Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Print of Lewinsville in December 1861

Aside from antique books, I also enjoy collecting old prints.  My collection naturally focuses on the Civil War era, although I have been known to stray off subject from time to time.  Last month I attended the McLean Antiques Show, but did not make any purchases like last year.  One vendor was selling hand-tinted engravings of the 1862 Battle of New Orleans and the engagement between the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia.  The prices seemed too high, and I opted against making a purchase.  Other than the prints, nothing else even came close to catching my fancy, and I ended up returning home empty-handed.  However, I could not let my disappointment get the best of me.  Remembering that I had my eye on a few interesting and affordable prints on eBay, I decided to buy one as a consolation prize.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my purchase, an original print of "The Village of Lewinsville, Virgina, Now Occupied by United States Troops" from Old Prints and Maps, an on-line store.  The engraving comes from the December 14, 1861 edition of Harper's Weekly.  I generally like to purchase old newspapers and magazines in their entirety and had somewhat mixed emotions about contributing to the practice of cutting them up for the purpose of selling individual images.  This print had sentimental value, as I live right down the street from the location depicted in the engraving, so I made a break from standard policy.

Engraving of Lewinsville from Harper's Weekly (image courtesy of the seller).  The newspaper described Lewinsville as a "miserable, broken-down village, very Virginian in aspect." A copy of the entire December 14, 1861 Harper's Weekly can be viewed at sonofthesouth.net.
The print depicts a few Union soldiers near the rural crossroads of Lewinsville, Virginia, which had come into Union hands only a few months before.  The village was also the site of a couple minor encounters between Union and Confederate troops in September 1861.  Lewinsville is now part of the suburban community of McLean in Fairfax County. 

The intersection shown in the print is likely the convergence of today's Great Falls Street and Chain Bridge Road.  (For a current map, see here.)  Local historian Edgar Hon places the Union troops on the south side of the crossroads, with Great Falls Street to the left, and Chain Bridge Road running along the length of the engraving. 

Both Hon and Carole Herrick, another local historian, believe that Harper's Weekly likely took liberty with the actual depiction of the town as it appeared at the time.  I tend to agree.  In particular, the graveyard of the Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, which was established prior to the Civil War, should be located on the northeast corner of the crossroads, but is missing.  Moreover, the various structures depicted on the engraving do not appear to align with those shown on an 1862 Union Army map of Northeastern Virginia and a subsequent version in the Atlas to Accompany the Official Records.  But even these maps contain contradictions.  Short of photographic or written evidence that I have not yet seen, we may never know what Lewinsville looked like exactly in 1861.

I am now having the print framed, and before long, it will occupy a space on my office wall. Regardless of any inaccuracies, I really like this print.  The bleakness of the image conveys the sense of foreboding calm that settled over the Union lines in the fall and winter of 1861 before the carnage of future battles and campaigns.  The print also serves as a constant reminder of Lewinsville's rurual and Civil War past.  Sometimes pictures are worth a thousands words, and a find like this one explains why collecting antique prints is so satisfying.

Carole Herrick, Images of America: McLean (2011); Edgar R. Hon in the Yearbook of the Historical Society of Fairfax County, Vol. 29 (2003-04).

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