The forgotten battle

I’m going through a Civil War phase. Considering the scope and size of the Civil War, it’s a lot to absorb. Even when I complete Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War, in a way I will have just sampled it. Having finished Volume One, I already have an appreciation for its origins and complexity.

There are over ten thousand books on the Civil War chronicling virtually every aspect of the war from multiple perspectives. And yet one battle of that war has gotten curiously little attention, the Battle of Chantilly, also known as the Battle of Ox Hill. Back in 2004 it got my attention when I visited a small site dedicated to the battle, which was fought about five miles from my house near Chantilly, Virginia. Given the tiny size of the 4.8-acre memorial park, it was easy to assume the battle was only a skirmish. That was not the case. While certainly not on the scale of battles like Antietam (which occurred a few weeks after the battle), it was hardly insignificant. The Confederacy had 516 casualties (83 killed, 418 wounded and 15 missing). The Union fared worse with 679 casualties (138 killed, 472 wounded and 69 missing). History happened practically in my backyard and me as well as most of my neighbors were largely clueless. It didn’t help that the monument site is hard to find, and virtually the whole battlefield has been developed and now consists principally of multi-family dwellings and shopping centers.

The battle finally got the attention it deserved in 2002 with the publication of the obscure book Tempest at Ox Hill by the historian David A. Welker. It drew my attention because it was the first book written about the battle. Welker, a resident of Centreville, was drawn to the battle for the same reason I was: because it happened so close to home. In the preface he expresses the disappointment I shared with this lost battlefield, and notes that the local Toys-R-Us store at Fair Lakes Plaza now stands where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson marshaled troops for the battle. On what was Ox Hill, the high point near the battle, the major attraction is another shopping center with among other things a Safeway.

September 1, 2012 will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. I’m betting no one will bother to mark the occasion, in part because except for the hard to get to memorial park there is no real place to congregate in the area of the battle. Even at the time both the Union and the Confederacy sort of ignored the battle. It occurred a few days after the second Battle of Manassas, which the Union lost again. The head of the Union Army, General John Pope was largely unaware of the battle. He was aware that General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia stared at him from across him from the battlements he was using in nearby Centreville, might be trying to flank him. Badly beaten, he wanted to retire his army into the safety of Washington D.C. but wanted the command to come from Washington so he would not be blamed for the retreat. To solve his problem he began a discreet withdrawal of his army along Little River Turnpike, but ordered units from Brigadier General Isaac Steven’s 1st Division to guard northern side of the road, in case General Stonewall Jackson’s division attempted to attack his flank as he withdrew.

Thanks to Welker’s meticulous research, this obscure battle has been brought to life in the book. There was little documentation of the battle at the time. This was in part because two Union generals, Brigadier Generals Stevens and Kearny both lost their lives in the battle. It was also due to General Stonewall Jackson’s belated and poor reporting of the battle. General Pope had no idea that the battle had happened until later, while General Lee, who ordered Jackson to perform the flanking maneuver, also had no idea what was happening, as his army was back near the Manassas battlefield. That left Welker to research myriad lesser and second hand sources to get a better idea of the battle, including memories of both lesser officers and common soldiers.

The book will more than scratch the itch of those curious about the battle, which should be lots of people who live in and around Fairfax, Chantilly and Centreville in Virginia. Some elements of the battle were well known, including the loss of two Union generals and the long, hellacious thunderstorm that occurred druing the battle. What was missing was the why and how, and here Welker amply fills in the details with a chronology supplemented by the memories of many veterans.

A curious set of circumstances led to a battle that was essentially a stalemate. It can be thought of as a Union victory in the sense that Stonewall Jackson and his army were prevented from succeeding in a flank attack as the Army of Virginia withdrew. Within weeks the defeated army was reconstituted and fought well at Antietam. Welker brings to light some facts that I believe were hitherto not well known. For example, Major General J.E.B. Stuart, in a skirmish close to what is still known as Jermantown Road and Little River Turnpike, unnecessarily informed the Union of the flanking attempt by having his cavalry’s artillery lob shells at Union troops guarding the intersection. It was stupid and spoiled the Confederacy’s element of surprise. The Union was also helped by Jackson’s surprising lethargy. For a man known to move his troops twenty or more miles a day to win many a flank attack, instead he dithered on Little River Turnpike, moving his troops only a few miles down the road. This may have been in part because the supply train for his troops was attached to Confederate General Longstreet many miles down the road. Jackson’s troops had gone without a meal for three days. This likely accounted for their somewhat lackluster performance during the battle.

Fortunately for the Confederacy, a number of factors made the Union’s preparations inadequate. General Pope was largely unconcerned about a sizeable flank attack, as he had little evidence to support it. He also focused on the problem late in the day, making it hard to place troops where they were needed in time. That duty fell to B.G. Stevens, who did his best but quickly discerned that the Union was at a disadvantage, as Confederate soldiers could hide effectively in nearby woods. Also, to attack Union troops had to climb up hill through cornfields, making them very vulnerable. When his orders seemed to continually get ignored, he died trying to reposition his troops. His untimely death resulted in a critical loss of leadership during the battle, which if Jackson had been more agile might well have destroyed much of the retreating Army of Virginia.

Union soldiers that straggled back from the battle kept trying to get help from generals moving their troops down the turnpike toward Washington. They asked for reinforcements but time and again they were spurned until B.G. Philip Kearny finally answered the call. Kearny had a reputation for being a hands-on general, and if that meant charging headfirst into battle to lead or rearrange his troops so be it. Only this time he suffered Isaac’s fate as well when he was shot through the saddle and the bullet lodged in his heart. He likely died instantly.

The violent thunderstorms caused thick muddy fields and fouled rifles, and often made it hard to even find friend or foe. Like many battles of its time, it effectively ended at dark. For the most part, retreating Union troops ignored the fighting to their north. The only real question was whether the fight would resume in the morning. By morning most of Pope’s troops were in the relative safety of Fairfax or closer to Washington, so there wasn’t much left to attack. But also General Lee finally realized that Pope was retreating toward Washington, and since it was heavily reinforced he thought it imprudent to waste time trying to attack the retreating army. Instead, Lee decided to move his armies north into Maryland, winning first a battle at Harpers Ferry and later arguably losing a huge battle at Antietam, the bloodiest one day battle of the Civil War.

It is no wonder then that this battle, wedged between the Second Battle of Manassas and Antietam, got short shrift by historians. Welker’s book though is interesting in part for the lessons in teaches: the subtle ways that battles are lost or won, and how counterproductive it is for generals to put themselves in the line of fire. Both Stevens and Kearny should have stayed well behind lines, despite their concerns. The loss of their leadership was in many ways far more costly than if they had stayed safely behind lines.

For myself, I hope there is a proper anniversary event in September marking this battle and if there is I hope to be there. My thanks to David Welker for satisfying my eight-year itch to really understand what happened during the Battle of Chantilly and Ox Hill.