Thursday, August 25, 2016
August 25, 2016: Virginia Places: Fairfax Court House
[Inspired by my annual Virginia pilgrimage with the boys, this year’s series will focus on AmericanStudying interesting places in the Commonwealth. Leading up to a special weekend post on my presentation at the Historical Writers of America conference in Williamsburg!]
Two other important contexts for a site closely tied to the Civil War’s opening salvos.
While of course the first shots of the Civil War were fired on Charleston’s Fort Sumter, the war’s first land conflict is generally considered to be the June 1, 1861 skirmish between Union scouts and local militiamen known as the Battle of Fairfax Court House. You can’t throw a Virginia peanut anywhere in the state without encountering Civil War history of one type or another, though, and while each such moment was certainly significant to both its individual participants and the war’s evolving trajectory, it can also begin to feel as if each community is competing to make the case for why this particular battle was more meaningful or worth memorializing. (A phenomenon not unique to either Virginia or Civil War history—just ask residents of Lexington and Concord precisely where the Revolutionary War began!) And from a military history standpoint, the second Battle of Fairfax Court House (fought just over two years after the first, on June 27, 1863) was far more significant, as it impacted Confederate troop movements and availability not long before the war’s decisive conflict at Gettysburg.
In any case, Fairfax Court House connects to additional and even more unique and interesting American histories than those Civil War moments. The first Fairfax county courthouse was constructed at a site known as Spring Fields in 1742, and a second, more sizeable structure built 10 years later in the town of Alexandria. These county courthouses featured and reflected a new, interestingly aristocratic and ad hoc form of justice and governance in the colony, as “gentleman justices” (including both George Washington and George Mason) appointed by the Governor met on “court day” not only to decide on criminal and civil cases and punishments, but also to set and levy taxes, authorize new construction and development, and generally run much of the colony’s financial and civic affairs. Elites occupied central roles in the governments of every 18th century colony to be sure, but nonetheless this overt reliance on the wisdom of individual landed gentleman differentiated Virginia from the “town meeting” narrative of New England communal governance. It’s thus perhaps not coincidental that while New England’s Revolutionary activities began with secret societies and nighttime tea parties, Virginia’s began with gentlemen serving the colony in the House of Burgesses and yet openly declaring their commitment to liberty and independence.
The gentleman justices were not the only, nor the most numerous, Virginians present at the courthouse on court day, however. As the opening of that interesting hyperlined article (on Virginia courthouse architecture) notes, court day was a deeply communal and festive occasion, one that brought out a wide cross-section of 18th century Virginia’s population. Yet at the same time, Old Courthouse Road (address of the historic Fairfax County Courthouse site that remains in operation to this day) intersects with Gallows Road, still in use as a state road but of course named for a far different and darker social purpose (or perhaps not, as this Washington Post article argues—but as noted there, a gallows was built in Alexandria in the same year as the courthouse construction there, so the larger point certainly stands). Since at least Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, the relationship between Virginia’s elites and its broader population had been a fraught one, and the move toward revolution across the 18th century cannot be separated from that uneasy and evolving dynamic. In both celebratory and darker ways, the history of the Fairfax Court House thus interconnects with that interplay between the colony’s “gentlemen” and its men (and women) more broadly.
Last VA places tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Interesting places (in any state) you’d highlight?