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Civil War Sites in Loudoun County, Virginia

With the start of the Civil War Sesquicentennial this year, the war between the states is being commemorated with special events, exhibits and reenactments.

There are many well-known battlegrounds to visit: Gettysburg, of course, Antietam, Bull Run and, where it all began, Fort Sumter.

But those memorials can be jammed with tour buses. An alternative is to visit less crowded sites in Virginia where a third of all Civil War battlefield encounters took place.

That so many battles were fought in Virginia makes sense when you look at the map. If you were the Confederate army, Virginia was the border state that put you within striking distance of Washington, D.C. For the North, the capitol of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia was a tempting target.

Twenty five miles west of Washington, Loudoun County offers many advantages for travelers who want to visit Civil War sites. 

Even before visiting in person, online sites offer immersive views with videos and 360-panoramas of Civil War locations. During the year, events are planned to coincide with historical moments, offering reenactments, lectures, exhibits, and--a personal favorite--historical interpreters who dress in period wardrobe and take on the identities of people who lived at the time, in that place.

The memorial sites in the county lack the celebrity of Gettysburg and Antietam. But a visit to Mt. Zion Church, Ball's Bluff, Aldie Mill, Morven Park, Oatlands, the Quaker village of Waterford and the Red Fox Inn puts a personal point of view on the War that as so many have said, "transformed us from 'we the states' to 'we the people'."

For an overview of the conflict, "A Citizen's Guide to Loudoun and the Civil War" lays out the history clearly and can be requested from the contact section of the Visit Loudon web site.

The Northern Virginia Regional Parks Association has links to Civil war events and sites, as does the Visit Loudoun web site. Included on the Loudoun site are links to Guided and Self-Guided Heritage Tours with itineraries organized around day trips.

A local historian, Richard Gillespie recommends combining history with pleasure.

He describes a day that mixes visits to Civil War historical sites with horse country eventseating at local restaurants like the Hunter's Head Tavern or the Red Fox Inn where Confederate spies held strategy meetings and doing some wine tasting at any of the twenty-nine wineries in the county, including the award winning Boxwood Winery or Bluemont Vineyard located high on the side of a hill with views of Washington, D.C. in the distance.

During the Civil War Sesquicentennial there will be re-enactments to commemorate events that happened 150 years ago. Of particular note in Loudoun County was the Battle of Ball's Bluffa traumatic defeat for the Union army which underestimated the size of the Confederate force that had gathered around Leesburg. Forced back along the bluff, hundreds of Union soldiers drowned when they were driven off the bluff into the Potomac River below.

On Saturday, October 22, 2011, the battle will be re-enacted by 1,000 participants.  Attendance will be limited to 3,000.

Other online sites have descriptions and maps of driving tours, with or without guides: Crossroads of Conflict, Journey Through Hallowed Ground and Mosby's Confederacy Tours.

Speaking of Mosby, if you are in the area, you will doubtless encounter the name Colonel John S. Mosby, otherwise known as the "Gray Ghost."

An early practitioner of what today we call special forces, Mosby was a Confederate officer who asked to be assigned to Loudoun County so he could harass Union forces using hit and run tactics.

He argued that a small, aggressive force would create such havoc that valuable resources and manpower would have to be diverted to track him down. Commanding a troop of men, living in homes and barns, his tactics worked. The Union army dedicated more than 14,000 soldiers in an effort to capture Mosby and his Rangers. Which they never did.

After the war, well-regarded by both sides, he became a close friend of President Ulysses S. Grant.

His exploits were so legendary for their fearlessness and audacity, one of the major thoroughfares in the southern part of the county--Route 50--is named the John S. Mosby Highway.

Except for a plaque or marker, many Civil War battle sites are undistinguished. A meadow with peacefully grazing cattle can be the site of a horrific battle where hundreds of lives were lost. Or a church with peeling paint could turn out to be where Confederate spies gathered to plan an important attack on Union forces.

The Aldie Mill on Route 50 looks like many other mills in the area. But talk with one of the men or women dressed in period costumes and Civil War history comes alive in dramatic fashion.

The "historical representatives" take on the character of real people from the period. On a recent visit, C.M. Piggott, a retired government worker from nearby Purcellville was dressed as a member of Mosby's Rangers and talked about Mosby's surprise capture of a troop of Union soldiers who were garrisoned at the mill.

Blaine A. Horton, a young teacher from North Folk, told the story of Daniel Dangerfield, a slave who escaped from the mill. Eventually he was captured in Philadelphia where he was living as a free man. The plantation owner who said Daniel belonged to him wanted him returned to slavery. The ensuing hearing in Philadelphia led to such civil unrest by Abolitionists that the judge-commissioner ruled against the plantation owner. All this happened five years before the start of the Civil War.

Standing in front of the mill's quietly turning water wheel, who would have guessed at that history without the help of an historical representative.

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