Ox Hill battlefield saved by locals
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.
For all intents and purposes, the battle was over; the Union forces were withdrawing to the Warrenton Pike with some of their wounded, coming on to Fairfax and Alexandria.
Kearny’s body was sent back to the Federal lines under a flag of truce. The ambulance bearing the body was escorted down the turnpike by Maj. Walter Taylor of Gen. Robert E. Lee´s staff and five or six men and delivered to pickets of the 9th New York Cavalry at Difficult Run. That site today is at the Route 50 and Interstate 66 interchange, according to Ed Wenzel, a local preservationist.
Lee’s men may have been in control of the battlefield, but the battle would go down in history as a draw, with tactical advantage to the Southerners. In the following days, Confederate and Union forces would clash again at Dranesville and then Leesburg, which set the stage for the Maryland Campaign. That would lead to the final and bloodiest battle of them all, Sharpsburg (or Antietam), on Sept. 17.
Still, Ox Hill was an important fight, and the little battlefield deserved more recognition than a brown sign and the historical marker erected in 2000.
Saving the field
As encroaching development threatened to eradicate the battlefield, a group of preservationists and historians intervened. In 1986, Mr. Wenzel, a local resident, spotted bulldozers and graders at work near the site. His warning led to the formation of the Chantilly Battlefield Association, Chantilly being the name of a nearby mansion and the name favored by Union troops. Confederates called it Ox Hill because of a 503-foot rise.
When plans were unveiled recently to move the granite markers for the two generals as well as a memorial pile of boulders, the Chantilly Battlefield Association redoubled its efforts to find a way to preserve the site.
Shopping centers and malls, high-rise office buildings, town houses and four-lane highways came closer and closer to the relatively small combat area left undeveloped from the 500 acres the battlefield originally comprised.
The remains of a Confederate soldier were found during the construction of nearby town houses as late as 1985. Uniform buttons identified him as being from South Carolina, and authorities there came to reclaim the body for burial in his home state.
To save what remained of the battlefield, a determined band of preservationists swung into action, including Mr. Wenzel, Clark B. Hall, Brian Pohanka and members of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table, who had formed the Chantilly Battlefield Association.
Mr. Pohanka’s words, spoken several years before his death in 2005, became the mantra of all: “Some kid a hundred years from now is going to get interested in the Civil War and want to see these places. He’s going to go down there and be standing in a parking lot. I’m fighting for that kid.” His widow, Cricket Pohanka, serves on the CBA in his place.
Builders and developers have deeper pockets than preservationists or park authorities, and it was a one-sided battle, with ideas for additional construction along Route 50 being considered and the CBA laying plans to block it.
A compromise finally was reached, resulting in 4.8 acres of Fairfax County parkland. It is not enough - it never is. Some say the battlefield has been destroyed - that with just 1.4 percent of the core combat area protected, the result is minuscule. Some opine that people can’t interpret a battle from a postage-stamp park. Yet an effort is being made to do just that.
The memorial markers for Stevens and Kearny are the biggest attraction. They were erected in 1915 by the Ballard family, which owned the farmland at the time, and the nearby pile of boulders was left to the memory of the two men, both of whom are buried elsewhere.
John Ballard was a former Confederate cavalryman who had ridden with Mosby’s Rangers and had lost a leg in 1863. He married Mary Reid Thrift, the young heiress to the farm where the battle was fought. There they raised their family and farmed the land.
In 1883, Charles Walcott, formerly of the 21st Massachusetts, and Hazard Stevens, who was wounded at Ox Hill and was the son of Isaac Stevens, returned to the battlefield to retrace their steps and find the places where the two generals had fallen. They visited the Ballards, enjoyed their hospitality and walked the fields, identifying the spots where Stevens and Kearny were killed.
Ballard later marked the place where Stevens died with a white quartz boulder and other rocks. Years passed, and in 1915, John and Mary Ballard deeded a 50-by-100-foot lot at the site of Stevens’ death to three trustees from New Jersey (the 1st New Jersey Brigade Society) and three from Virginia for the placement of monuments or markers.
