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.”
A 2002 survey for the Fairfax County Park Authority identified 583 sites related to the Civil War in the county, among them the scenes of historical milestones that have affected not just the United States, but the entire world.
Preserving those sites preserves the history contained within them for future generations, Mr. Gallagher says.
“There simply is not a better place to make a connection to the past. They’re wonderful to get people to understand in a broader sense what was at stake for the United States,” he says.
Many Washington-area residents are unaware of the history around them, Mr. Gallagher says. “I think that’s a very common phenomenon. We have very short historical memories in the United States.”
With many sites, however, there needs to be compromise and balance between the need for preservation of sites of national as well as local importance and the needs of a growing community, Mr. Gallagher says.
“All the historic ground can’t be saved, because things happened almost everywhere.”
One of those historic events took place along the old Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, now a heavily used bike trail that snakes through Northern Virginia suburbs from Arlington to the Blue Ridge.
About three-quarters of a mile east of the Vienna Community Center (between mile markers 10.5 and 11), as the trail rounds a bend headed west from Falls Church toward the old Vienna rail station, is the site of the first-ever battle involving a train.
On June 17, 1861, a train of the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad carrying 271 Union troops was ambushed by some 700 Confederate soldiers hidden on the embankments above the railroad’s right-of-way. A woodcut on a historical marker at the site confirms that the embankments today are exactly as they were in 1861.
“All things considered, this battlefield is probably pretty well preserved,” says Chris Kolakowski, chief historian for the Civil War Preservation Trust.
Historic railroad stations that figured in the Civil War still exist along the Washington and Old Dominion trail at Vienna and Herndon, and at Fairfax Station, where American Red Cross founder Clara Barton treated wounded soldiers from the Battle of Second Manassas and the fighting at Chantilly.
Another historical first occurred Sept. 24, 1861, near what is now Seven Corners, when a balloon launched from Fort Taylor was used to guide Union fire against Confederate artillery around Falls Church. It was the first time aerial reconnaissance was used in battle.
However, the site of the fort is now a car dealership, Koons Ford at 1051 E. Broad St., and a tavern that once stood there is gone as well. The only evidence of the event is a sliver of a park with a modern interpretive marker.
“There were a lot of historical firsts in this war,” Mr. Kolakowski says. “It’s something …people just don’t think about.”
From the beginning of the war, Washington was a key Confederate target, with only the Potomac River separating the city from Rebel territory. Union troops erected a string of 68 forts around Washington, making the city the most heavily defended in the world by 1865. Most of those forts are buried under today’s urban landscape, remembered only in the names of streets, neighborhoods or parks.
The best preserved of those few that remain are Fort Marcy on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in McLean, Fort Ward in Alexandria, and Fort Foote along the Potomac River near Oxon Hill, all of which are now in parks open to the public.
The National Park Service also controls several fort sites in Washington, some of which have partial remains. The most famous is Fort Stevens, where on July 12, 1864, Abraham Lincoln became the only U.S. president to come under enemy fire in the only Civil War battle fought in the District of Columbia.
Today the gun emplacements at Fort Stevens are covered with broken glass. Beer cans, cigarette butts and other trash litter the parapet where veteran Union troops arrived from Petersburg, Va., on July 11, 1864, just in time to save Washington from capture by the Confederates. The walls of the fort are eroded from bicycle and motorcycle traffic.
“Here, it’s some of the problems you experience with any urban parks,” says Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust.
The litter and misuse of Fort Stevens and other similar sites prompted the trust this year to add the Washington defense forts to its annual list of sites threatened by development and modern urban life.
Thousands more Union troops camped at various sites across the area, in some cases leaving traces that still can be seen.
The Confederates, for their part, built forts and campsites at Munson’s Hill near Baileys Crossroads, now occupied by an Islamic center, and around Leesburg.
Thus the battle lines were drawn early across Northern Virginia’s farms and forests. The two most decisive clashes occurred over the same ground just south of Bull Run near Manassas in 1861 and 1862.
