ABOVE PHOTO: Marine Corps Museum
By Renée S. Gordon
As a person who is constantly on the road I am often asked if I ever revisit destinations and why? I do return to places I have been for a variety of reasons including the fact that there are always new experiences to be had. In the case of museums and historic sites ongoing research, new interpretations and current events strongly influence exhibits and tours. I can truthfully state that I have never been to the same place twice.
Loudon County–25-miles from Washington, DC, is a showcase of tiny villages and quaint towns nestled among the rolling hills and country roads, each with a unique story to share. This historic county was originally a portion of the acreage deeded to the Fairfax Proprietary in 1649 by England’s king. The land was divided into counties with Fairfax being created in 1742. Loudon was separated from Fairfax by the House of Burgesses and named in honor of John Campbell, fourth Earl of Loudon, 15-years later.
Settlers from northern colonies migrated into Loudon in the 1720s and many began tobacco plantations. When the British invaded Washington during the War of 1812 President James Madison was temporarily sheltered in Ashburn, VA on Belmont Plantation. The restored Federal mansion is privately owned and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The founding documents were taken to the nearby Rokeby Mansion and legend has it that the Declaration of Independence was hidden in the cellar.
Again in the 1860s Loudon County was in the midst of American history. The Civil War divided Loudon just as it had divided the nation. In general the southern area of the county was pro-secessionist while the other sections were pro-Union.
On October 21, 1861 Leesburg was the site of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. The battle on the Potomac was an overwhelming victory for the South with the Union loss being attributed to incorrect information. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the future longest serving Supreme Court Justice, was severely wounded. There were 1,070 casualties with 921 being Union soldiers. The debacle led to the establishment in December of 1861 of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War to oversee staffing and strategy. The Ball’s Bluff Battlefield is undergoing restoration but there are interpretive signs and hiking trails. A self-guided audio tour can be downloaded at the website. www.nvrpa.org/park/ball_s_bluff`
Loudon County has always been referred to as horse country. It has the third largest horse population in the country and is home to the Upperville Colt &Horse Show, the oldest in the US. It should come as no surprise that it has a strong Civil War cavalry history. www.visitloudoun.org
Lieutenant Colonel Elijah White of Leesburg enlisted as a private at the onset of the war but based on his capture of nearly 300 Union soldiers at Balls Bluff he was permitted to start an independent unit, the Laurel Brigade, known as the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. Their exploits were legendary. White refused to surrender at Appomattox and did not disband his unit or sign his parole until May of 1865.
Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby was headquartered in Loudon. The “Gray Ghost” and his rangers were guerrilla fighters operating nearly autonomously to dispirit, harass and obstruct the opposition forces. He was notorious for both his “blitzkrieg” attacks and his flamboyant manner of dress. A Mosby Heritage Area has been created to facilitate travel through the region impacted by the Civil War. You can plan a tour online. www.mosbyheritagearea.org/ridewithmosby
The county is home to six Historic and Cultural Conservation Districts and a Historic Roadway District with 32 rural roads. The Journey Through Hallowed Ground covers the county as it travels its 180-mile long course from Gettysburg, PA to Monticello, Jefferson’s estate near Charlottesville, VA. www.hallowedground.org
Loudon is DC’s Wine Country. The wineries have been divided into five driving clusters to maximize visitor’s pleasure. Each winery offers a singular experience that may include tastings, fine dining, festivals, events, winemaking lessons and grape stomping. Destination dining and stays in regional bed and breakfasts or other historic accommodations can be arranged to elevate your visit beyond the ordinary. Additionally visitors can pair their wine tasting with a fine cigar by following the Virginia Wine and Cigar Trail. www.vawineandcigar.com
Wine Country has 14 Destination Restaurants that were selected by a jury based on the exceptional quality of the food, the use of locally grown products and cultural authenticity. Magnolia’s at the Mill, Maggie’s, is in Purcellville. Located inside a 1905 restored mill it provides a quintessential look at life in a picturesque Northern VA town, a culinary treat and an impressive wine list. www.magnoliasmill.com
Maggie’s is adjacent to the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Trail Park, VA’s skinniest park at only 100-ft. wide and 45-miles long. The park’s bicycle trail extends from Alexandria to Purcellville and is built on the old railroad roadbed.
The four-story Red Fox Inn and Tavern dates from 1728. It is a perfect place to dine and then rest up for another day’s adventures in Northern Virginia. www.redfox.com
Manassas National Battlefield is the focal point of the Prince William County/Manassas region’s historic sites. It was the scene of early events in the Civil War that would help define the conflict to come. Manassas, also known as Bull Run, was the scene of two battles, both Confederate victories.
On July 16, 1861 the First Battle of Manassas, the first major land battle of the war, took place between untried troops. At this point both sides thought the war would be brief and spectators came from Washington to watch the battle. Union troops were routed, some ran all the way back to DC, and the battle was thereafter referred to as “The Great Skedaddle.” Confederate Thomas Jackson assumed his nickname when Brigadier-General Barnard E. Bee noted his steadfastness in battle and stated, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall.” An equestrian statue of Stonewall stands on the battlefield in the location where he was wounded.
