Tempest at Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly, Part 6

by Brett Schulte on November 2, 2005 · 0 comments

Tempest at Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly
by David A. Welker

After a bit of a delay, I’m back to posting about David Welker’s book on Ox Hill. I’ve finished reading the book and taking notes. Now it’s just a matter of posting the results in a readable format over the next few days. The chapters I’m about to review cover the actual Battle of Chantilly itself. The first chapter deals with the initial assault by Isaac Stevens’s IX Corps Division, and the next chapter describes Phil Kearny’s attempts to make the most of a dicey situation as he keeps Jackson occupied with Birney’s III Corps (AotP) Brigade and attempts to rally the remnants of Stevens’s Division.

NOTE: I would recommend going to Mario Espinola’s excellent Chantilly web site while reading this entry. If you check out the maps at that site you’ll have a much better idea of what I’m about to describe.

Chapter 7 – Stevens’s Battle – Monday, September 1, 1862; 3:00 To 5:00 P.M.
1. Stevens moved east from Centreville around 3 P.M. with the IX Corps. Jesse Reno was sick, leaving Stevens in charge. He soon was led north on a country road by two Cavalrymen who had earlier seen Confederates in the vicinity of Chantilly. Leaving Ferrero’s Brigade to guard the Warrenton Turnpike, Stevens moved north. Kearny’s and Hooker’s III Corps divisions left Centreville about an hour later, also traveling down Warrenton Turnpike in an easterly direction. Soon enough, Stevens came to the Unfinished Railroad (the same one which had figured so prominently in the Second Manassas fighting) and saw Confederate skirmishers to the north on Ox Hill. Stevens immediately ordered skirmishers to advance, and then formed his three-brigade Division into a column of Brigades. In other words, each brigade was in line, with succeeding brigades directly behind the first. Stevens launched his attack in an effort to prevent whatever offensive designs the Confederates had in mind, whether they be to the east and Jermantown, or to the south and Warrenton Turnpike. At this point Jesse Reno arrived. Though he didn’t necessarily have much hope for the success of Stevens’s plan, he allowed it to proceed. As Stevens’s Division moved forward around 4:30 P.M., Reno sent Ferrero’s Brigade into some woods to the east of Ox Road to provide them with some support. Stevens’s men, caught out in the open, suffered heavy casualties and started to waver. At this point, Stevens headed for the front. Ferrero’s supporting brigade also ran into the Confederates. The 21st Massachusetts stumbled into an ambush and lost nearly 100 men from only one volley. This event would have dire consequences later in the day. After some widening of his front, he personally led a charge around 5 P.M. that broke Hays’ Louisiana Brigade (led by Col. Henry Forno). At this point, Stevens was shot in the temple and killed instantly, wrapped in the flag of his 79th New York Highlanders. However, three regiments of Jubal Early’s Brigade stopped the breakthrough and sent Stevens’ now-leaderless division streaming for the rear. Throughout the fight it had been raining heavily. By this time it was approximately 5:30 P.M.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

2. At this point I’d like to describe the battlefield for those of you unfamiliar with this particular engagement. Stevens attacked Ox Hill from the southwest in a generally northeasterly direction. Jackson had his entire Corps waiting along the slope of the hill, with most of his line sheltered in either woods or a cornfield. The land between the Unfinished Railroad and Ox Hill was divided into two fields, a corn field and an open pasture. Stevens attacked through the pasture, which lay more to the east. Later, Kearny would attack through the cornfield, farther west. Both fields were bordered to the north by woods, and that is where Jackson had his troops. The cornfield extended a little more to the north than the open field, and this caused an angle in Jackson’s line. He struggled throughout the early stages of the battle to eliminate this angle, because Stevens’s attack caught him partially by surprise due to the quickness with which it was launched.

3. Welker brings up a good question in this chapter. He wonders why exactly Stevens chose to attack knowing he was probably outnumbered. Welker says that Stevens decided to attack because he was worried that Jackson was looking to move either east or south to try to cut off a portion of the Union Army, still trying to retreat from Centreville. Stevens’s actions suggest that he believed the potential risks (destruction of his Division) far outweighed the potential rewards (preventing Jackson from trapping a large part of Pope’s retreating Army). Stevens attacked without even knowing whether or not he would receive any reinforcements. He sent a staff officer galloping madly south to try to find some support. In the end, only Kearny’s Division came to his aid.

