ECW Weekender: Ox Hill (Chantilly) Battlefield

Though the battle on September 1, 1862, raged across nearly 500 acres of land, just 4.8 acres of the Ox Hill (Chantilly) Battlefield have been preserved. In fact, the loss of this battlefield in northern Virginia was one of the main incidents that sparked the modern preservation movement.

It can be tempting to overlook the lost battlefield and fragments of visible history. However, Fairfax County has invested significant funds in the interpretation of the nearly 5 acres which is now a park-like setting. A series of interpretive panels, paved walking path, benches, and preserved memorials to fallen Union generals.

The battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly) came in the aftermath of Second Manassas. After decisively pushing Union General John Pope back to Centerville, Confederate General Robert E. Lee wanted to press into a new offensive movement. “Stonewall” Jackson headed north west, then turned east, following the Little River Turnpike and marching to the flank and rear of Pope’s army. If the road network could be captured, Pope could be cut off from Washington D.C.

Both sides blundered toward the fight on September 1. Alerted to the danger of Jackson’s corps on their flank and rear, Union brigades turned to fight. The Confederates took a defensive position on Ox Hill, and Union troops attacked. Two brigades from General Reno’s IX Corps arrived under the command of General Isaac Stevens, and later in the fight General Philip Kearny’s Union division also arrived. The battle exploded during a late afternoon thunderstorm. Dramatic charges moved across open farm fields and through the cornfield, artillery shot into a local orchard, and a couple of Union regiments tangled with each other in the woods on their immediate flank.

Union General Isaac Stevens rallied the 79th New York Highlanders, urging them to charge the Confederate line again. As he rushed forward, Stevens passed his son who lay on the ground wounded. The son would survive, but the father was shot in the head moments later and died instantly.

Union General Philip Kearny took charge of the battlefield, organizing another attack. Ox Hill claimed its second Union general that day. While probing a gap in the Confederate lines, Kearny ran into enemy soldiers who demanded his surrender. The general turned to gallop back toward safety and was mortally wounded through the body, falling from his horse and dying quickly.

Stevens and Kearny memorials at Ox Hill Battlefield

The battle was inconclusive, with the Confederates holding the field in a tactical victory while the Union took the strategic victory, retreating to Washington without further serious opposition. The battle of Ox Hill serves as a connector between the summer and autumn campaigns, an ending of Pope’s Virginia campaign and a beginning to Lee’s Maryland Campaign.

If you chose to visit the preserved land of Ox Hill/Chantilly battlefield, you’ll be able to walk along part of the edge of the infamous cornfield and see the sloping knoll where Union veterans claimed Stevens and Kearny died. If you’d like a more immersive and farther reaching experience than the interpretive signs, consider checking out American Battlefield Trust’s app for Ox Hill which includes additional points of interest across the area that is now lost battlefield.

For more information about visiting Ox Hill Battlefield Park or taking a virtual tour, please visit: https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/ox-hill

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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6 Responses to ECW Weekender: Ox Hill (Chantilly) Battlefield

  1. Henry Fleming says:

    Longstreet and Lee were both present after the battle. Lee observed a deceased General Kearny with no boots on. The reb wearing Kearny’s boots was hard to give them up, the previous owner being no longer in need thereof, but obeyed orders. Had the unreinforced Union army been present the next day, they would have been hard pressed with Longstreet’s and Jackson’s men on the field. Hooker was a mile east of Jackson the day of the battle, blocking the approach to Fairfax City, but had few troops at his disposal and could not make an effective offensive initiative. During the paving over of the battlefield in 1986 a South Carolina soldier was uncovered, apparently killed in 1862 by a shot through the abdomen and buried where he died, but in 1986 returned to the Palmetto State and given a Civil War burial rite. Like that soldier the full battlefield, too, is buried – underneath a mall, condominiums, townhouses that are increasing in price, a shopping plaza, four lane highways. an interstate, some high rise buildings, an animal shelter, town dump, and signage that will soon change from “Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway” to Politically-Correct-Traffic-Jammed Boulevard. There is a small cemetery between Ox Hill battlefield and Jermantown. It is said that this is the location, the day before the battle, where Stuart’s horse artillery lobbed some shells into the retreating Union wagons for laughs. A tombstone should be placed there for the Ox Hill Battlefield, 1862-1985. Am I on a soapbox? Sorry. I close with agreement that Fairfax County has treated the paltry few remaining acres, which developers couldn’t put their claws into, very nicely and it is a nice retreat with good interpretive markers.

  2. Adam Burke says:

    This is really cool. I’ve always wanted to stop by this battlefield. In Sears’ “Lincoln’s Lieutenants,” I read about General Kearney and he sounds like a character.

  3. Ed Wenzel says:

    Henry is correct and I couldn’t agree more. Let me too get on a soapbox and make a few comments: Under pressure from patriotic Americans for whom the destruction of this battlefield and the threatened relocation of the Kearny and Stevens monuments was an outrage of mindless planning, a 4.9-acre battlefield park was eventually preserved and both monuments were retained at their historic locations. It took 22 years of effort to accomplish this task, one that County planners could have easily accommodated at the start had they cared as much about Fairfax’s Civil War heritage as they did about tax revenue and development.

