Battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill), 1 September 1862

By Scott Mingus, Sr. 01 Sep 2012 0

 

A Field of Battle

 

(Photo by Scott Mingus)

Nestled in the suburban hustle of the area surrounding the busy Washington Dulles airport stands a small park, easy to miss amid scores of cookie cutter townhouses and shopping centers in Fairfax County, Virginia. A modest wooden sign identifies the spot at 4134 West Ox Road as Ox Hill Battlefield Park, a public area managed by the Fairfax County Park Authority. Two Virginia historical markers, and a trio of informational kiosks, mention the significance of the site as the most notable battle fought in Fairfax County during the American Civil War. More sobering, perhaps, are two stone memorials to Union generals Philip Kearny and Isaac I. Stevens; two well respected officers whose lives ended in the swirling, rain-soaked fighting of 1 September 1862.

 

(Photograph taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution - GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. Taken October 2006 by Clindberg.)

In the 1960s, a historian pronounced Chantilly (known as Ox Hill to the Southerners) as the most pristine battlefield in the country, the rural setting largely untouched since T. J. ?Stonewall? Jackson?s forces defended the countryside against elements of the retreating Union army following the Second Battle of Manassas. Now, all but the parkland (4.8 acres of an estimated 500-acre battlefield) has been developed, and is lost.

 

Unfortunate Events

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee since earlier that summer, had emerged victorious in the Peninsula Campaign and at Second Manassas on 30 August. Union commander Maj. Gen. John Pope retreated with his Army of Virginia toward the fortifications surrounding Centreville, where troops from the Army of the Potomac, fresh from the Peninsula, would be placed under his command. The following day, despite orders from the War Department to attack Lee, Pope retreated toward Washington, D.C. Lee, however, had already put in motion his own plan to engage the Yankees. He sent J.E.B. Stuart?s cavalry and Jackson?s infantry and artillery to flank the Centreville position and block the two main roads leading to Washington, the Warrenton Pike and the Little River Turnpike; which converged at Germantown.

Shortly after dawn on 1 September, Pope continued his slow retrograde. He ordered various forces to scout the enemy movements and dispatched Brig. Gen. Isaac Stevens (with two brigades of Jesse Reno?s IX Corps) to intercept Jackson, who had, unknown to the Federals, paused for the morning on Ox Hill: a broad rise on the Little River Turnpike southeast of the Chantilly plantation. Stevens arrived at about 1500 in a steady drizzle and deployed into attack formation. Reno, arriving with additional troops, was too ill to take personal command of the assault; so he deferred to Stevens. As thunder and lightning heralded the arrival of a severe rainstorm, Stevens? division crossed a large grassy field and slammed into Jackson?s hastily assembled defensive line, striking the division of Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton. Only a hard-hitting counterattack by Confederates under Jubal Early saved the position.

 

Isaac I. Stevens, 1862. (Library of Congress)

Some two hours after launching his offensive, Stevens, seeking to renew the momentum, seized the flag of the 79th New York and shouted above the din of battle, ?Highlanders, my Highlanders! Follow your general!? As he stepped across a fallen snake rail fence, General Stevens? life ended from a gunshot to his temple. His men still surged forward and briefly drove a Louisiana brigade back into the woods. Command fell to Col. Benjamin Christ, but ammunition was running short and the Confederates soon plugged the gaps in their lines. Christ, his momentum stalled again, ordered a withdrawal.

 

?Fighting Phil? Kearny. (LoC)

By then, Union Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny had arrived and deployed on Stevens? left. Kearny, who lost an arm in the Mexican War and was known to ride into battle with his horse?s reins firmly in his teeth, enjoyed a reputation as one of the army?s most aggressive fighters. This was to be his final battle. He ordered forward Brig. Gen. David Birney?s brigade and went seeking support from Stevens. Birney, on reaching the field, found Stevens? shattered regiments ?retiring in some disorder before the enemy.? He advanced the 4th Maine, followed successively by the 101st New York, 3rd Maine, and 40th and 1st New York, under what he deemed ?the most murderous fire from a superior force? beyond a large cornfield.

By now the intense downpour had soaked ammunition, rendered musketry ineffective and severely impaired visibility. When Birney?s attack stalled, General Kearny rode to the front to examine the ground personally to deploy additional troops. In the darkness and confusion, he inadvertently rode into the Rebel lines and was shot from his saddle.

 

At about 5:30pm, Birney, with fresh reinforcements arriving, withdrew and formed a defensive line in case of a Rebel counterattack. However, Jackson, his men exhausted and with useless powder, held his ground until 11:00pm, when he began withdrawing.

 

Closing a Campaign While Beginning Another

Chantilly, though tactically inconclusive, cost Pope 1300 men and two generals whose careers were on the rise. One of Pope?s soldiers, John C. Ropes, later wrote, ?These severe losses and the indecisive character of the engagement, which after all was only a repulse of the enemy, could not restore the morale of the army.? The retreat continued, and Pope?s reign as Union commander proved short-lived. Maj. Gen. George McClellan soon would be given overall command of both his and Pope?s forces.

 

Detail from an old watercolor of the Battle of Chantilly. [Robert Knox Sneden Scrapbook Mss5:7 Sn237:1) p. 205, LoC.]

Stonewall Jackson lost about 800 men defending the fields near Ox Hill, but was unable to block the Union path of retreat through Germantown to Washington. However, the relatively small, but savage, battle gave Robert E. Lee the momentum to launch his Maryland Campaign. This campaign would culminate 16 days later near Sharpsburg, Maryland, in the Battle of Antietam.

 

Suggested readings:

Taylor, Paul, He Hath Loosed the Fateful Lightning: The Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly), September 1, 1862 (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishers, 2003).

Welker, David, Tempest at Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002).

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 volumes in 4 series (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), Series 1, Volume 12, Part 2.

 

Article written by: Scott Mingus, Sr.

 

 

About Scott Mingus, Sr.

Scott L. Mingus, Sr. is an executive in the paper industry, and holds patents in self-adhesive postage stamps and bar code labels. He was part of the research team that developed the first commercially successful self-adhesive U.S. postage stamps. The York, Pa., resident has seven Civil War books listed on amazon.com. Mingus also has written several articles for The Gettysburg Magazine. He maintains a blog on the Civil War history of York County, Pa. called Cannonba!!and is a tour guide for the York County Heritage Trust. He also has written six scenario books on miniature wargaming.

Forum username: Scott Mingus

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