Many Fairfax residents know that major Civil War battles took place here. Many have probably been to the museums and read a few books about it too, but that didn’t stop them from packing into Old Town Hall to hear Historian Emeritus Ed Bearss describe the battles as if he lived through them himself.
“We’ve been trying to get him [to speak] for four years,” said Chris Martin, the city’s historic resources director.
Bearss, historian emeritus with the National Park Service, told stories Wednesday, Nov. 8. about the battles fought within mere feet of where everyone sat.
The 83-year-old historian entertained the room with his anecdotal tales of Civil War-era raids, battles and soldiers’ personal details. He stood at a podium, but spoke like a grandfather telling his grandchildren about a favorite childhood story. The room full of adults— many of whom stood in the back because the crowd was so large— listened as if they were listening to their own grandfather.
“Mr. Bearss can truly make the walls and landscapes talk,” said Karen Stevenson, president of Historic Fairfax City, Inc., the organization that sponsored the event.
Bearss lives in Arlington and has appeared in a variety of programs and broadcasts about the Civil War, including the History Channel. Bearss gives tours throughout the region’s many battlefield grounds, localizing his talks to the areas he visits.
“What is so marvelous for historic tourism is the evidence in your fair town,” said Bearss. “You have a lot to be proud of in talking about heritage tourism and its place in the community.”
He spoke of the Battle of First Manassas and wartime activities in both Alexandria and Centreville. Bearss described one night of the war as the "best known event here." He was talking about Confederate John Mosby's capture of Union Gen. Edwin Stoughton, on the night of March 8, 1863. Mosby had a "rendezvous with his rangers" that night, said Bearss, and went into the William P. Gunnell home where Stoughton was sleeping.
"They entered the town heading south on Chain Bridge Road," said Bearss, and made their move. The Gunnell house is one of the proud historic buildings in the city, he said. It sits on what is now the Truro Episcopal Church property, and Historic Fairfax City, Inc. will include it on its spring homes tour next year.
"Almost every building associated with Mosby's capture of Stoughton still exists," said Bearss.
The first officer casualty of the Civil War occurred in Fairfax, in front of yet another building still standing today, said Bearss. Capt. John Quincy Marr was killed during a skirmish in front of the Fairfax Court House. There was no entry wound, said Bearss, and a "nice monument" represents the battle at the Courthouse today.
Bearss dropped names as if he knew them personally, telling the crowd who his favorites were. One soldier, he told the audience, "had the most handsome waxed mustache I've ever seen on a person."
"Elmer Ellsworth was the equivalent of a rock star at the time," said Bearss. "
HISTORIC FAIRFAX CITY, INC. offered the lecture as one of its two annual educational programs. The first was last spring and focused on the restoration process of old buildings and homes — another common Fairfax theme. That program was also well-attended, said Stevenson, but Bearss drew in a crowd larger than the organization could have hoped for, she said.
“Mr. Bearss has done so much for the enlightening of people in terms of the Civil War,” said Stevenson. “It’s just like he’s a magnet.”
One man in the audience told Stevenson he had just returned from a Manassas tour guided by Bearss that day. Stevenson said when she asked why he came to the Fairfax talk too, the man said he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear Bearss speak. “That just speaks volumes for him,” she said.
“He’s always a very animated speaker and tour guide,” said Susan Gray, curator at the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center.
After telling tales of the war and keeping the crowd’s attention throughout the two-hour program, Bearss told city residents to appreciate the history surrounding their everyday lives.
“It’s wonderful how many of these buildings still stand,” he said.
Stevenson said Bearss did not ask for a fee for his guest appearance in the city, so Historic Fairfax City, Inc. made a donation to an organization in honor of Bearss’ wife, Margie, who died last month.
THE BEARSS PROGRAM was one of the last events for the historical society this year. The organization is in the process of continuing the restoration process of the Blenheim Estate, a historic home just off Old Lee Highway. Civil War-era graffiti written by soldiers in the war have been found on the walls throughout the home. Historic Fairfax City, Inc. is working on getting an interpretive center underway at the site, so people can come and learn about the soldiers who once came through the home. A groundbreaking for the center is tentatively scheduled for the spring.
“The names of these soldiers can be researched by their pension records,” said Stevenson. “We can find out what happened to them, where they came from and where they went.”
Hildie Carney, the past president of Historic Fairfax City, Inc., said another exciting event coming up in the historic homes tour in May. Something different they’re doing with this year’s tour is adding some newer homes to the rotation, said Stevenson, to showcase how some people have built new homes that pay tribute to the past.
“You can build a new one that looks like a period home,” said Stevenson.
The historical society has its monthly meetings at various places, all of which are open to the public. Stevenson said they try to move the meetings around to different historic sites in the city, so each meeting comes with a little education lesson as well. Since the society is constantly working on projects in the city, Carney said they are always looking for members, donations and volunteers.