Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tour of Langley, Virginia: It's Not Just the CIA!


After months of writing about the Civil War in and around Langley, Virginia, I finally found the time to drive a few miles up Georgetown Pike, park at the 1930s-era gas station, and walk around the Langley Fork Historic District.  Readers will remember that Langley was the site of Union Major General George A. McCall's headquarters during the winter of 1861-62.  His Pennsylvania Reserves established Camp Pierpont on the land around this Northern Virginia hamlet, only a few miles from the Potomac River crossing at Chain Bridge.  Today, the historic district, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), retains a rural, 19th-century feel, although I often wonder how many daily commuters realize its wartime significance.  Langley is now synonymous with the CIA, located right down the road from the old buildings along Georgetown Pike.

Langley was established on land that once belonged to Thomas Lee, who named the area after his English ancestral estate of "Langley."  In 1839, Benjamin Mackall purchased 700 acres from the Lees and kept the original name. Langley grew up around the intersection of the Leesburg & Georgetown Turnpike (today's State Rt. 193) and Lewinsville Road (Chain Bridge Road).  By the fall of 1861, the Civil War had fully descended on the village.  In October 1861, a correspondent for the New York Times described the effect of the war on Langley in a dispatch from the front:
In other times this must have been a pleasant resort. . . .  Here Gen. MCCALL has his headquarters now, and around him lay the legions of the Pennsylvania Reserve. They moved over from Tennally Town to make room for the latest arrivals from New-England and New-York. In drill they have the precision of veterans, and the discipline of the camps seems as near perfection as it is possible for volunteers to attain. But even the best discipline of the camp is but a softened name for destruction. The fences disappear, the shrubbery is destroyed, the fruit is gone, the door yard down and the building defaced, before Discipline comes up with the encampment of an advancing army. She seems to be always lagging behind on the old camping ground, seeing that everything worthless is moved on, and only gets to the front when the mischief is done.
Langley eventually recovered from the war, but as Washington and the government grew, so did the area around Langley.  Thanks to preservation-minded citizens, there are several notable 19th century structures still standing there.  The Langley Toll House, on the north side of Georgetown Pike, was originally built around 1820, when the Falls Bridge Turnpike Company authorized its construction. A Confederate veteran, Braden Hummer, bought the Toll House after the Civil War and ran a grocery store there until 1924.  The current structure dates from 1889. 

Langley Toll House, with Gunnell's Chapel visible to the left.  The Toll House was home to a Confederate veteran after the Civil War.

Gunnell's Chapel, where blacks worshipped following the Civil War.

Immediately west of the Toll House stands Gunnell's Chapel, erected around 1879. This small wooden structure was the home of an African-American Methodist congregation.  The chapel was built on land belonging to Robert Gunnell, a black farmer in Langley.  Robert became a free man prior to the war, and according to some sources, owned several slaves, including his wife.  While residing in Washington City during the Civil War, Robert was paid compensation for his slaves when they were freed under the 1862 act abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia.


Langley Ordinary, approaching from the east along Georgetown Pike.  This former tavern served travelers and locals prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
On the south side of the Georgetown Pike, at the corner of Chain Bridge Road, sits the Langley Ordinary (tavern), which served as General McCall's headquarters and as a wartime hospital.  Graffiti of Union soldiers still dots the walls inside.  According to the NRHP application, the Langley Ordinary was built circa 1850; the Fairfax Country Inventory of Historic Sites places the date of construction between 1856-61.  The day I visited, I was shocked to discover that a recent wind storm had blown a large tree onto Langley Ordinary.  This property has been on the market for quite some time, and its fate appears more uncertain in light of this damage.


Langley Ordinary, from Chain Bridge Rd. side.  Tree damage to the home is clearly visible.  This building served as headquarters for General McCall of the Pennsylvania Reserves.
The Ordinary was apparently one of two taverns operating in Langley at the start of the Civil War.  According to an October 30, 1861 article in the New York Times:
Here was a striking illustration of how close the dividing lines are, which this unhappy war has drawn. Two taverns stand on the two sides of the road, nearly opposite. The landlord of one was a Secessionist, and had to flee, leaving his place to be trod by the reckless soldiery. The other was a Union man, and is still plying his vocation as unmolested as in times of peace.
Famous war correspondent George Alfred Townsend also mentions one of the taverns in his account Campaigns of a Non-Combatant (1866).   Passing through Langley not long after the Pennsylvania Reserves had struck camp, Townsend wrote of an active scene: "the bar-room was occupied by a bevy of young officers, who were emptying the contents of sundry pocket flasks." 

Langley Friends Meeting House, once second home to the Trinity Methodist Church after the Civil War.  In 1961 the church building was acquired by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

The Mackall House, now the site of the Country Day School.  This structure was home of the Trinity Methodist Church before and during the war.

The Langley Friends Meeting House, built in 1893, sits across the street from Langley Ordinary.  This church is notable as the second home of the Trinity Methodist Church, which was founded in Langley before the Civil War.  Just west of the Meeting House stands the old Mackall House, currently the home of the Country Day School.  This building was erected in 1858-59 and served as the first home of the Trinity Methodist Church.  The Mackall family converted the church into a residence at the end of the 19th century.  The building today resembles more a family home than a church.  During the Civil War, the church served as a hospital, like many buildings in the area.  Townsend appears to have visited the hospital at Trinity Methodist while passing through Langley.  He describes a disturbing scene while peering through the church door:
The seats of painted pine had been covered with planks, and a sick man lay above every pew. At the ringing of my spurs in the threshold, some of the sufferers looked up through the red eyes of fever, and the faces of others were spectrally white. A few groaned as they turned with difficulty, and some shrank in pain from the glare of the light. Medicines were kept in the altarplace, and a doctor's clerk was writing requisitions in the pulpit. The sickening smell of the hospital forbade me to enter. . . .

After stopping to take a few shots of the Mackall house, I walked back down Georgetown Pike to my parked car. This Sunday afternoon visit to Langley made me marvel at just how much history can be found in one small corner of Northern Virginia. The hamlet speaks to many interconnected experiences in American history, from antebellum agriculture to the curse of the Civil War to the life of freed slaves in the Upper South. Readers who pass this way should take the time to stroll through the small historic district and escape, if only for a little while, modern life in the DC area.

Addendum, February 7, 2013

The current owner of Langley Ordinary has since removed the tree, repaired the damaged, and restored the property. See the story here.

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