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Centreville’s Civil War Past

Travel back in time via the Stuart-Mosby Museum.

— Few communities are lucky enough to have a Civil War museum in their midst; Centreville is one of them. The Stuart-Mosby Civil War Cavalry Museum first invited the public in for a peek during last fall’s Centreville Day. But it opened officially in June.

It’s a small building in Centreville’s Historic District, but it’s jam-packed with memorabilia about two famous Confederate leaders, Gen. James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart and Col. John Singleton Mosby.

The curator is Howard Crouch but, often, volunteer docents are there to provide information and answer visitors’ questions. On a recent Saturday, the docents were Tom Anderson and John Carter.

“First, we find out people’s level of knowledge about Mosby and Stuart,” said Carter. “Sometimes, people want to see if they’re related to them or if their ancestors might have ridden with them. And if you’re from Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William or Fauquier counties, there’s a good chance.”

Mosby served under Stuart, the entire war; but later on, Mosby had his own, independent command, the 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry. During the war, said Anderson, “They mostly had established places where Stuart and his men would meet to go on a mission.” Afterward, added Carter, “They’d disburse and go home to keep secret where they’d been.”

The structure housing the museum has its own, interesting history. “The old Four Chimney, or Grigsby House, fell down over the years,” said Carter. “The chimney remnants and foundations were used to build this house in 1937 on Lee Highway. It served as a home and a gas station, and [Centreville Realtor] Dennis Hogge later bought it and moved it here.”

Centreville’s Claudette Ward, who’s a member of the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society — which created this museum — also shed light on the story. “The Grigsby House was the headquarters of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, [Major Gen.] G.W. Smith and J.E.B. Stuart during the Civil War,” she said. “And it’s where Mosby met Stuart and began a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.”

At the museum, said Carter, “We tell people things they don’t know and also talk about Mosby’s life after the war. We’d also like people to come in, talk to us casually, ask questions and learn more about both Stuart and Mosby. We’d like this to become a research center for people — and sometimes, we can learn from them. People in the Historic Centreville Society are experts about Centreville history, so we also want to incorporate what both they and longtime residents know.”

In addition, high on Carter’s and Anderson’s wish list is a sign on Route 29, near Braddock Road, advising motorists about the Historic District. This is an important area,” said Carter. “There are more Civil War — and earlier — historic buildings here than in Manassas, but no sign to tell people where the Historic District is.”

Centreville is ensconced in Civil War history. In those days, a fort circled completely around Centreville. “In 1861, they cut down the trees to make room for the fort and for cabins that housed about 40,000 men between here and Manassas,” said Anderson. “The trees were also used for firewood.”

The intersection of Old Centreville Road and Route 29 was once one of the highest land elevations here. And it served a critical purpose during the Civil War.

“Where Alto Plaza [restaurant] is now [on Route 29] used to be Artillery Hill,” said Carter. “The Confederate soldiers would keep a lookout there, facing Fairfax, expecting a Union army attack to come from that direction. It was there until March 1862, when they withdrew. Then the Union army moved in and stayed until the war ended.”

Carter further noted that Artillery Hill used to be much higher than it is now. But it was cut down 30-40 feet in the late 1940s so the Centreville Fire Station, Hunter Hardware and another building could be constructed there.

These are just a few of the interesting history tidbits that visitors may learn at the new museum. There are also paintings and displays to see. “We have weapons of the period — pistols, sabers and rifles, plus mementos from the reunions of Mosby’s Rangers after the war,” said Anderson. “Each person got a ribbon with the date and location of the reunion on it; they got together from 1895-1906.”

There’s also a medal awarded to John Mosby from UVA in 1915 because he’d once attended there. However, said Anderson, “He’d been expelled in 1853 because he shot someone. Later, UVA wanted to trade on his successes, but he refused to go get the medal — they had to bring it to him.”

Soldiers’ belts and belt buckles are on display, as is the book, “Ranger Mosby,” written by historian Virgil Carrington Jones. There’s also Jones’s handwritten journal containing information about 800 of Mosby’s Rangers.

Visitors may view the sword Stuart carried during the Battle of the Wilderness in 1863, plus a medal commemorating the dedication of the J.E.B. Stuart Monument in Richmond in 1907. There’s an award given to him posthumously in 1962 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as a spoon Stuart was carrying when he was mortally wounded on May 12, 1864.

Portraits of both Stuart and Mosby are in the museum, as are busts of both men that are replicas of the ones in Richmond’s Valentine Museum. Confederate money, Civil War bullets and locally found artifacts may also be seen. Anderson invites the public to “come tell us your story, too. That’s what we want to hear and share.”

“Lots of people are interested in the Civil War and the area’s history and genealogy,” added Carter. “And we can try to help them or, at least, tell them where to look.”

As for Ward, she’s delighted the museum exists. “It’ll bring people into the Historic District and they’ll learn some Civil War history,” she said.

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) is also excited about it. “I’m just thrilled that it’s here and open,” he said. “It’s an important part of the overall story of the Civil War. It tells these two individuals’ perspectives, but it’s also part of the history of Virginia and Fairfax County.”

Although it’s the first, actual museum in the Historic District, Frey noted that he considers all the buildings in this spot as museums. Meanwhile, he said, “The new museum adds so much and will develop incrementally. Every time people go there, there’ll be something new to see. Just since they opened, June 16, they’ve expanded their collection.”

A history buff, himself, he said that in 1862-63 Centreville, Stuart was the Southern commander, and Mosby “spent a good bit of his career in Fairfax County and riding through Centreville to get to his headquarters to the west.”

Frey also pointed out that Centreville’s Singleton’s Grove community honored Mosby by using his middle name and naming all its streets for him and for members of his troops. The Confederate Ridge community also contains street names such as Artillery, Musket Ball, Field Encampment, Brass Button and Powder Flask.

“Obviously, the Civil War was a major part of Centreville’s history,” said Frey. “But Centreville was a gateway to the west long before the Civil War.”

“Centreville began the suburbanization of the county and of America,” he continued. “The first paved road in Fairfax County was Lee Highway [Route 29] in 1926. And Mr. Spindle — who built the Sears house in the Historic District — worked for the post office in Washington, D.C. He commuted from here to there — which was unheard of then. So I want to stress the whole history of Centreville in the Historic District, and having the museum there is a great start.”