Hunter Mill Corridor: A Civil War History
A look back at the area in honor of the Civil War's sesquicentennial
To many, Hunter Mill Road is nothing but a traffic headache during rush hour. But to history buffs, it's a haven for stories of the Hunter Mill Corridor's past, much of which is tied to the Civil War because it served as a major roadway for both Union and Confederate armies.
The road saw guerilla warfare, families fleeing for safety and the decimation of its farmland. It endured the "Gray Ghost," the execution of a reverend and troops occupying family homes.
With Confederate forces camped out around Manassas and Centreville, Union forces set up in the Arlington area and continual troop movements between Washington, D.C., and Leesburg, the corridor served as relatively desirable campgrounds with Difficult Run providing water and the railroad (now known as the Washington and Old Dominion Trail) offering a pathway — even after General Robert E. Lee's army destroyed parts of it west of Vienna.
And perhaps most importantly, Hunter Mill Road was one of the main pathways to the Fairfax County Courthouse — a significant supply outpost throughout the Civil War — which would be controlled by the Confederacy at the beginning of the war and the Union by the end of it.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first shots of the Civil War in April 1861. In 2009, Fairfax County History Commission erected a historical marker in honor of Hunter Mill Road's importance.
Part of the marker reads, "Farm families sympathetic to Union and Confederate forces contributed to great tension in the area. The corridor provided an abundance of water and rich farmland for foraging, which were essential to support the movement and encampment of armies and cavalry."
The family life of those in the Hunter Mill corridor is the real story, said Jim Lewis Jr., a local historian who wrote "Forgotten Roads of the Hunter Mill Road Corridor" and compiled information for a self-guided tour of Hunter Mill Road's significance in Civil War history.
With many families from the northeast having moved to Northern Virginia in the 1840s and 1850s, the area was split between Northern and Southern sympathizers. Because occupation of the corridor went back and forth between the Union and the Confederacy, residents fled based on which side had control.
"When the secession vote happened, there were no secret ballots," Lewis said. "So everyone knew exactly whose side you were on and many problems arose from that, as you can imagine."
With the corridor filled with farmland, many of those who fled would return to tend the land to try to prevent complete decimation when the war would finally end. But that risk did not pay off in most cases, as soldiers often took shelter, food and goods, leaving little for families once they returned.
"They had to try to salvage what they could," Lewis said. "But people were in and out of the area throughout the war, and especially in the first year or so. The area was not static, at all."
Perhaps the most terrifying part of living in the corridor during the Civil War was knowing the "Gray Ghost" was out there with his Partisan Rangers, ready to take revenge on those who sympathized with the North.
Col. John Singleton Mosby, also known as the "Gray Ghost," and his crew that would operate with 20 to 80 men using guerilla tactics, would target active Union supporters and either capture or kill them.
The Reverend John B. Read, the pastor of First Falls Church Baptist Church, was killed by the Rangers.
Read aided Union troops using a black man to pass along his messages. Mosby and his men captured the black man, who told them of Read's involvement. Read ignored warnings from the Rangers, so Mosby's men tracked him down and killed him on what is now the W&OD trail, near Difficult Run where Hunter's Mill used to stand.
"Northerners in the area stayed away because of Mosby and his people. He really terrorized the area and had them frightened," Lewis said.
Flint Hill Cemetery, located next to Oakton Church of the Brethren, includes 25 headstones for Civil War veterans — both Union and Confederate soldiers. Jones Cemetery, located on Hunt Country Lane off Hunter Mill Road, used to include a mass grave where Confederate soldiers who died of disease were buried. Those men have since been reinterred at Fairfax Cemetery.
"Everywhere you turn around here, something happened, Civil War or not," said Lewis, who conducts bus tours on the history of the corridor. "I continually hear, 'I've lived here all my life and I never knew.' And I love to hear that because now they do."