Letter from George W. Merrick, December 24, 1861, in relation to Dranesville.

Dec. 24, 18611

Editor Agitator:

Having seen nothing in the papers but misstatements in relation to our recent engagement at Drainsville, and knowing the probable anxiety that some of your readers must feel to know the truth of the matter, I am induced to send you an account, which from personal observation I know to be the truth.

No statement yet published has credited the 6th Regiment of the Reserve Corps with the firing of a single gun, and yet their list of killed and wounded numbers as many as either of the other two Regiments engaged. Simple justice demands praise to whom praise is due.

Friday morning at 3 o’clock, we received orders to provide ourselves with one day’s rations, and be ready to march at 6 o’clock in the morning. We were ready at the appointed time, and together with the other Regiments composing the third Brigade –the 9th, 10th, [12th] and 1[3]th – commanded by Brigadier General Ord, we were marched out on the turnpike leading from the Chain Bridge to Leesburg. We were preceded by the First Rifle Regiment, and 4 guns of Capt. Easton’s battery – 2 12 pounders, throwing ball, and 2 24 pound howitzers, throwing conical shell. There was also a detachment of the First Pa. Cavalry accompanying the expedition. The object of the advance was to collect forage and make a reconnaissance in the direction of Drainsville, situate about midway between Langley and Leesburg. The turnpike runs at a distance of several miles from, and nearly parallel with the Potomac.

After passing our line of pickets, flankers were thrown out on the right and left, by the several regiments, to scout the woods and guard against surprise.

After crossing Difficult Creek, distant six miles from camp, the foraging wagons with Easton’s 2 12 pound guns, and about half of the 12th Regiment passed off to the right, in the country lying between the road and the river, for the purpose of collecting the forage. The remainder continued forward toward Drainsville, distant twelve miles from Langley.

We passed down a slight declivity of ground into the village of Drainsville about 1 o’clock p.m. Here the column halted, and were observing the movements of a number of rebels, could be seen in squads nearly a mile beyond the village, evidently thrown out as a bait to lure us on.

A few minutes previous to this however, before we had halted, a few rifle shots were heard on our left, which were supposed to be nothing more than the fire of the rebel pickets being driven in by our scouts. But the firing grew heavier, and our flanking companies, coming in, reported a large force of infantry to the left, and a party to our rear, concealed in a thick wood fifty or sixty rods from the road.

Now came the booming of cannon, added to the sharp fire of musketry, and the shells completely swept the road on the eminence to our rear, bursting mostly in the field to our right. Our two guns were at the head of the column, when the enemy opened fire upon us, but they were brought back as speedily as six stalwart horses to a piece could bring them, and we followed after at a double quick to their support.

One of the 24-pounders upset, horses, carriage and all turning over under full speed, lashing their horses into a keen run. But no injury was done, and in a moment more the accident was remedied and [the] gun was run up the hill and was soon in position unlimbered, and the horses moved to the rear of a little knoll to protect them from the flying shell. Gen. Ord superintended the planting of our battery in person – he is an experienced artillerist – unlimbering the guns directly in the range of the rebel battery, only 60 rods away, why the shells were whistling and bursting around him on every side.

While Ord was scanning through his glass, the enemy’s battery in the wood, and directing the range of our howitzers, a shell burst a little distance in front, sending its whizzing fragments in all directions. The General coolly turned to Easton and remarked: “Captain, that was a good shot. We must return the compliment. Range low! range low.” And they did range low with a vengeance. Presently “the pets” as Col. Campbell calls them, began to vomit forth their iron hail, and the very ground trembled with the concussion. This trembling must have been contagious, for it soon infected the “chivalry.”

When our guns began to talk the troops sent up cheer after cheer, that did not give aid and comfort to, or solace the ambushed foe considerably. The gunners served their pieces with the coolness and precision of their every day drill, not one of them were injured. During the planting and first round or two of the battery, the Buck-tails were becoming engaged to the left, and partly under the battery around a small frame building which, with short pines and a rail fence, made a cover for the South Carolinians who opened the battle. But a round of grape rapidly dislodged them, and demolished somewhat the hard biscuit on hand for the rebels, thousands of which we saw scattered through the woods. The 6th lay to the right of the battery in front, and the 12th and 10th to our rear, partly sheltered by the banks of the road from the hissing shells, while the 9th was yet farther to the right.

The General, after stationing the battery, rode down to the right in front of our line, and said: “Boys, I want you to occupy that wood to the right of the brick house.” The 6th with a shout advanced to the wood, scrambling over fences and forming quickly in line, penetrated to the farther edge of the wood, separated from the one from which the Confederates were pouring their fire by a strip of field, 16 or 20 rods in width.

