As the first year of the Civil War ground toward its end, a defeated Federal army continued to lick its wounds after months of failed offensives into Southern territory. Following the Union defeat at the battle of Ball's Bluff in October 1861, both Union and Confederate armies slipped into winter quarters. US Army forces in the east focused resources and energy into strengthening their fortifications around their capital at Washington. Among those Federal troops involved in building up the defenses of Washington was a division known as the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, led by Brigadier General George McCall.
McCall's division of Pennsylvania troops had yet to be battle-tested, and thus far lent their services to constructing earthen fortifications around Washington while training in the vicinity of the nation's capital. In the early weeks of December 1861 many of them settled into winter quarters in a place called Camp Pierpont. That all changed on December 19 when a scout from the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry reported to General McCall.
The scout had learned that Confederate forces in the vicinity planned to forage around a small Virginia village known as Dranesville on the following day. Dranesville was just 20 miles west of Washington on the Leesburg Pike and had been a source of supplies for the Pennsylvania Reserves earlier in the year - it was an asset which McCall did not plan on giving up easily to the enemy.
With this information in hand, McCall ordered some of his Pennsylvania Reserves, approximately 4,000 men under the command of General Edward C. Ord, in the direction of Dranesville. They were to leave camp early in the morning on December 20. Ord's orders were to drive back any skirmishers in the area and to procure a supply of forage. However, Ord took his orders a step further and advanced those who weren't foraging into Dranesville itself, where they met a body of Confederate troops under the command of General J.E.B. Stuart.
Shining amongst the ranks of Ord's brigade was a young officer from Allegheny City - Captain Robert Galway of Company D, 9th Pennsylvania Reserves. Galway served as president of the Pittsburgh Insurance Company prior to the outbreak of war, and became one of the first to enlist in what would become the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps earlier in 1861. With a natural knack for leadership, there was no doubt in the minds of his peers that he possessed the qualities of a capable officer.
As the Battle of Dranesville was getting underway around noon on December 20, Ord's brigade occupied ground north of the Georgetown and Leesburg turnpikes, with their front facing southward. Galway's regiment, commanded by Colonel Conrad Feger Jackson, was positioned west of the Centreville Road, facing into a stretch of thick woods. As Jackson would mention later, he had "difficulty restraining my men from the double-quick," yet "advanced until I saw and heard the movement of troops in advance of the right of our line."
At this point, Jackson's men were ready to fire in their front when an order came down to hold off. According to one officer, the troops before them were members of Colonel Thomas L. Kane's 13th Pennsylvania "Bucktail" Regiment, however, it was difficult to confirm among the din of battle and low visibility in the brush. In truth, it was the 1st Kentucky Infantry in their front. Captain Galway realized the gravity of the situation and personally reported to Jackson just as the rebels fired a devastating volley into the regiment. One private in Company C said "we were nearly on the Kentucky regiment before we knowed..." Galway was among the wounded, as he was shot in the left leg that instant.
The 9th Pennsylvania Reserves returned fire on the Kentuckians, and within a short while rushed their enemy out of the woods. After an engagement lasting two hours, Ord's brigade of Pennsylvanians pushed Stuart's Confederates from the field, and had the honor of claiming victory around the town of Dranesville. While this action didn't hold any significant strategic importance, it marked the first Federal success against the Confederates in Virginia, and boosted morale in the Federal ranks.
In General McCall's after-action report, he mentioned "the number killed found in front of the position occupied by the Ninth infantry, Colonel Jackson, is, in my estimation, proof enough of the gallantry and discipline of that fine regiment..."
Secretary of War Simon Cameron praised the actions of the Pennsylvania Reserves as well, stating "I have read your report of the battle of Dranesville, and although no reply is necessary on my part, yet as a citizen of the same Commonwealth as yourself and the troops engaged in that brilliant affair, I cannot refrain from expressing to you my admiration of the gallant conduct displayed, both by officers and men, in this their first contest with the enemy..."
Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania personally visited the Pennsylvania Reserves at Camp Pierpont shortly after the action, exclaiming "the officers and men who were engaged... may be assured that Pennsylvania is not insensible to their martial virtue, and from them and their fellows, confidently looks for as many further illustrations of it as there shall be opportunities afforded them."
Unfortunately for Captain Galway, the wound he received at Dranesville ultimately prevented him from the opportunities mentioned by Governor Curtin. After the fight in December, Galway was transported home to Pittsburgh. For his gallant actions in the field, Galway's men presented him with a sword inscribed: "Presented to R. Galway by his friends for gallant and meritorious conduct at the battle of Dranesville."
Galway never fully recover from his Dranesville wound, and resigned from the regiment in June 1862. Active campaigning in the field was no longer a reality for the young captain, however, he did raise a unit of militia during the Confederate invasion of Maryland in September 1862. This outfit, the 15th Pennsylvania Militia, never saw action in the field, but made it to the vicinity of Hagerstown as fighting was underway at Antietam.
Described later as a "handsome and soldierly commander," Galway resigned from military life in late 1862. His story ended tragically on November 11, 1864. The young man passed away suddenly at the St. Charles Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. The cause of death was determined to be "disease of the brain," caused by intemperance, or excessive use of morphine. The Battle of Dranesville may have been more than two years past, but the effects of this action left a lasting dreadful effect on one young officer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.