The Bullets Rattled Like Hail: Forgotten Skirmish at Catlett’s Station

Today, Catlett’s Station and the surrounding area are nearly indistinguishable, except to the local population. Situated just several miles south of Manassas the open and rolling farm fields have avoided the engrossing urban sprawl that is so nearby.

But in March 1862, this lonely station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, sat directly in the line of retreat of Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army. Johnston had spent the winter of 1861-1862 in Northern Virginia. Fearing that he may be cut off from Richmond with the coming Union offensive that spring, Johnston began to withdraw southward in the first week of the month. Unaware that the Confederates were gone, Major General George B. McClellan marched his Army of the Potomac out of the Washington defenses on March 10. Setting up his headquarters at Fairfax Court House, McClellan found Johnston gone from his winter encampment.

On the morning of March 14, several cavalry regiments under the overall command of George Stoneman marched out of Manassas heading south along the Orange and Alexandria line in an effort to locate the recently departed Rebels. Stoneman’s force consisted of the 5th and 6th United States Cavalry, the 3d Pennsylvania Cavalry and the McClellan Dragoons. The mounted soldiers were supported by the 57th New York Infantry. Marching through the morning hours, Stoneman caught up with Rebel rearguard about a mile and a half outside Catlett’s Station. Stoneman immediately ordered his leading regiment, the 5th United States to assault the Confederates. Major Charles J. Whiting, commanding the regiment, was at the head of the column when the order arrived. Riding with Whiting was one of the regiment’s junior officers, 2d Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer. After hearing the order, Custer requested permission to lead the assault. Whiting assented and along with another Lieutenant, John B. McIntosh, Custer prepared his men for the attack.

Custer would write after the war:

I marched the company to the front, formed line and advanced toward the pickets, then plainly in view and interested observers of our movements. Advancing without opposition to the base of the hill upon which the pickets were posted, when in convenient distance, I gave the command ‘Charge’ for the first time. My company responded gallantly, and away we went. Our adversaries did not wait to receive us, but retreated hurriedly and crossing the bridge at Cedar Run, setting fire to it immediately after. We pursued them to the bank of the run and then exchanged several shots with the enemy, now posted on the opposite side. Being unable to advance across the stream, and exposed to a serious fire from small arms, I ordered my command to retire, which it did in excellent order.

Several days after the affair, Custer wrote to his parents that during the skirmish “the bullets rattled like hail.”

Stoneman’s reconnaissance accomplished its objective and confirmed to McClellan that Johnston was retreating south. Within a few weeks, the Army of the Potomac would be setting sail from Washington, bound for Fortress Monroe and the beginning of the Peninsula Campaign.

A modern bridge on Route 28 spans Cedar Run. While driving through the area, travelers can still get a feel for the terrain over which Custer and McIntosh advanced 150 years ago today. Ironically, it would not be the last time that these two men fought together on the same battlefield. 16 months later, they would fight J.E.B Stuart on East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. For those going on the bus tour May 5, it is another story for another day.

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