Commemorating the Battle of Ox Hill – 150 years ago today in Chantilly, Virginia

One hundred fifty years ago this evening, nearly twelve hundred Confederate and Union soldiers were casualties of a battle that occurred literally down the street from me. The event was later named the Battle of Ox Hill by the Confederacy, and the Battle of Chantilly by the Union. While it killed two Union brigadier generals, at the time it was almost forgotten. Union general John Pope, his armies wounded and bloodied after losing badly after the second Battle of Manassas, was busy retreating with the remnants of his army. He was anxious to get his armies back inside the safety of Washington’s extensive fortifications.

Pope spent much of his time during the retreat trying to frantically protect his reputation by having his army’s withdrawal authorized by the Union’s commanding general Henry Halleck. Meanwhile, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent General Stonewall Jackson and his army on a journey to the north around the Union’s flank, sending them down what was then Little River Turnpike but which is now appropriately renamed Lee Jackson Memorial Highway (U.S. Route 50). Their mission was to try to inflict more damage on the Union armies before they reached the safety of Washington. The result was the Battle of Ox Hill, which at the time was hardly noticed by General Pope. While he was awake enough to send out the cavalry to probe for flanking maneuvers by the Confederacy, and placed guns covering his retreat near the intersection of what is now Jermantown Road and Lee Jackson Memorial Highway, overall he paid little attention to what began as a skirmish to his north that quickly turned into the Battle of Ox Hill.

Battle of Ox Hill Site (September 1, 2012)
Battle of Ox Hill Site (September 1, 2012)

Twelve hundred casualties sounds like a lot, but in the context of the Civil War it was almost just a skirmish. Of those casualties, 221 soldiers died as a direct result of the battle, which occurred during a terrible thunderstorm that turned the battlefield into mud and ended inconclusively in the twilight. Some consider the battle a Union victory, but only in the sense that due to the quick actions of Brigadier Generals Stevens and subsequently Kearny (who did the strategic thinking in Pope’s absence) the Union army’s withdrawal continued apace, preventing a greater general disaster. Both Stevens and Kearny died in the battle, which probably is why the battle is memorialized at all today. Largely forgotten, of course, were the casualties. Most did not die quickly, but moaned all night in the woods and cornfields where the battle occurred, wet and covered in mud.

This was the only major Civil War battle to occur in Fairfax County, Virginia where I live. (There was a minor battle near the Dranesville Tavern in 1861.) The much bloodier battles on the plains near Manassas (Bull Run) occurred to the west in nearby Prince William County. Other Civil War actions certainly occurred in Fairfax County. Clara Barton helped dress the wounds of soldiers at the Fairfax courthouse near the battlefield. J.E.B. Stuart rode his Confederate cavalry through the county many times, including a probe a mile from where I live at the road near Frying Pan. These and more details I learned from reading David A. Welker’s book on the battle, the first detailed and comprehensive account of the battle, and published just ten years ago.

It took some prodding from local Civil War historical associations, but Fairfax County recognized the battle officially today with an event at a park at the site. Unfortunately, as I ranted way back in 2004, the four-acre park does not begin to cover the territory covered by the battle. In the 1980s and 1990s developers largely succeeded in turning the site into an area called Fair Lakes. During the Civil War soldiers were often unceremoniously buried where they died, if they were buried at all. Generals Stevens and Kearny were lucky only because they were officers, so their bodies were returned under flags of truce. During development at the site, bulldozers doubtless anonymously reburied the skeletons of Civil War soldiers under more layers of earth, forever to remain forgotten or anonymous.

It’s not much, but since I last visited in 2004, the 4.3-acre site on Monument Drive at least has been improved. There are new paths, a formal entrance along West Ox Road with a prominent sign, and a bit more parking. Most delightfully of all, the park authority took the time to put in a cornfield and fence mirroring, at least for a small portion of the battlefield the look of the field on the day of the battle. I listened to local politicians speak of the battle, watched a couple of handfuls of re-enactors drill and shoot from muskets and rifles, and spoke with local Civil War buffs. The crowd was modest, two hundred visitors at most while I was there, but respectably sized. Most of my fellow citizens of Fairfax County were happy to tune out the event, which got little press coverage, and perhaps add to the relative ignominy of the battle.

