You would think that having lived in Northern Virginia twenty years I would have some idea of the Civil War battles fought in my area. Yes, I was aware of both Battles of Manassas. I have even visited the site with my daughter a few years back. It was a sobering experience to walk across the battlefield. It was not difficult to imagine the carnage and horror that were twice visited there because it has been well preserved. You can walk for miles along well-defined paths and read the many markers along the way. You can also refer to the brochures liberally handed out at the Visitor’s Center.
Fortunately there is not much in the way of development encroaching on this sacred ground. But don’t think developers haven’t tried. In the early 1990s Disney purchased some acreage along the battlefield to develop — what else — a theme park based on American history. Thankfully the community and preservationists managed to kill the proposal before a spade’s worth of dirt was turned over. And yet development encroaches along the battlefield’s edges. As real estate prices escalate and as our memories of the Civil War recede I wonder how much longer this battlefield can remain unspoiled.
I hadn’t realized that a significant civil war battle was fought right here in Fairfax County. It was called the Battle of Ox Hill (or sometimes the Battle of Chantilly). It occurred on September 1, 1862 during a hellacious thunderstorm. All this history happened about five miles from my house. This was not some minor skirmish. This battle occurred shortly after the Second Battle of Manassas. Union forces were busy staging a hasty retreat after having gotten beat badly by General Stonewall Jackson and the Army of Northern Virginia at Manassas. There were believed to be 2100 casualties from the Battle of Ox Hill. Among the dead were two Union generals: Major General Philip Kearny and Major General Isaac Stevens. I’m no civil war buff but I’m pretty sure the Battle of Ox Hill was the closest Civil War battle to Washington, D.C. After the battle, General Robert E. Lee, trying to outflank the Union forces sent his army toward Leesburg. From there his army crossed the Potomac and eventually participated in the Battle of Antietam on September 16th, 1862. That battle of course became infamous as the bloodiest of the Civil War. It killed or wounded over 23,000 soldiers.
Those of us who live in Fairfax County might be wondering where the hell Ox Hill is anyhow. In Fairfax County we don’t have mountains. I didn’t even know there was an Ox Hill. It is an area that sits at one of the highest points in Fairfax County near the corner of Monument Drive and West Ox Road between Chantilly and Fairfax City. Aside from the vista it provided at the time it was also somewhat strategic. It was near the crossings of two major roads. Today we know them as Routes 50 and 29.
The battle comprised at least a mile of terrain in all directions. But what is left? I’m almost embarrassed to report there is only a tiny 4.5 acre “park” maintained by the Fairfax County Park Authority. I passed by it hundreds of times and had no idea it was even there. But my wife said she remembered seeing a sign about the battle. So yesterday I got on my bike and peddled down to the park to see it for myself.
The park is stuck between two major thoroughfares. Despite the small patch of woods that comprises the park the sound of traffic is deafening at times. There is one short path that goes through the park. It is gravel and it disappears as the hill slopes down. Through the trees of the park you can see nearby apartment complexes. Across Ox Road sits more apartments. Across Monument drive is a major retail complex holding a Safeway, a Tower Records and a cinema, among many other stores.
Inside the park is this small monument to the fallen Union generals Kearny and Stevens.
That’s it. There is not even a park bench in which to rest your tuckus while you contemplate the horrors of that day.
If you read the full story of the Battle of Ox Hill you realize that for days abandoned wounded soldiers of both sides quietly died in the woods. You learn that fellow Unitarian Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, treated wounded soldiers from the courthouse in nearby Fairfax. Buried in these sacred grounds, now covered with strip malls, condos and apartment complex are doubtless the remains of more civil war soldiers like this.
And yet it is like it never happened. The markers are innocuous enough not to be noticed by most people. We zip by in our cars rushing on our errands and are largely unaware we do so on hallowed grounds.
It is too late to reclaim this land. All that is left of the battle is this tiny snippet of land, not easily accessible by car, with its small monument hidden in the woods and a few placards along the side of the road.
Perhaps because Fairfax County realized it made a mistake, there are plans to improve the site with a parking lot and a visitor’s shelter using some money proffered by the original developers of the site. This is certainly better than nothing but it’s not much better. The whole area should have been left undeveloped.
It is nothing short of a scandal that we allowed developers to pave over our heritage. And I suspect the Battle of Ox Hill is but one of many lesser known civil war battles that have largely disappeared under the banner of progress.