    In the end, County staff worked with a citizen’s task force to design and interpret the present park. However, getting decent interpretation was an uphill pull as the staff argued for marker text written at a fifth grade level. Thanks to the Bull Run Civil War Round Table for weighing-in and insisting upon a serious interpretation of the confused battle that was fought across more than 500 acres of fields and woods. Due to the erasure of 99% of this battlefield, the whole story would have to be told from the confines of the 4.9-acre park, and this was accomplished through seven kiosk panels and nine wayside markers (plus a CW trails marker and two Virginia Historic Markers).

    It has now been fourteen years since the park opened in 2008 and it is still not finished. First, an eighth kiosk panel depicting images of four Union and four Confederate soldiers, with bio information, is in storage and not on display. Also, the two obelisks for Union and Confederate soldiers that were created to compliment the monuments to Generals Kearny and Stevens were not erected in 2017 as planned. The Park Board killed the soldier monuments and they plan to put them in a warehouse with “contextual signage.” The Board refused to tell us what was wrong with the monuments. But the one for Confederates that named the divisions and corps at Ox Hill is the obvious problem. We are certain that the monument for Union soldiers naming their divisions and corps is perfectly fine. It’s all part of the woke cancel culture and anti-Confederate hysteria that is pulling down historical monuments, driving highway and street renamings and all of the other anti-American heritage issues.

    The two soldier monuments were approved by the Park Authority Board in 2005 as part of Ox Hill’s Master Plan but no funding was then available. Following the Sesquicentennial, funding was acquired and the monuments designed and produced. The impetus for the soldier monuments was the 1915 deed of John and Mary Ballard that allotted land for the two generals’ monuments. The deed also specified that the land was for monuments to any Confederate or Federal soldier who fell in the battle. Rather than crowd the Kearny and Stevens monuments, the park planners deemed it more appropriate to situate the soldiers’ monuments at places in the park that would further the battle interpretation, and so two sites were approved beside the trail on the park’s Master Plan. However, the current Park Board has nixed the idea of placing them on the battlefield. They do this however without calling for a revision of the Master Plan as required, and not having done this, they hope that the issue will go away. We shall see.

    And there is one more item. Infrastructure. The Ox Hill Battlefield Park has become overgrown with brush and vegetation; and the rail fences have rotted to the point that they are only inches high in places and in dire need of replacement. There are other matters too that a quick inspection by park staff could easily identify. That the Park Authority has allowed Ox Hill to deteriorate to such an extent is not a good reflection on their care for this battlefield. The Bull Run Round Table will address these matters with Fairfax County soon.

    Many thanks to the ECW Weekender for highlighting Ox Hill/Chantilly. I hope these added comments will bring Civil War students up to date on the latest at Ox Hill.

    Ed Wenzel

    BTW, Gen. Lee was under artillery fire at the beginning of the fight. Riding on the seat of an ambulance (his hands were bandaged) Lee and his staff arrived near a hill on the turnpike where today’s Fairfax County Parkway crosses Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway. Dismounting from the ambulance, Lee walked up the turnpike to the top of a narrow ridge having a commanding view of the countryside. In the road were infantry of A.P. Hill’s division. From this vantage point, Lee was trying to get a feel for the tactical situation when artillery rounds began to explode around them. Across the valley, 2000 yards distant, were the guns of Benjamin’s battery (20 pdr. Parrotts). The smoke from the guns was visible above the tops of the trees. As Hill’s men dove for cover and crouched behind the bank of the road cut, Lee and his staff moved back up the turnpike out of harms way.

  4. I know Ed personally and he does not like to toot his own horn. So I will toot it for him! Ed Wenzel is one of the originators of the modern battlefield preservation movement. He is a co-founder of both the Chantilly Battlefield Association and the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, forerunner of the American Battlefield Trust. Wenzel, from Vienna, Va., also was a driving force at Manassas in the Save the Battlefield Coalition, working side by side with Annie Snyder in the late 1980s to fight and defeat a regional mall approved for the Second Manassas battlefield. Now retired as a topographic map compiler with the U.S. Geological Survey, Wenzel joined fellow Bearss Award honorees Clark B. Hall and Brian Pohanka in 1986 to form the Chantilly Battlefield Association and save 4.1 acres at that Northern Virginia battlefield. Since then, Wenzel has remained a tireless advocate for the preservation and commemoration of Civil War history, particularly in Fairfax County, Va. In 2015, Wenzel published the first volume of his authoritative Chronology of The Civil War in Fairfax County Vol. I.

  5. John Pryor says:

    Isaac Stevens came from what is now North Andover, Massachusetts, a town we moved to in 1971. A very interesting individual, combining many of the best and worse aspects of that restless age. But a fearless soldier in battle.

  6. A visit to Ox Hill was a different experience than other battlefields. It really was just like walking in any old park. Families were picnicking, parents pushing strollers along the sidewalks, and joggers and walkers were a constant. It’s like no one recognized the history around them, even with the monuments right there in front of them.

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