2005-05-12 / Travel

Northern Virginia Offers Visits To Civil War Battlefields

By Vernon Benjamin

  • A stroll down Main Street in Old Town Fairfax, Va. -a jewel of a city in the eye of the busy Washington, D.C., suburban storm—is a surprisingly relaxing experience. This is a National and State Historic District where George and Martha Washington came to file their wills, where the first Con-federate officer fell in the Civil War, and where Antonia Ford, an accused spy, fell in love with and married her Union jailer. It’s also where Col. John S. Mosby, known as the Gray Ghost, made many raids, including one where he captured a Union brigadier general while he slept.
  • “Have you heard of Mosby?” he asked as he rousted Edwin H. Stoughton

    “Yes. Have you captured him?”

    “No, but he has captured you, sir!”

    The last stop on the orange line of the Washington Metro, Fairfax offers the best of both worlds: access to the capital’s many wonders as well as the aura of Old Virginia in a backyard spreading across a county rich with history, beauty and Southern elegance. George Mason University, which sits on 677 wooded acres adjacent to the city, brings these worlds together by hosting first-rate performers, like the St. Petersburg Orchestra, which enthrall-ed me on a recent visit.

    A number of interesting Civil War-related sites lie in the Fairfax area, some showing how the War Between the States lives on in the collective Vir-ginia memory. For example, although it’s been 140 years since General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, in the next county to the south, the cannons at the monuments still point north. Just outside Fairfax along Old Lee Highway is Blenheim, a beautiful estate surrounded by locust trees that housed Union soldiers who drew graffiti on its walls in 1862—among them, John Dailinger and B. Luther of Long Island volunteer regiments.

    Manassas National Battlefield Park, a dozen miles west of Fairfax,was the site of two major Civil War battles, one waged on July 21,1861,the other on Aug.28-30,1862. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson figured prominently in both these battles, earning his nickname in the first one when he sat “like a stone wall” on his horse amid flying Union cannonballs, urging his men to the fray.

    A massive statue of Jackson on his horse commemorates First Manassas, as it’s called. This was the war’s first battle, one that both sides believed would be the last as well, yet the Union rout invigorated the Confederates. Union troops, along with carriages of Washington dandies who had come out with picnic baskets to watch, fled in disarray back to the city along today’s Interstate 66

    The Fairfax Museum & Visitors Center provides a map if you want to take a self-guided walking tour and also hosts themed tours, with upcoming ones on May 1 and June 5. Among more than a dozen attractions in the six-block historic district is Willcoxon Tavern, where Jefferson Davis plotted with his generals and General Beauregard redesigned the Confederate flag. The 1812 Radcliffe-Allison House, the oldest building in the city, adjoins the Pozer Garden, an exquisite quadrangle created by a Washington Post gardening editor in the 1920s.

    There are plenty of other peaceful spots in and around Fairfax. Nearby Vienna is host to Wolf Trap National Center for the Performing Arts, as well as one of the more serene locales in the entire region. Meadowlark Botanical Garden, a “living museum of plant

    life,” traces the botanical history of the Potomac Valley and hosts the first Virginia segment of the national Bluebird Trail. The 95-acre complex contains three lakes set among weeping cherry trees, a Sensory Garden and a tropical garden inside a spectacular atrium. Watch for the butterflies to emerge in late spring.

    Fifteen other major parks are located in Fairfax County. The busiest attraction remains Mount Vernon, a 500-acre estate along the Potomac River 20 miles south of Fairfax. A new orientation center eases the congestion of the crowds moving through the first president’s home. Outside, the beauty of the grounds invites relaxing strolls. Near the river, the Pioneer Farm Site provides period displays of innovative husbandry ranging from blacksmithing to linen - making. Washington’s 12- sided threshing barn—which he design-ed—is a great example of pioneer innovation at work.

    Gunston Hall, a few miles south of Mount Vernon and the home of George Mason, author of Virginia’s Bill of Rights, has elaborately carved woodwork, a splendid collection of 18th-century furnishings, and formal gardens defined by a central allée lined with boxwoods, which were planted in Mason’s day. Sully Plantation, the home of Richard Bland Lee, Virginia’s first congressman, is near Gunston Hall. Excavations in the late 20th century uncovered “The Forgotten Road,” an eroded roadbed and archaeological remains of the slave quarters on the estate.

    You might be surprised by the richness of Fairfax County. ©2005 Reprinted by permission of Car and Travel.

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