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Falling Into the History of Autumn 1861

Autumn: 1861


In Autumn 1861, the Army of the Potomac began to form and train under the leadership of General George B. McClellan. Meanwhile, the Confederates picketed rivers and camped in the northern part of Virginia. Aside from rumors, a few skirmishes, and their family members in uniform, the war experience still had not come directly to the citizens of the Central Virginia area.

However, we've found a few accounts that tie into later Central Virginia war history...with an autumn angle.


17th Mississippi Infantry

The Battle of Ball's Bluff erupted on October 21, 1861, along the Potomac River approximately 40 miles northwest of Washington D.C. A minor Union reconnaissance turned into a fight that ended with a Union defeat and over 1,100 casualties (total of both sides). One of the Confederate regiments that fought back against the Union movement was the 17th Mississippi Infantry. Organized earlier in 1861 in Corinth, Mississippi, the regiment had been present at the First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run and then posted along the Potomac River in August. During the Battle of Ball's Bluff, the 17th fought in line with the 18th Mississippi and 8th Virginia. They charged forward with the 18th, and the two Mississippi Regiments captured two Union artillery pieces and about 300 men. Fourteen months later—in December 1862—the 17th Mississippi fought along the Rappahannock River for 12 hours, opposing the pontoon bridge crossing at Fredericksburg.

Map of the Battle of Ball's Bluff. The 17th Mississippi is located at the bottom left of the map. (Public Domain)


A New Brigadier General

Winfield Scott Hancock, Civil War era photograph (Public Domain)

On September 23, 1861, Winfield Scott Hancock—a captain in the Federal Army—promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers. He had missed the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 while traveling from his post in California. However, an early autumn interview with General George B. McClellan led to the new promotion. Hancock took command of a brigade in General William F. Smith's division and escaped his fear that he would spend the war as a quartermaster.

Mrs. Hancock was quite delighted with her husband's promotion and made a comment about it to another military friend. The friend, who had also been recently promoted, responded, "That's all right, but if a cannon should be fired down Pennsylvania Avenue it would hit a hundred or more newly created brigadiers." She was not impressed or comforted by the analogy, but it had some truth in 1861. As McClellan built the Army of the Potomac, dozens of men became generals and it would take the coming years of conflict for the more competent to emerge and rise to notice.

Although he could not have known it in September 1861, Hancock was destined to be one of the rising commanders when the Army of the Potomac entered combat. He would fight in the majority of battles from 1862 through the autumn of 1864, including the four battles in Central Virginia: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.


Fredericksburg Civilians

On October 18, 1861, Virginia Ann Soutter Knox wrote to her son Robert Taylor Knox who had enlisted in the 30th Virginia Regiment, a unit recruited locally from the Fredericksburg area. With colder autumn weather and winter coming, this mother spent much of her time sewing for her soldier sons. Here are a few excerpts from the letter which is in the published collection The Circle Unbroken, published by the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation:

"In the first place I will note about your shirts & collars, they were sent home 10 shirts & 10 collars & I will mark them for you with pleasure, your Rifle & box is also at home safely, and the biscuit you sent made us all feel very sorry for all our brave Southern soldiers to have to eat such unwholesome bread, but never mind my dear boys, brighter days are in store for our beloved Southern Confederacy...

We do not know any news about the different skirmishes either at Aquia, Evansport or any where....

I am quilting some blankets and a comfort for James to cover up with, and will also quilt some blankets for you.... I would not like you to lose them, as they are valuable from their scarcity, and they will keep you so very warm & after they are quilted they will be still warmer. I think I shall send over your flannel shirt in the morning & a pair of red flannel drawers too & perhaps some other things, but do not know what will be washed....

How I wish I could just get over & fix your beds & to make you comfortable[.] Ask Col Cary & Lt. Col Harrison if there is any thing I can do for their comfort? I would give me pleasure to do any thing I could for them...."


Parting Shot

Photo by Sarah Kay Bierle, 2021.


Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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