4. When Jackson first noticed Union troops to his south, he put into motion the plan he had conceived by having his men march on both sides of the road. He rapidly shifted his focus from the east (towards Jermantown) to the south (towards the Warrenton Turnpike and Stevens). Starke’s Division formed the left of the line, and it ran from the Little River Turnpike in a semicircle to the west almost to Ox Road. The Stonewall Brigade held the left flank, followed by the brigades of Taliaferro, and Stafford to the right. Starke’s entire line was covered by woods. Ewell’s Division held the center, from just east of Ox Road west to the cornfield. Trimble’s Brigade was in the woods just east of Ox Road, and Hays’ Brigade extended the line farther west, fronting the open field through which Stevens would soon attack. Early was behind Hays, and Lawton was behind Early. A.P. Hill’s Division extended Jackson’s line west and covered the cornfield. Gregg, Field, and Branch were in the front line, Thomas and Pender were behind them, and Archer constituted a reserve for the entire Corps. Hill’s line was pretty thin, so Jackson tried to move Thomas and Pender into gaps in the front line. Stevens attacked while this was occurring.

5. Stevens died leading a charge, a position he felt very comfortable in. He had seen his Division faltering and so he decided that the only way they would finish the attack is if he led them himself. He took the colors of the 79th New York Highlanders, a regiment he had been the Colonel of at an earlier time. He loved the men and they reciprocated that love. They followed Stevens forward and broke the Louisiana Brigade in their front. Just as the attack hit home, Stevens fell with a bullet in his temple, and crumpled to the ground wrapped in the Highlanders’ flag some time near 5 P.M. In September 1864, over two years later and not long after they had mustered out, the Highlanders presented the flag Stevens had carried when he fell to Stevens’s widow as a token of their continuing affection to their fallen leader.

Chapter 8 – Kearny Takes Command – Monday, September 1, 1862; Late Afternoon to Early Evening
1. Phil Kearny was the only man to come to Isaac Stevens’ rescue that day. When Stevens’ aide Lt. Belcher finally rode up to Kearny after several rejections, Kearny enthusiastically replied, “By God, I will support Stevens anywhere!” Birney’s large Brigade was in the lead, and Kearny led these men and a battery of artillery north to the sound of the guns. Jackson took the time during this lull in the fighting to rearrange A.P. Hill’s lines and erase the angle from his line. Birney advanced north en echelon into the cornfield from left to right. About a third of the way through, Birney’s men stopped and engaged in a firefight with several of Hill’s brigades, but the thunderstorm caused quite a few guns to misfire. Chantilly is known for the large number of hand-to-hand fights that occurred. A.P. Hill asked Jackson if his command could be relieved due to wet ammo. Jackson’s reply? The Yankees have wet ammo too! Hold the line. It was also growing dark and visibility grew very poor. About this time, Birney noticed his right flank was in the air. Kearny told Birney to hold his line and that he would take care of it. Kearny ended up wandering into the front of Thomas’ Confederate Brigade, and their volley killed him as he tried to escape. Thomas then launched a preemptive attack on the 21st Massachusetts. After some hand to hand fighting, both sides withdrew. Around 6:15, the brigades of Poe and Robinson (Kearny’s two other brigades) arrived on the field. Kearny had still not returned, and Birney must have known something was wrong. He ordered these two fresh brigades into the cornfield to relieve his own men. The fighting died out around 7 P.M. according to Welker.

2. Kearny’s death was caused by his fearlessness, and due to his confusion on that dark and stormy night. Birney had asked him to find support for his right flank, and Kearny had first looked to the rear to see if his other two brigades were on the field. They were not, so Kearny rode over to the recovering IX Corps units in the rain and darkness. Kearny first came to the 79th New York, but they were out of ammunition. He then came to the 21st Massachusetts, who had earlier stumbled into an ambush. He sent this regiment north to cover Birney’s flank, but the 21st could not see exactly where to go in the growing darkness. After several orders seemed to be obeyed only reluctantly, Kearny angrily rode up to them and personally moved them forward himself. When they still hesitated, he cursed them and rode out ahead…right into the front of Thomas’ Brigade of A.P. Hill’s Division. Kearny tried to escape, but a volley ended up killing him.

3. After the battle that night, Longstreet’s Corps approached and camped to the right of Jackson along the Little River Turnpike. As the two Confederate commanders talked, Longstreet commented, “General, your men don’t appear to work well today.” Jackson, who Welker says had little choice but to agree, responded, “No, but I hope it will prove a victory in the morning.” Two of the North’s best commanders in the East had lost their lives trying to prevent Jackson from trapping a portion of their Army. They had sacrificed themselves for the greater good of the Union cause.

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