Now it was that our Minnie’s poured forth a fire that, borne off by the breeze, was plainly herad by our pickets ten miles away. The fire of musketry was deafening and incessant. Crack, crack, crack, went the reports of our rifled muskets, with occasionally the clanging of several hundred going off simultaneously, and the loud roar of the heavy guns literally shook the ground, and were plainly heard at Washington twenty miles away. The attacking force lay hidden in a dense wood extending into the hollow of a semi-circle, formed by the Buck-tails on the left, the 6th Pa. Reserve in the center, and the 9th Pa. Reserve on the right, presenting an unbroken line of living fire.

Here is where our wounded fell and were carried to the rear, where several surgeons were in attendance. The rebels were concealed almost totally in a heavy wood, while our forces were mostly in an open field, and at the best only partially covered by a thin wood, through which the secession bullets whistled, splitting the trees and cutting down the twigs like snow flakes. The rebel fire was not nearly so accurate as ours, though we were exposed, and they giving us nothing more certain to aim at than the flash of their rifles and the smoke of their battery.

As their fire slackened and became desultory, Gen. Ord passed along our lines and told us he wanted the battery taken. On went the bayonets like the flash of a sun-beam, and clanked down the hill as the pieces were brought to a charge – a deadly prelude to what the rebels might expect if they stood their ground. “Don’t fire your guns, boys,” cries the General, “Don’t fire a gun; use the bayonet to the work; give them the cold steel.”

“Remember Bull Run, boys,” shouts one of our men, “put the run on the other side, this time.” We were quickly formed in line of battle in the edge of an open field, and side by side with the Buck-tails, we charged into the woods. Whiz, whiz, whiz, went the bullets from a volley of musketry as we penetrated the thicket. But their aim was wild. We did not return the fire, but pressed on at a charge over the stiffening and mangled bodies of men, recreant to their duty and best interest.

Soon we reached the location of the battery, situated about 30 rods from the edge of the wood on a road forming a right angle with the one on which our battery was placed. Here the ground was strewn with headless bodies, some nearly blown in fragments by our shells. They presented a sickening sight, so horribly mutilated. Dead horses, terribly lacerated, lay promiscuously mingled with the human bodies, broken caissons, gun carriages, small arms, ammunition, clothing, food and equipments. Our battery now came up – Gen. McCall also arrived about this time – and the battery unlimbering, advanced along the road, accompanied by Gen. Ord, Gen. McCall, his staff and body guard.

The 6th advanced on the right of the wood toward Drainsville, and the Rifle Regiment on the left. We advanced thus through brambles and scrub pines, cautiously guarding against being led into an ambush. We proceeded in this manner nearly a mile when, discovering no signs of the presence of an enemy, we returned by way of the road. The road in the wood occupied by the rebel force, led off in a south easterly direction from Drainsville toward Centreville, and was nearly straight, to the rear of their battery for three-fourths of a mile. It seems by the evidence of the firing, that our howitzers were placed so as to completely enfilade this road as far as it continued straight.

The firing of Capt. Easton’s guns were destructively accurate. I saw not a tree which showed that their range had exceeded the width of the road, farther than several feet on a side. One large oak was pierced and shattered by three different shells, and horses, overtaken in their flight by the death dealing missiles, lay in an near the road, the distance of half a mile. I counted 15 horses crippled and mangled, and several were taken uninjured. Near the battery our shells had blown up a caisson containing ammunition, particles were yet smoking. Under the ruined caisson was scattered 25 or 30 shells, which failed to ignite when the magazine exploded.

We gave these a wide berth, as they were blackened with powder, and yet smoking, subject to burst at any moment. Our musicians, with many others, were busy removing our own and the enemies’ wounded. An Alabamian, wounded badly in the leg, called to our fellows to carry him in; and when asked where his fellows were, replied: “They have fled; they tried to take me along but could not. We expected to whip you, but you shoot too sharp for us. We could not take any position to get out of the way of your bullets.”

He identified several of the bodies near him, and papers about them, corroborated his statements.

