Leesburg Pike's Historic Role

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Leesburg Pike's Historic Role


Byline: John M. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

One of the oldest thoroughfares in the Washington area is Leesburg Pike, Virginia Route 7, which makes its way from Alexandria to Leesburg. Alas, the auto dealerships and shopping malls that have made the route a bustling highway have all but obliterated its historical associations.

In the first year of the Civil War, however, Leesburg Pike figured prominently in a small but sharply contested clash that has come down to us as the Battle of Dranesville.

The engagement had its origin in a major foraging expedition by the Confederates, prompted by the need to supply their army in Manassas. Word of the foraging south of Leesburg reached Brig. Gen. George McCall, who commanded a division of Pennsylvania Reserves attached to the Army of the Potomac.

Probably after consulting the army commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, McCall ordered Brig. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord to take his brigade up the pike toward Leesburg. McCall's order was explicit:

"The object of this expedition is twofold: in the first place to drive back the [enemy's] pickets which have recently advanced within four or five miles up our lines ... and carried off two good Union men and threatened others; and secondly to procure a supply of forage."

Ord was to leave the Dranesville area before nightfall, "as I do not wish any part of your command to remain out overnight." A cautious order indeed.

Ord began his march on the morning of Dec. 20, 1861. Winter rains had packed down the road and made for good marching. Along the way, the Federals were reinforced by a squadron of cavalry and a battery of Pennsylvania light artillery.

Ord's advance guard entered Dranesville on schedule, shortly before noon, but there were signs of trouble. Word reached the Federal commander that an enemy force was approaching from the south on the Centreville road.

The force in question consisted of some 1,800 Confederates - four infantry regiments, an artillery battery, and two cavalry regiments - all under the command of the dashing Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Its mission was to protect a foraging expedition that involved most of the wagons attached to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army at Manassas. Stuart planned to occupy Dranesville while his foragers gathered grain west of the town.

When Stuart discovered that Dranesville was occupied by the enemy, he ordered the wagons to return to Centreville while he attacked the town. …

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