Fairfax Court House, Civil War Mecca
Civil War, Fairfax Court House
By Edward Coleman Trexler, Jr.
James River Valley Publishing
$18.00, 230 pages, illustrated
In Charleston, SC, you have Fort Sumter, where the opening salvos of the Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861. In Baltimore, MD, there is President Street Station, Camden Station and the route in between along the Inner Harbor and Pratt Street, where the first bloodshed of the War Between the States occurred on April 19, 1861. Many of the other first momentous events of that War happened around or close to Fairfax Court House (FCH), from its occupation by Virginia (Confederate) home guards in April-May 1861 until its permanent occupation by Union forces in February 1862.
Edward Coleman Trexler, Jr., a descendant of some of the first families of Virginia and author of two previous Virginia histories (Descendants of Conquest, Families of the James River Valley of Virginia and Endowed by the Creator, Families of Fairfax Court House, Virginia) has taken on a monumental task of detailing a seeming back water (when compared to destinations like Gettysburg and Antietam) of the Civil War, but a location where many firsts of the War occurred.
Fairfax Court House was the front line of Confederate defenses during the first 10 months of the War and many important events took place there. Private Peyton Anderson became the first Confederate soldier to shed his blood, while on picket duty on May 27, 1861. A Union cavalry raid occurred May 31-June 1, 1861, which resulted in the death of Captain John Quincy Marr, the first Confederate officer killed in the War. On the same day, General P.G.T. Beauregard, the hero of Charleston, came to take over the defenses. He brought in South Carolina forces as the first regular troops in the area. These forces attacked a Union troop train in the nearby village of Vienna, where an unusual event happened. In his report, Union General Robert Schenck wrote: “the whole force attacking us was at least 2,000, as follows: South Carolina Troops, 800: … and in addition to these, was a body of 150 armed picked negroes, who were observed by us, as they lay flat in the grain and did not fire a shot.”
So the first mention of black troops in the War Between the States were fighting for the Confederacy!
By the end of June, Beauregard had his advanced forces at FCH, with his main body of men about 15 miles further southwest at Manassas. He wanted to concentrate his men at FCH. The final plan agreed upon was to have his forces first fall back to Centreville, then further to the fords at Bull Run (Manassas). It was this period (July 16 to July 21) that the Union army marched west to Manassas, where it was defeated by Confederate forces, and retreated back through FCH, which was back under Confederate control by July 23. It was there that by September Gen. Beauregard set up the headquarters of his Army of the Potomac.
By the end of the year, two important events took place at FCH. Because of the confusion at Manassas battlefield, especially between the Star Spangled Banner and the Stars and Bars, Gen. Beauregard felt it necessary to implement a new flag that would be greatly different from the Union banner. The Confederate Congress rejected his suggestion. But he met at FCH with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and agreed on a banner to be used as a battle flag; in the X of the St. Andrew’s Cross, with a red background, blue cross bars and white stars. Thus was the Confederate Battle Flag born.
At about the same time (September 30 to October 3), President Jefferson Davis visited his generals and troops at FCH. Gen. Beauregard set forth his audacious plan to mass Confederate forces at FCH and attack the federal capital in Washington. He preferred the bold, but risky move to the certainty of unrest, dissension, and sickness by wintering in idleness. Davis did not believe that the men and materiel sufficient to conquer the Northern Capital could be brought to FCH. Many military historians who believe that Davis’ failure to switch to an offensive mode at this conference was the pivotal decision of the war have constantly examined the proceedings of this meeting. Some say that the Confederacy’s best chance at victory would have occurred if the defeated Union troops had been followed into Washington after the Battle of Manassas in July!
As a result of the October Conference, General Beauregard moved his main forces back to Centreville for the winter, with advanced troops still in the FCH vicinity. On March 10, 1862, Union forces entered FCH and would remain there for the remainder of the war. In March 1862, Union General George McClellan held his ‘War Council of Generals’ at FCH, where he was commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. So FHC had been headquarters for Confederate and Union Armies of the Potomac. The Union Army kept its name until the end of the War; the Confederate name disappeared and became the Army of Northern Virginia.
For the rest of the War, FCH became a Union staging area, especially as the events leading to Antietam in September 1862 and Gettysburg in July 1863 swirled around it. The major event was the capture of Union General Stoughton by John Singleton Mosby and his Partisan Rangers on March 9, 1863. Mosby and his men remained a thorn in the side of the Union as they raided throughout Fairfax and Loudon Counties until the end of the war.
After the war, Fairfax Court House settled back into the quiet Virginia countryside. We should be grateful that Mr. Trexler has made this fine contribution to Civil War history. He treats both sides of the conflict with respect and honor, and has rescued an area that thousands drive through every day, on their way to work in Washington, DC, not knowing the important history they are rumbling past.
William Connery is a freelance writer in Alexandria, VA. He has written and spoken on various WBTS topics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.