Dranesville, a Troubled Town: Part 2

Part One Can Be Found Here.

The white men of Virginia went to the polls on a warm May 23, 1861 to vote on the secession referendum passed a month earlier by a delegates’ convention. By the time the ballots were counted, the secessionists outvoted the Unionists by almost 100,000 ballots.[1] In Fairfax County there were 14 separate polling locations, Dranesville among them. Dranesville’s men voted 104-4 in favor of leaving the Union, falling in line with the rest of the commonwealth.[2]

A popular image from the June 15, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly alluding to the persecution of Unionist voters. (LOC)

But, just a couple of miles down the road at the small village of Lewinsville, voters rejected the referendum 86-37. And in Vienna, 10 miles from Dranesville, Unionists carried the day 78-44. Northern Fairfax County was divided country, and as it became clear where loyalties lay, the civilians began their own war of persecution.[3]

Even before the voting began, the persecution started. South of Dranesville, at Herndon Station, along the Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad, a secessionist sympathizer nailed a poster up on April 23, declaring that men had the choice of taking “the oath of allegiance to support the Confederate States Government, or leave the county in forty[-]eight hours.”[4]

Unionists later testified that through the month leading up to the voting they heard Dranesville’s town leaders pledge their loyalty to the Confederacy. Doctor William B. Day, the eldest of the two Day brothers, would later be accused of being the worst among the persecutors. After voting for Union, Howard Lasher testified that Dr. Day menaced him, saying “he would mark us.”[5] On May 23, Day allegedly “exerted all his influence in getting people to vote for the secession [ballot].”[6] Day was hardly alone in those exertions—Unionists in turn blamed people like John T. DeBell, the brothers John B. and James W. Farr, and Charles Coleman. All of them would become more prominent in the months to come.

Nineteenth century voting was a public affair. Rather than secret ballots, the leanings of each voter were public knowledge. With this information in hand, the secessionists at Dranesville began to target the Unionist minority. The town’s men who did not join the Confederate army instead became a Home Guard who patrolled the area around the town and continued to harass local Unionists who did not make themselves scarce. They armed themselves with a wide array of weapons; Thomas Coleman, Charles’s younger brother, bought a pistol from John Day, who in turn armed himself with an 18-inch knife that he pledged to use to “cut out the hearts of Union men” whom he described as “damned Yankee sons of bitches.”[7]

Dr. John T. Day (“An Account of One Day Family of Calvert, County, Maryland”)

On the day after the vote for secession, the Union army responded by occupying Alexandria. Hotel keeper James Jackson and Col. Elmer Ellsworth were both killed over a scuffle for Jackson’s Confederate flag. Jackson had extended family who lived in Dranesville and operated a tavern along the Leesburg Pike.[8] The two deaths in Alexandria brought the war just outside of Dranesville, and the town’s secessionists prepared themselves.

The next day, the Dranesville Home Guard arrested Daniel Borden, another of the four Unionist voters. One of the secessionists alleged that Borden was “giving information to the Yankees.” Borden later testified that John Day told him “they would burn my property and massacre my family” if he dared go to Washington.[9] Borden was presumably detained inside Charles Coleman’s store, which was “a kind of headquarters for the Rebel troops,” alongside Henry Bishop, another Unionist.[10] Nothing came of the arrests and the two men were eventually released; they both promptly retreated to the safety of Washington, D.C.

Another man that the Dranesville secessionists turned on lived just south of town, around Herndon Station. Nathaniel Hanna had voted against secession in Vienna, but in turn joined the Home Guard, appeasing the local secessionists for the time being. But Hanna made clear to his wife that he would desert the first time the patrols prepared for combat, promising, “I won’t fight against the Union.”[11] Hanna was true to his word, and deserted when the Home Guard rode for Manassas. He left his family with his father and made for Washington. In response, the Home Guard went to Hanna’s house in the middle of the night, banging on the door. When Hanna’s wife answered, she found “the militia, bayonets an’ all.”[12] William Day stormed through the house, searching for Hanna and “swearing that he would have Hanna, dead or alive.”[13]

Kitty K. Hanna, the wife of Nathaniel Hanna. (Wikipedia Commons)

These threats are nothing new to the study of the beginning of the Civil War. All throughout the county, North and South, men flocked to arms and talked tough. The bombastic tones of the Dranesville Home Guard were probably nothing more than that—said to intimidate their enemies. While the words of the Dranesville Home Guard and the actions of the Coleman, Day, or Farr brothers arresting local Unionists happened, a particularly gruesome incident that became famous around Dranesville probably didn’t.