Subsequently, two monuments, one for Kearny and one for Stevens, were dedicated at a ceremony attended by dignitaries, local people, Union and Confederate veterans and the children and grandchildren of the two generals. The monuments were surrounded by a small wrought-iron fence. That ultimately would be the only protected area on the entire battlefield, handed down through generations.
The price tag
A large concrete marker, called Kearny’s Stump, also was left intact. It replaced the original tree stump, which had rotted away, and bears his name and a large cross. The pile of boulders was preserved by the park authority, to the extent of being covered over with dirt and a tarp to prevent its harm or destruction, and will become part of the park.
Ultimately the park authority reached an agreement with Centennial Construction Co. to leave the boulders where they were and to donate 2.4 acres to the county for a battlefield park. The Fairfax County Park Authority agreed to match the acreage. Costs to complete the park are estimated at about $400,000, of which the authority has just $274,000 budgeted. Public fundraising will be essential to complete the park, and the CBA remains optimistic it will be found.
The park contains a hiking trail, interpretive exhibits and three hexagonal information kiosks that tell the story of the battle and its significance to the war in Virginia. The visitor will step into a portion of the original cornfield, within two reconstructed split-rail fences that follow the actual fence lines of the fields. The adjacent cornfield will be planted with grasses that will give the impression of corn, as the latter is deemed too labor-intensive to be used.
Mr. Wenzel worked closely with the park authority each step of the way, and he praises the master plan.
“To a great extent, the planning and work has resulted in an undulating landscape,” Mr. Wenzel said, “and the topography rises and falls across the fields, giving the battlefield a realism that is not apparent on a flat map.”
The new park comes with a wheelchair-ready trail surfaced with paving blocks, compliments of the regulatory process. So much for 1862 and the historic landscape - though the more urban and unsteady among us might welcome the trail.
In truth, the attractive pavers, even when surrounded by pea gravel, make walking on them difficult even with the lowest of women’s heels. Some also think the large concrete park benches are a contemporary distraction. The hexagonal information kiosks endeavor to match the color theme of the war, the gray (Confederate) sides or columns being topped with blue (Union) roofs.
Finally, 14 years after the last parcel of land from the battlefield was acquired, the Fairfax County Park Authority is ready to dedicate the new park.
Public information officer Judith Pedersen, who played a large role in the project, said of the dedication ceremony to be held Monday: “We want it to be a celebration - it would not be here if it were not for the true passion and dedication of those who care about the history and heritage found here.”
She learned firsthand of the depth of their devotion at the groundbreaking ceremony some time ago.
“It began to rain,” she said, “and it kept on raining. I couldn’t help but think that that’s the way it was back in 1862 with the storms. I kept thinking we might have to abbreviate the ceremony, leave something out, but all the participants stayed. They all had thoughts to share and knew how important the day was. I knew then I was talking with dedicated people.”
Miss Pedersen added, “It’s very unusual for us to do anything regarding cultural resources in a park. Our main thrust is recreational, and we don´t have much experience in the cultural, but this has been a wonderful project. I can’t wait for it to be open and ready for use.”
Another Park Authority employee, Michael Rierson, emphasized that the interpretive signs and panels will help casual visitors as well as Civil War enthusiasts to better grasp the importance of Ox Hill.
While acknowledging that he and others wish more of the battlefield could have been preserved - it runs from Fair Oaks Mall all the way to Fair Lakes - Mr. Rierson added: “Even though we did not save more of the original battlefield, it will be a great little park site.”
Plans call for a fundraising drive to erect two large granite monuments to honor the contribution of the common soldier because only the two slain officers are recognized and no attention is given to the Confederate troops who fought and died there. The Union monument will carry the name of Chantilly and the Confederate one Ox Hill.
To paraphrase the title of a famous children’s book, the little battlefield that could finally did. It survives, in large part, thanks to a group of determined local residents who would not give up the fight and to a park authority that seized the opportunity to work with them.
Somewhere up in heaven, Mr. Pohanka is raising his arm in the air and saying, “Yes!”
cMartha Boltz is a frequent contributor to the history page. She thanks Ed Wenzel for sharing his research.