At the start of the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops met at Dranesville, Va., in a short, bloody battle that left more than 50 dead and 200 wounded. Today, part of the battlefield belongs to Dranesville Church of the Brethren, a pacifist church that has resisted war for more than three centuries. On Dec. 16, at 7 p.m., the congregation will gather to remember the battle and pray for peace.
The Battle of Dranesville started Dec. 20, 1861, as Confederate troops under J.E.B. Stuart started out from their Centerville camp, looking for winter forage for their horses. At the same time, Union troops under E.O.C Ord set out looking for the same thing.
Stuart and Ord selected Dranesville for the same reason. The town, larger then than it is today, was a hotbed of secessionism. Local farmers owned an average five to ten slaves. Nearly all residents voted to secede from the Union. Stuart figured local farmers would give to the Confederate cause. Ord figured the same thing–and aimed to get the forage before the Confederates did.
Shortly after noon, Union troops arrived in Dranesville. Ord set out with 10,000 men, but left 5,000 in reserve at Colvin Mill. Ord took five regiments of infantry, one regiment of cavalry, and a small artillery battery to Dranesville.
Stuart’s troops arrived at about the same time. The flamboyant cavalry leader had about 2,500 men: four regiments of infantry, one of cavalry, and one artillery battery. Stuart also had virtually every haywagon in the Army of Northern Virginia.
The troops started skirmishing outside Dranesville, and soon fell into battle formation across the Leesburg Pike. Most of the action took place between Ord’s artillery position near the present site of the church and down the hill towards the old town of Dranesville–near the present site of the Dranesville Tavern.
A reporter described the three-hour battle as “one incessant firing.” Green Confederate troops fired at each other in the confusion of their first battle. Unusually accurate Union cannon fire blasted Stuart’s artillery, killing six–three by decapitation. Stuart got his haywagons to safety and retreated to Frying Pan meeting house.
Stuart claimed victory, but Confederate forces took the far greater casualties: 43 dead, 150 wounded. Union forces had seven dead, 60 wounded. The North, which had been trounced earlier in the first Battle of Manassas and the disaster at Balls’ Bluff, near Leesburg, hailed the battle as a great Union victory.
Dranesville Church of the Brethren arrived about 50 years later, in 1903. The Brethren, like the Quakers and Mennonites, have a long tradition of pacifism. During the Civil War, the Brethren, then called Dunkers, paid dearly for that belief. The Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day of the war, swirled around a Brethren meeting house. Brethren farmers owned many of the fields around Antietam–and Gettysburg, too.
The Brethren refusal to fight in the Civil War impressed even Stonewall Jackson, the famous Confederate general. He urged Jefferson Davis to grant them conscientious objector status: “There lives a people in the Valley of Virginia,” Jackson wrote, “that are not hard to bring to the army. While there, they are obedient to their officers. Nor is it difficult to have them take aim, but it is impossible to get them to take correct aim. I, therefore, think it is better to leave them at their homes that they may produce supplies for the army.”
Jackson’s enemy, Abraham Lincoln, had similar views on the Brethren: “These people do not believe in war,” Lincoln wrote. “People who do not believe in war do not make good soldiers. Besides, the attitudes of these people has always been against slavery. If all our people had held the same views about slavery as these people hold there would be no war.”
The Brethren congregation in Dranesville began worshiping at the Liberty Meeting House, now Dranesville Methodist Church. In 1912, they built their own meeting house. As it turned out, the donated land was where General Ord had placed his cannons.
Brethren hold an annual peace service at the Dunker church on the Antietam battlefield. Dranesville Church of the Brethren has decided to hold its own peace service on Sunday, Dec.16. Congregation members have discovered the names of about 35 of the 50 men who died at Dranesville that day in 1861. At the service, candles will be lit in their memory–and then extinguished, one by one, to symbolize war’s terrible cost in human suffering.
The service will start at 7 p.m. at the Dranesville chapel. A small exhibit on the battle–including a few artifacts found near the church–will be in the downstairs meeting hall. Information about the Brethren and their stand on peace will be available as well. Contact the church for further information at 703-430-7872.
— This article by John Waggoner is reprinted from the newsletter of Dranesville Church of the Brethren, with permission.