Not too long ago, if you blinked as you drove down one crowded stretch of Route 608 in Fairfax County, Virginia, you were likely to miss a small, ragged plot of land generously called Ox Hill Battlefield Park.
Ed Wenzel and a small group of Civil War enthusiasts in Northern Virginia, including the late Brian Pohanka and venerable Clark “Bud” Hall, knew that feeling well. For some time, they had watched as the site of one of the war’s most notable, yet strangely forgotten, battles was being overrun by large commercial and residential developers, given a pass by seemingly indifferent government officials. They realized they had to do something.
The Battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly) was fought during a blinding thunderstorm on September 1, 1862, two days after the Second Battle of Bull Run and 16 days before the Battle of Antietam. About 15,000 Confederates under the guidance of such famed generals as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, A.P. Hill, J.E.B. Stuart and Maxcy Gregg squared off against 6,000 Federal troops on 500 acres of partially wooded farmland; the Union would lose two of its most revered generals in heroic fashion that day: Isaac Stevens and the one-armed Philip Kearny.
The engagement ended in a draw, but the Federals succeeded in preventing Jackson’s men from overtaking John Pope’s retreating army at Fairfax Court House and perhaps even continuing on to threaten Washington, D.C., itself.
Since Ox Hill was the only major Civil War action to take place in Fairfax County, Wenzel was mystified that the county government had made no effort over the years to preserve its legacy. Hall, Pohanka and Wenzel joined forces to form the Chantilly Battlefield Association (CBA) and, aided by a handful of eager volunteers, began what would become a 22-year quest to right a wrong.
When the CBA formed in 1986, developers owned nearly all of the battlefield’s original 500 acres and were intending to move two disregarded monuments to Kearny and Stevens, erected in 1915, to a small “historic park” being planned nearby. The developers eventually agreed to establish the park on a 2.4-acre parcel of land surrounding the monuments and proffered $110,000 for park improvements. The CBA also hounded government officials to purchase an adjacent 2.4-acre lot that doubled the park’s size.
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On September 1, 2008—the 146th anniversary of the battle—Wenzel was among several representatives to christen the new Ox Hill Battlefield Park at the corner of West Ox Road (Route 608) and Monument Drive. The park, formerly overgrown by an erratic assemblage of oak, pine and poplar trees, is much brighter and more wide open now, to match this portion of the original battlefield. It contains three new snake-rail fence segments and a 1/4-mile circular stone-paver trail lined with wayside markers that provide a thorough interpretation of the battle—a rarity for most battlefields this size. Three hexagonal informational kiosks next to a paved parking lot provide additional insight not only into the battle but the entire war in the Washington area.
Efforts are underway to re-create a portion of the Reid Farm cornfield that was the site of much of the fighting, and was where Kearny was killed. Broomsage has been planted to give the impression that corn is growing there. Sites are also reserved for separate monuments recognizing the Confederate and Union forces that were engaged at Ox Hill, which the CBA hopes will be in place by the battle’s 2012 sesquicentennial.
“Our goal was to save what we could [of this battlefield] and try to re-create a 19th-century Civil War landscape in the midst of modern, urban Fairfax,” Wenzel said. “We want visitors to enter the park and escape the noisy, congested world outside; enter a time warp, so to speak, and emerge on a Fairfax County farm in 1862, where brave men would sacrifice and die in the greatest struggle of our nation’s history.
“The Ox Hill Battlefield Park may be small, but…it will take you back in time. A photographer’s lens may capture a glimpse of the 21st century outside the park, but within the calm and quiet of the protected acreage, you will be able…to go back to that stormy day in history. That’s the best we can do with the land that we have.”