During the winter of 1862 and the spring of 1863, several Southern units conducted guerrilla operations in Northern Virginia. Companies A and H, 4th Virginia Cavalry, known as the Prince William Cavalry and the Black Horse Troop respectively, were detached from the regiment and, based in Warrenton, conducted independent operations, predominately in Fauquier and Prince William counties. Another group was drawn from the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry. They were known as the Iron Scouts, and based near Brentsville, in Prince William County. These South Carolinians were especially active against Union picket lines between Dumfries and the Occoquan River in Prince William County.
According to Ulysses Brooks, the Iron Scouts were given their name by Yankee soldiers, “because they recovered so quickly after being wounded and seemed to be free from capture.” Though the Iron Scouts probably never numbered more than 25 men, they achieved a remarkable record. One of the scouts was James Dulin.
By late March 1863 the Iron Scouts were attacking Union picket lines near Dumfries with increasing frequency. Maj. Edmund Pope’s 8th New York Cavalry became a favorite target, leading Pope to complain that his men were “almost constantly annoyed by Bushwackers.” One Union trooper described the guerrilla warfare along the picket lines as, “the lowest or meanest way of fighting it is very cowardly to crawl up on a picket at night and in the day pretend to be a friend.”
Shortly after one o’clock on the afternoon of March 29, one of Major Pope’s patrols, led by Lt. James Colburn, was attacked about eight miles outside of Dumfries. Colburn’s advance guard exchanged fire with the enemy, losing one man in the exchange, before falling back. The lieutenant reformed his men, but a Southern charge scattered the Federals, killing one and leaving another mortally wounded. Colburn also lost two men captured.
According to a Union scout, the Confederates retired through Brentsville with two prisoners, but Major Pope, with but 20 horses “able to march all night,” elected not to pursue his antagonists. The task of pursuing the guerrillas and attempting to recover the prisoners fell to Capt. Elon Farnsworth and the 8th Illinois Cavalry.
Just two weeks earlier, on March 15, a patrol from the 8th Illinois had been captured near Dumfries. The incident had touched off a furor in the Cavalry Corps and may have honed Farnsworth’s resolve in the escalating guerrilla war. Farnsworth’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. David Clendenin, was alleged to have disobeyed written orders concerning the size of the patrol he was to send out, and he may have been arrested by his division commander, Alfred Pleasonton, for his costly mistake. Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, commander of the Cavalry Corps, was equally enraged, and sought permission to “clear that section of country of every male inhabitant, either by shooting, hanging, banishment, or incarceration.” Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, refused to condone summary punishment, but he encouraged his troopers to arrest “any of the male portion of the community operating as bushwhackers or guerrillas.”
Captain Farnsworth departed Stafford Court House at 10 a.m. March 30, with 160 men. Near Bristersburg he “came in contact with eight or ten rebel scouts or guerrillas and commenced a…running fight which continued until dark and extended over twenty miles. The enemy increased in force continually at times appearing in parties of 25 or 30 men and attacking us on every side at once. We at last succeeded in routing them,” Farnsworth later described.
After traveling 65 miles Farnsworth arrived back within the Union lines at one o’clock in the morning on the thirty-first, having lost one man killed and one wounded. Though unable to recover the prisoners from the 8th New York, Farnsworth tallied the enemy loss at two dead, one man wounded and captured and eleven other prisoners. The prisoners were from several units, including the 4th Virginia and the Iron Scouts. One of those prisoners was James Dulin.