The Civil War in Loudoun County, Virginia

by Stevan F. Meserve, History Press, 2008, $19.99

Two years after publishing Chuck Mauro’s excellent study of the Civil War in Fairfax County, Virginia, History Press brings out Stevan Meserve’s equally satisfying monograph on the war in neighboring Loudoun County. These in-depth regional studies, richly illustrated with contemporary and period photographs, are a testament to the dedicated efforts of local historians and archivists who unearth from church basements, county courthouses and residential attics the compelling human interest stories of soldiers and civilians.

Loudoun County is a particularly fertile domain for Civil War scholars and enthusiasts. One in three voters of the rich farming county opposed the Ordinances of Secession in 1861, and though only one major battle—Ball’s Bluff, on October 21, 1861—was fought there, the county’s roads and farm lanes served as thoroughfares for regular cavalry and irregular guerrilla bands throughout the war. Storied regiments such as White’s Comanches, Cole’s Potomac Home Brigade and Mosby’s Rangers made Loudoun County a dangerous no man’s land for any force seeking to establish a foothold in the area. Leesburg, the county’s largest town, was periodically occupied by Union and Confederate forces, and both sides brought hardship to local farmers and townsfolk.

Edward D. Baker of California, who fell at Ball’s Bluff, remains the only sitting U.S. senator killed in battle. Robert E. Lee entered Leesburg on September 3, 1862, en route to Maryland and the Battle of Antietam riding in an ambulance after his faithful horse, Traveler, shied and pulled him to the ground. The accident left Lee with a broken wrist.

It also was in Loudoun County where Union Colonel John White Geary’s men first used the machine gun in battle, when their “coffee mill guns” peppered Captain Elijah White’s Ranger Company near Middleburg. And unsung hero George K. Fox Jr., clerk of the court, kept the county’s records safe by personally moving them from place to place during the conflict. Thanks to Fox, Loudoun County “has a more complete set of public records than any Virginia county occupied by Union troops during the war.”

The chapter on the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, contributed by local expert James A. Morgan III, is a model campaign narrative, succinctly told in 11 focused and fast-paced pages.

Meserve’s writing is crisp and straightforward, and his narrative is full of colorful anecdotes that make localized monographs so rewarding to read—even if you happen to live thousands of miles away.

 

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here