Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Atop an Anvil

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Atop an Anvil

Article excerpt

by NOEL G. HARRISON*

IN February 1852, a resident described Fairfax County in a breathless account typical of those heralding the revitalization of Fairfax, neighboring Alexandria County, and other northern Virginia localities. According to Thomas Crux,

[A] traveler who passed . . . ten years ago, would not now recognize it. Thousands and thousands of acres, which had been cultivated in tobacco by the former proprietors, ... were abandoned as worthless, and became covered with a wilderness of pines. These lands have been purchased by Northern emigrants; . . and neat farm houses and barns, with smiling fields of grain ... , salute the delighted gaze of the beholder.1

In March 1862, when the Civil War was less than a year old, the New York Tribune reported yet another striking transformation in Fairfax and Alexandria:

[T]he fences are gone. Many of the farm-houses ditto.... Then the crops-all indications of them have disappeared.... Trees also and brushwood.... [P]lenty of recently-hewn stumps suggest ... the past existence of the former.... [N]o vegetation, no grass[,] . . . only earth[,] . . . all intersected, cut up and crossed by innumerable tracks of men, horses and vehicles.2

The war's historiography makes little allowance for such rapid despoliation in the border districts of Virginia and other Confederate states. Scholars hold that sustained mass displacement of civilians, the widespread punitive or wanton destruction of their property, the loss of a distinction between combatants and noncombatants, and other symptoms of a "hard" war were not present for a year or longer in border areas that were the sites of confrontations between conventional, nonguerrilla units. Officers commanding in these localities maintained control of their troops and at first upheld "soft" or "rosewater" policies regarding noncombatants.3 One historian argues that an inherently restrained, merciful Union soldiery consistently deflected hard-war rigors "toward military resources and away from noncombatants."4 Another scholar suggests that areas under the direct control of Union garrisons or "persistent Confederate authority" retained "communal and institutional continuity" and suffered significantly less than no-man's-land zones.5 Students of the war, moreover, often neglect southern troops when assigning responsibility for any worsening of the civilians' plight in Confederate border districts in which conventional conflicts were waged.6

Nevertheless, hard-war shocks obliterated much of Alexandria and Fairfax during the Civil War's first twelve months, a period that saw the two jurisdictions occupied by opposing, conventional armies whose top commanders espoused soft-war policies. Both consciously and unconsciously, their soldiers terrorized residents, devastated their property, and drove many from their homes. The counties' citizens, meanwhile, exploited one another's war-related misfortunes, collaborated with the military occupiers, and otherwise helped obscure the distinction between civilians and soldiers. Although the Civil War had generated almost as much economic revitalization as destruction in Alexandria and Fairfax by April 1865, most remaining inhabitants lacked this consoling foresight in March 1862. The ravaged landscapes of the latter month contrasted starkly with memories of northern Virginia's antebellum prosperity. Prominent on maps depicting the commonwealth's northeastern fringe, the two neighboring jurisdictions appeared as a diamond-shaped mass. Alexandria County, about one-tenth the size of Fairfax and until 1847 part of the District of Columbia, occupied a ninety-degree niche in the diamond's northeast shoulder. Fairfax adjoined Alexandria, and both bordered the city of Alexandria. On the eve of the Civil War, most of the counties' residents lived within five miles of either a Potomac River bridge leading to Washington's markets or access to a railroad terminating near the city of Alexandria's. …

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