- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

The village of Herndon, Virginia, was named for Cmdr. William Lewis Herndon, captain of the SS Central America.

Cmdr. Herndon went down with his ship during a hurricane on Sept. 12, 1857, about 200 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras. Of 575 men, women and children aboard the ship, only 152 survived. In addition, $2 million in gold was lost.

That same year, a train depot for the new Alexandria Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad was built in what the railroad called “the valley of the Sugarland Run.” In 1858, a post office was to be established in the depot. It needed a name and the U.S. Post Office rejected the first two suggestions by local citizens as they were already being used at other post offices in the state.

Local legend holds that a meeting was held and the name Herndon was suggested by a man who had survived the wreck of the Central America.

The most memorable event in the new village of Herndon during the Civil War was connected with the Confederate Ranger John Mosby, then a captain.

On March 17, 1863 — St. Patrick’s Day — Mosby raided a Union outpost near the train depot. He and 40 men rode out of the woods and came upon 25 men of the 1st Vermont Cavalry who were resting around a nearby sawmill, expecting a relief party.

Mosby’s men quickly captured most of them, but a small number rushed to the upper floor of the sawmill. Mosby’s men surrounded the structure and gave the Vermont men the option of surrendering or being burned alive by setting the mill on fire. As the mill was full of dry wood shavings, the men elected to surrender.

As the Confederates were leaving the sawmill, they noticed four horses tied in front of a Union sympathizer’s house. Mosby’s men surrounded the house, and one story has it that two Union officers rushed out, their revolvers blazing, only to be captured.

Two others tried to hide in the attic. One of Mosby’s men fired a shot through the ceiling, causing one of the Yankees to fall through the ceiling into the hands of his captors. In his own version, however, Mosby wrote about the capture at the house after leaving the sawmill:

“On going out and remounting, I observed four finely caparisoned horses standing in front of the house of Nat Hanna, a Union man. I knew that the horses must have riders, and that from their equipments they must be officers. I ordered some of the men to go into the house and bring them out.

“They found a table spread with milk, honey, and all sorts of nice delicacies for a lunch. But no soldiers could be seen, and Mrs. Hanna was too good a Union woman to betray them. Some of the men went upstairs, but by the dim light could see nothing on the floor.

“[James] Ames opened the door to the garret; he peeped in and called, but it was pitch dark, and no one answered. He thought it would do no harm to fire a shot into the darkness. It had a magical effect. There was a stir and a crash, and instantly a human being was seen descending through the ceiling. He fell on the floor right among the men. The flash of the pistol in his face had caused him to change position, and in doing so he had stepped on the lathing and fallen through.

“His descent had been easy and without injury to his person. He was thickly covered with lime dust and mortar. After he brushed off, we discovered that we had a major. His three companions in the dark hole were a captain and two lieutenants, who came out through the trap door, and rather enjoyed the laugh we had on the major. As we left the house the lunch disappeared with us. It was put there to be eaten.”

The following day, Mosby reported his success to Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart:

“General: Yesterday I attacked a body of the enemy’s cavalry at Herndon Station, in Fairfax county, completely routing them. I brought off 25 prisoners, a Major Wells, 1 captain, 2 lieutenants and 21 men, all of their arms, 26 horses and equipments.

“The enemy pursued me in force but were checked by my rear guard, and gave up the pursuit. My loss was nothing. The enemy have moved their cavalry from Germantown back of Fairfax Court House on the Alexandria Pike.

“In this affair my officers and men behaved splendidly.”

The major action in Herndon was over. Long after the war, however, a letter was sent to Mosby, in Washington, from a resident of Burlington, Vt., most likely the last words from the participants, about the affair at Herndon Station.

“You will be surprised to receive a letter from me, one you know so little, but will remember,” said the letter, dated Dec. 28, 1910, and beginning “Dear Colonel and Friend.”

“In noticing to-day the item of the enclosed clipping [Mosby’s comment on President Taft’s nomination of a former Confederate soldier, Associate Justice Edward Douglass White, to be chief justice], I could not resist the privilege of writing to you, as I believe now I am the only surviving one of the four officers — Major Wells, Capt. Schofield, Lieut. Watson, and myself — you captured at Herndon Station, near Dranesville, Va., St. Patrick’s day, March 17, 1863, and with us the pickett post of twenty-one men.

“Your treatment and [that of] your men to us on that occasion has always been gladly remembered by us all — in every respect courteous. And you kindly gave us our horses to ride from Upperville to Culpeper House, which was an act of the highest type of a man, and should bury deep forever the name of a ‘guerrilla’ and substitute ‘to picket line a bad disturber.’”

The letter was signed, “Lieut. P. C. J. Cheney.”

Charles V. Mauro is author of “Herndon: A Town and Its History.” He lives in Herndon.

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