Stevens and Kearny Memorials
Stevens and Kearny Memorials

The site with the stone markers commemorating the deaths of Generals Stevens and Kearny at least has been spiffed up. There are signs for promised future monuments to Confederate and Union armies that participated in the battle. Mostly we can only rely on old photographs to get a sense of that battlefield one hundred and fifty years ago. The last house on the site, the Ballard home, was demolished in the 1960s.

No hellacious thunderstorms are expected tonight. No armies will fight and no casualties will lie moaning in the woods. Time keeps passing sending history further back into the past to be at some point wholly forgotten. Tonight, in the many multi-family housing units (principally condominiums and apartments) around the site families will cook meals, put children to bed and watch movies on Netflix virtually unaware of the historical significance of the day.

At least a couple hundred of us though came together at the park and remembered one more battle in a long and bloody Civil War, and honor the history literally under our feet.

Update 9/5/2012. Fairfax County, Virginia produced the following short video on the event.

The forgotten battle

I’m going through a Civil War phase. Considering the scope and size of the Civil War, it’s a lot to absorb. Even when I complete Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War, in a way I will have just sampled it. Having finished Volume One, I already have an appreciation for its origins and complexity.

There are over ten thousand books on the Civil War chronicling virtually every aspect of the war from multiple perspectives. And yet one battle of that war has gotten curiously little attention, the Battle of Chantilly, also known as the Battle of Ox Hill. Back in 2004 it got my attention when I visited a small site dedicated to the battle, which was fought about five miles from my house near Chantilly, Virginia. Given the tiny size of the 4.8-acre memorial park, it was easy to assume the battle was only a skirmish. That was not the case. While certainly not on the scale of battles like Antietam (which occurred a few weeks after the battle), it was hardly insignificant. The Confederacy had 516 casualties (83 killed, 418 wounded and 15 missing). The Union fared worse with 679 casualties (138 killed, 472 wounded and 69 missing). History happened practically in my backyard and me as well as most of my neighbors were largely clueless. It didn’t help that the monument site is hard to find, and virtually the whole battlefield has been developed and now consists principally of multi-family dwellings and shopping centers.

The battle finally got the attention it deserved in 2002 with the publication of the obscure book Tempest at Ox Hill by the historian David A. Welker. It drew my attention because it was the first book written about the battle. Welker, a resident of Centreville, was drawn to the battle for the same reason I was: because it happened so close to home. In the preface he expresses the disappointment I shared with this lost battlefield, and notes that the local Toys-R-Us store at Fair Lakes Plaza now stands where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson marshaled troops for the battle. On what was Ox Hill, the high point near the battle, the major attraction is another shopping center with among other things a Safeway.

September 1, 2012 will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. I’m betting no one will bother to mark the occasion, in part because except for the hard to get to memorial park there is no real place to congregate in the area of the battle. Even at the time both the Union and the Confederacy sort of ignored the battle. It occurred a few days after the second Battle of Manassas, which the Union lost again. The head of the Union Army, General John Pope was largely unaware of the battle. He was aware that General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia stared at him from across him from the battlements he was using in nearby Centreville, might be trying to flank him. Badly beaten, he wanted to retire his army into the safety of Washington D.C. but wanted the command to come from Washington so he would not be blamed for the retreat. To solve his problem he began a discreet withdrawal of his army along Little River Turnpike, but ordered units from Brigadier General Isaac Steven’s 1st Division to guard northern side of the road, in case General Stonewall Jackson’s division attempted to attack his flank as he withdrew.

Thanks to Welker’s meticulous research, this obscure battle has been brought to life in the book. There was little documentation of the battle at the time. This was in part because two Union generals, Brigadier Generals Stevens and Kearny both lost their lives in the battle. It was also due to General Stonewall Jackson’s belated and poor reporting of the battle. General Pope had no idea that the battle had happened until later, while General Lee, who ordered Jackson to perform the flanking maneuver, also had no idea what was happening, as his army was back near the Manassas battlefield. That left Welker to research myriad lesser and second hand sources to get a better idea of the battle, including memories of both lesser officers and common soldiers.