Passing near a body, with pants indicating an officer – the coat had been removed – he said, “that is our Lieutenant Colonel.” He showed a good deal of gratitude at the kind treatment he received; said he did not expect for it, for it was very different from the manner in which they treated our prisoners at Bull Run. Others were defiant. One, while his leg was being bandaged, said to the doctor, “never mind; I took this coat at Bull Run. The leg is not so very bad, and when I am exchanged, I will give you a chance at the other.” Several were very sullen and dogged, refusing to give any account of themselves, and answering no questions whatever. Others were more communicative, and stated they belonged to regiments selected especially for their bravery at Bull Run. They were from Centreville, and had traveled nearly all the night previous to get ready for us. They had their ambush fully arranged; selected their own ground, and disposed their forces to the best advantage. No doubt they were signaled by lurking spies and distant parties, as to our precise position and numbers, and flattered themselves with the sweet idea they could bag us at their pleasure. One of the prisoners said they thought two of their regiments could whip the whole Reserve Corps, but they looked for no such fire as they received, and when the order to charge was given, they broke and fled. They were then ordered to rally on the railroad and make a permanent stand. This was probably the railroad connecting Alexandria with Vienna, and Leesburg.

Their force, as stated by their wounded, consisted of five regiments of infantry from North and South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia; one regiment of cavalry, and a battery of six rifled guns. It seems almost providential that our loss was so small. Had it not been for the timely discovery by our scouts, we doubtless would have suffered a far greater loss. It appears to have been their design to gain our rear. They endeavored to conceal themselves from our flanking parties, and allowed all our force to file by them within full range of their battery, and within long rifle range of their entire force before they opened fire; which probably they would not have done, had not the skirmishers drawn them out. The first intimation, save the faint report of distant rifles, that Gen. Ord had of the presence of an enemy, was the fire of their battery, and the bursting of their shells above and beyond us. Their ambush was skillfully laid – they took us unexpected and unprepared. But after our fire opened, in one hour they were in full flight, as fast as the ability of their legs would permit. This was evidenced by the wounded, arms and equipments left on the field.

At four o’clock re-inforcements arrived, lining the road nearly a mile, having double-quicked it from Difficult Creek, nearly six miles. We started on our return at dusk, firing the load from one of the howitzers with our compliments as a farewell shot – arrived in camp at 10 o’clock at night. As the noise of the battle was heard at camp, every man that could carry a musket, seized one and started on a run up the turnpike; but they were mostly on the “sick list,” and did not get farther than a mile or two from our line of pickets. Gen. Smith’s division was drawn up in line of battle, and one brigade went out as far as an eminence overlooking Vienna.

We slept soundly that night, on our rail-bottomed beds, after traveling the matter of thirty miles, including such a threshing to the sneaking chivalry, as will probably teach them to bring five to one when they wish to defeat men fighting for the preservation of a government that they know to be just, and a principle they cherish above their lives.

Our forces fought with the most intrepid courage. Our company (“H”, 6th Regiment) behaved in a manner that reflects the highest credit upon them, and they well earned the title of “Invincibles.” We have company officers that can be relied upon any where. They do not command “Go!” but say “Come on!” and where such men command, the company will follow to any fate.

The enemy’s loss is not precisely known, but our First Lieutenant, John W. Rose, was one of the officers detailed to bring in the wounded and count the dead. He certifies to having counted over one hundred bodies, besides the wounded, and others testify similarly. This being the case, they must have carried off several hundred wounded, judging from our own proportion of wounded compared with the killed.

Our entire loss, of all forces engaged, which did not exceed 2,500 men, was seven killed, and between fifty and sixty wounded –some seriously, very few fatally, and the majority only slightly. The loss in the Sixth Regiment was three killed, and fifteen wounded. The wounded in Co. “H” was as follows: Benjamin Seeley, severely in the cheek – the ball falling in the mouth, rapidly improving; Charles Yahn, wounded severely in the face, fracturing the jaw, recovering fast; Thomas Conway, wounded slightly by a spent ball in the forehead; Corporal A.S. Husselton, slight contusion on the shoulder, stiffening the arm for a short time. Seeley was stunned at first by his wound, and bleeding profusely, led us to believe it was more serious than it proved to be. A braver boy than Yahn does not exist in the whole army. When he was wounded the ball entered the side of his face and came out at the upper lip, bearing away several teeth. He could not now open his cartridge, but he reached it out to one of his comrades to tear, and kept on loading his piece until he was taken to the rear.

Conway picked up the ball that wounded him and exclaimed: “There is the secession lead that struck me.”

I neglected to say before, that a regiment of Kentuckians, coming down on the 9th Pa. Reserve, cried out: “Don’t fire; we are good Union men,” and then delivered their fire. This broke the 9th some, but they rallied to the work and the rebels fled. We have met the enemy. They could not stand the pressure. Our company went on picket the next morning after the battle. Rather tough.

G. W. M.2

  1. Wellsboro Agitator: January 8, 1861
  2. Sgt. George W. Merrick, Tioga Invincibles, Company H, 6th PA Reserves