A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The fight to save Civil War sites from developers
Hidden in a tumble of downed trees and vines on the crest of a ridge, a Confederate brigade waits. Below, the 21st Massachusetts advances through unfamiliar territory, unaware they are climbing into an ambush. As they near, the Confederates loose a terrifying volley, much of it from less than 30 feet away. They are then stunned by the speed and intensity of the return fire. But the natural advantage of the terrain allows them to stand their ground and eventually drive the federals back.
Henry Brown, a 19-year-old private with the 21st, later wrote of the Battle of Ox Hill, of which this was a part, in a letter home: "It was a scene I shall never forget. It was wholesale murder to stand at the muzzle of the enemy's guns and have a volley poured into us. I had a very narrow escape of my life." (A Confederate shot, likely a Minié ball, had passed through his collar.) At nearby Fairfax Station, Clara Barton was tending Union wounded. In her journal she wrote: "Of a sudden, air and earth and all about us shook with one mingled crash of God's and man's artillery. The lightning played and the thunder rolled incessantly and the cannon roared louder and nearer each minute...with what desperation our men fought hour after hour in the rain and darkness!"
Henry Brown (Courtesy Mario Espinola) [LARGER IMAGE]
Almost nothing within the 300 acres of the Battle of Ox Hill was preserved during the development boom that began there in the late 1980s, despite the efforts of people like amateur archaeologist Mario Espinola, who over the past quarter century has researched the battle, documented the obliteration of the site, and protested the development. Today, traffic is always heavy on West Ox Road, one of dozens of feeder routes for the endless northern Virginia urbzone, part of a familiar lattice of asphalt and strip malls. The sound of passing cars penetrates a few acres of forgotten pine woods where the ridgeline battle took place on September 1, 1862. Recently, where the woods meet the road, there was a sign bearing notice of a public hearing to develop this last remaining parcel of battlefield. "I was wondering when that was going to happen," Espinola said. "There is no doubt that the Ox Hill battlefield was hallowed ground and should have never been developed." The next round of chain saws and bulldozers in this patch of woods is just the last chapter in an old story. In fact, it's also becoming an old story at many Civil War battlefields that are not already protected as state or federal parks.
Frank McManamon, the National Park Service's chief archaeologist, has watched the progress of this disappearing act during his 25-year career with the Interior Department. "The resource is finite. It's being used up," he says. "Unless there is some sort of preservation scheme for the landscapes and the sites embedded in them, they will be lost."
Steve Nash teaches in the journalism and environmental studies programs at the University of Richmond.