- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

The story of the Battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill) is usually told from the Union perspective because two Union generals were killed there. However, a lesser-known story emerged from the battle, involving the famous general who was victorious and the widow of one of those slain Union generals.

In late August 1862, following the Confederate victory at Second Manassas, or Bull Run, Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia wanted to cut off the Union Army of Virginia under the command of Maj. Gen. John Pope before it could retreat into Washington. As was often the case after a “signal” victory, as Lee described it, he wanted to destroy the Union Army.

The day after Second Manassas, Aug. 31, the retreating Union Army was not only holding the high ground but had very strong positions in Centreville east of Manassas on the Warrenton Turnpike, today’s Route 29. Lee had no other choice than to attempt a flanking movement from Manassas, north and then east as speedily as possible, to put his troops between Centreville and Washington near Fairfax Court House.

The northernmost troops at Lee’s command at Manassas belonged to Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, referred to as “Jackson’s wing,” which moved north from Manassas on Gum Springs Road and turned east on the Little River Turnpike, today’s Route 50.

By midday Sept. 1, Jackson’s wing had moved slowly east as far as Chantilly, waiting for Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s wing, which was by then a half-day behind, before trying to move into Fairfax.

As Jackson himself was making his flanking movement, however, he became aware of a flanking movement by the Union Army, from Route 29 to the south, moving north to his position on Route 50 in the area of Ox Hill, where Ox Road, today’s West Ox Road, crosses it.

Under Union Maj. Gen. Isaac Stevens, 2,200 men attacked Jackson at 4 p.m., beginning the Battle of Chantilly, as the Union called it, or Ox Hill, as the Confederates referred to it. Stevens was killed around 5 p.m. Before his attack, however, he had sent a messenger for support, and Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny sent another 3,000 troops — thus 5,200 Union troops against 15,000 to 20,000 Confederates.

At the time of Stevens’ death, a severe thunderstorm broke, and his troops fell back, disheartened by the loss of their leader and trying to fight in a heavy downpour. In so doing, they left the flank of the other 3,000 men uncovered.

Kearny, unaware of Stevens’ death and certainly not believing he would have left the flank unprotected, unknowingly rode into the Confederate line, a Georgian regiment, and inquired who the troops were. The Confederates called for his surrender, but he wheeled his horse and attempted to ride away in a muddy cornfield. He was killed instantly, at 6:15 p.m., and his body, possessions and horse were retrieved. The end of the battle soon followed in the rain and developing darkness.

During the early hours of the next morning, the Union Army made its successful retreat into Washington. The Confederates claimed victory as they held the field.

Lee, unable to mount an attack on Washington across the Potomac, subsequently moved north and fought the battles of South Mountain and Antietam two weeks later.

Lee and the two Union generals killed at Ox Hill were another example of the fact that in the Civil War, many opposing soldiers were friends before the war; both generals had served under Lee, and they all had fought in the Mexican War (1846-1848).

Upon hearing of Kearny’s death, Lee returned the body through enemy lines under a flag of truce with a letter of condolence for the widow:

“Early on the morning of September 2, it was reported to me that a general officer killed the night previous had been brought to one of our hospitals, and was believed to be General Kearny. I inquired particularly if his person had been disturbed and was informed that the uniform had not been disturbed; but that he was lying under the care of a guard in the condition in which he was brought from the field without his sidearms and hat. A few papers found in the pocket of his coat were brought to me, but presuming them to be of a personal nature I ordered them to be burned without being read.”

Kearny’s body was prepared for burial by undertakers in Alexandria and subsequently interred in his family vault in New York City. A month later, Agnes Kearny sent a note to Lee, requesting her husband’s property, especially his sword. Because it now belonged to the Confederacy, Lee had the property appraised, and to speed the process of returning it, paid for it himself. He sent it and a brief letter to Gen. George B. McClellan, then commander of the Union Army.

“General:

“I have the honor to enclose a letter to Mrs. Philip Kearny and at the same time commit to your care the sword, horse, and saddle of Maj. Gen. Kearny, which fell into our hands at the time of his death. Mrs. Kearny expressed a great desire to obtain the sword and horse of her husband, and I beg leave to hope that it may be convenient to you to forward them to her. The horse has accompanied the march of the army since its capture and may have suffered from the journey. The bridle was either lost at the time of capture or has not been recovered.

“I am most respectfully, your obedient servant.

“R.E. Lee, General Commanding”

With Kearny’s possessions returned to his widow by Lee, it would be another 50 years before the two generals were connected for a final time: To honor Kearny, a New Jersey commission had him reinterred with other Union soldiers at Lee’s former estate, Arlington National Cemetery.

Charles V. Mauro is the author of “The Battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill). A Monumental Storm,” published by the Fairfax County History Commission. He lives in Herndon.

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