Hidden between the Fairfax Towne Center shopping mall, hundreds of town houses and a handful of office buildings in one of Fairfax County’s busiest urban districts is a small 4.6-acre park with two tombstonelike monuments.
That park is all that remains of a fierce battle in which more than 2,000 Americans were wounded or killed, including a general who in his day was as famous as Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell are in ours.
The area around Washington, especially Northern Virginia, was the scene of some of the Civil War’s fiercest fighting. Today, on the eve of the 140th anniversary of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, evidence of that fighting, along with the graves of those who took part, remains amid the sprawl of one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan regions.
Much, too, has been lost to time and development — and sometimes forgotten.
It’s not easy to understand today what happened Sept. 1, 1862, on the Chantilly battlefield. Town houses stand in the fields where, in a raging thunderstorm, Union Brig. Gen. Isaac Stevens and Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny sent their troops charging into a Confederate force seeking to cut the Union army off from Washington.
The Confederates, under Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, were lined up along the high ground where the Towne Center stands near the corner of West Ox Road and Monument Drive. Stevens was cut down when he grabbed a flag and urged his men forward. Kearny, a one-armed Mexican War hero celebrated for his bravery and style, died when he mistakenly rode into Confederate lines and was shot trying to escape.
The two monuments in the park, erected in 1915, stand where Stevens fell. The site of Kearny’s death has become a parking lot for town houses.
Historians and preservationists point to the Chantilly battlefield as a textbook example of both the wealth of Civil War history in the Washington area and the danger urban growth poses to that heritage.
“A near-total obliteration of a Civil War battlefield,” says Jim Lighthizer, head of the Civil War Preservation Trust, as he surveys what’s left of the Chantilly site.
“The opportunity to understand in any significant way what happened at Chantilly is gone,” adds Gary Gallagher, a history professor at the University of Virginia.
Saturday marks the 140th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union forces at Appomattox in 1865, effectively ending the Civil War. Yet the war’s effects still resonate in U.S. society in areas as diverse as the lines between state and federal power and race relations.
Issues and events that fill today’s headlines, such as affirmative action, states’ rights and even the nation’s political divide, are echoes of those that sparked war in 1861.
“We’re still struggling with that in many ways,” says Mr. Gallagher, an expert on the Civil War.
“The Civil War is inarguably the defining time in our history,” Mr. Lighthizer says. “It’s where we came from. It’s what we’re about.”