Friday, November 18, 2011

Nov 20, 1861:Thousands Attend Grand Review at Baileys Crossroads

One of the most memorable events to occur in Northern Virginia during the Civil War was not a battle, but a display of military pageantry on a scale never seen before in North America. General George B. McClellan's 70,000 man Grand Review of the Army of the Potomac occurred at the then rural Baileys Crossroads 150 years ago this Sunday (November 20th).

McClellan, a superb organizer and the hope of the nation, was charged with molding a green Union army that had been routed at First Bull Run into a cohesive fighting force. As he whipped the beaten army into a respectable fighting force, McClellan held several military reviews in the fall of 1861 culminating with the famed Grand Review.

McClellan observing his army's Grand Review on November 20, 1861.  "Little Mac," who certainly knew how to make an entrance, arrived to the review accompanied by  a 1,800 strong cavalry escort.

To accommodate Washingtonians wishing to observe the spectacle, the Army waived the  requirement for a military pass to cross the Potomac into Virginia via the Long Bridge (just south of today's 14th Street Bridge).  An estimated crowd of 20-30,000 civilians flocking to Bailey's Crossroads to observe the event.  However, the military posted guards on the roads from Washington to Bailey's Crossroads to ensure that civilians and southern sympathizer did not stray from the  route.  Livery stable keepers, omnibus companies and hackmen took advantage of the occasion by demanding\exorbitant rates for transportation to the Review.

Bottlenecks at the Long Bridge, with some waiting "for hours to cross in their carriages," combined with a circuitous route  proscribed by military authorities resulted in it taking many spectators "half a day's work to get to the point of review," according to The Washington Evening Star.    (Click here for the Washington Evening StarThe Washington National Republican reported that "large numbers of persons who were on foot were unable to cross the Long Bridge at all, owing to its crowded condition ... numbers were thus unwillingly compelled to turn back without even the satisfaction of setting foot upon the soil of the Old Dominion- to many, an object, perhaps, of more curiosity and consequence than witnessing the review itself."

The weather for the review was sunny but cold and patches of snow on the ground made the roads and fields muddier than usual.   Pvt. Robert Knox Sneden of New York remarked on the effects of the long day on the soldiers:  "About half of the men had to stand in the cold wind for hours.  Nearly everyone was thoroughly chilled. Many soon filled up the camp hospitals..."

The Union formations performed brilliantly despite their probable fatigue from marching and standing in the mud. Some regiments had left camp before 3 AM to march ten miles to Bailey's Crossroads.  All seven Army of the Potomac division camped on the Virginia side of the river participated.  Lieutenant Albert M. Barney of the 16th New York Volunteer Infantry described a lot hurry up and waiting in a letter home:

"We stood at 'attention' while the President and General McClellan and his staff made the rounds of the entire force, and it was no small task to ride past seventy thousand men in line of battle.  After that we waited for about half the number to pass, before our turn came to march by the reviewing stand, from which we made a circuit of two miles, to reach the road which led to our camp, and when we reached it, all felt we had performed a hard day's work."

General McDowell, who had directed the Union Army that had broken and ran at Bull Run, now directed the divisions' movements across the plateau.  This impressive feat required coordinating the activities of 20 generals, 120 artillery batteries, and seven cavalry regiments in addition to the infantry.  When the divisions were finally in place, they  formed "a semi-circle of about four miles," according to a New York Times account.  Many regarded the Grand Review as the cornerstone event in the formation of the Army of the Potomac.  In a postwar account, Major General William W. Averell confirmed that McClellan had succeeded in restoring the army's confidence:

"In the realization of all observers, even of the most experienced officers, the army was born that day... Everyone in and around Washington had felt the pulsations of momentous preparations and the throes of a tremendous and vigorous growth going on about them since the 1st of August, but on the day of the grand review at Bailey's Cross-Roads, the eyes of all spectators, and even the army itself, were suddenly opened."

Civil War era map showing Bailey's Crossroads located at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Leesburg Pike.  The crossroads occupied a broad, flat plain.  It is  bounded to the west by Munson's Hill, which had been occupied by rebels until September 28, 1861.  Bailey's Crossroads was chosen as the site of the Grand Review because if offered an unbroken expanse of level ground between the crossroads and Munson's Hill.  To reach the Grand Review, Washingtonians were allowed to cross the Long Bridge without a pass and then proceed via Ball's Cross Roads (Ballston) to Bailey's Crossroads.   (Surveys for military defenses. Map of northeastern Virginia and vicinity of Washington. Sheet 1. Compiled in Topographical Engineers Office at division headquarters of General Irvin McDowell, Arlington, January 1, 1862. (David Rumsey Map Collection)
The previous Union Army Map superimposed on a modern aerial photograph illustrates that complete commercial development of what was a rural, but strategic Northern Virginia crossroads, 150 years ago.
Private Robert Knox Sneden of New York provided a vivid description in his memoirs of civilians being duly impressed by the Grand Review:

 "Thousands of citizens and officials from Washington and elsewhere among the spectators, and hundreds of ladies in carriages or on horseback ... Ladies in wide crinolines and tiny bonnets sat marveling in their carriages, and little boys and girls stared popeyed at the white gloves and glistening bayonets, the flags, the polished brass, the cannon smoke..."

Julia Ward Howe (Library of Congress)

One of the ladies present that day at the Crossroads was Julia Ward Howe, a New England author and wife of a prominent abolitionist.  Inspired by the sight of thousands of Union soldiers, some reportedly singing "John Brown's Body," Howe returned to Washington where the next day she scribbled new lyrics, which became known as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." (Click here for a recent Washington Post article on Howe's domestic tribulations)

The Northern press generally lauded the Grand Review and emphasized that it was on a scale never seen before in North America.  The pro-Administration Washington National Republican noted with irony that the review was held on the "sacred soil" of Virginia.(click here for the National Republican's November 21, 1861 article on the Review).

Not all were enthralled by the martial display.  General George B. Meade considered the whole exercise a waste of time and questioned the wisdom of  "standing in the mud for four hours and marching nine miles there and back."  (For more of General Meade's candid thoughts on the Grand Review, please see his November 21, 1861 letter to his wife on Ron Baumgarten's All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac blog) 

McClellan's grand show did not go unnoticed by the Confederates.  Meade recalled that the Confederates at Centreville, about ten miles away, "kept up a practicing with their heavy guns all the afternoon, as if in defiance of our parade."  The Washington Evening Star described the scene for its readers:

"In the course of the review yesterday the practiced ears of hundreds of officers present detected the sound of irregular firing from the direction of Fairfax Courthouse.  It came from the enemy and was set down simply in an effort to create the momentary impression that our outposts had been attacked in force somewhere, and thus to throw the review into confusion."

Despite the great effort involved in staging the exercise, it clearly had the effect of inspiring confidence in his fledgling army.  In the proceeding months, McClellan had clearly demonstrated his organization skills and adept public relations ability.  All that remained to be seen was how "Little Mac" and his army would perform in battle against the rebels.  But, that story is for another day, as both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia would soon be settling into winter camp.

Beatie, Russel H.  Army of the Potomac, Volume II:  McClellan Takes Command.  Da Capo Press, 2004.
"The 16th New York Participates in the Grand Review," New York State in the Civil War, The Division of Military and Naval Affairs Website.
"The Great Review," Harper's Weekly, December 7, 1861.
The Washington Evening Star, November 20, 1861.
Washington National Republican, November 20, 1861


  1. It’s my first time to visit this site & I’m really surprised to see such impressive stuff out there.
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  2. um the photos are cool when the war started why did they not fire at there enemies the just stood there doing nothing.plz answer me back.