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

The Thinker by Rodin

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.