Tours of the battlefield whether ranger or self-guided should begin in the visitors center and museum with the film “Manassas: End of Innocence.” There are a number of stops and interpretive signs on the route. The first monument, in the yard of the Henry House, was dedicated to the Union soldiers who died there. Spring Hill Farm’s owner, Judith Henry, refused to evacuate and became the first civilian casualty of the war.
Just as the battle was waged around Henry’s home it also engulfed the home of former slave James Robinson. He purchased 170-acres for $484.94 and built the house in 1842. He and his family managed to vacate the premises for the first battle and the house survived. The second battle in August 1862 devastated the house and what remained was confiscated for use as a Union field hospital. In March of 1873 he received $1,249 in restitution. The family owned the property until 1924 and the house fell victim to arsonists in 1993. The foundation remains and there are interpretive signs to mark the location. www.nps.gov/mana
Brentsville Courthouse Historic Centre interprets the story of Brentsville, Prince Williams’ fourth county seat, established in 1820. There are ten sites on the tour that date from the 18th and 19th-centuries. The 1822 Prince William County Courthouse and County Jail are listed on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and they and the Historic Centre have been the focus of ghosthunter investigations.
The jail is in the final stages of restoration and will be open for tours. It operated from 1824-75 with two administrative rooms and six cells, two for debtors and four for criminals because the sexes and the races could not be mixed. During its time in operation there were 13 executions. Three was the largest number hung at once, a grandmother, mother and son, for killing their master. One of the most notorious cases was that of Agnes who, in April 1850, was found guilty of killing her invalid master with an axe. She claimed sexual abuse and her pregnancy allowed her a two-month stay of execution.
Dumfries, VA is the oldest continuously chartered town in the state and the home of the Weems-Botts Museum. It was an important port city prior to the Civil War and slave ships docked here.
Mason Weems, the first biographer of George Washington, purchased the home in 1798. He freed all his slaves upon the death of his father and was known to have taught slaves to read and write. In 1802 he sold the home to Benjamin Botts, the Johnny Cochran of his day, who defended Aaron Burr from treason. Tours can be prearranged to focus on special areas of interest. There is an exhibit on the ground floor that interprets the African American experience in the region. The Weems-Botts House is the second most haunted house in the state and has been the subject of television’s “My Ghost Story.” www.historicdumfries.com
Occoquan is a 1-square mile tiny jewel of a town with a 6-sq. block historic district. Settlement began in the 1730s because of the tobacco inspection warehouse where the Occoquan and Potomac Rivers intersected. In 1804 the first mechanized mill in the country was built here. A fire in 1916 destroyed the mill but the mill house remains and is a museum. Rockledge Mansion was built in 1758 and is a National Historic Site. www.rockledgemansion.com
The town’s main street is lined with more than 50 boutique stores and eclectic restaurants. Five trails run through the town, there are 16 historic markers, kayak tours are offered and in the autumn there will be opportunities for scuba divers to join in underwater archeology expeditions. Ghost tours are regularly scheduled and include locations considered some of America’s most haunted. www.historicoccoquan.com
No visit to Northern Virginia is complete without a stop at the highly recommended, free, National Museum of the Marine Corps. This state-of-the-art museum begins with an interactive boot camp and continues through the history of the Marine Corps from its inception to current conflicts. Life-sized dioramas are modeled after authentic terrain and the faces of the marines are those of actual soldiers.
The African American Montford Point Marines’ gallery features “Hashmark” Johnson, their 1st black drill instructor. First person testimonies about the racial discrimination they encountered upon arrival home are delivered via video. www.montfordpointmarines.com
You should plan to spend a significant amount of time here. There is a restaurant, café and gift shop. www.usmcmuseum.org
Northern Virginia never loses its allure. Plan to wine, dine, visit charming and historic towns and the fall foliage is impressive this time of year. www.discoverpwm.com
I wish you smooth travels!
The new 1863 Battle of Bristoe Station mobile tour features seven stops on a 50-mile route through Prince William and Fauquier counties on many of the same roads traveled during the 1863 campaign. The tour features QR codes, images, maps and 90-second narratives. The Battle of Bristoe Station, one of Lee’s last offensive battles of the war, will be commemorated the weekends of October 5th and 12th. www.ManassasBullRun.com.
Virginia Beach has just come up with an outstanding alternative to spending the waning days of summer at home. The High Five for Summer Promotion allows travelers to receive a free 5th night, after booking 4 consecutive nights, in any of 19 hotels in September. End the season with a wine festival, the annual International Sand Sculpting Championship, or any of Virginia Beach’s other attractions. www.visitvirginiabeach.com/high-five
On September 28 & 29 and October 5 & 6, 2013 the 8 wineries of the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail will hold their annual Harvest Festival Celebration. The festival activities include live music, tours and tasting. Additionally there will be grape-stomping for the benefit of two breast cancer charities. www.bvwinetrail.com/events and www.visitwilmingtonde.com
On September 17, 2013 the National Constitution Center will present a program of activities, lectures, games, displays and a constitutional birthday cake to celebrate Constitution Day. There will also be a special appearance by Congressman John L. Lewis. This event promises to be a totally unique celebration. Admission is free. www.constitutioncenter.org