Ox Hill/Chantilly Battlefield Is Moving Toward Being A Full Park
By Deborah Fitts
FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. - For nearly 20 years Ox Hill (or
Chantilly) has been the poster child for a battlefield that gets no
respect. But at long last Fairfax County officials are preparing to
make good on a promise to create a fully interpreted battlefield
park. - even if only 5 acres are all that's left.
In January the Fairfax County Park Authority approved a first-ever
general management plan for the park. A four-member panel was named
to begin drafting interpretive exhibits. And in May the county let a
contract for engineering and site design, with actual work to lay out
the park expected next year.
The sudden burst of activity is remarkable for a tiny scrap of
battlefield that was all but overwhelmed by the rapid urban
development that swept this Washington suburb in the 1980s and 90s.
High-rise office buildings, four-lane highways, shopping malls and
rows of townhouses have obliterated nearly all of the ground where
15,500 Union and Confederate troops clashed in a driving thunderstorm
Sept. 1, 1862.
And although in the 1980s Chantilly became the poster child for a
battlefield lost to development, the dogged struggle by a few
individuals who were determined to save what they could has paid off.
"We can hardly believe it," said Ed Wenzel of the Chantilly
Battlefield Association. "It seems like we're finally on track after
all these years." For the last two decades Wenzel has spearheaded the
effort to create and interpret the small park.
"Obviously, the battlefield's been destroyed," he said. "We've got
1.5 percent of the heavy combat area. That's minuscule. You can't
interpret a battle from a postage-stamp park.
"But we have a critical piece of the battlefield at the core area,
where [Union Gen. Isaac] Stevens was killed. And if you can recreate
the farm fields and re-erect the fences, we're envisioning a time
warp here, where you can walk into 1862."
Supporters of the park have always been fortunate in that, in 1885,
the site of Stevens's death was marked by a pile of boulders. (The
pile remains today.) The diminutive general was killed as he charged
through a meadow at the head of his troops, carrying the national
flag, against Confederates massed in the woods.
In 1915 two granite monuments were erected near the pile of boulders
to Stevens and also to the one-armed Union Gen. Philip Kearny, who,
later in the battle, was shot dead from his horse in a cornfield 150
yards west of the park.
So in the early 1980s when developers came calling with big plans for
the land along U.S. 50 and West Ox Road, the monuments gave
preservationists a rallying point. A proposal by developers to move
the monuments provoked a backlash, and they eventually agreed to
leave the stones be and to donate to the county 2.4 acres for a
battlefield park. In 1994 the county acquired an adjoining 2.4 acres,
and the park was born.
Ten years would pass in relative inactivity, however, with the park
authority's attention focused on recreational areas and other sites
in the county's sprawling park system.
Irish Grandfield, project manager for the Ox Hill Battlefield Park
master plan, acknowledged in mid-May, "There were higher priorities
of the county. It wasn't that it was totally ignored. In the first 10
years we did what we could to preserve what little remained of the
battlefield. But there's a serious commitment at this point to plan
and develop the park site."
Grandfield said the creation of the park "is largely to Ed Wenzel's
credit, and the Chantilly Battlefield Association. They did a good
job of showing the importance of the resource, and the park authority
agreed." The tiny battlefield organization has since its inception in
1986 consisted of Civil War preservationists Wenzel, Brian Pohanka,
Clark B. "Bud" Hall and the Bull Run Civil War Round Table.
Plans for the park include a small parking area, an interpretive
kiosk, a walking trail, and reconstruction of two fences that will
follow the original fence lines of the meadow and the adjacent
cornfield. Selected brush and trees will be removed to recreate the
open ground of 1862. And the lawn will be replaced with some sort of
suitable grasses to designate the meadow and cornfield.
Wenzel noted the good fortune in having portions of two of the
battlefield's most important fence lines included within the park.
"Once those fences are up, the visitor entering the park will be
instantly oriented to the battlefield," Wenzel said. "All the maps
show the fences - even though the sliver of cornfield that we have,
at the western edge of the park, is fairly small."
Wenzel is also planning a private fundraising initiative to erect two
granite obelisks to the Union and Confederate casualties at Ox Hill.
The county has $274,000 available for the park, which has an
estimated price tag of $400,000. Grandfield said he was "very
optimistic" that the shortfall would be found elsewhere in the park
Wenzel is serving on the four-member panel that will draft the
interpretive exhibits. He indicated that he intends to do what he can
to ensure that the county pursues the park plan appropriately.
Ox Hill, or Chantilly, "was the only major battle fought in Fairfax
County," Wenzel said. "We need to protect what we have and do it up
(Deborah Fitts is the wife of Chantilly Battlefield Association
director Bud Hall.)