Situated in no-man’s-land between Federals and Confederates, the battle of Dranesville occurred as both sides clashed while foraging for supplies on Dec. 20, 1861. After a year of humiliating defeats, the Federals secured a small victory over Confederates, which was the last of the fighting of 1861.
Since the debacle at Ball’s Bluff in October, most offensive action in the eastern theater had ground to a halt. Major General George B. McClellan was busy building the Army of the Potomac into fighting trim but wasn’t yet willing to commit his soldiers to a full-scale campaign.
Even though both armies were in winter quarters, there was still a need to forage for supplies. On Dec. 20, 1861, Brigadier General Edward O. C. Ord led his Federals from Langley, Va., while Brigadier General James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart traveled north from Centreville with his Confederate force.
While Stuart was destined to gain international fame as a daring cavalry leader, his group of Confederates was comprised of 150 horsemen. The rest of his forces were infantry and a small battery of artillery. Meanwhile, Ord’s 6,000 Federals easily outnumbered Stuart’s 1,500 Confederates.
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Ord’s Federals clashed with Stuart’s cavalry pickets near Dranesville at the intersection of the Leesburg and Georgetown Pike. Ord continued to push the pickets west and threatened Stuart’s supply wagons. Stuart advanced his remaining force from the south, falling upon the Federal’s rear.
Realizing he was under attack, Ord wheeled his troops to meet the Confederate attack. Ord formed a line north of the Leesburg Pike facing south and deployed his artillery on a hillside near the intersection.
Stuart began to press the attack, but suffered a common occurrence of that time. The 6th South Carolina mistook the 1st Kentucky as Federals and fired upon them. The Kentuckians returned fire in the South Carolinian’s direction. For a moment, Stuart’s men were fighting themselves.
The 9th Pennsylvania, hearing the rifle fire, advanced across the Leesburg Pike but was driven back by the Confederates. An artillery duel ensued. For almost two hours, Union and Confederate infantry traded blows with neither giving ground. Eventually, Ord’s placement of Federal artillery knocked out the inferior Confederate guns.
By 3 p. m., Stuart, after making sure his wagons were safe from capture, ordered the withdrawal of his Confederates. Ord briefly pursued his foe before breaking off the attack, returning to Langley. Stuart returned the following day with reinforcements looking to fight once more but could find no Federals.
Although the battle of Dranesville was small in scale and of little tactical importance, it did serve to give the Union a victory in the east in 1861. Before then, the battles of Big Bethel, Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff had been Confederate victories.
For Stuart, the battle provided vast experience and put forth a new idea. Stuart wanted new, faster artillery that could outrace his foe to the high ground. Stuart sought out aggressive artillerymen like John Pelham of Alabama. The “Gallant Pelham,” as he would become known, commanded Stuart’s Horse Artillery until his untimely death at Kelly’s Ford on Mar. 17, 1863.
The battle of Dranesville was not the only time Stuart commanded infantry. In 1863 at the battle of Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee chose Stuart to command the wounded Major General Stonewall Jackson’s corps during the second day of fighting. Lee chose Stuart because Brigadier General A. P. Hill, Jackson’s second in command, was also wounded the same night as Jackson.