“By God, I will support Stevens anywhere”.
So said US Army Major General Philip Kearny (pronounced CAR nee), when informed of Stevens’ need for reinforcements. General Kearny was referring to his fellow commander Brigadier General Isaac Stevens. The generals were division commanders within the Union Army of Virginia. It was September 1, 1862 and a fateful day for both men.
Just two days earlier, the Union Army of Virginia, commanded by Major General John Pope, had been defeated by General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Pope now wanted to move his force from its current location in Centreville, Virginia to the east and inside the defensive perimeter surrounding Washington, DC. To make such a move, Pope needed to secure a key road junction in Germantown, Virginia (today known as Jermantown, a neighborhood within Fairfax, Virginia). Knowing he needed to move fast, lest Lee try to cut him off and continue the fight, Pope sent forces to secure the road junction.
Lee was indeed seeking to draw Pope away from his Centreville location for a fight. He sent Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson along the Little River Turnpike to Germantown, seeking to surround Pope. After Pope received reports of skirmishes with rebel units along the turnpike, he knew the rebels were on the move. Pope sent the IX Corps, which included General Issac Stevens’s First Division, to check and hold Jackson’s movement.
A capable man, General Stevens had a unique career. A native of New England, he graduated first in his class at West Point and served in the Mexican-American War. An acquaintance and supporter of President Franklin Pierce, Stevens was named governor of the newly formed Washington Territory in 1853 where his tenure proved controversial for his use of martial law and relations with Native tribes. Nonetheless, he was elected as the Washington territory delegate to Congress in 1857.
After the First Battle of Bull Run, Stevens was again commissioned in the Army and appointed as commander of the 79th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The regiment was organized in New York City with the help of the St. Andrews society. Their uniform featured tartan patterns and took the nickname “Cameron Highlanders”.
Brigadier General Isaac Stevens
Photograph by Timothy H. Sullivan
Around 4:00 pm on September 1st, General Stevens observed rebel units covering Jackson’s main advance down the Little River Turnpike near an area known as Ox Hill. Artillery was deployed; Stevens organized his division and launched his attack through a cornfield, open meadows, and the surrounding woods. Jackson, caught by surprise, deployed his divisions as well, meeting Stevens troops with withering fire.
As the troops engaged, a ferocious thunderstorm then swept over the battlefield, adding thunder, lightning, gale force winds and a downpour to the din and confusion of battle. Despite the fire and the storm, Steven’s division continued moving against the rebels. When the attack stalled, Stevens himself picked up the colors of his former regiment, the 79th New York and rallied his soldiers proclaiming “Highlanders, my Highlanders, follow your General”. Stevens was killed almost immediately, but his troops pushed forward. After some initial success, counterattacking rebels forced Steven’s troops back.
“The Death of General Isaac Stevens during the attack on Chantilly, Virginia, 1862
Lithograph by Alonzo Chappel
It was about this time that Kearny’s division reached Ox Hill. Like Stevens, Kearny too had an unconventional career for a US Army officer, but one marked by bravery and extensive combat experience. Born into a wealthy New York family, he earned a law degree from Columbia College, but desired to serve in the military. In 1836, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant of Cavalry and three years later was sent to France and studied at the French cavalry school at Saumur.
He would return to the US where he distinguished himself during the Mexican American War, losing an arm during the Battle of Churubusco. After the war and somewhat bored with peacetime service, Kearny resigned his commission and ultimately returned to France. There he served in Napoleon III’s Imperial Guard during the Wars of Italian Unification. He led a daringly successful cavalry charge at the Battle of Solferino and became the first American to earn the French Legion of Honor.
Like Stevens, he too was again commissioned in the US Army in 1861, despite his amputated arm.
General Philip Kearny
With the thunderstorm still raging, Kearny deployed his lead brigade to engage Confederates on the western edge of the Union line. Then riding forward in the center of the line and into the cornfield, Kearny sought to gather and organize a Massachusetts regiment to close a widening gap in the Union line. Riding in front of the troops to reconnoiter, he was warned Confederate soldiers were still present. He declared “The rebel bullet that can kill me has not yet been molded”. Continuing on, he was killed by fire from a Georgia unit still occupying the cornfield.