The book will more than scratch the itch of those curious about the battle, which should be lots of people who live in and around Fairfax, Chantilly and Centreville in Virginia. Some elements of the battle were well known, including the loss of two Union generals and the long, hellacious thunderstorm that occurred druing the battle. What was missing was the why and how, and here Welker amply fills in the details with a chronology supplemented by the memories of many veterans.

A curious set of circumstances led to a battle that was essentially a stalemate. It can be thought of as a Union victory in the sense that Stonewall Jackson and his army were prevented from succeeding in a flank attack as the Army of Virginia withdrew. Within weeks the defeated army was reconstituted and fought well at Antietam. Welker brings to light some facts that I believe were hitherto not well known. For example, Major General J.E.B. Stuart, in a skirmish close to what is still known as Jermantown Road and Little River Turnpike, unnecessarily informed the Union of the flanking attempt by having his cavalry’s artillery lob shells at Union troops guarding the intersection. It was stupid and spoiled the Confederacy’s element of surprise. The Union was also helped by Jackson’s surprising lethargy. For a man known to move his troops twenty or more miles a day to win many a flank attack, instead he dithered on Little River Turnpike, moving his troops only a few miles down the road. This may have been in part because the supply train for his troops was attached to Confederate General Longstreet many miles down the road. Jackson’s troops had gone without a meal for three days. This likely accounted for their somewhat lackluster performance during the battle.

Fortunately for the Confederacy, a number of factors made the Union’s preparations inadequate. General Pope was largely unconcerned about a sizeable flank attack, as he had little evidence to support it. He also focused on the problem late in the day, making it hard to place troops where they were needed in time. That duty fell to B.G. Stevens, who did his best but quickly discerned that the Union was at a disadvantage, as Confederate soldiers could hide effectively in nearby woods. Also, to attack Union troops had to climb up hill through cornfields, making them very vulnerable. When his orders seemed to continually get ignored, he died trying to reposition his troops. His untimely death resulted in a critical loss of leadership during the battle, which if Jackson had been more agile might well have destroyed much of the retreating Army of Virginia.

Union soldiers that straggled back from the battle kept trying to get help from generals moving their troops down the turnpike toward Washington. They asked for reinforcements but time and again they were spurned until B.G. Philip Kearny finally answered the call. Kearny had a reputation for being a hands-on general, and if that meant charging headfirst into battle to lead or rearrange his troops so be it. Only this time he suffered Isaac’s fate as well when he was shot through the saddle and the bullet lodged in his heart. He likely died instantly.

The violent thunderstorms caused thick muddy fields and fouled rifles, and often made it hard to even find friend or foe. Like many battles of its time, it effectively ended at dark. For the most part, retreating Union troops ignored the fighting to their north. The only real question was whether the fight would resume in the morning. By morning most of Pope’s troops were in the relative safety of Fairfax or closer to Washington, so there wasn’t much left to attack. But also General Lee finally realized that Pope was retreating toward Washington, and since it was heavily reinforced he thought it imprudent to waste time trying to attack the retreating army. Instead, Lee decided to move his armies north into Maryland, winning first a battle at Harpers Ferry and later arguably losing a huge battle at Antietam, the bloodiest one day battle of the Civil War.

It is no wonder then that this battle, wedged between the Second Battle of Manassas and Antietam, got short shrift by historians. Welker’s book though is interesting in part for the lessons in teaches: the subtle ways that battles are lost or won, and how counterproductive it is for generals to put themselves in the line of fire. Both Stevens and Kearny should have stayed well behind lines, despite their concerns. The loss of their leadership was in many ways far more costly than if they had stayed safely behind lines.

For myself, I hope there is a proper anniversary event in September marking this battle and if there is I hope to be there. My thanks to David Welker for satisfying my eight-year itch to really understand what happened during the Battle of Chantilly and Ox Hill.

The Battle of Ox Hill: Developers: 1, Preservationists: 0

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.