Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Civil War: 150 years Ago Today a Skirmish at Fairfax Courthouse

The Marr Monument, erected in 1904

On April 15, 1861, the day after the U.S. Army surrendered Fort Sumter in the harbor Charleston, South Carolina to Confederate forces, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers “to reclaim federal property and to suppress the rebellion begun by the seven Deep South states which had formed the Confederate States of America (Confederacy)”. It should be noted that his initial reason for calling up 75,000 volunteers did not include a word about ending slavery. It was this act was seen by many in the South as not only an intrusion, but actually as an invasion into their sovereign territory. Four Upper South States, including Virginia, refused to furnish troops for this purpose and began the process of secession from the Union with the intent of joining the Confederacy. On April 17, 1861, Virginia passed an ordinance of secession and authorized the governor to call for volunteers to join the military forces of Virginia to defend the state against Federal military action. Virginia Governor John Letcher appointed Robert E. Lee as commander in chief of Virginia’s army and navy forces on April 22, 1861 at the grade of major general. On April 24, Virginia and the Confederate States agreed that the Virginia forces would be under the overall direction of the Confederate President pending completion of the process of Virginia joining the Confederate States.

On June 1st, 1861 a small Union detachment of cavalry was sent to a small village in Virginia (present day West Virginia) to scout the Confederate forces in that area. The result was a skirmish between unprepared forces called “The Battle of Fairfax Court House” and was the first land battle of the Civil War between Union and Confederate land forces after the surrender of Fort Sumter. The battle was precipitated when the small Union cavalry force on a mission to gather information about the strength and disposition of Confederate forces in Fairfax County loudly road into the village of Fairfax Court House, taking a few prisoners and firing at random. It was early on the morning of June 1, 1861. Part of a Virginia (Confederate) infantry company resisted the incursion and forced the Union force to retreat with a few casualties.

The Union force took five prisoners, killed Captain Marr (the first Confederate soldier to die in the Civil War) and wounded at least two others, including Lt. Col. Ewell the Confederate Commander. Lt. Col. Richard Ewell would later serve as a Lieutenant General in the Confederate Army. The intelligence gained was not helpful as the Union commander's estimate of the number of Confederates at Fairfax Court House was wildly inflated "to upwards of 1,000 men," rather than the approximately 210, plus a few civilians, who were actually there. This gave Union generals reason to pause efforts to scout in or occupy additional areas of northern Virginia until over two weeks later and may have delayed the Manassas campaign, ultimately giving the Confederates more time to organize and concentrate their forces for the Battle of First Bull Run (Battle of First Manassas). The Union generals did not learn the number and disposition of Confederate forces beyond Fairfax Court House, most importantly those gathering at Manassas Junction, Virginia, from this operation. After their initial surprise, the Confederate infantry held a position in the middle of town, inflicted one killed and four wounded on the Union riders and took three prisoners. Their stand forced the Union cavalrymen to retreat from the town to their base near Falls Church, Virginia by a longer route. The engagement has been characterized as inconclusive or indecisive but was seen at the time as a small victory or the still organizing Confederate Army.

Live Long and Prosper....

No comments: