At the start of the Civil War, Union and Confederate troops met at Dranesville in a short, bloody battle that left more than 50 men dead and 200 wounded. Today, part of the battlefield belongs to the Dranesville Church of the Brethren, a pacifist church that has resisted war for more than three centuries.
On Dec. 15, the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the battle, the congregation gathered to remember the battle, and pray for peace.
The Battle of Dranesville started on Dec. 20, 1961, as Confederate troops under J.E.B. Stuart started out from their Centreville 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 each selected Dranesville for the same reason. The town, larger then than it is today, was hotbed of secessionism. Local farmers owned an average of five to 10 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 hay wagon 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 hay wagons 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 and 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.
The 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 relief. 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’s 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 worshipping at the Liberty Meeting House, now the Dranesville Methodist Church. In 1912, they built their own meeting house in Dranesville. Congregation members have discovered the names of about 35 or the 50 men who died at Dranesville that winter day in 1861. At the peace service, candles are lighted in their memory and then extinguished, one by one, to symbolize the cost of war in terms of human suffering.
--John Waggoner, a resident of Herndon, wrote the script for the Dranesville Church of the Brethren's dramatization of the Battle of Dranesville.