The Manassas National Battlefield Park, established in 1940, preserves most of the original ground of the battles of both First and Second Manassas, with interpretive signs throughout the 5,073-acre park. A walking tour from the visitors center leads around Henry Hill, site of Jackson’s famous stand at First Manassas on July 21, 1861.
The park is among the Civil War Preservation Trust’s 10 most threatened sites. Even though it is among the best preserved of all Civil War battlefields, the crush of traffic from suburban commuters threatens its stability as pressure grows to widen U.S. Route 29 through the park from two to four lanes.
There were other, smaller battles besides Chantilly, including the disastrous Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff along the Potomac River near Leesburg — where a 223-acre regional park commemorates the Oct. 21, 1861, fight — and the Dec. 20, 1861, battle at Dranesville, the Union’s first victory on Southern soil.
Like Chantilly, the Dranesville battlefield has been lost to development, as have the sites of other, smaller clashes, such as the September 11, 1861, skirmish at Lewinsville, near Tysons Corner, where Confederate cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart earned a promotion to general for driving off the hated Yankees, not knowing they had planned to retreat.
Many of the soldiers killed in those fights were buried where they fell.
“I would lay money that a lot of these battlefields still have dead on them,” Mr. Kolakowski says.
The crush of dead prompted U.S. military leaders to begin the system of national cemeteries to hold them.
Alexandria National Cemetery was created in 1862 on land leased from the city for 999 years. Located at the end of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, the cemetery also was the end of the line for many wounded soldiers who died in the city’s hospitals. Included among the 4,218 graves are 230 U.S. Colored Troops, the first black soldiers honored by burial in a national cemetery.
Hidden among high-rise apartments along Georgia Avenue near Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington is Battleground National Cemetery, the smallest in the system, which contains the remains of 40 soldiers killed defending Washington July 11 and 12, 1864, and the remains of a comrade interred in 1936. The gravestones, mildewed with age, encircle a U.S. flag planted at the site of the battle.
Another small cemetery on Ball’s Bluff contains the remains of 54 soldiers who died in that battle. Only one was ever identified.
The best-known of the burial grounds is Arlington National Cemetery.
Arlington, Lee’s prewar home, was occupied and fortified by Union troops early in the war. The estate was seized by the U.S. government in 1864 for use as a military cemetery. The Lee home is now a museum, and many prominent Civil War figures are buried on the grounds, including 79 generals. The cemetery grounds also contain the site of a village for freed slaves and the Confederate Memorial.
The memorial, set amid the graves of 500 Confederate soldiers, was dedicated in 1914, and is the tallest in the cemetery. The sculpture by Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran, gives an allegorical defense of the Confederate cause in 32 statues, says Clint Johnson, author of several guides to Civil War sites, including “Touring Virginia and West Virginia’s Civil War Sites.”
“It is the most remarkable sculpture I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Johnson says. “It just explains what Southerners thought about the war.”
Sites offer glimpses of war
The Washington area, especially Northern Virginia, was the scene of some of the Civil War’s fiercest fighting. Here are some of the sites that figure prominently in Civil War history, included either because of their unmistakable significance or because they have been obliterated in memory.
1. Alexandria National Cemetery: 1450 Wilkes St., Alexandria. Dedicated in 1862, this is one of the original national cemeteries established to hold the remains of Civil War casualties. Many of the 4,218 graves are those of wounded soldiers who died in the city’s hospitals. A monument near the entrance marks the graves of four civilian Army employees who drowned in 1865 while pursuing John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln. Also buried in the cemetery are 230 U.S. Colored Troops.
2. Arlington National Cemetery: Memorial Drive, Arlington. Arlington, the prewar home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was occupied and fortified by Union troops early in the war. The estate was seized by the U.S. government in 1864 for use as a military cemetery. The home is now a museum, and many prominent Civil War figures are buried on the grounds. The cemetery grounds also contain the site of a village for freed slaves and a Confederate monument.
3. Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park: Ball’s Bluff Road, Leesburg. A 223-acre regional park commemorates the disastrous attack Oct. 21, 1861, by Union forces. Also in the park is a small national cemetery containing 54 graves of soldiers killed in the battle, only one of which has been identified.
