Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Post image for Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict.

Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict.

December 30, 2012

Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict, 12th Regiment Vermont Volunteers.

Stuart’s Raid And Repulse From Fairfax Court House.

Camp Near Fairfax C. H., Va.,
December 29, 1862.

Dear Free Press:

We have been having rather stirring times during the past twenty-four hours. During the day on Sunday, rumors of a sharp engagement at Dumfries, twenty-five miles south of us, and the hurrying forward of troops to points threatened, reached us, and prepared us for a start. Just at night-fall came the command to fall in. Col. Blunt was absent at Alexandria, in attendance on a court martial, and Lieut. Col. Farnham was in command, by whom we were marched hastily to Fairfax Court House. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Vermont regiments and the Second Connecticut battery, attached to our brigade, moved with us. We were hurried straight through the village, and it was not until we halted behind a long breastwork, commanding the sweep of plain to the east, that we had time to ask ourselves what it all meant. The word was soon passed about that a formidable rebel raid was in progress; that a large rebel cavalry force was approaching Burke’s Station, four or five miles below us; that an attack on Fairfax Court House was anticipated, and that Gen. Stoughton with the Vermont brigade must hold the position. Three regiments and three guns of the battery were to defend the village; the Fifteenth was at Centreville on picket, and the Sixteenth, with three guns, was sent to Fairfax Station.

The Twelfth manned the centre of the breastwork, extending across the Alexandria turnpike, along which the enemy was expected to advance. Two companies of the Thirteenth and a portion of the Fourteenth were placed on our right; the remainder of the Thirteenth on our left, and the balance of the Fourteenth a short distance in our rear. A brass howitzer and two rifled pieces were placed on the turnpike. Companies B and G of the Twelfth, under command of Captain Paul, were sent forward half a mile on the road, and a squad of the First Virginia (union) cavalry was placed still further out.

So arranged, we waited hour after hour of the bright moonlight night. Occasionally a mounted orderly dashed up to Gen. Stoughton with accounts of the rebel advance, but nothing specially exciting took place till about eleven, when suddenly the situation became interesting. First came a courier with a message for Gen. Stoughton, whose reply, distinctly audible to our portion of the line, was: ”Tell him my communication with Gen. Abercrombie is cut off; but I can hold my own here, and will do it.” Then came orders to load, and instructions for the front rank, —your humble servant was fortunate enough to be in that rank—to do the firing, if ordered to fire, and the rear rank to do the loading, passing the loaded pieces to their file leaders. Then came a dash of horsemen down the road, riding helter-skelter and “the devil take the hindmost.” We did not know then what it meant, but learned afterwards that it was the cavalry picket, driven in and frightened half to death by the rebels. The stir among our officers which followed told us, however, that it meant something. Col. Farnham rode along the line, giving the men their instructions. Major Kingsley added some words of caution and injunctions to fire low, and General Stoughton, riding up, said: “You are to hold this entrenchment, my men. Keep cool, never flinch, and behave worthy of the good name won for Vermont troops by the First brigade. File closers, do your duty, and if any man attempts to run, use your bayonets!” The captains, each in his own way, added their encouragements. The men on their part needed no incentive; and I have no doubt, had its possession been contested, that breastwork would have been held in a way which would have brought no disgrace on our Green Mountain State.

We had waited in silence a few minutes, when our ears caught a faint tramp of cavalry, half a mile away where our skirmishers were posted; then some scattered pistol shots; then shrill cheers as of a cavalry squadron on a charge; and then the flash and rattle of the first hostile volley fired by any portion of the Twelfth in this war. It was a splendid volley, too. Both companies fired at once, and their guns went off like one piece. The effects of the volley were not learned till daylight; but I may as well anticipate my story, and give them here. They were eight rebel troopers wounded and removed by their comrades—this our men learned from a man in front of whose house, a little ways on, the rebels rallied —three horses killed; three saddles, a rebel carbine, manufactured in Richmond, and a Colt’s revolver, picked up on the ground; and a horse, with U. S. on his flank, found riderless in the road and recaptured. The rebel troopers scattered in all directions but rallied further back. Our men expected a second charge, and were ready for it, but after a short halt the rebels turned and rapidly retreated.

At the breastwork we knew nothing of these details. We heard the firing, and taking it for the opening drops of the shower waited patiently for what should come next. Nothing came, however. All was still again. In half an hour camp fires began to show themselves about a mile in front, and our artillery was ordered to try its hand on them. Bang went the guns, under our noses, and whiz went the shells, but they drew no response. A reconnoissance was next ordered. Capt. Ormsbee of Co. G—one of our best captains—with 30 men of his own and Company B marched over to the fires. They were found to be fires of brush built to deceive us. A free negro, whose house was near by, informed Capt. O. that the rebels were under command of Generals Fitzhugh Lee and Stuart, both of whom had been in his house an hour before.

They had, he said, two brigades of cavalry and some artillery, and they had pushed on to the north. This news was taken to mean that they were making a circuit and would probably shortly attack from the north or west. We were accordingly double-quicked back to Fairfax Court House, and were posted (I speak now only of the Twelfth) on the brow of a hill, in good position to receive a charge of cavalry. Here we waited through the rest of the night. The moon set; the air grew cold; the ground froze under our feet; but we had nothing to do but to shiver and nod over our guns, till daylight. At sunrise we were glad to be marched back to camp, and to throw ourselves into our tents, where most of the men have slept through the day, taking rest while they can get it, for we are still ordered to be in readiness for instant marching. I doubt if we shall go out to-night, however. We hear to-day that the rebel cavalry, having made one of the most daring raids of the war, to within a dozen miles of Washington, have pushed on to Leesburg,[1] and will doubtless make a successful escape through the mountains.

I have given so much space to this little skirmish because it is the thing of greatest excitement with us at present, and not, of course, for its essential importance. But it has been an interesting bit of experience and not without value in its effect upon the discipline of the brigade. It has added to the confidence of the men in their officers, from Gen. Stoughton down, and I guess the men did not disappoint their commanders. To-day our colonel is again with us. He started with the adjutant to join the regiment last night by way of the turnpike, which was then held for two miles or more by the rebels, but was advised by Capt. Erhardt, in command of a squadron of the Vermont cavalry at Annandale, not to attempt to go through, and wisely took his advice. It would have been sorrow for us had he been taken by Stuart’s troopers.

December 30th.

We have spent an undisturbed night, and I have time this morning to add one or two more particulars of the affair of night before last. Our pickets have taken four or five prisoners of the rebel cavalry. One was a hard looking, butternut-clad trooper, apparently just recovering from a bad spree; he accounted for his used up appearance by averring that they had been six days in the saddle. The others were taken by the Vermont cavalry, and will go part way toward balancing the loss of Lieut. Cummings of Company D of the Vermont cavalry and three of his men, who were out on picket and were taken by Stuart’s men. It is ascertained that the forces of Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee made a circuit around us, passing between us and Washington and round to Chantilly on the west of us, where a body of 300 cavalry, including a portion of the Vermont cavalry, from Drainsville, came upon them; but finding themselves in the presence of a greatly superior force, retreated. It was reported in Washington, and fully believed by many, that our whole brigade had been captured.

Reinforcements have now been sent out to our support, and we anticipate no serious danger. Still affairs are in a rather feverish state, and we may be marched in any direction at any moment.

The weather is remarkable—days very mild, with magnificent sunshine; nights cooler, but still not much like Vermont.

Yours, B.

[1] This was erroneous. Stuart returned by way of Warrenton to Culpeper Court House.

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