By Richard T. Gillespie
Some of Loudoun County’s Civil War landscape is intact. Still standing are microcosms of that world of the 1860s, telling us quietly what transpired.
Purcellville, today a burgeoning western Loudoun town of 8,000, was but a flyspeck village along the Leesburg-Snickers Gap Turnpike, old Rt. 7, at the outbreak of civil war. With its turnpike location, though tiny it was functional, housing Purcell’s Store and post office, a “wagon stand” (wagoners’ road house), a hotel, livery stable and blacksmith and wheelwright shops. Stagecoach service connected Purcellville to the new Alexandria & Loudoun Railroad terminus at Leesburg and over the Blue Ridge to Winchester.
With the firing on Fort Sumter by forces of the new Confederacy in April 1861, President Lincoln demanded troops from all states put down the rebellion. In ostensible compliance, the governor of an unwilling Virginia called out the militia.
Purcellville, Hamilton, and Hillsboro boys were the first in Loudoun to respond to the likely war emergency; they marched with the Hillsboro Border Guards on April 19 to the Loudoun County Fair Grounds west of the new Union Cemetery at Leesburg to establish Camp George Mason and prepare.
On May 23, Virginians voted on this hugely important issue. At Purcell’s Store—still standing at Hatcher and Main today—the precinct vote tallied 82-31 for secession. Blacksmith Asa Janney, whose house still stands three doors east of the Purcellville Library, and his old friend, storekeeper Rodney Purcell, compared notes on the election; both voted for secession. Asa’s son Joe had already signed up; so had young Franklin Purcell. Both donned the gray, joining Company A, 8th Virginia Volunteer Infantry, the Hillsboro Border Guards. Minutes after the statewide vote was announced—6 to 1 for secession—federal troops invaded Virginia. Joe and Frank marched off to war with the other local boys. Joe would lose his left leg in the first great fight of the war at First Manassas, July 21st. Franklin Purcell would come home very ill that December. Decisions matter.
By 1862, Purcellville saw federal troops a number of times. Six weeks after Antietam, General George B. McClellan’s staff commandeered Rodney Purcell’s home next to the store as headquarters. More came through in July 1863 after Gettysburg.
But in July, 1864, the war came home to roost in tiny Purcellville. On Saturday July 16, General Jubal Early’s Confederate army began to pass through the village, heading west on the turnpike to Snickers Gap. After a daring attack down through Maryland on the northwestern defenses of Washington, Early’s force had retired across the Potomac at White’s Ford on July 14. Resting at Big Spring just north of Leesburg until dawn of the 16th, they now were moving toward the Shenandoah Valley, and, they hoped, to relative safety. But two Union corps crossed the Potomac early that Saturday morning, shelling Early as he departed Leesburg, and now followed. A Union force was also sent from Harpers Ferry. Unsure of the ultimate destination of Early’s force—back to Richmond and Petersburg? West to the Shenandoah Valley?—General Crook sent out a reconnaissance-in-force from Hillsboro. The First Brigade of General A. N. Duffie’s Calvary Division, about 300 men under Colonel William B. Tibbetts of the 21st New York Cavalry, reached Heaton’s Crossroads east of Purcellville at mid-afternoon. They found Early’s wagon train passing by.
Dividing his force into several detachments and using two artillery pieces, Tibbetts attacked furiously all along the wagon train. The main attack came up the Berlin Grade Road (today’s Hatcher Avenue) to the pike and captured some 200 wagons and 150 prisoners. Hearing this firefight, dusty Confederate infantry under Generals Robert E. Rodes and Stephen Ramseur marched on the double-quick to the rear and counterattacked. After intense fighting, the Confederates reclaimed 118 of their wagons and all but 54 prisoners. They destroyed one of the two federal cannon engaged. Still, along with Confederate prisoners, horses, and mules, the Union force escorted to Harpers Ferry 37 wagons filled with booty taken by the Confederates in Maryland. They torched 43 Confederate supply wagons before departing.
Today, as we come to the intersection of Hatcher and East Main Streets in Purcellville, it could be easy to forget the history witnessed by the buildings still there. Passing on the stories of Loudoun’s past to our youth, to our newest residents, and to our government officials, is crucial to show them why aging structures must be preserved. We must encourage stewardship for the historical landscape among our citizens.
Recently, the Mosby Heritage Area Association, working with the Loudoun Civil War Sesquicentennial Steering Committee, the Town of Purcellville, and Visit Loudoun erected a Virginia Civil War Trails sign at this crossroads, making sure the story will not be lost. Please go by to see it.
[Richard T. Gillespie is the executive director of the Mosby Heritage Area Association. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. To learn more about the organization or to participate in the rural road initiative, to go loudouncoalition.org.]