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Freight train on Orange and Alexandria Railroad, in Culpeper, Virginia, August 1862
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [cwp 4a39520], taken during the main eastern theater of the war, Bull Run, 2nd Battle of Manassas, Virginia, July-August 1862.

Virginia's northern Piedmont is a rolling, open, well-watered region of farms and scattered villages and towns. It occupies the land between two principal Civil War battlegrounds: the Shenandoah Valley and the Washington-Fredericksburg-Richmond axis. During the war, the Manassas Gap and the Orange and Alexandria Railroads traversed the area, augmenting the long-established road network and furnishing the opposing armies with strategically vital transportation and supply routes.

Waves of military activity, large and small, swept through the region periodically. In 1861, the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) took place near the Manassas Junction of the two railroads in Prince William County, with troops being rushed into battle by railroad for the first time in American history. The next year, Gen. Robert E. Lee launched his attack into Maryland that culminated at Antietam Creek (Sharpsburg), after first winning

Gen. Edwin V. Sumner and staff in Warrenton, Virginia, main eastern theater of the Civil War, Nov. 13, 1862
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [cwp 4a40037]
important victories at Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County and at the Second Battle of Manassas. In 1863, following his brilliant success at Chancellorsville, just west of Fredericksburg, Lee began his invasion of Pennsylvania after a massive cavalry battle at Brandy Station in Culpeper County. Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, screening the Confederate infantry's march west to the Shenandoah Valley, fought engagements at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties. In the fall, after the defeat at Gettysburg, Lee turned on his pursuers and launched an ill-executed attack on the Union army at Bristoe Station in Prince William County. The following spring, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant began his drive south toward Richmond and Petersburg from the Federal winter encampments in Culpeper County.

Warrenton street scene in front of the Fauquier County Courthouse, August 1862, at the time of the 2nd Battle of Bull Run
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [cwp 4a39523]

For most civilians in the Piedmont, their daily lives were interrupted only briefly by the intermittent storms of war. There were two lengthy exceptions: the 18631864 winter encampment of the Union and Confederate armies in Culpeper and Orange Counties respectively, and the exploits of Col. John S. Mosby in Fairfax, Fauquier, and Loudoun Counties--an area known as "Mosby's Confederacy."

After the Confederate defeat at Bristoe Station in October 1863, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade pressed Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia south across the Rapidan River into Orange County. The Union army then settled in for the winter around Culpeper Courthouse in Culpeper County, while the Confederates encamped along the south bank of the Rapidan.

Street scene in front of Culpeper County Courthouse, 1862
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [cwp 4a39518]

For some five months, the two combatants studied each other, resupplied and reinforced their armies, and tested each other's lines with occasional thrusts. In March 1864, Grant arrived in Culpeper County, having been appointed commander of all Union armies by President Abraham Lincoln and having decided to accompany Meade rather than remain in Washington. With his presence, the war in Virginia would enter a new and even bloodier phase when the Federals crossed the Rapidan on May 4th to begin a campaign that would inflict some 45 percent casualties on each army within two-and-a-half months.

Col. John S. Mosby
Photograph courtesy of Still Pictures Branch (NWDNS), National Archives at College Park, NWDNS-111-BA-1709

In the northernmost part of the Piedmont, meanwhile, Mosby's Rangers (43d Battalion, Partisan Rangers) harried the Union army's supply lines. Organized by Mosby late in 1862, the Rangers operated successfully until the end of the war and Mosby was mentioned more often by name in Lee's reports than any other Confederate officer. Although they never numbered more than 800, the Rangers were effective against their vastly more numerous foes because Mosby maintained tight discipline and struck quickly when the odds favored him. Grant became so annoyed by their tactics that he ordered captured Rangers hanged without trial. When Mosby immediately retaliated in kind with captured Federals, Grant rescinded the order. Rather than surrender his men, Mosby disbanded the Rangers at Salem, in the heart of his Confederacy, on April 21, 1865.


Officers and men of Co. K, 1st U.S. Cavalry, at Brandy Station winter quarters, February 1864
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [cwp 4a40057]

After the war, the northern Piedmont soon reverted to its peaceful ways. In the second half of the 20th century, however, the growth of the Washington metropolitan area in Northern Virginia placed increasing development pressure on this rural region. The battlefields of Manassas, Brandy Station, and Bristoe Station became the scenes of fierce engagements between developers and preservationists. Although the economic recession of the late 1980s slowed growth in the region, it may have delayed rather than prevented the steady destruction of this national treasure. The last battle for this hallowed ground has yet to be fought.

John S. Salmon, Staff Historian
Virginia Department of Historic Resources


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