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Civil War on Hunter Mill

Residents create documentary about the war's history in the Hunter Mill corridor.

Hunter Mill Road is no stranger to conflict. Much has been written about the current tension between residents of the road, who would like to see it preserved, and the forces of suburban development. Now, members of the citizens' group Hunter Mill Defense League are attempting to illustrate a time of greater strife in the road's history in an upcoming documentary video which will chronicle the Civil War era in the Hunter Mill corridor.

The group already had been at work discovering and recording the road's history, said league member and Reston resident Steve Hull, when he dropped in on Vienna resident Tom Evans almost three years ago to photograph some of Evans' collection of local artifacts. "Tom was the inspiration that got [the video] going," said Hull.

In the last 25 years, Evans and his metal detector have found some 800 bullets, 40 belt buckles and countless other Civil War relics buried just beneath the ground in the Hunter Mill area.

He has also authored or co-authored numerous magazine articles and seven books on the Civil War, most notably, "Mosby's Confederacy: A Guide to the Roads and Sites of Colonel John Singleton Mosby," which was published by White Mane Publishing Company and was recently released in paperback. He co-authored that book and several others with the late James Moyer, who was a teacher at Oak View Elementary in Fairfax.

EVANS' INTEREST in the war started with his father, who was a Marine, he said. "He used to take me around to all these meetings, where I met Spanish-American War veterans and Civil War veterans," said Evans. His son inspired the artifact collection after he became interested in local evidence of the war when he was 7. "Kids like that, they go all over the neighborhood. He knew every trench and every gun site," he said.

The Defense League's research stemmed from an interest in educating the public about the history of the road and in preserving it as a historic corridor. "Our goal is historical awareness, recognition and preservation," said league member and Oakton resident Charlie Balch.

Last year, Balch wrote a booklet for the Defense League, called "The Civil War Story of Hunter Mill." League members introduced him to Hull, and he has been helping with the video since.

What the team hopes to convey in the documentary, tentatively titled "Danger between the Lines," is that the corridor was a hotbed of conflict because control of the corridor was in contest throughout the war. They have found no shortage of material.

One reason for wartime activity on the road, said Evans, is that it was often used by troops marching between Virginia and Antietam or Gettysburg. The railroad running between Vienna and Leesburg, on which the W&OD Trail was built, also made the area a desirable territory to control, and Difficult Run provided water for encampments, he said.

"All the big names came through here," said Evans, noting that the Confederate Gen. Pierre Beauregard passed through once, while Confederate Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart brought troops to the area on three occasions. Confederate Gen. George Meade kept a headquarters near the intersection of the railway and Hunter Mill Road for a time, and Confederate Gen. James Longstreet kept one near the southern end of the road for about three months.

Another factor, Balch pointed out, was that sentiments of the local citizenry were sharply divided, between Union supporters and secessionists, as well as a notable, anti-war Quaker presence. "It was a dangerous no-man's land," he said.

AT ONE POINT, the state took a vote on whether or not to secede. The local precinct voted at the Freeman House — then Lydecker's general store — in Vienna. "You got very, very strong feelings and people threatening each other," said Balch.

Hull noted that it was one of few precincts in the state that voted not to secede. "People up here understood what would happen to them in a war," he said and noted that, indeed, life was not easy for any residents, regardless of where their sympathies lied.

He read from an account of local resident Charles Johnson, whose brother was a Union scout. Johnson was arrested twice and wrote, "I never was threatened to my face, but my wife told me that John L. Moore came to my house and said he had authority to shoot or hang me on sight." Moore was a neighbor and a fervent secessionist, said Hull.

He also produced a local news report of a secessionist family's treatment by advancing Union soldiers. A unit under Union Gen. George McCall raided a farm belonging to the Gunnell family, taking 53 wagonloads of corn and wheat, 38 hogs, 11 horses, a yoke of oxen, buggies, a chaise and "a large quantity of property."

"That's part of our message in the video," said Balch. "If you went one way or the other, you might be killed for it."

In the spring of 1862, said Hull, after they had dug in for the winter, Union soldiers were sent out into Northern Virginia to prepare for their next campaigns, and 15,000 to 20,000 camped along Hunter Mill between what are now Lawyers Road and the Dulles Toll Road. These camps were the source for many of Evans' artifacts. "They were really just kind of lightening up," said Evans, "getting rid of stuff they didn't need."

One of the most well known names in the region was that of Confederate Col. John Mosby. By the time Mosby and his men arrived, in mid-1863, the Union had taken control of most towns and cities in Northern Virginia, in an attempt to create a protective barrier around Washington, D.C., said Hull.

However, said Evans, "Whenever it became dark, it was a different story." The territory between Falls Church and the Shenandoah, he said, is often referred to as "Mosby's Confederacy."

Behind enemy lines, said Hull, Mosby disrupted communications, intercepted supply trains, destroyed wagons and kept some 30,000 to 40,000 Union troops fighting in the area and away from the front lines of the war.

WORKING FROM A STACK of information about a foot tall, the filmmakers have carved out a script about 50 minutes long, said Hull. The research was drawn from several primary sources, he said. One was the Southern Claims, filed in the Fairfax County Courthouse. After the war was over, Union sympathizers applied for compensation for some of the damages inflicted on them by the war, giving accounts of raids and of their own Union loyalty, Balch said.

Of course, these had to be read with some skepticism, said Hull, noting that families such as the Gunnells filed claims, although their track records were obviously Confederate.

Another source was the Official Records — military leaders' accounts to their commanders of specific battles and operations, said Balch. These, too, must be taken with a grain of salt, he said, noting, "Rarely do you find one that says, 'I ran from the field screaming and yelling.'"

Hull said the group also referenced newspaper archives and published family histories, as well as accounts by local historians such as D'Ann Evans and Mayo Stuntz. However, in the case of another author's work, they also checked the author's sources. "I didn't really want to use secondary and tertiary sources," he said.

He noted that a digitized 1860 tax map at the Fairfax County Archaeologist's Office, which can be overlaid on a present-day map, was helpful in figuring out what happened where. A collection of Civil War photos in Carlyle, Pa. will help to provide visual material for the film, he said. Several local residents will provide narration.

The team hopes to have the video available before this Christmas and will later publish a booklet using the leftover material. Sales will raise money for the Hunter Mill Defense League, and Hull and Balch said they hope the information might help to get another historic marker or two erected along the road, perhaps most deservedly at the intersection of Hunter Mill and the W&OD Trail.

Balch said they would like to show the documentary at elementary schools and perhaps at a Board of Supervisors meeting. "We wanted to make sure the historical story is told," he said.

However, Hull noted, the Civil War is only one chapter — albeit a dense one — in the history of a road that was already old when the war began. Hunter Mill Road, he said, was an Indian trading road 300 years ago, although the research for that era is much harder to come by.