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Places in Civil War History: The Battle of Dranesville

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This is part of a series of posts documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis.

Despite the ongoing ravages of the war, as 1861 drew to a close, many northerners seemed to be optimistic, at the very least, about the safety of the Union capital, Washington, D.C. Published as a supplement to The New York Times of Saturday, December 7, 1861, the newspaper map below focuses on northeastern Virginia and the fortifications surrounding Washington. The editors of the Times describe the map as follows:

The interest which attached to the military operations of the National Army has induced us to present the readers of the Times with the very complete and accurate map of the impregnable lines on the Virginia side of the National Capitol. These masterly defenses sweep from the neighborhood of Great Falls, ten miles above Washington, southward to Accotink Creek, fifteen miles below the City;…The principal permanent fortifications, which the rebels, if they attempt them, will find to be an impassable barrier to their ambitious designs upon the Capital have been enumerated by the General Orders of General McClellan but are, for the first time, located and named on the present map.

Map of national lines of defense around Washington D.C. in December 1861.
“The National lines before Washington : a map exhibiting the defenses of the national capital and positions of the several divisions of the grand Union Army : supplement to the New-York times : New York, Saturday, December 7, 1861.” New York Times, 1861. Library of Virginia.

Despite the optimistic views expressed in The New York Times of December 7, 1861 regarding the “National Army” and its “masterly defenses” of Washington, D.C., numerous battles in the region in the closing months of the year tested that confidence. In October, Confederate forces defeated Federal troops under the command of Major General George B. McClellan at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, about 30 miles from Washington, D.C. in Loudoun County, Virginia. On December 20th, the Battle of Dranesville brought the war even closer to the capital (about 15 miles away in Fairfax County, Virginia), but Union forces were victorious, with both sides suffering relatively low casualties.

Map of Battle of Dranesville, 1861, by Robert Knox Sneden.
“Battle at Dranesville, Va. Decr. 20th, 1861.” Robert Knox Sneden, 1861. Virginia Historical Society.

A number of detailed battle maps preserved at the Library of Congress and the Virginia Historical Society give us a clear picture of how the Battle of Dranesville unfolded. Robert Knox Sneden was a prolific map-maker for the Union Army, and his map of Dranesville (above) was one of his first of the war. Sneden would later be captured by Confederate troops in 1863 and detained in Andersonville Prison, which he would later map as well. H.H. Strickler of the Office of the Chief of Engineers of U.S. Army would produce this detailed map below of the Battle of Dranesville years after the war in 1875.

Map of Battle of Dranesville by H.H. Strickler
“Map of the action at Drainsville, Va., December 20th 1861. U.S. forces commanded by Brig Gen. E. O. C. Ord.” H.H. Strickler, 1875. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.


  1. Some great maps in this useful reminder of what came before some of our local shopping centers and developments, Dranesville in this case.. Much history in this soil.

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