Voices from the Past: The Battle of Dranesville

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Dranesville, Virginia.

While a small encounter by modern standards, at the time—December 1861—the battle made headlines and captured civilian attention. The two-hour encounter, which consisted of clumsy infantry attacks and haphazard artillery fire, pitted a few thousand Pennsylvania soldiers against a smaller contingent of Confederate troops under the leadership of Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart and his foraging party avoided capture but the day ended with a Union victory that thrilled northern audiences—who were still reeling from the stinging defeats at Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff.

Below are descriptions of the Battle of Dranesville excerpted from Brigadier General George A. McCall’s and Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart’s official reports:


At 10.30 a.m. on the 20th I received a dispatch from General Ord, written on the march, informing me that the guide had learned on the way that there was a full brigade, but without artillery, at Herndon’s Station, 500 infantry and cavalry at Hunter’s Mill, and 200 infantry between Dranesville and the Potomac. I immediately mounted my horse, and with my staff and an escort of cavalry moved rapidly forward to overtake, if possible, Ord’s brigade. I stopped for a few moments with Brigadier-General Reynolds at Difficult Creek, and having directed him to be in readiness to move forward rapidly in case he should be required to support Ord, I rode on. When within about 2 miles of Dranesville I heard the first gun fired by the enemy. It was soon answered by Easton’s battery, which imparted to me the fact that the enemy had artillery with them.

A rapid ride soon brought me to the field, where Ord was hotly engaged. I found Easton’s battery judiciously placed, and in full blast upon the enemy’s battery, about 500 yards in front, on the Centreville road. Here I stopped to observe the practice of our battery, while one of my staff rode off to ascertain where General Ord was. While here, admiring the beautiful accuracy of the shot and shell thrown by this battery upon the battery of the enemy, a force of infantry and cavalry made their appearance from cover on the enemy’s right, moving in a direction to turn our left. Colonel McCalmont, whose regiment was on the left, was notified of this movement, but a few shell from our battery skillfully thrown into their midst checked their advance and drove them back ignominiously to cover.

Not hearing anything of General Ord, I sent out in search of him on our right, where brisk firing was at the time going on. Here was the Ninth Infantry, Colonel Jackson, who had gallantly met the enemy at close quarters and nobly sustained the credit of his State.

By this time Captain Scheetz, of my staff, reported that he had found General Ord near the center front. Proceeding there, I found the Rifles and a part of the Sixth Infantry Pennsylvania Reserves engaged under a brisk fire with the enemy. Having met General Ord. we moved forward, and the position where the enemy’s battery had been placed was soon gained, and here we had evidence of the fine artillery practice of Easton’s battery. The road was strewed with men and horses; two caissons, one of them blown up; a limber; a gun-carriage wheel; a quantity of artillery ammunition, small-arms, and an immense quantity of heavy clothing, blankets, &c.

The battle was now over and the victory won. With my consent General Ord made an advance of about half a mile, but nothing further was to be done, as the enemy in full flight had passed beyond our reach. I then recalled Ord, and prepared for the return of my command. I ordered the harness to be taken off the enemy’s horses which lay dead in the road and to be put upon horses of my escort, and brought away the perfect caissons and the limber.[1]

– Brigadier General George A. McCall, U.S. Army –


When the action had lasted about two hours I found that the enemy, being already in force larger than my own, was recovering from his disorder and receiving heavy re-enforcements. I could not, with my small numbers, being beyond the reach of re-enforcements, force his position without fearful sacrifice, and seeing that his artillery, superior to ours in numbers and position only, was pouring a very destructive fire into Cutts’ battery, I decided to withdraw the latter at once, preparatory to retiring from the field, judging, too, that I had given our wagons ample time to get out of reach of the enemy.[2]

– Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart, Confederate Army –

Image Credit: Library of Congress

[1]Reports of Brig. Gen. George A. McCall, U. S. Army, with congratulatory response and orders,” in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series I, Vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: 1881).

[2] “Reports of Brig. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, C. S. Army,” in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series I, Vol. 5 (Washington, D.C.: 1881).

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