Credit for the first skirmish in Virginia goes to Second Lieutenant Charles H. Tompkins of Company B, 2nd (later 5th) US Cavalry. He crossed over the Potomac via the Long Bridge on May 24, 1861 and advanced up the Leesburg road towards the Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad, where he captured a passenger train. No shots were fired, and the passengers were released later that afternoon. One week later, he and his men would be involved in the first skirmish of the war in northern Virginia.
2ndLt Tompkins led his company, numbering approximately 50 men, on a scouting mission on the night of May 30th to reconnoiter in the vicinity of Fairfax Courthouse. They departed their camp after 10pm, and approached the town approximately 3am. They were able to surprise and capture the pickets before entering the town.
Unbeknownst to Tompkins, Fairfax at the time was home to three companies of Confederate soldiers under the command of LtCol Richard S. Ewell (late of the 1st Dragoons). A charge by Company B initially drove a company of mounted rifles from town, with the Union cavalrymen passing completely through the town before turning. The other two companies arrived as they passed back through the town, and a brief skirmish took place. Outnumbered, Tompkins made the decision to retreat, and was able to outrace his pursuit.
Casualties were pretty light on both sides. Tompkins reported the loss of nine horses and four men wounded, while capturing five enemy soldiers and two horses. Two of the horses lost were reportedly shot out from under Lt Tompkins, and he injured his foot when one of them fell on him. The Confederates reported one man killed, two wounded (one of them LtCol Ewell), and the loss of four men captured. The Confederate reports included requests for weaponry for the two companies of cavalry involved in the skirmish.
Although seemingly a successful engagement, 2ndLt Tompkins was chastised for exceeding the limits of his orders. In the words of BrigGen McDowell:
“The skirmish has given considerable prestige to our regular cavalry in the eyes of our people and of the volunteer regiments, but the lieutenant acted without authority, and went further than he was desired or expected to go, and frustrated unintentionally, for the time, a more important movement. He has been so informed by me, verbally; and whilst in the future he will not be less gallant, he will be more circumspect.” (OR, Ser I, Vol 2, pg 61)
It is not surprising that Tompkins exceeded his orders. He was appointed a 2ndLt in Company D from civilian life on March 23rd, less than two months before. Although listed throughout the reports (including his own) as a 2ndLt, Tompkins was actually a 1stLt at the time of the skirmish. He was promoted to 1stLt with a date of rank of April 30th and assigned to Company B, vice 1stLt Jenifer who had resigned. Although the reassignment had taken place, the orders (dated May 22nd) apparently hadn’t caught up with the forces in the field. It must have appeared to the casual onlooker that he was promoted as a result of this skirmish.
Things continued to go well for Tompkins during the war. He was appointed an assistant quartermaster with the rank of captain in November 1861, and vacated his regimental commission on July 17, 1862. He had a good reason for doing so, as he’d been serving as the Colonel of the 1st Vermont Cavalry since May 23rd. He assumed command of the regiment following the death of its previous commander, Captain Jonas Holliday of the 2nd Dragoons, in battle near Strasburg in early April. Although he resigned his commission in the 1st Vermont in September 1862, he continued to serve and was a brevet Colonel by the end of the war. Following President Lincoln’s assassination, he too was assigned to the military commission which tried the conspirators.