Following the battle of Manassas, William Day and a few others made their way to the battlefield. Day later wrote that he went to help the wounded, assisting Federal and Confederate alike. But somehow a story started— a morbid and grisly myth that grew with each retelling until it finally reached the ears of Union officials. According to the rumor, William Day and Charles Coleman allegedly cut off the head of a Union corpse and brought it back home, where Coleman supposedly impaled it on a pole outside of his home, “where it remained for three or four weeks.”[14] Coleman allegedly also had a piece of a breast bone from a dead Union soldier that he kept on a shelf in his store.[15]

Such gruesome stories were common after Manassas, as both sides blamed the other of committing horrific acts on the battlefield. Historian John Hennessy writes, “both sides tried to paint the other as barbaric practitioners. . . In fact, propagandists on neither side had much with which to work.”[16] As for the decapitated head in Dranesville, no one actually testified to having seen it—reports of the sight came second- or even-third hand. It is far more likely that Richard H. Gunnell, a Dranesville secessionist, supposed correctly when he stated that he didn’t “know whether it was a joke or not.”[17] But while no one ever reported personally seeing the head, the whisperings continued and the rumors kept growing.

Soon there would be no need for rumors of violence. Just four miles north of Dranesville the Potomac River presented a boundary between Union and Confederate forces. And stationed just opposite from Virginia, in Maryland, were dyed-in-the-wool Union soldiers. Those soldiers sometimes crossed the river in small foraging parties, gathering supplies and then returning to camp. The Dranesville Home Guard, who up until now had focused on the local Union sympathizers, had their next target.


[1] James I. Robertson, Jr., “The Virginia State Convention of 1861”,  in Virginia at War: 1861, edited by William C. Davis and James I. Robertson, Jr., (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 19.

[2] The Dranesville men who voted for the Union were Benjamin H. Brady, Howard Lasher, Ephraim Beedle, and William R. Turner. Brian A. Conley, Fractured Land: Fairfax County’s Role in the Vote for Secession, May 23, 1861 (Fairfax: Fairfax County Public Library, 2001), 75-76.

[3] Ibid., 68-71, 72-74, 75-76.

[4] Cases Examined by Commission Relating to State Prisoners Statement of John Hanna in William B. Day Case, 37. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, Stack 250, Row 48, Compartment 20, Shelf 6. Hereafter cited as William B. Day Case.

[5] Statement of Howard Lasher, William B. Day Case, 23.

[6] Statement of John Hanna, William B. Day Case, 37.

[7] Cases Examined by Commission Relating to State PrisonersStatement of T.J. Johnson in John T. Day Case, 29. Statement of Nelson Voorhees in John T. Day Case, 28. Hereafter cited as John T. Day Case.

[8] The Jackson Tavern is known today as the Dranesville Tavern.

[9] John T. Day Testimony in John T. Day Case 31; Statement of Daniel Borden in John T. Day Case, 31.

[10] Cases Examined by Commission Relating to State PrisonersHenry Bishop in Charles W. Coleman Case, 56. Hereafter cited as Charles W. Coleman Case.

[11] Virginia Carter Castleman, Reminiscences of an Oldest Inhabitant (Herndon: Herndon Historical Society, 1976), 14.

[12] Ibid.,  15.

[13] Howard Lasher Statement in William B. Day Case, 23.

[14] Nelson Voorhees statement in Charles W. Coleman Case, 52.

[15] “Dranesville Murder Cases, March 27, 1862” in Cases Examined by Commission Relating to State Prisoners, (NARA), Record Group 59, Stack 250, Row 48, Compartment 20, Shelf 6, Testimony of Thomas J. Johnson, 6.

[16] John Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas: An End To Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2nd edition, 2015), 160

[17] Cases Examined by Commission Relating to State Prisoners, (NARA), Record Group 59, Stack 250, Row 48, Compartment 20, Shelf 6, Richard H. Gunnell Testimony, Richard H. Gunnell Case, 12.

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