Now well past 5:00 pm, the daylight faded and dusk drew in. With wet ammunition and unable to aim their muskets in the growing darkness, both sides resorted to hand to hand combat with fists, bayonets and rifle butts. Finally, with no light left, the exhausted and soaking wet soldiers withdrew within their lines. Arriving Union units would hold the Federal line until the pre-dawn hours of September 2nd. Then all the Federal units departed from the battlefield to continue to move east towards Washington.
During the roughly two hours of fighting, approximately 1,500 soldiers were lost, including the two adept Union generals. The battle proved inconclusive. Confederates would hold the field the next day, but Jackson was unable to reach Germantown, and Pope successfully moved his army to Washington. Lee would regroup, then head west and begin his invasion of Maryland.
What would become known as the Battle of Chantilly (or Ox Hill) occurred over approximately 500 acres of woods and fields in Fairfax County, Virginia. For a hundred years after the battle, the area remained largely rural. The one-time owner of the farm on which a large portion of the battle took place, a Confederate veteran, ceded a parcel for the erection of monuments to persons or units who fought at the battle. Monuments to both Generals Stevens and Kearny were unveiled in 1915.
As a suburb of Washington, DC, Fairfax Country continued to grow in population. Suburban development spread quickly through the area in the 1970s and 1980s encompassing much of the Chantilly battlefield. Historians, concerned citizens and local preservationists worked to protect at least a portion of the land upon which the battle was fought. Through their tremendous efforts, several donated tracks of land were assembled and ultimately transferred to Fairfax County. In 2008, the county opened Ox Hill Battlefield Park to preserve a portion of the historic battlefield amidst today’s office buildings, apartment complexes, and strip malls.
The 4.9-acre park sits on a slope. Mostly open space, a thin ribbon of trees and brush provides a slight barrier to the surrounding development. A two-mile trail loop with interpretive signs routes through the park orienting the visitor to the events of September 1, 1862 and the surrounding geography.
The park preserves a portion of the land where General Stevens rallied his troops. A small mound of boulders and a granite stone marks the spot where he fell. Local residents are drawn to the park for dog walking, bird watching and other activities. It is also the site for periodic commemorations and reenactments. Decorative benches provide a space to contemplate what was gained by saving the park, and perhaps what was lost by not acting sooner.
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The work to preserve Chantilly and subsequent efforts to save other battlefields under the threat of development ultimately led the formation of the American Battlefield Trust. The trust continues its work today preserving battlegrounds and educating the American public on the historic events which occurred there.
The American Battlefield Trust’s website is a tremendous resource on the history and current conditions at a myriad of American battlefields from the American Revolution, War of 1812 and Civil War. The Trust also produces informative apps that can be used for touring Ox Hill Park and several other battlefields.
The Ox Hill Battlefield Park is located at 4134 West Ox Road in Fairfax, VA, at the intersection of West Ox Road and Monument Drive. From Interstate 66, take Exit 55, for VA-286 north toward Herndon/Reston. From VA-286, take the ramp on the right for Fair Lakes Parkway and head toward Monument Drive. Turn right onto Monument Drive, then turn right onto West Ox Road. The park will be on the right.
Parking is limited. Visitors also may park at the county government’s Herrity Building, 12055 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax, about a 15-minute walk from the park.
If you cannot visit the Ox Hill Park in person, the Fairfax County Ox Hill Battlefield Park website offers an excellent virtual and audio tour with the interpretive signs, maps and videos from the park.
Chutzpah’s – a Real New York Deli
12214 Fairfax Town Center, Fairfax, Virginia 22033
If you want the taste of New York, without the brusqueness, consider Chutzpah’s deli before or after your visit to Ox Hill Park. Chutzpah’s is located just across Monument Drive from the park and is within walking distance. They have it all, made locally and available for either dining in or takeout.