4. Chantilly Battlefield: West Ox Road and Monument Drive, Chantilly. A 4.6-acre park is all that remains of the small but significant battle on Sept. 1, 1862, in which two Union generals lost their lives while trying to keep Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from cutting off the Union retreat after the Battle of Second Manassas. The park contains an interpretive marker and two stone monuments to Isaac Stevens and Philip Kearny, the generals killed in the battle.
5. Civil War Fort: 330 Center St., Vienna. A six-pointed star-shaped earthen fortification is located next to American Legion Post No. 180. Both Confederate and Union troops occupied the area during the war, and historians are unsure which side built the fort.
6. Confederate Monument, Fairfax Cemetery: 10563 Main St., Fairfax. Large markers denote the graves of known and unknown Confederate dead. During the Civil War, the cemetery was the site of a Union stockade. Two of John Mosby’s rangers are buried here, as is James Jackson, an Alexandria man killed May 24, 1861, after he killed Union Col. Ephraim Elmer Ellsworth.
7. Dranesville Tavern: 11919 Leesburg Pike, Dranesville. Near here, foraging Confederate and Union troops clashed Dec. 20, 1861, in what became the Union’s first victory on Southern soil.
8. Fairfax County Court House: 4000 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax. This 200-year-old brick courthouse was used as a Union signal post and headquarters throughout the war. On the lawn is a monument to John Quincy Marr, who on June 1, 1861, became the first Southern soldier killed in the war. A monument marking the site of his death is on Lee Highway near Fairfax Circle. Nearby at 3977 Chain Bridge Road is the home of Confederate spy Antonia Ford, now an office building.
9. Fairfax Station: 11200 Fairfax Station Road, Fairfax Station. The old Fairfax Station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad was where Clara Barton developed the concept for the American Red Cross based on her experiences nursing thousands of wounded soldiers after the second Manassas and Chantilly battles in 1862. There also were numerous skirmishes at the station, which is now a museum.
10. Falls Church: 115 E. Fairfax St., Falls Church. This 18th-century church was used as a stable by Union troops during the Civil War.
11. Fort C.F. Smith: 2411 24th St. N., Arlington. Ruins of this Civil War fort can be seen in a 19-acre county park.
12. Fort Ethan Allen: 3829 N. Stafford St., Arlington. A 14.89-acre park containing one of the best-preserved of the remaining Civil War defenses of Washington.
13. Fort Marcy: Along the George Washington National Parkway, McLean. This earthwork fort, completed in 1862, was part of the Federal defenses of Washington. Now in a natural state, the fort has interlinking earthworks visible for several hundred yards. Interpretive markers, cannons and a picnic area overlook the Potomac River.
14. Fort Taylor (Taylor’s Tavern): Roosevelt Street at Route 7, Falls Church. Civilian balloonist Thaddeus Lowe launched an observation balloon from this Union fort built next to a prewar tavern on the outskirts of Falls Church. On Sept. 24, 1861, Lowe became the first person to direct artillery fire from the air. The fort site is now occupied by a Koons Ford dealership at 1051 East Broad St., but there is an interpretive marker that tells the story of Lowe’s flights.
15. Fort Ward Park: 4301 West Braddock Road, Alexandria. A restored Union fort and museum tell what life was like for soldiers defending Washington during the Civil War.
16. Fort Willard: Fort Willard Circle and Glen Drive, off Fort Hunt Road, Alexandria. This fort site is a superb example of an unimproved earthen fortification, with good views of the Potomac River.
17. Freedom Hill Park: 8527 Old Courthouse Road, Vienna. Inside the park are the remains of a fortified Union picket post and interpretive markers.
18. Freeman House: 131 Church St., Vienna. This 1859-vintage home and general store served as a makeshift hospital and stable during the Civil War. It is now a museum.
