The Battle of Ox Hill on Sept. 1, 1862, the only battle fought in Virginia’s most populous county, has been virtually ignored for years.
That will end at 10 a.m. Monday, when the Fairfax County Park Authority dedicates a newly restored park 146 years to the day since about 15,000 soldiers met at a battleground called Ox Hill by Confederates and Chantilly by the Union. It has been a long time coming.
Many historians and preservationists thought the battlefield was important enough to save because it was the site of one of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s independent actions just after the Battle of Second Manassas, the main thrust of which was to prevent Gen. John Pope’s retreating Union army from reaching the defense line of Washington.
The somewhat demoralized Confederate army, which had marched 10 miles in eight hours the previous day, could not accomplish its objective - but about 1,100 Rebels were lost before that became apparent. At the same time, the Union lost two seasoned leaders, Gens. Philip Kearny and Isaac Stevens.
Death in the rain
The battle began in the afternoon and did not end until dark. It was the scene of massive thunderstorms - lightning strikes and rolling thunder that almost overshadowed the rifle fire.
The rains that Monday were so heavy that the order was given to use sabers instead of rifles because the rain had made the paper cartridges unusable. When one officer sent a message to Jackson asking that his regiment be taken out of line because of his troops’ wet cartridges, Jackson’s acerbic reply was that he was sure the enemy’s ammunition was just as wet.
Kearny’s death came partially because of his own impulsivity. He was confident there were no Confederates in the immediate area, but after receiving a message from Gen. David B. Birney that there was a gap in the Union line, he rode furiously through a cornfield to reconnoiter. He rode directly into a line of Rebels, realized his error and tried to escape. At the same time, some of the Southern troops shouted, “That’s a Yankee officer! Shoot him!”
The order to halt was sounded. It was ignored, and a dozen muskets rang out. It was all over for Kearny. The 49th Georgia regiment is credited with the shot that killed him.
It was about 150 yards from two present-day granite monuments, in a cornfield. Kearny had come into the battle with a handicap, which did not lessen his abilities: During the Battle of Churubusco in the Mexican War, his left arm had been amputated as the result of wounds.
Stevens, another West Point graduate, entered the Union Army as colonel of the 79th New York Highlanders, later called the Cameron Highlanders. Fort Stevens on the outskirts of Washington is named for him. He was made a brigadier general on Sept. 28, 1861, and fought at Port Royal, S.C. He was transferred with his IX Corps to Virginia to serve under Pope and took part in the Northern Virginia campaign and Second Manassas.
His rather picturesque death came after he picked up the fallen colors of his old regiment and shouted, “Highlanders, my Highlanders, follow your general!” He was struck in the head by a bullet and died instantly with the colors still in his hand while leading the charge against Confederates massed in the woods (near present-day Fairfax Towne Center).
The Union sustained a great loss from these two deaths alone.
Flag of truce
Finally, as darkness closed in, the fighting had almost ended. With wet musket cartridges, the battle had disintegrated into one of clubs and bayonets. About that time, troops arrived in the area to support Jackson and his weary men.