consisted of some 1,800 Confederates ” four infantry regiments, an artillery battery, and two cavalry regiments ” all under the command of the dashing Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Its mission was to protect a foraging expedition that involved most of the wagons attached to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army at Manassas. Stuart planned to occupy Dranesville while his foragers gathered grain west of the town.

When Stuart discovered that Dranesville was occupied by the enemy, he ordered the wagons to return to Centreville while he attacked the town. Pushing through wooded terrain, the Confederates came under fire on both flanks.

The Federal artillery, skillfully positioned by Ord, blasted the Confederates and brought Stuart’s advance to a halt. At one point, South Carolina and Kentucky troops fired at one another, and the affair might have turned into a rout had Ord seized the initiative. But Stuart held his ground for nearly two hours, providing time for his wagons to escape.

Ord, doubtless recalling the caution in his orders, did not press the retreating Confederates. The result was a sharp but inconclusive action in which the Confederates suffered 194 casualties, including 43 dead, while the Federals incurred 68 casualties, including seven dead. When the Confederates withdrew, Ord returned to his camp.

Both sides claimed victory. The Federals had inflicted the heavier casualties and had forced the enemy to retire. Stuart had saved his wagons. “Our side came out best,” Stuart insisted. “I am perfectly satisfied that my conduct was right, and I have the satisfaction to know that it meets the approval of General Johnston, and all others who know the facts.”

In the end, the battle was not without ironies. The victorious field commander, Ord, continued to display the solid competence he had shown at Dranesville and eventually commanded a corps under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. However, his fame never approached that of his adversary, Stuart, who attacked rashly at Dranesville and went on to glory as cavalry commander for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The immediate effect of the engagement was to raise morale in the North, which had found little reason to cheer in the fighting around the nation’s capital. However, the caution that marked McCall’s orders to Ord had ominous overtones. The war would not be won by units that were not allowed out after dark. In the end, McClellan’s own caution would prove his downfall.

The war would be a short one for McCall. The Pennsylvanian was captured during the Peninsular Campaign of 1862, and although later exchanged, he never again held a command in the Federal armies.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean, a few miles from Dranesville. He is the author of several books on the Civil War period.

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