Thursday, August 23, 2012

After Second Manassas: A Tour of Ox Hill and Other Sites

This past weekend I set out to explore some of the nearby sites in Fairfax County related to the tense days following Second Manassas.  I had long wanted to make this excursion, and the fast-approaching 150th anniversary of the battle provided the perfect opportunity.  The sites, which sit relatively close to one another, are easy to visit within a few hours and were a perfect compliment to my tour of the Second Manassas battlefield earlier this year.   

Ox Hill/Chantilly

I first stopped at Ox Hill Battlefield Park, which is located just off I-66 in the heavily developed Fair Lakes area of Fairfax.  The Battle of Ox Hill (or Chantilly in the North) was fought amidst a violent thunderstorm on September 1, 1862.  The engagement arose when Robert E. Lee attempted to cut off John Pope's line of retreat following the Union defeat at Second Manassas.  As Stonewall Jackson moved down Little River Turnpike (present-day US-50), however, Pope struck first.  Union divisions under Isaac Stevens and Philip Kearny attacked Jackson's much larger force at Ox Hill on the afternoon of September 1.  The short fight, which ended in a stalemate, cost both armies about 1,500 killed and wounded.  Stevens and Kearny were counted among the dead.  That night Union troops marched towards the safety of Washington's defenses.  Lee, meanwhile, had other ideas in mind, and within days his men were fording the Potomac into Maryland.

Little remains of the actual battlefield.  Residential and commercial development has tragically swallowed most of the landscape where the armies met.  Fortunately for us and future generations, men like Ed Wenzel fought hard to save a critical part of the battlefield from destruction.  The Fairfax County Park Authority now runs the 4.8-acre battlefield site.  As serendipity would have it, this same land happens to mark the spot where Stevens likely fell during the engagement.
The sign at the entrance to the battlefield along West Ox Road.  Note the commercial development and traffic congestion just outside the park boundary.

I was extremely impressed with Ox Hill.  The Park Authority has installed a series of interpretive markers along a stone loop trail.  The historical signage does a truly remarkable job of explaining and illustrating what happened there.  I found the maps on the markers particularly useful for understanding unit positions in relation to where I was standing.  I supplemented the markers with an excellent 25-minute audio tour that I downloaded to my iPod from the Park Authority website.  The recording features insightful commentary from Wenzel and other historians. 

A view across the field of the Union advance to the spot where Stevens was shot dead leading the 79th New York ("Highlanders") against the Confederate line at the edge of the woods.  After Stevens was killed, the Union soldiers pushed ahead and drove back Harry Hays' Louisiana Brigade.  A marker explains the attack and Stevens' death.

The Fairfax County Park Authority has recreated a cornfield and split rail fence that were located on the land at the time of the battle.  Kearny was killed when he accidentally rode into Confederate lines that stood in a part of the cornfield just outside the current park boundaries.

A white quartz stone and boulders marking the location of Stevens' death on the Ox Hill battlefield.  John Ballard, a Confederate veteran who owned the land after the Civil War, placed the markers here.  This photograph is taken from the area of the Confederate lines behind the split rail fence. 
Monuments to Stevens (l) and Kearny (r).  The plaque on the Kearny stone erroneously indicates that the general was killed on this spot, when in fact he fell 100 yards to the west (right of the photograph), outside the current park boundary. Two sons of the slain generals, Hazard Stevens and John Watts Kearny, attended the dedication ceremony in October 1915.  The monuments are probably the best known feature of the Ox Hill battlefield.  The white quartz stone and boulders are visible to the right, just beyond the monuments and the marker.

I felt moved to stand on the very ground where Stevens lost his life.  Readers may remember that I have written extensively about the Battle of Lewinsville.  On September 11, 1861, then-Colonel Stevens led the 79th New York and other Federal units on a reconnaissance of the neighborhood around Lewinsville, Virginia (present-day McLean).  A smaller Confederate force under J.E.B. Stuart attacked the Union troops as they prepared for the return to camp.  Stevens successfully withdrew his men under the cover of artillery fire.  I couldn't help but think that a little short of a year later and less than twenty miles from Lewinsville, Stevens would lose his life while bravely rallying the Highlanders in an attack on the Confederate lines at Ox Hill.   

St. Mary of Sorrows/Fairfax Station

The second part of my tour focused on Union efforts to treat and evacuate the wounded in the wake of Second Manassas and Ox Hill.  The Union Army sent thousands of wounded soldiers to Fairfax Station on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  The men were laid on the ground around St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church and on the hillside near the railroad tracks.  Here the injured soldiers awaited transportation from Fairfax Station to the hospitals in Washington and Alexandria. 

The War Department asked for volunteer nurses to help with the large number of causalities at Second Manassas.  The roads and rails to the front were soon clogged with citizens responding to their country's call.  Unfortunately, many of the would-be Good Samaritans were more interested in drinking the supplies of medicinal alcohol than in helping the wounded.  Clara Barton, however, was anything but a pretender.  After procuring a load of supplies from the Sanitary Commission, the Patent Office clerk and future founder of the American Red Cross boarded a train on August 31, 1862 and headed to Fairfax Station.  Over the next few days, she and her fellow volunteers tirelessly cared for the wounded soldiers.  On September 2, 1862 Barton climbed aboard the last train of wounded to leave Fairfax Station.  As Barton described her narrow escape:
The conductor stood with a torch which he applied to a pile of combustible material beside the track. And we rounded the curve which took us from view as we saw the station ablaze, and a troop of [Confederate] cavalry dashing down the hill. (in Epler 46.)

