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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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