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Skirmish at Fairfax Court House

Skirmish at Fairfax Court House

June 1, 1861, 3:00 a.m.: On a pitch black night, Lt. Charles Tompkins and 75-85 troopers of Co. B, 2nd U. S. Cavalry approach Fairfax on the Falls Church Road (Old Lee Highway). The Federals surprise two pickets about a mile from the courthouse, but the exchange of gunfire gives the alarm and stirs the village. Tompkins' company then gallops into Fairfax and charges up the Little River Turnpike (Rt. 236) past the courthouse, his men firing in all directions at windows and doors.

In the darkness, Lt. Col. Richard Ewell, commanding the Confederate troops here, runs out of the Wilcoxen hotel (across from the courthouse) just as the Federals gallop past in the direction of Jermantown. Caught up in the rush are a few of the Prince William Cavalry whose horses were in the hotel stable. As they mount up and enter the turnpike, Tompkin's cavalry overruns them, capturing four and the rest fleeing.

A few minutes later, former Virginia governor William "Extra Billy" Smith, carrying a Maynard rifle, emerges from the Joshua Gunnell house (now a B & B, corner of Sager Ave. and Rt. 123), crosses the road and finds about 40-45 of the Warrenton Rifles gathered in a clover field behind the courthouse. At the first sound of gunfire, the whole company (about 90 men) had been rousted from their quarters in the Methodist Church by their Captain, John Quincy Marr, but he is now missing.

In the initial confusion, 60 of the Rappahannock Cavalry who were quartered in the courthouse, mounted their horses and bolted from the courthouse lot in the direction of Marr's men who mistook them for the enemy and fired. This caused the cavalry and half of the Rifles, undisciplined all, to disperse and flee in the darkness. Finding the remainder of Marr's company without an officer, Smith assumes command, forms the Rifles in the road, and marches them toward the turnpike and the hotel. Along the way they are joined by Ewell.

Certain that the Federals will return, Smith and Ewell quickly position the Rifles in the turnpike between the courthouse and the hotel facing west. Ewell then dispatches a courier to Fairfax Station for reinforcements. As expected, the Union cavalry reappears, and as they near the courthouse, the Rifles fire a volley and the Federals retreat back to Accotink Creek just west of the village (at today's Fairfax Cemetery). Smith and Ewell now move the Rifles forward about 200 yards to a point opposite Cooper's wagon shop and position the men behind fences on either side of the turnpike.

In a few moments the Federals are back again and receive another volley from the Rifles. During this firing, Ewell is slightly wounded in the shoulder. After more firing on both sides, the Union cavalry pulls down fences and escapes through the fields toward Flint Hill (Oakton). Afterwards, Captain Marr is found face down in the clover field with his sword in hand. He was likely killed by a spent ball fired at random as the Union cavalry charged past the courthouse. If so, the ball traveled 800 feet and struck him in the chest directly over his heart. Captain Marr is the first Confederate officer to die in combat.

The two companies of Confederate cavalry in the village (about 120 men), have few firearms, no ammunition, and take no part in this action. The Union loss is 1 killed, 6 to 8 wounded and 2 men captured, plus a number of pistols, carbines and sabers lost; also 9 horses are killed and 4 wounded. It is later reported that on their retreat, the Federals impressed a wagon from a civilian to haul 1 dead and some wounded whom they had brought off. The Confederate loss is 1 killed, 2 wounded and 5 captured.

Tompkins' report of this action to his brigade commander is greatly exaggerated. [Note: In the weeks following, newspapers claimed that Tompkins made a second raid on the night of June 1 to rescue two of his men taken prisoner earlier. This claim is not credible and does not appear in the Official Records.]

Description Courtesy Ed Wenzel: May issue of the Stonewall, the newsletter of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table

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