The picturesque St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church was my first stop after leaving Ox Hill.  During the late 1850s, Irish Catholic immigrants came to this part of Fairfax to work on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.   Priests traveled all the way from St. Mary's in Alexandria and said Mass for local Catholics in boxcars.  The need for a permanent church building soon became apparent, and in 1858, the Bishop of Richmond laid the cornerstone for St. Mary's.  Railroad workers helped to build the church, which was dedicated in September 1860.  As I strolled through the now peaceful churchyard, I imagined Barton and her band of volunteers moving about and comforting the wounded soldiers.

St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church.  The original church, a one-room, clapboard building, was enlarged in the late 19th century.  After Second Manassas, Union surgeons operated on the wounded inside St. Mary's.  Soldiers who died from their injuries while in the Fairfax Station area were buried in the churchyard, but later moved to Arlington National Cemetery.

Historical marker at the entrance to St. Mary's commemorating Clara Barton's service there after Second Manassas and Chantilly.

I next drove a short distance to the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum, which is housed in the former railroad station.  Erected in 1903, the building sits across the street from its original location next to the railroad tracks. The first station, built in 1852, fell victim to the Second Manassas Campaign.   The Union Army rebuilt the depot after Antietam.  Other stations followed in 1873, 1891, and 1903.  The railroad closed the station permanently in 1973.  Unfortunately the museum is only open on Sundays so I could not check out the history displays and model trains.  I took the time to read a Civil War Trails marker in front of the station and talked with a history intern from George Mason who was preparing for an upcoming Sesquicentennial event at the museum.  A return trip, however, is in order.

The Fairfax Station Railroad Museum, located in the 1903 train station.  A Civil War Trails marker in front of the station describes Barton's feelings on arriving at Fairfax Station in August 1862: "We were a little band of almost empty-handed workers, literally by ourselves, in the wild woods of Virginia, with 3000 suffering dying men crowded upon a few acres within our reach."  The station at the time of the Civil War was a two-story building.  Union soldiers wrote about surgeons performing amputations on the station's first floor.

After touring Fairfax Station, I grabbed lunch in the City of Fairfax and then visited a few sites associated with other periods during the Civil War.  (More to come in future posts!)  Overall, I would recommend that visitors add Ox Hill, St. Mary's, and Fairfax Station to any itinerary involving Second Manassas.  The tour gave me a real feel for the days following the battle.  Ox Hill alone tells the powerful story of an engagement that resulted in the deaths of two rising stars in the Union Army.  The park also teaches an important lesson about battlefield preservation.  St. Mary's and the land around Fairfax Station speak to the hardships endured by ordinary Union soldiers, as well as the sacrifices of Barton and other courageous volunteers.  Although more obscure compared to places like Manassas National Battlefield, these sites certainly merit a detour in their own right.


Aside from the websites referenced in the main text, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

David H. Burton, Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity (1995); Percy H. Epler, The Life of Clara Barton (1915); Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Clara Barton: Professional Angel (1987); Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam (1983).

The books on Clara Barton provide incredibly moving descriptions of the conditions of the wounded at Fairfax Station and explain Barton's role in greater detail. I'd recommend reading these accounts before touring St. Mary's and the Fairfax Station area.

Additional Tourist Information & Sesquicentennial Events

Hyperlinks to the websites for Ox Hill Battlefield Park, St. Mary's Church, and the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum can be found in the main text above.

There are several upcoming Sesquicentennial activities related to Ox Hill and the aftermath of Second Manassas:

Ox Hill Battlefield Park will be holding an all-day commemorative event on Saturday, September 1, the 150th anniversary of the engagement.  More information can be found here.

This upcoming weekend, the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum will be hosting an event to commemorate the medical treatment and evacuation of the wounded after Second Manassas.  The focus on Civil War medicine and Clara Barton should make this an interesting event.  See here for more details.

St. Mary of Sorrows is holding a candlelight memorial service in memory of those soldiers killed and wounded at Second Manassas and Ox Hill.  Information on this unique event can be found on the church's homepage.


Fairfax Civil War said...

You rock Ron! Thank you for this wonderful article!

All the best!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, and my pleasure! Always happy to put in a good word about our wonderful Fairfx Civil War sites!

Linda Wiggs said...

I just found your page! Thanks for the great narrative of Ox Hill. I grew up in the Northern Virginia area and saw these historical areas disappear. I have been in Louisiana for 20 years, but I am still interested in the area I spent my first 40 years! I will now be reading the rest of your topics...

Ron Baumgarten said...

Linda--Thanks for your comment, and welcome! I am sure it was sad to see the Ox Hill Battlefield disappear. The other day I ate at a diner that literally was on the battlefield not far from where Stevens fell. At least one sliver of ground has been saved by the county with the help of concerned citizens.

Philip Scruggs said...

Great article Ron. I hope you come back and pay us a visit.
Philip Scruggs
Docent / Member Board of Directors
Fairfax Station Railroad Museum

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks! I hope to come back as well. I went with the boys a year or so ago, but the trip was a bit hectic that time. I also see that the museum hosts some very good talks too, so hopefully I can attend one of those.