General James Longstreet stood at the vanguard of the Confederate advance through Northern Virginia in late summer of 1861. During the end of August, Longstreet pushed a force of infantry beyond his picket line at Falls Church, Virginia and closer to the Union capital.* Assisted by Col. J.E.B. Stuart’s 1st Virginia Cavalry, the soldiers drove in Federal pickets and seized two prominences that dominated the surrounding countryside — Mason’s Hill and Munson’s Hill. The newly captured territory was only a handful of miles from the nation’s capital. As Longstreet later recalled,
“[w]e were provokingly near Washington, with orders not to attempt to advance even to Alexandria.”
From their new position, the Confederates had a full view of Washington, including the unfinished Capitol dome rising in the distance. They also could observe the Union lines in Northern Virginia as far as Alexandria.
The soldiers set to work digging earthworks on Mason’s and Munson’s Hills. The heights swept the plains around Bailey’s Crossroads, where the Leesburg & Alexandria Turnpike met the Colombia Turnpike. As long as the Confederate forces were dug in atop these two hills, the Union Army dare not occupy territory closer to Falls Church and Annandale.
The position at Mason’s and Munson’s Hills was normally held by a couple regiments of infantry, a battery, and Stuart’s cavalry. The infantry and artillery units rotated every few days, but Stuart’s men remained a permanent fixture. Longstreet remembered in his memoirs that because
“the authorities allowed me but one battery. . . we collected a number of old wagon-wheels and mounted on them stove-pipes of different calibre, till we had formidable-looking batteries, some large enough of calibre to threaten Alexandria, and even the National Capitol and Executive Mansion.”
According to Private Edgar Warfield of the 17th Virginia, Co.H, the soldiers had some fun with the stovepipe gun at the Union Army’s expense. As he related in his memoirs,
“[i]t was a favorite trick to run it out into the center of the road and go through the motions of loading a gun and pointing it at the enemy, who promptly stampeded, under the impression that we had a piece of artillery with us.”
The Confederates, taking full advantage of their position on the high ground, erected signal stations on Mason’s and Munson’s Hills. Officers from General Wade Hampton’s Legion sent messages at night from across the Potomac to Munson’s Hill. The Confederates also hatched a clever scheme to relay messages to Munson’s Hill from Washington. An ex-Maryland legislator, E. Pliny Bryan, was sent to rent a room in Washington from which Munson’s Hill could be seen. As described by E.P. Alexander, who at the time was active in Confederate intelligence gathering and signal work:
[Bryan] was to take the bearing of the hill by compass from his window, and communicate it to us by an agreed-upon advertisement in a daily paper, which we received regularly. This would give us the bearing on which to turn our powerful telescope, loaned for the purpose by a Charleston gentleman, and in position on Munson’s Hill. Then we would identify his window by finding a coffee-pot in it, and by motions of the coffee-pot, and opening and shutting the blinds, etc., he would send his messages, and we would reply, if necessary, by a large flag and by firing guns.
The plan was on the verge of being executed in September 1861, when the Confederates abandoned their advanced positions.
At the end of August, the Confederates raised the Stars and Bars on Munson’s Hill. The New York Times informed its readers that the large flag “was visible with a glass from the top of the shiphouse at the Navy-yard” in Washington. A similar flag was raised from Mason’s Hill. The presence of the Confederates so close to Washington, flying their flag defiantly and in plain view from the capital, caused consternation among Washingtonians and in the Union ranks.
During this time, the Union Army relied on aerial reconnaissance by Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, who ascended in his balloon from Ft. Corcoran, Ball’s Cross Roads, and Chain Bridge to observe the Confederate positions on the two hills. According to Confederate General Jubal Early, Lowe kept a balloon up “almost constantly.” Confederate gunners atop Munson’s Hill found Lowe an inviting target and fired shots at his balloon. Luckily for Lowe, they missed their mark.
With the armies so close to one another, and tensions running high, fighting was bound to erupt in the no-man’s land between the lines.