In the early part of the Civil War, the Union Army, on orders from President Lincoln, built more than 60 forts around Washington to protect the city from a possible invasion by the Confederate Army. On a bluff south of Alexandria, near what became the Huntington Metro station, four of them (Lyon, Weed, Farnsworth and O’Rourke) guarded the southern approaches and protected the Virginia port city.
On the other side of Telegraph Road, in the middle of what is now the Burgundy Village neighborhood, which lies about a half mile to the west of the Huntington Metro, there lies another wooded bluff. No forts were built there, but on the top of its heights you will find a century and a half old house once owned by John A. Fairfax. The house is secluded and serves as a rare vestige of the Civil War days in these parts.
The Fairfax House takes us back to the tense and troubled relationship between North and South during the Civil War. In many ways, the fault line cut across this part of Fairfax County that bumps up against the Capital Beltway (Apparently, the war is still going on, as the state has built a very tall concrete wall along this line).
The Union controlled Alexandria and these heights just south of the seaport city, but “The Gray Ghost,” Colonel John Moseby frightened Union supporters and he scored wins at places like Rose Hill. A unit from Alabama got as close as Cameron Run when they skirmished with Union soldiers patrolling below Fort Ellsworth on Shuter’s Hill (Washington Masonic Memorial).
Suffering from rotted wood, and looking every bit its age, the Fairfax house overlooks the Eisenhower Valley corridor and the Capital Beltway as it approaches the Telegraph Road interchange. Once resting peaceful on Fairfax’s farm, the antebellum structure is now surrounded by new townhomes currently under construction. They’re lovely in their newness, but they look like the monster jaws of suburban sprawl, ready to swallow up the old structure that looks so out of place.
Typically in these situations, with an old house in the suburbs that hardly anyone knows about, the house has little chance to survive new development.
That almost happened to the Fairfax House, but several years ago an eagle swooped down at the last minute. Don Hakenson, born and raised in Franconia, and the author of several books on the history of Fairfax County, got together with the Franconia Historic Museum and successfully negotiated a compromise.
Ideally, the Fairfax house would have become a museum, but the cost for that initiative was a huge barrier. NVHomes, the developer, agreed to rehabilitate the home. In exchange, they will sell the historic house as part of the Burgundy Woods offerings.
So what about the history behind this house? Why is it worth saving?
A consulting firm initially told NVHomes the house was built around in 1920. Thus, they said, no reason to save it.
Hakenson, an expert on the Civil War in this part of the region, and author of, “This Forgotten Land: A tour of Civil War sites and other historical landmarks south of Alexandria, Virginia,” knew better. Much better.
In the first chapter of his book, and in a primer he wrote for the Franconia Museum newsletter (Spring 2005), Hakenson details the story of what took place 150 years ago at Fairfax’s farm.
Like many civilians during the war, Fairfax, who owned 27 slaves, had a great concern and worry about soldiers on a supply mission.
“The Band” wrote eloquently about this aspect of the war in their song, “The Night They Drove Ol Dixie Down.”
Ya take what you need and ya leave the rest
But they never should have taken the very best.
In 1862, Union soldiers from Fort Lyon, walked over to Fairfax’s farm one day and took 280 gallons of whiskey, 400 head of cattle, and corn and oats. They also carted off 3 acres of his sod. During the entire time of the war, Union officers occupied his house.
The Fairfax family also had to dodge bullets. On the morning of June 30, 1861, a Company of Alabama soldiers attacked Union pickets stationed below Fort Ellsworth.
Hakenson’s research found the engagement, called the “Skirmish at Pike’s Creek,” was fought by 33 volunteers from Companies F, K, I and L of the Sixth Alabama Regiment and Zouves who were with Captain Amer’s Company E, Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment. Casualties were low but this marked “one of the closest penetrations made against the Federal city by any Confederate force during the war.”
In terms of the five-year war, these few pages may not sound like much. In this part of Fairfax County, however, there is next to nothing left in terms of reminders of the Civil War. Let’s hope, then, this house and the stories it holds will be saved.
"This Forgotten Land" by Don Hakenson
“Historic Franconia." (Fairy-Lamp.com/Franconia)
Charles V. Mauro’s, “The Civil War in Fairfax County.”
"Mr. Lincoln’s Forts" by Wally Owen II and Benjamin Cooling III
Also, my gratitude to Hakenson for a 30-minute interview, and the printing out of his article on the Fairfax House story.