19. Manassas National Battlefield Park: Route 234, Manassas. This park, established in 1940, preserves the site of two major Confederate victories in 1861 and 1862. Most of the original ground of both the first and second battles of Manassas remains, with interpretive signs throughout the 5,073-acre park. A walking tour from the visitors center leads around Henry Hill, site of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous stand at First Manassas on July 21, 1861.
20. Mount Gilead House: 5634 Mount Gilead Road, Centreville. An 18th-century tavern that served as winter quarters for Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston when more than 40,000 Southern troops camped in the Centreville area.
21. Pohick Episcopal Church: 9301 Richmond Highway, Lorton. Pohick Episcopal Church, completed in 1774 from plans drawn by George Washington, who attended services there, was heavily damaged during the Civil War and has since undergone a series of renovations. Soldier graffiti remains visible on its sandstone walls.
22. St. Mary’s Catholic Church: Route 123 at Fairfax Station Road, Fairfax Station. The church was built in 1858 by and for Irish immigrant workers constructing the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. After the Battle of Second Manassas and the Battle of Chantilly, Union and Confederate wounded were brought to the church to be cared for by Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross.
23. Truro Episcopal Church: 10520 Main St., Fairfax. In a daring midnight raid on March 8-9, 1863, Confederate raider John S. Mosby and 30 of his men captured Union Gen. Edwin Stoughton as he slept in the William P. Gunnell home, now an office building for the church.
24. Washington and Old Dominion Trail: Between mile markers 10.5 and 11, east of Park Street, Vienna. On June 17, 1861, some 700 Confederate soldiers ambushed a train carrying 271 Union troops heading west toward Vienna on what was then the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad. It was the first battle involving train-bound troops in history. Less than a mile away along the bike trail is the Vienna station, built in 1859, which became the end of the line after Confederate raiders destroyed a nearby bridge.
District of Columbia
25. Battery Kemble Park: Chain Bridge Road, MacArthur Boulevard, 49th Street, and Nebraska Avenue NW. The parapet and gun positions of a small Civil War fortification remain well preserved in this park.
26. Battleground National Cemetery: 6625 Georgia Ave. NW. This 1-acre national cemetery, the smallest in the system, contains the graves of 40 Union soldiers killed during the battle of Fort Stevens July 11-12, 1864, and one veteran interred in 1936. Four monuments also honor units that fought in the battle.
27. Fort Bunker Hill: 14th, Otis, 13th, and Perry streets NE. Very little remains of this fort, built in 1861.
28. Fort De Russsey: Military Road off Oregon Avenue NW. Little remains of this fort, once considered essential to the defense of Washington.
29. Fort Slocum: Kansas Avenue, Blair Road, and Milmarson Place NW. The badly eroded remains of this fort can be seen in a small park.
30. Fort Stevens: 13th and Quackenbos streets NW. The battle at Fort Stevens July 11-12, 1864, was the only Civil War battle fought in the District of Columbia. A restored portion of the fort includes the spot where Abraham Lincoln stood to watch the battle, becoming the only U.S. president ever to come under enemy fire.
31. Fort Totten: Fort Totten Drive just south of Riggs Road NE. The remains of this fort, which participated in the battle for Fort Stevens, can be seen in a park across from the Fort Totten Metro station.
32. Fort Foote Park: Fort Foote Road, Oxon Hill. Fort Foote, begun in 1863, was the last of the Civil War defenses of Washington to be abandoned, and thus is one of the best preserved. The fort was built to protect the Potomac River approach to Washington and still contains two of its original guns.
33. Fort Washington Park: 13551 Fort Washington Road, Fort Washington. A masonry fort built in 1824 as part of a system of U.S. coastal defenses, Fort Washington was incorporated into the Civil War-era barricade around Washington.
34. Monocacy National Battlefield: 4801 Urbana Pike, Frederick. This 1,647-acre park commemorates the battle of Monocacy on July 9, 1864. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates defeated the Union troops under Gen. Lew Wallace, author of “Ben-Hur,” but Wallace’s forces delayed the Confederates long enough to allow reinforcements to reach Washington and thwart Early’s bid to capture the city.