160 Years Ago Today: First Battle of Fairfax Court House

The First Battle of Fairfax Court House was fought on Saturday, June 1, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Lt. Charles H. Tompkins and Confederate forces commanded by Capt. John Q. Marr at Fairfax Court House, Virginia during the American Civil War. This small and inconclusive battle was the first land engagement of the war with fatal casualties, resulting in 24 total dead, wounded, or captured.

On May 31, 1861, Union Brig. Gen. David Hunter ordered Lt. Charles Henry Tompkins of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment to recon Confederate forces around Fairfax Court House. Early the next morning, June 1, his 50 to 86-man force ran into approximately 210 untrained and ill-equipped Confederate militia in the village, some of whom didn’t even have weapons or ammunition. The militia scattered.

Nearby, Confederate Capt. John Q. Marr attempted to rally his men, but he was shot and killed in a field west of the Methodist church. Lt. Col. Richard S. Ewell, a future Confederate general, was wounded as he emerged from a hotel, but escaped, and 64-year-old William “Extra Billy” Smith, a politician and another future general, helped him take charge. Together, their rag-tag force repelled several more Union attempts to ride through town. Ewell reported:

“I found Captain Marr’s company of Rifles (receiving valuable aid from his excellency Ex-Governor Smith), and took a position on the road by which the enemy had road by which the enemy had gone towards Germantown. In a few minutes the enemy returned, and firing took place on both sides, and the enemy fell back. Having reformed, the enemy again advanced, and more firing took place on both sides. They again retreated, and made their way thorough the fields, by pulling down the fences.”

Compared to battles to come, the skirmish at Fairfax Court House barely rated, but it showed neither side was willing to back down. Union forces counted one killed, four wounded, and three captured to the Confederates one killed, two wounded, and five captured. A few weeks later, Confederate forces abandoned Fairfax in the face of advancing Union troops. They concentrated around Manassas Junction, where the first major battle of the war would be fought.

Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:

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