Thursday, July 6, 2017

Falls Church, Virginia: Occupied by the Enemy

Last summer I went to the historic Episcopal church in Falls Church, Virginia, to photograph the New York memorial stone for the Honor Roll Project, managed by Heather Wilkinson Rojo, author of Nutfield Genealogy.  I was also curious to learn why Union soldiers from New York were buried in a cemetery in Virginia, which was part of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. I discovered Falls Church was occupied for most of the war by Union troops and its citizens lived under difficult conditions.

Falls Church was occupied by the U.S. 2nd Cavalry on 19 June 1861. A few days later Thaddeus Lowe brought a balloon to Taylor's Tavern and made three ascents to monitor rebel army movements around Fairfax Courthouse. In mid July 35,000 union troops marched through Falls Church on their way to the first Battle of Bull Run (Battle of Manassas if you are from the South), where the federal troops were routed, retreating back to Arlington Heights. After the battle, they patrolled and picketed around Falls Church.

In late August and early September Confederate officers Longstreet and Stuart occupied Munson's Hill (about three miles southeast of Falls Church) and Falls Church. It is believed Longstreet established his headquarters in the town. There were daily battles between the enemy forces in the peach orchards on the eastern slope of Munson's Hill. Thaddeus Lowe ascended from Ball's cross roads (present day Ballston) with union soldiers, who directed artillery fire using signal flags from the air.

Munson's Hill; drawing courtesy of Wikipedia

As September turned in October, rebel troops left the area for their winter camp near Centreville and federal troops re-occupied Falls Church. During the winter of 1861-82, union troops and engineers built several forts -- Buffalo, Munson, Ramsay, and Taylor -- on the hills in and around the town. Entrenchments were also built facing the south and west of Falls Church.

On 20 November 1861, Gen. McClellan held a "grand review," which was attended by President Lincoln near Falls Church. After the event, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe was so stirred with emotion she wrote the words we now sing for the Battle Hymn of the Republic.[1]

The Union Army and home guard occupied Falls Church for the remainder of the war. The Old Episcopal Church, which was built in 1769 was used during one period as a stable. However, I think perhaps it was used as hospital directly after the First Battle of Bull Run as Manassas and Falls Church were connected by railroads. That may be why the 23 men from New York units are buried in the church cemetery. Most of the men served with the 20th New York State Militia, which only served for three months at the beginning of the Civil War.

The church now known as the Old Episcopal Church during the Civil War;
photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Old Episcopal Church in 2016; personal collection

[1] The music is from John Brown's Body, originally known as John Brown's Song, a marching song about abolitionist John Brown and popular with Union troops during the Civil War.

Honor Roll: Falls Church, Virginia, New York Memorial Stone
Honor Roll Project

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