Wednesday, June 01, 2011

150 Years Ago: Fairfax Court House

After Fort Sumter, the Civil War began slowly like a freight train gathering speed.  Both sides had to raise armies to fight.  Men across the country, North and South, raced to join up, but arming and supplying the new recruits would be a daunting task -- many were turned away for lack of weapons.  But once the armies began forming up, they began moving and running into each other.

In the early morning hours, around 3 a.m., on Saturday, June 1, 1861, a Regular U.S. Army cavalry force of about 50 to 75 troopers under Lieutenant Charles Tompkins rode into the village of Fairfax Court House, Virginia.  They were on a reconnaissance mission to gauge Confederate strength in the area.  They found a sizable force of about 200 men in the village -- two cavalry companies and a company of infantry.

The Confederate force was just green recruits, many without arms.  Most of the cavalry fled straightaway, leaving the infantry company, the Warrenton Rifles, to do the bulk of the fighting. 

What followed was a brief skirmish that would be the first land battle of the Civil War. 

The U.S. Cavalry rode in, made a lot of noise, and captured a few prisoners, including some Confederate cavalrymen who were trying to form a line in the main road while most of their comrades rode off.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard Ewell had just arrived in town to take over the Confederate force.  He came out of his hotel into the middle of the melee and was shot in the shoulder.  Ewell would be the first Confederate field grade officer to be wounded in the war.

Captain John Q. Marr, commander of the Warrenton Rifles, heard the commotion and quickly got his men up and formed into battle lines in a nearby clover field.  A few of the retreating Confederate cavalrymen ran upon them in the dark and were fired on.  One was wounded; the first case of friendly fire in the war.

Marr got out the sight of his men and disappeared, leaving the unit leaderless.  A 64-year-old civilian took command.  He was William "Extra Billy" Smith, a former Virginia governor and a resident of Warrenton.  He had helped recruit the company and knew many of the men, but had no military training or experience.  After the battle was over, Marr was found dead in the clover field, the first Confederate fatality of the war.   Smith found that he enjoyed the experience of commanding men in battle and asked for a commission.  He would become one of the oldest Confederate generals in the Civil War.

Ewell, wounded shoulder and all, took charge of the scene and moved the Warrenton Rifles into a better defensive position.  Some civilians in the town grabbed what weapons they had and joined them.  Three times the U.S. Cavalry unit tried to ride out of town past the Warrenton Rifles; three times they were driven back.  They finally left the village via a different route.

Confederate casualties:  1 dead (Captain Marr), two wounded, five missing (all captured)
Union casualties:  1 dead (a Private Saintclair), and four wounded, including Lieutenant Tompkins.  They reported one man missing, but the Confederates took three prisoners.  The Union also lost nine horses killed; four were wounded.

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