On March 6, 1862, a Thursday, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Rebel armies in Virginia, ordered their withdrawal from Northern Virginia.
Johnston, anticipating a Union move on Richmond, was indulging his preference for defensive operations by bringing his troops together along the Rapidan River west of Fredericksburg.
The 13th broke camp at dawn the next day. From quartermaster clerk Hill’s diary:
“Friday. Clear and very cold. We left our winter quarters at daylight this morning. We burned all the cabins and everything else that we could not carry with us. All of our forces leave old Louden [sic] County today. General Hill had all the corn and wheat and mills burned and blew up the Forts.”
Minutemen of Attala Mike Hubbert: “Our Army has left Loudoun County for the occupation of the Yankees.”
The 13th marched 13 miles southwest and “camped” near the village of Dover with no tents and only blankets to keep warm.
Behind them, Union Col. John W. Geary had a few days previously moved his Twenty-Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment and a squadron of the First Michigan Cavalry into a headquarters at Union-friendly Lovettsville, VA. On Mar. 7, he hastily marched them south to Wheatland and then east to Waterford, which was northwest of Leesburg.
Both Waterford and Wheatland favored the Union and Geary had heard that the Confederates intended to burn the two villages. His troops thwarted the idea. Then they marched on to Leesburg, took possession of what was left of Fort Johnston (renaming it Fort Geary), raised the Stars & Stripes over it and, leaving two field pieces there, moved east into Leesburg.
The Pennsylvanians occupied all public buildings, declared martial law in the largely-Confederate town, and occupied Forts Evans and Beauregard. They captured “Ninety prisoners, seventy horses and a train of wagons containing officers’ baggage and sutlers’ stores.”
Then Geary sent patrols southwest to follow Hill’s and Griffith’s troops as far as Carter’s Mill. They found “The line of the enemy’s retreat was marked with devastations hastily committed. Bridges were destroyed and mills, fences, granaries, barns, stacks of grain and hay, and the buildings upon the fair grounds were burned.”
Gen. Hill, who had acted under orders, was disgusted:
“We have abandoned the richest part of Virginia to the enemy,” he wrote his wife Isabella at home in North Carolina. “Millions of dollars worth of government stores have been abandoned or burnt.”
Behind his retreating troops, Hill saw Leesburg-area refugees fleeing the Yankees: “Wives are deserted by their husbands, parents by their children…The affairs of our country are desperate, desperate.”