- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Fairfax City is home to George Mason University and its 2006 Cinderella basketball team, but no matter how the squad does in today’s Final Four, the city will always remain something of a mecca for Civil War enthusiasts.

Located 15 miles west of the District and 15 miles east of Manassas Battlefield, Fairfax contains many places with Civil War connections. The author was escorted around the historic city on a recent afternoon by Susan Gray, curator and visitor services manager of the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center.

The museum is housed in the former Fairfax Elementary School. The back section was constructed in 1873. The front (or T-section) was added in 1912. An exhibit there shows a timeline for the Fairfax City area from pre-Colonial to modern times. It includes a promotional film made by the Ford Motor Co. in 1924.

About a block west of the museum is East Street, the original eastern boundary of Providence, the official name of the village from 1800 until 1892. Two blocks farther west is the Fairfax Courthouse.

Alexandria was the county seat until 1790, when George Mason petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to relocate the county court to “such place as should be found most convenient, near the center of the County.” Alexandrians, of course, were opposed to the move. The matter was settled when Alexandria became part of the new federal capital.

The courthouse was completed in 1800 and was the center of a tranquil area until early in 1861. Virginia troops gathered there, including the Rappahannock Cavalry, the Prince William Cavalry and the Warrenton Rifles. When New York troops under Lt. Charles Thompkins entered the area around midnight on June 1, the Warrenton Rifles responded, and the unit’s commander, Capt. John Quincy Marr, was found dead on the field when morning came, the first Confederate officer killed in combat. A monument on the courthouse grounds commemorates this event.

John Coski, in his book “The Confederate Battle Flag,” wrote: “The high command of the Virginia army met at Fairfax Court House in September [1861] to adopt a new battle flag. [Gen. P.G.T.] Beauregard later remembered that James B. Walton, colonel of the elite Washington Artillery of New Orleans, had submitted a design … with a Latin cross instead of the St. Andrew’s cross. Beauregard preferred the St. Andrew’s cross, since it ‘removed the objection that many of our soldiers might have to fight under the former symbol.’” So if not born there, it is commonly agreed that the Fairfax Courthouse is where the Confederate battle flag was adopted.

About 21/2 blocks farther west is the Dr. William Gunnell House, now a private residence owned by the nearby Episcopal church. It was in this house on the evening of March 9, 1863, that Col. John Mosby and 29 of his rangers captured Union Gen. Edwin Stoughton in his bed.

Mosby awoke the general with a slap. “Get up, general, and come with me.”

Stoughton roared, “What is this? Do you know who I am, sir?”

“I reckon I do, general. Did you ever hear of Mosby?”

“Yes, have you caught him?”

“No, but he has caught you!”

Mosby also captured two other officers, 30 soldiers and 50 horses. Upon receiving the news, President Lincoln remarked that he could create another general with a stroke of the pen, but he surely hated to lose those horses.

About 11/2 blocks east is the Moore House. This residence was the original aim of Mosby’s raid, for this was the home of Col. Percy Wyndham, a British adventurer in charge of Union cavalry in the area. He had accused Mosby of being a horse thief. Mosby’s response was that the only horses he had ever taken had originally had Federal troops in their saddles. Wyndham was in Washington that evening, so he missed out on the festivities.

About a half block south is the Ford House, the home of Confederate spy Antonia Ford. When her home was searched after the raid, a note from Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was found, and she was taken to the Old Capitol Prison (site of today’s Supreme Court building). She caught the eye of Maj. Joseph C. Willard, co-owner of the Willard Hotel. They were married the following March (barely a week after the major divorced his first wife).

Their only son who survived to adulthood, Joseph E. Willard, built the Old Town Hall in 1900 and donated it to the city. It was modeled after the church that had stood next to the Willard Hotel. The Old Town Hall is located about 11/2 blocks to the east.

About a block south of the Ford House is the Joshua Gunnell House. During the June 1, 1861, Union raid, former Virginia Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith, a civilian at that time, ran from there to take charge of the Warrenton Rifles. During Mosby’s raid, Union Col. Robert Johnstone was billeted there and hid beneath the outhouse to avoid capture. When that story got around, it was enough to make him wish he had been captured instead, as he acquired the nickname “Outhouse Johnstone.”

With the traffic rushing along Little River Turnpike, it is hard to imagine that this was once a sleepy, peaceful village, shattered by a war that tore families apart, helped create new ones and gave birth to heroes and villains who are remembered to this day.

On May 6 and 7, Fairfax City will play host to a Civil War Weekend at the historic Blenheim Estate, 3610 Old Lee Highway. There will be living-history camps and demonstrations, a speakers tent, period music, a booksellers tent, sutlers, and candlelight camp tours on Saturday. The fee is $3 for adults, $1 for children, and the proceeds will benefit the Blenheim House restoration. For directions and program schedules, see www.fairfaxva.gov/SpecialEvents/CWW/CWW.asp.

The Fairfax Museum and Visitors Center, at 10209 Main St., www.fairfaxva.gov/MuseumVC/MapofHistory.asp, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and can be contacted at 703/385-8414 or 800/545-7950 for those outside the area.

The following sites were mentioned in the story and are shown on the map at the link below. Note that the map does not list the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center, but it does show the old elementary school, which is where the museum is now located.

Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center, which is housed in the former Fairfax Elementary School. The Fairfax Court House. The Dr. William Gunnell House. The Moore House. The Ford House. The Old Town Hall. The Joshua Gunnel House.

The only other place mentioned in the story, but not shown on the map, is the Blenheim Estate, 3610 Old Lee Highway. If this is too far away to be conveniently included, just leave it off. The author mentions it only in passing.

The story says Fairfax City is located about 15 miles west of Washington and 15 miles east of Manassas National Battlefield, so those two places could be shown if you decide to do a locator map in addition to the detailed historic-site map.


William Connery is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. He also speaks on Civil War topics in the Washington area. He can be reached at [email protected]verizon.net.

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