Tag Archives: Civil War

Shared Stewardship Versus Stolen History

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The citizens of Fairfax County celebrate their history and take pride in the county’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.  For this reason, when a co-worker sent me a photograph published in the January 4, 2014 edition of The Washington Post, I initially responded with distress only later tempered by introspection.  The image depicted the dark silhouette of an adolescent contrasted against a snow-brightened landscape.  The caption indicated that the young man and his father were metal detecting for, “whatever the ground will offer us,” somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Fairfax, a county-owned and operated park.  I was worried that this activity occurred on publicly-owned parkland.  For, although metal detecting is allowed on private property with the expressed consent of the landowner, it is a violation of park regulations and a Class 4 misdemeanor to use a metal detector on parkland.  According to the Virginia Antiquities Act, metal detecting on a state-designated archaeological site is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  The former is punishable by a $250.00 fine; the latter by a fine of $2500.00 and/or a year in jail.

Introspection came with the realization that otherwise concerned, well-intended, and respectful citizens sometimes engage in these activities because professional archaeologists and resource managers have been remiss in their responsibilities to engage and educate the public.  We have a poor record in returning to the community what we learn through careful, scientific study.  We often come across as boringly technical and aloof, at best.  At our worst, we are perceived as indifferent, snobbish, and elitist.  This is a huge disservice not only to our profession which relies on public support to continue in our roles; but, more importantly, rather than empower citizens as responsible stewards, oversights in public engagement can result in what is tantamount to the theft of our shared heritage.

Archaeology is a discipline of context.  We often gain our most valuable information about lives past through mundane items, casually discarded.  For an example, let me turn to the recent work of the Fairfax County Park Authority’s, Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve.  With funds derived from a land swap and dedicated to understanding our natural and cultural resources, CART has been conducting scientific archaeological studies at the park.  Recently they discovered a pit, filled and forgotten centuries in the past.  Archaeologists recognize this type of pit as almost exclusively the work of enslaved Africans and African Americans.  Careful laboratory and special analyses were conducted on the artifacts and even the soil was carefully excavated from this pit so as to preserve the context of each and every find.

The dirt contained neither Civil War memorabilia nor articles of any inherent value.  Yet, the everyday refuse within the pit proved a fount of knowledge.  Simple hand-made nails demonstrated that a structure, perhaps a kitchen, had overlaid the pit when it was in use.  Broken pottery and tobacco pipe fragments indicated that it had been filled during the mid to late 1700s.  Meticulous methods allowed CART to find the smallest of artifacts, straight pins and tiny glass beads, likely evidence of a woman’s presence.  Thousands of miniscule fish bones and scales indicated specific species of fish that were being eaten.  Analysis of seeds revealed not only the composition of the native forest at the time, but also evidenced the introduction of cultivated species for both consumption and ornamentation.  In short, professionally-led archaeological study revived the landscape and life-ways of an enslaved Fairfax woman who lived over 250 years ago and who, until now, circumstances excluded from our understanding of our shared past.

These new understandings were only possible because of the application of detailed archaeological methods designed to preserve the context of even the smallest artifacts and seeds. We are able to understand the information from this feature because we can see all of the components together. Removing objects from this assemblage paints an incomplete picture, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Recent, popular television shows and profit-driven events have romanticized metal detecting, even suggesting that its practitioners are part of the preservation process.  However, the reduction of artifacts to a monetary value or conversation pieces deteriorating on fireplace mantles wastes a non-renewable resource.  Unless done as part of a professional study and under the supervision of trained archaeologists, it deprives the many of their past for the benefit of the few. It steals our history, robbing our citizens of that which inherently belongs to all; our cultural heritage.

Our work is only possible through the support and understanding of the public we serve.  Towards this end we attempt to give back what we learn through talks to school groups and scouts, the conduct of youth summer camps, college internship programs, and participation at public and professional events and conferences.  Perhaps our best outreach comes from our active volunteer program which is essential to our success and which we invite all interested parties to join.  It is our goal that all residents will understand, enjoy, and respect our heritage and through common interested become stewardship partners.

Written by Christopher Sperling, senior archaeologist, Fairfax County Park Authority

Candlelight Tours Illuminate 200 Years of Holiday Celebrations at Sully

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It’s dark. There’s no electricity. It’s cold.


The perfect time and conditions for you to celebrate December’s holiday season.

Sully Historic Site is lighting up December’s dark with holiday spirit and inviting you to party with the shadows cast by a house aglow with candlelight.

The one-time home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress, is the centerpiece of Sully, and during the holidays there’s much to do, highlighted by the site’s annual candlelight tours. This year’s themes include a Civil War Christmas on Dec. 14, a Jane Austen Christmas on Dec. 15, and Victorian era holidays on Dec. 21. There are special tour times set aside for groups and scouts.

Register online in advance for the tour and associated events.

The candlelight tour programs, in the low light of sense-heightening evening, reach beyond the house and present 18th century life at night and Christmas customs of several different time periods.

Visitors will meet costumed characters of a past century in the house, strolling on the lawn, or at any of the outbuildings – a kitchen with open hearth cooking, a laundry, a connecting walkway, a smokehouse, a dairy and a representative slave cabin. You’ll have a chance to chat with folks who’ll convince you that you’ve stepped back in time into a small, Victorian street market lit by cresset torches, metal baskets on poles filled with burning wood that cast substantial light.

The evening is lit mostly by candlelight because that’s the way Lee’s family lived. Candlelight creates a leisurely, engaging, personal mood. You’re dropping in on friends, not watching a performance. Your volunteer hosts are experts in history, architecture, the Lee family, period clothing, candle making or period cooking.

