Rosser’s attack on the blockhouse was not the first skirmish to take place near Sangster’s Station. Union and Confederate cavalry clashed nearby on March 9, 1862. The Southerners were driven off but Lt. Henry Hidden, 1st New York Lincoln Cavalry, was killed. Lieutenant Hidden is believed to be the first Union volunteer cavalry officer killed in the war.
By 1863 the area was a hotbed of guerrilla activity. On November 25, a woodcutting detail was attacked between Sangster’s Station and Devereux Station (modern day Clifton), and 23 unarmed teamsters and woodcutters, as well as 50 mules were captured. The near constant alarms from the area clouded the Union response to Rosser’s attack of December 17. The several attempts to bring Rosser to bay were uninspired and ineffective.
No contemporary or postwar account, by a Union participant, of the fight at Sangster’s Station, on that miserably cold, wet day in December 1863, has been found. Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran led the Irish Legion, a four regiment brigade, which included the 155th and 164th New York Infantry, and which was attached to the Department of Washington. Corcoran’s headquarters were at Fairfax Court House, about seven miles northeast of Sangster’s Station. His reports, along with those of John Devereux, area superintendent for the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, are the only published Union accounts which shed any light on the events that evening.
Corcoran determined the skirmish occurred between 6 and 7 p.m., but he did not receive word of the threat until a citizen, who lived near Fairfax Station, arrived at his headquarters around 8:30 p.m. Further complicating Corcoran’s effort was an inebriated telegraph operator. With no confidence in the operator’s “ability to transmit a message,” Corcoran was forced to employ couriers to carry messages between the posts. Sent to the scene, “as quickly as possible,” were troops from the 155th New York and the 2nd District of Columbia Volunteers, under the command of Col. Hugh Flood. They started for the skirmish site from their camps at Fairfax Station, about a mile and a half to the east
Then, “supposing it to be a raid” by guerrillas, Corcoran sent a second force, including both infantry and cavalry, and led by Lt. Col. William De Lacy, toward Centreville, hoping to catch the Confederates returning “to their haunts.” De Lacy’s cavalry encountered the Confederates two miles from Centreville, but “[broke at the first fire] and ran back through the infantry, producing great confusion.” Apparently, “the most efficient officer with the squadron could not make himself understood by the men from the fact that he did not speak German, and they could not understand commands given in English.”
Had De Lacy’s Yankees made a more inspired effort they may have achieved a more tangible result. Col. Elijah V. White’s 35th Virginia Battalion was at the rear of Rosser’s column and had not participated in the attack against the blockhouse. According to Frank Myers, in his history of the command, De Lacy encountered White’s men as the Confederates struggled to cross Bull Run, which was “almost impassable.” The arrival of the Federals at that critical moment “produced a panic, and in the confusion some of White’s men were knocked from their horses into the stream. According to Myers, “the panic was increased,” once the men were across the creek and found “no sign of the brigade nor any indication of the route it had taken, while the firing in the rear showed that the Yankees were coming up.” Order was only restored when the men reached the Warrenton Turnpike and found the 12th Virginia Cavalry waiting for them.
The misery of the march to Upperville still lingered when Myers recalled, years later, “the wind had sprung up keen and cold from the northwest, causing the rain to freeze as it fell, and almost depriving the men of the power to keep their saddles.” When the Rebels finally stepped down from their weary horses, they had, according to Myers, covered ninety miles in 24 hours.
General Corcoran went to Sangster’s Station early the next morning. He credited the defenders with repulsing four attacks, though this is almost certainly an overstatement. He also claimed the New Yorkers “only retreated when the enemy had got so far on their flank and rear as to have set all their tents on fire.” Rosser had not set out to destroy a railroad, and his men almost certainly were not equipped to tear up track. Still, correspondents reported that nearly “two miles” of track were destroyed. Corcoran allayed these fears, terming damage to the line as “slight,” and reporting the trains running again that morning. Superintendent Devereux also surveyed the scene, and confirmed Corcoran’s assessment as to the minor damage inflicted. The Confederates had tried to fire the bridges, but the heavy rain thwarted their efforts. Devereux also mentioned that David Van Meter and another wounded Southerner had been taken to “the poor-house at Sangster’s,” where Van Meter died. Finally, Devereux determined that Rosser’s men had cut the telegraph lines, while Corcoran was certain that the problems with the telegraph were the fault of the intoxicated operator.
Col. Charles Russell Lowell and his 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry were the primary counter-guerrilla force in Fairfax County. Posted at Vienna, Lowell and his troopers responded to most of the alarms in the area. These alarms, both real and imagined, were occurring with increasing frequency, and Lowell, and his men, may have become a bit inured to the near constant cries of “Guerrillas!” Lowell received word of Rosser’s attack at 10:00 p.m., but, assuming the incursion was the work of guerrillas, he did nothing beyond alerting his pickets. Lowell would not lead an expedition in search of Rosser until the following afternoon. Then, he quickly recognized the futility of the effort and went no farther west than Middleburg.
Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, commanding the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, was also instructed “to intercept and punish” Rosser’s command. Two regiments, led by Maj. Hugh Janeway, 1st New Jersey, left Warrenton on the eighteenth, but went no farther than Salem (Marshall today), having learned that Rosser was already across the Shenandoah River. A brigade of cavalry was also ordered out but did not leave until the twenty-first. This force, led by Col. Charles Smith, 1st Maine, eventually reached Luray before turning back with little to show for their effort.
The fight at Sangster’s Station brought new demands to complete the blockhouses along the railroad. The day after the fight Maj. Gen. Christopher Auger, Commanding the Department of Washington, sent a battalion of the 157th Pennsylvania Infantry to bolster Corcoran’s manpower, “and to assist in building the block-houses.” Corcoran was to “assist…in any possible way to” see the buildings completed, and “to have all the roads leading to…stations on the R.R. barricaded against cavalry.”
Rumors of another raid against the Orange and Alexandria Railroad reached Auger two days before Christmas. In an effort to stave off another embarrassing defeat, Auger ordered that timber be dispersed to as to “afford protection to parties and stores.” He further demanded that “strong barricades” be placed along “the roads from the Occoquan.” Auger also alerted his superiors as to the status of several of the blockhouses, noting the structures “at Bull Run Bridge can be used for defense now. The one at Devereux Station should also be defensible.” The Christmas attack never materialized, but several aspects of the story remain to be told.