“What cavalry is that?”

June 1, 1861
The first post-Sumter land fight of the American Civil War occurred today at Fairfax Courthouse, Virginia. A skirmish rather than a full battle, the fight involved up to 86 Union cavalrymen and between 40 and 80 Confederates from various units. Note the less than accurate numbers: army muster rolls and actions reports were no where near uniform yet.

The Union troopers were scouting out Confederate strength in northern Virginia, trying to help Brigadier General Irvin McDowell formulate a campaign strategy. As the scouts trotted into Fairfax about 3 a.m., disorganized members of the Prince William rebel cavalry tried to oppose them with no luck.

Capt. John Quincy Marr

Hearing the commotion, Captain John Quincy Marr of the Warrenton Rifles began to organize a defense in a clover field near a Methodist church. At one point, Marr looked at the Union troopers and asked, “What cavalry is that?” A Union bullet killed him, making him the first Confederate soldier killed in the war.

Lt. Col. (and future general) Richard S. Ewell, and congressmen-turned-general William “Extra Billy” Smith then managed the fight for the southerners. (Just in case you want to know, Smith got his nickname when, as a postal contractor under the Andrew Jackson administration, he added extra mail routes and extra fees to his jurisdiction.) 

Ewell got shot in the shoulder, making him the first commissioned Confederate officer wounded in the war. After several volleys, the Rebels turned the Union men away from Fairfax.  Union losses were 1 killed, 4 wounded, 3 captured; Confederate losses were 1 killed, 2 wounded, 5 captured.

The Union men rode back with intelligence, which was their assignment, but the information was bad. They inflated the number of Confederates at Fairfax to 1,000, causing McDowell to slow his plans in favor of more erroneous scouting and over-caution.

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