Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Civil War Fairfax 1863 Exhibition at the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center

A few weeks ago I finally had the opportunity to see the Civil War Fairfax 1863 exhibition at the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center. The museum has assembled an impressive array of artifacts to explore the story of the war's third year in Fairfax Court House and the surrounding area. The exhibit covers themes such as emancipation, life in the Union Army camps, partisan warfare, and civilians. Curator Susan Gray, who was nice enough to give me a personal tour of the exhibition, provided some interesting insights into the numerous objects on display.

Any exhibition on 1863 in Fairfax would be incomplete without a section devoted to John Mosby and his Rangers, who rode into the headlines with the daring raid on Fairfax Court House in March of that year. The museum has chosen to showcase some real treasures. One wall is covered with items that were found in Mosby's saddlebags when Union soldiers stole his horse, including papers signed by Turner Ashby and J.E.B. Stuart. Memorabilia from post-war reunions of Mosby's Rangers is also on display.

Entrance to the exhibition, with Mosby front and center
The museum has not forgotten about other partisan activity. An interpretive panel discusses the Chinquapin Rangers, an irregular cavalry company raised in Fairfax and Prince William Counties. A Burnside carbine and Colt Army revolver belonging to a member of the Loudoun Rangers are also on display. As the label accompanying the weapons reminds us, "Yes, There Were Union Partisan Rangers!"

A section dealing with emancipation discusses the fate of freed slaves in Northern Virginia, including the contraband camps in Fairfax. (I provided the museum with research on the camps, which they kindly attributed to me as part of the exhibit.) The display features a rare photograph of a slave family at the Volusia farm in eastern Fairfax County near Alexandria. The photograph was likely taken in 1862 by Lt. James E. Larkin, whose regiment, the 5th New Hampshire, had established a camp at Volusia.

Portion of the exhibition dealing with the impact of emancipation. The enlarged photograph of a slave family at Volusia is visible at the center of the display.
By 1863, Fairfax played home to many Union regiments serving in the outer defenses of Washington, and the museum dedicates considerable space to examining the life of the common soldiers encamped in the area. An outside individual loaned the museum many items from his impressive personal collection, including cartes de visite from the 17th New York Light Artillery, an original Union artillery uniform, and a carved bone grip pocket knife belonging to a member of the 7th Michigan Cavalry. As an added bonus, the section on Union Army life features an interesting display of Civil War-era dog tags (called "medals" at the time). Soldiers purchased the brass or pewter discs from sutlers and had their names stamped on one side. The reverse side usually displayed a patriotic-themed design.

A colorful print of the military record of Company I, 16th Vermont Infantry (1862). The regiment was encamped in Fairfax Courthouse and southern Fairfax County from December 1862 until June 1863, when it marched north with the rest of the Second Vermont Brigade to repel the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. The 16th Vermont participated in the defense of the Union center during Pickett's Charge.

The exhibition also looks at the civilian side of the war in Fairfax. Most of the interpretation focuses on locals who were rounded up by the Union authorities on suspicion of disloyalty and sent to Old Capitol Prison. For the romantics out there, another wall is dedicated to the relationship between Antonia Ford, a Confederate spy, and Union Maj. Joseph C. Willard, a co-owner of Washington's famed Willard Hotel. Among the artifacts are Ford's love letters to Willard, as well as the couple's DC marriage certificate.

The ledger book for Thomas Harrison's store, which was located to the west of Fairfax Court House. Notes in the ledger refer to the arrest of Harrison and several of his neighbors by the Union Army following Mosby's Fairfax Raid in March 1863.

If you live in the area, or are just visiting during the holidays, be sure to check out Civil War Fairfax 1863. I spent a long time studying the artifacts and reading the interpretive panels. Although covering the usual suspects (i.e., Mosby), the exhibition doesn't neglect other important topics like contrabands and civilian-military relations. Kudos to Susan Gray and the museum staff for organizing such an informative and interesting exhibition. I left learning a thing or two, and I am sure you will too.

About Visiting

Civil War Fairfax 1863 runs now through January 12, 2014. For more information about visiting, see the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center homepage. While at the museum, be sure to check out the permanent collection, which features other Civil War-related items.

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