The House of Shattered Dreams

The House of Shattered Dreams

One of old Centreville's largest and most impressive homes was known as the Four Chimney House. It stood at the north edge of the village on Braddock Road near the point where Braddock Road once crossed Route 28. Built sometime between 1769 and 1787, the dwelling was a large two-story wooden structure with four massive stone chimneys; two were located at either end of the house. Also known as the Grigsby House, it was the home of Alexander Spotswood Grigsby, one of Centreville's leading businessmen in the years preceding the Civil War. Grigsby bought and sold slaves, speculated in real estate and owned part interest in a store. The Civil War probably disrupted his business ventures because little is known of his activities after he voted for Virginia's secession in the balloting of May 1861. After the war in 1866, Grigsby sold most of his Centreville holdings and moved from the area.

IN 1921, J. Harry Shannon, a reporter for the Washington Star, noted the historic relevance of the Four Chimney House when he wrote: "That house with its broad outlook over fields that were to be smoky and bloody, was the headquarters of McDowell in July 1861." Shannon was referring to Union Army Gen. Irvin McDowell, a career military officer (West Point 1838) and a veteran of the Mexican War. An artillery specialist by training, he was brevetted for his actions at Buena Vista. While serving in the adjutant general's department in Washington, he became an acquaintance of Secretary of Treasury Chase, thereby forming a relationship that helped him get the job of commanding the troops stationed in Washington when the Civil War broke out.

Prodded constantly to take the offensive by President Lincoln, Gen. McDowell reluctantly put his army on the march, reaching Centreville on July 18, 1861. Looking for a place to locate his headquarters and most likely impressed with the size of the house and the great view to the north and west it offered, Gen. McDowell set up shop in the Four Chimney House. He spent the next two days resolving logistical problems, sending out reconnaissance parties and developing his battle strategy. His final attack plan was a solid but complicated piece of work, taxing the abilities of his beleaguered officers and raw troops to the maximum. On Sunday, July 21, Gen. McDowell's dream of military glory was rudely shattered when his army met defeat at the first battle of Manassas. As the retreat began to turn into a panic, McDowell established a rally line on the Centreville heights, hoping to regroup his forces on the high ground. The line collapsed as his defeated troops, losing all semblance of military cohesion, scampered back to Washington.

THE BATTLE plan devised by Gen. McDowell in the Four Chimney House also shattered Abraham Lincoln's dream of putting a quick end to the Confederacy. President Lincoln had seen the solution to the problem of secession as a simple one. Attack the Rebels at Manassas and defeat them, then capture Richmond and the war would end. In later years as the war raged on, Lincoln would often relate to his confidants how public opinion and his cabinet officials had pressured him to order McDowell's ill-fated advance. He had yielded to those demands and defeat followed. Had his officers been allowed more time to train the troops, Lincoln admitted sadly, the outcome may have been different. Apparently no one had ever advised the President of an accepted military tenet: an army undertaking offensive operations has to be better trained than one acting in a purely defensive role.

Gen. McDowell's career never recovered from the effects of the defeat at Manassas. Relieved from army command upon his mortifying return to Washington, he established a mediocre record in subsequent field assignments as a corps commander. Eventually relieved of all combat responsibility, he was posted to the Department of the Pacific during the last years of the war. Gen. McDowell was a modest, friendly man who holds the distinction of being told by President Lincoln that "both armies are green alike" when he asked the President for more time to train his soldiers. He is now remembered mostly for his role in the spectacular failure at First Manassas and his ability to consume gigantic quantities of food during meals.

DESPITE THE hard luck reputation it gained as McDowell headquarters, the Four Chimney House continued to attracted military officers. When Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston moved a major part of his army to Centreville in October 1861, the Four Chimney House was selected for use as army headquarters. It was only a short walk from Mt. Gilead, the house serving as the personal residence of Gen. Johnston. Confederate officers went to work designing the fortifications that would make Centreville famous during the autumn and winter of 1861-62. The troops were deployed and cannon emplaced, able and willing to repulse the expected Union attack. No attack ever came and when Johnston withdrew from his lines in early March 1862, the dream of a Confederate military force powerful enough to camp unmolested on the doorstep of the Federal capital came to an end. As his army marched away, slogging south through the late winter mud, a large part of Northern Virginia was lost to the Confederacy.

Much like its military occupants, the Four Chimney House also had a run of bad luck. By 1901, it was an abandoned ruin with holes in the walls and roof. By 1921, the main structure had collapsed, with only three of the four famous chimneys still standing, rising above a tangle of Mulberry trees and bushes. Most of the large foundation stones were removed and put to other uses when Route 28 was widened in the 1940s. By the early 1950s, nothing remained except an undistinguished mound of rubble on the east side of Braddock road. Later road improvements eventually obliterated those remains. What had been one of the most photographed buildings in Centreville during the early Civil War years was gone. The traffic moving from northbound Route 28 to I-66 east now zooms over the site where the Four Chimney House once stood, a place where major military decisions were made in 1861-62.


Karl Reiner is the author of Sgt. Bellnapp's Secret, a historic novel of political intrigue and murder set in the Centreville area.