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Hunter Mill Road: Historic Corridor of the Civil War

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Today, cars and trucks whiz north and south along the slightly more than seven miles of Hunter Mill Road north of Oakton, Virginia. Cyclists, joggers and pedestrians on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail cross the road near an historic marker that tells of the area’s important role during the Civil War.

Nearly 160 years ago, troops from both the Union and Confederate armies marched through and camped along the Hunter Mill Road corridor on their way to and from some of the most important battles of the Civil War: Bull Run (also known as the Battle of Manassas), Antietam and Gettysburg.

Local resident and Civil War historian Jim Lewis gave roughly 200 AARP members and guests from around the country a virtual tour of the area as part of the Tuesday Explorers program sponsored by AARP Virginia.

What makes the tour relevant today is that many of the buildings and virtually all of the roads that existed during the Civil War are still in use today, although their forms may have changed over the past decades.

While the corridor is not as famous as some of the nearby major battles, it was a well-known battleground during the Civil War, as Lewis demonstrated early in his talk while showing an illustration from the Dec. 21 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicting the “Skirmish Near Hunter’s Mill, Va.” that had occurred on Nov. 26.

The Hunter Mill Road corridor was an important thoroughfare during the war because it ran almost perfectly north and south between Fairfax Court House and Dranesville, Va.  The Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad ran due east and west in 1860—along what is now the W&OD Trail--but Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered its destruction and the tracks were torn up at Vienna heading west. Still wagons and horses used the east-west path.

Because of the plentiful streams in the area, three mills existed along the Hunter Mill corridor.

Less than two months after the Civil War began, an inconclusive battle occurred at Fairfax Court House. But by 1863 the area was largely under Union control and the town was used as a Union staging and supply area.  More than 60 generals, including 15 officers who later became generals, were stationed or passed through the area during the war. 

On the Union side, they included such leaders as Gens. Joseph Hooker and George Meade. On the Confederate side, they included Gens. J.E.B. Stuart and Wade Hampton III, as well as Col. John Mosby, who became famous as the leader of a partisan group in the area now known as Mosby’s Raiders.

The virtual tour started at the southern end of Hunter Hill corridor in Flint Hill, now part of Oakton, where a large oak tree—estimated to be 250 to 300 years old—is the last remnant of an oak grove. The tree is known as the “Witness Tree” because it has witnessed so much history in the area and as Mosby’s Oak because his raiders would often assembly there.  It was also here that Mosby had an encounter with Alexander Haight, a Quaker sympathizer of the Union cause.  The encounter ended when Haight was able to gallop away on a fast horse. He later joined the Union army.

North of the tree is The Blue House, where members of the Hunter Mill Defense League‑‑formed in 1985 to preserve the area’s historical nature from encroaching development‑‑interviewed an owner of the house who uncovered a buried box full of Confederate money.  The money is believed to have been designated for the purchase of horses in the early part of the war.

Lewis noted how Mosby’s guerrilla’s specialized in capturing horses and how even President Abraham Lincoln bemoaned the loss of horses to the raiders.

Among the historic houses along the road, Lewis mentioned the Peck house, where a skirmish occurred on March 7, 1862.  Mrs. Peck was known for providing breakfasts to Confederate scouts.  That morning, Union cavalry attacked, resulting in the death of a Union captain and a Confederate soldier.

Further north was the Brooke house, near where on Nov. 26, 1861 a Union cavalry was attacked by Confederate cavalry led by J.E.B. Stuart.  It was his first cavalry engagement against Union forces.

Lewis displayed a photo of Civil War-era artifacts found in Hidden Valley along the Hunter Mill corridor where horses that had been obtained by the Confederate forces were kept and rehabilitated.  Among the artifacts were blacksmith equipment, a gold watch, thimble and small musical instruments.

Hunter Mill Road crosses a stream known as Difficult Run where, on March 9, 1862 roughly 15,000 Union soldiers were encamped. Among their leaders were Gens. George Meade (who became the commander of Union forces just days before the Battle of Gettysburg), Edward Ord and John Reynolds, the first Union general to die at Gettysburg.  Also there was war correspondent George Alfred Townsend.

At the crossing where the W&OD Trail now intersects with Hunter Mill Road, Union forces set up a picket post to observe the Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampton station.  Mosby’s forces attacked the site three times.

An historic marker at the intersection notes that Union and Confederate forces passed by the site within a day of each other on their way to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Farther up the road is a house that was originally built around 1750 as a hunting lodge for then Lord Fairfax. It served as a hospital for Union forces recovering from the October 1861 Battle of Dranesville and served for a short time as Meade’s headquarters.  It also was used more than a century later as a CIA safe house, Lewis said.

Near the hospital, numerous Confederate artifacts have been unearthed over the years.

Nearby is the Cartersville Church and school, which has an important history in the Black community. A short distance away lies the grave of Rose Carter, a free Black woman who donated the land in 1903.

A later resident of the Hunter Mill Road corridor was Arthur Godfrey, a radio and television entertainer whose career spanned the 1930s to the 1950s.  Godfrey used his popularity to raise money to purchase a bus to take children from the area to a school in Vienna because they could not afford the bus fare.

Lewis showed photos of earthworks and a cannon ball that was part of a cannon assembly positioned along the corridor within range of the railroad line.

He also showed a photo of a field where an historic marker tells the tale of how Union forces camped there on June 17, 1863 on their way to Gettysburg.  It was the hottest day of the year in the area and the grass literally caught on fire choking horses and men camped there.

Lewis has been giving tours in the area and has given more than 60 live tours of the Hunter Mill Road corridor.

For more information about the Hunter Mill Road Corridor, please visit the Hunter Mill Defense League: www.HMDL.org

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