It’s a leisurely evening that, depending on the night, could include a puppet show, dancing, music or visits with soldiers encamped in the yard.

It’s a festive scene at a festive time. Sully has stories to share from Christmases dating back to the early 1800s — more than 200 years of holidays that you’re invited to join this holiday season.

Come out this December to Sully Historic Site and be part of the third century of celebrations that turn gloomy winter skies into days filled with holiday spirit. Sully is located at 3650 Historic Sully Way in Chantilly, Va.

Co-author Barbara Ziman is the events coordinator at Sully Historic Site, and
David Ochs is the manager of Stewardship Communications in the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Civil War Sesquicentennial Event Held at Ox Hill Battlefield Park

It would perhaps be a historic understatement to say the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Ox Hill got started with a bang. The body-shaking explosion of firing cannon was a crowd favorite on a humid day of activities at Ox Hill Battlefield Park last Saturday.

Stribling’s Battery led artillery demonstrations.

Officials said Fairfax County’s signature event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial drew more than 800 people, including Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, who read the board’s proclamation declaring September 1 as “Battle of Ox Hill Day in Fairfax County.” In comments made during a presentation of flags from the 16 states represented at the battle, Bulova noted that the Ox Hill clash took place during a fierce thunderstorm that she compared to the recent derecho that inundated the county.

Sully District Supervisor Michael Frey, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, and Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity proclaim September 1 as Battle of Ox Hill Day in Fairfax County.

The day included a Civil War music concert by the Federal City Brass Band under the leadership of Principal Musician Jari Villanueva. The band, introduced by Park Authority Director John Dargle, played rotary valve instruments that were popular at the time of the Civil War. Villanueva also played Taps at the conclusion of the day’s events after John McAnaw, the past president of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table, and Ed Wenzel, trustee of the Kearny and Stevens Monuments at Ox Hill, laid a wreath at the park’s memorials for the two Union generals who died fighting for their beliefs at Ox Hill.

John McAnaw, the past president of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table, and Ed Wenzel, trustee of the Kearny and Stevens Monuments at Ox Hill, salute during the wreath laying service.

One of the day’s speakers called Ox Hill “one of the most significant Civil War sites in the country.” David Duncan, the director of Marketing and Development for the Civil War Trust, the nation’s largest non-profit organization devoted to preserving Civil War Battlefields, cited two reasons for his claim: the number of casualties that occurred at Ox Hill, and the fact that “this is where the modern Civil War battlefield preservation movement was started.” He credited Wenzel and McAnaw for leading the preservation of Ox Hill, adding that “This is a tremendous legacy.” Referring to the memory of those who fought in the Fairfax County clash, Duncan told Wenzel and McAnaw, “You not only saved the ground. You saved the battle.”

Duncan encouraged his audience to support Ox Hill and similar parks, saying: “We are the last generation that will have the opportunity to save these places. We have the obligation to save all we can.” Duncan added that people will come to Ox Hill long after the passing of the current generation and say, “Thank goodness somebody cared enough to save a place like this.”

Park Authority Board Chairman Bill Bouie said “Saving a piece of the original battleground was the right thing to do.” He called the site “sacred ground” and “a place to experience living history.”

Chairman of the Park Authority Board Bill Bouie saving a piece of the Ox Hill Battlefield was the right thing to do.

Sully District Supervisor Michael Frey, who has a long history with Ox Hill events, said, “The Friends of Ox Hill Battlefield Park worked very hard to preserve the site.”  He called it “a phenomenal place for memories to honor the soldiers who fell,” and he thanked the preservationists for their efforts.

Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity noted that Ox Hill is part of a county “rich in Civil War history.”

Sgt. Matthew Devor of Stribling’s Battery asked spectators to cover their ears to lower the impact of the pounding sound from the artillery demonstration. The firing was followed after each presentation throughout the day by a sudden “ahhh” from the crowd as spectators jumped in surprise that the cannon’s firing was as loud as Devor had warned it would be. That was followed by the rolling, thunderous echo of the explosion, the sting of smoke in nostrils and then, without fail, a round of applause.

Sgt. Matthew Devor of Stribling’s Battery warns the crowd to cover their ears.

Paula Elsey, the chair of the Ox Hill 150th Signature Event Planning Committee, said, “Our goal was to, from the first planning meeting in 2010, not only commemorate the lives lost, but to design a day-long program that would bring the day’s events to the 21st century people of Fairfax County.” To that end, the program successfully appealed to children, casual observers, history buffs and history scholars. The commemoration included musket firing demonstrations, a kids’ craft tent, opportunities for children to take part in drills, a Civil War re-enactors camp and medicine display, artifacts, and more than a dozen booths hosted by history organizations.

Children played old-fashioned games and made straw soldiers.

Work at Ox Hill Battlefield Park will continue in coming years. The next planned steps are an additional interpretive panel at the park’s kiosk presenting information about soldiers who fought at Ox Hill and then a pair of memorials to those soldiers. Elsey said, “That’s part of carrying the memory forward.”

Winston Churchill once said of battlefields, “No one can understand what happened merely through reading books and studying maps. You must see the ground; you must cover the distances in person.” Your understanding of Ox Hill and the Civil War will get a boost with a tour of the park at the intersection of Monument Drive and West Ox Road.  Visit the Park Authority website and learn about Ox Hill Battlefield.  Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the past through the site’s audio tour of the park, an informative guide.

Written by Dave Ochs, manager, Stewardship Communications

Jari Villanueva of the Federal City Brass Band plays taps during the wreath laying ceremony.