McDowell’s Plan for the Proposed Movement from Alexandria to Leesburg

24 10 2020



O. R. – Series I – VOLUME 2 [S #2] CHAPTER IX, pp. 718-719

Hdqrs. Department Northeastern Virginia,
Arlington, June 24, 1861.

Lieut. Col. E. D. Townsend,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Headquarters Army:

Colonel: I have the honor to submit the following, in answer to your letter of June 21, in reference to a column to co-operate from this position with a movement to be made with a portion of Major-General Patterson’s command “to sweep the enemy from Leesburg towards Alexandria.” For a better understanding of what follows, I have the honor to transmit a map, which I have had prepared, showing the position of our troops and of that of the enemy in front of it. There is at Manassas Junction and the places in its front or immediate vicinity a force of from 23,000 to 25,000 infantry and about 2,000 cavalry and a supply of well-provided artillery. The advanced position of this force is at Centreville, Germantown, Fairfax Court-House, and Fairfax Station, the numbers and proportion at each varying from time to time. How much of a force is beyond Manassas Gap, in the valley, and could be brought within the operations here contemplated, I have no means of judging. There is nothing to hinder their coming, and unless they are kept engaged by our troops around Harper’s Ferry, re-enforcements, in case of serious operations from that section would have to be guarded against, as would also those from places to the south of Manassas, on the line of the railroad to Richmond or Lynchburg, which would be pressed forward whenever it should become known we were moving upon them or they upon us in any force.

I have not learned that the troops in our front are fully provided with transportation, though I am satisfied they are not so deficient as we have supposed, and not as much so as we are at this time ourselves, for the Quartermaster-General, after supplying yesterday transportation for two regiments to move each about six miles, had but three horses left.

We have in this department, good, bad, and indifferent, twenty regiments of infantry, giving an aggregate of less than 14,000; four companies of cavalry, giving about 250; one battery of regular artillery of six rifled guns; one battery of volunteer artillery, smooth-bores—an excellent company, but not accustomed to their guns, and hardly fit for service in the field. There are three companies of regular artillery, but they are in the earthworks, and not available for field service. The General-in-Chief was pleased to say he wished I would fight this project of a combined movement to sweep away the enemy from Leesburg towards Alexandria with him step by step. I take advantage of this permission, if, indeed, I do not obey a command, to say that it seems to me the distance between General Patterson’s force and this one is so great, and the line of march each has to take is such (a flank exposed), that, in my view, the force to move from each position should be constituted without reference to material support from the other. I am thought by those for whose judgment I have great respect, and who have been on the ground, to hazard something in having my advanced position so near Falls Church, when it is thrown forward from the right of the line, Fort Corcoran, and there are means of re-enforcing it promptly by the Georgetown turnpike and the railroad to Alexandria.

What would be our position if a movement is made to the right, at this the right bank of the Potomac, towards Leesburg? In the first place, as we are for any such purpose without means of wagon transportation, we should be obliged to repair and use the railroad; but whether this was done or not, we should march with the left flank of the column exposed to attack from their advanced positions, and on getting as far to the right as Vienna, have our line exposed to interruption, for Vienna is nearer to the enemy than it is to Falls Church or the camps on the Georgetown road.

To go farther to the right could not safely be done, even by a force superior to that the enemy can bring against us. I think a glance at the map will show this. Any reverse happening to this raw force, pushed farther along, with the enemy on the flank and rear and an impassable river on the right, would be fatal. I do not think, therefore, it safe to risk anything from this position in the direction of Leesburg farther than Vienna, seven miles by the Leesburg turnpike from Falls Church, and even to go there the force should be large. Vienna could be supplied or re-enforced—

1st. By the Leesburg road from Falls Church.
2d. By the railroad from Alexandria.
3d. By the dirt road from Ball’s Cross-Roads.

The first two are liable to interruption unless strongly guarded, and the third is an indifferent road and a long one. The force, then, to go as far as Vienna should be large enough to hold the position for several hours, and should be well supplied with artillery and cavalry and strengthened by such defenses as could be readily thrown up. Vienna being held in force, and offensively, would cover the country from the Difficult Creek well towards Goose Creek from any force of the enemy operating from Manassas Junction or its dependencies, and I have never heard of there being over 500 men, mostly local troops, at Leesburg. As it would be constantly liable to be attacked by all the available force of the enemy and is only a few hours’ march from him, it would be necessary to have strong reserves ready at either Falls Church or the camp of the Ohio brigade.

The force sufficient to hold Vienna cannot well be stated, because of the changes which are taking place in front of us. I do not think it prudent to go there with less than 8,000 infantry, a battery of field regular rifled artillery, with some guns in position, and six companies of cavalry, and the line from Fort Corcoran to General Tyler to be held as strong as at present, and a reserve on that line of 3,000 men; some of the force to be organized into small field brigades, as heretofore proposed, under regular colonels.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Brigadier-General, Commanding.



One response

24 10 2020
Those Plans (Plural) of June “24,” 1861 | Bull Runnings

[…] update to the Correspondence – USA Official page of the Resources section is Irvin McDowell’s June 24th response to Winfield Scott’s June 20th request for a plan for his force to cooperate with that of Maj. […]


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