The Civil War brought more action, danger and death to Arlington than is commonly believed.
So said historian and reenactor Peter Vaselopulos, speaking to Encore Learning enthusiasts at Arlington Central Library Jan. 27. His talk on “Arlington’s Little War” brought context to Union and Confederate troop movements and skirmishes in neighborhoods where we current-day suburbanites commute and shop.
Arlington contained strategic heights (Arlington House), a railroad and vulnerable Potomac bridges, explained Vaselopulos, a longtime Arlingtonian who by day is an executive for the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The federals’ construction of 22 forts by war’s end made “Arlington the most fortified piece of land in the world,” he said. Arlington also hosted breakthroughs in the telegraph and intelligence via hot air balloon.
There were also armed clashes. A key unit was the Union’s New York 23rd Volunteer Regiment (whose uniform Vaselopulos wore during his talk) based in the railroad hub of Elmira. They had come south to the District of Columbia in spring 1861 just after Arlingtonian Robert E. Lee was summoned downtown and made his fateful decision to fight for the South. “Lee knew he had to find a new place to live,” the historian noted. Lincoln kept the 23rd idle because Virginia itself had not yet voted for secession. That occurred May 23, with most in the Arlington area voting no. Our farmer’s markets were in the District, not Richmond, and “they knew where their bread was buttered,” Vaselopulos said. On May 24, Union troops occupied Arlington Heights.
“Lincoln needed 75,000 volunteers” to defend against a siege of Washington, but he had raised an army only for the three months the war was expected to last, the historian said. Arlington became the scene of exhausting training, for calvary and infantry. The soldiers came “through Rosslyn and spent the first night near Clarendon,” Vaselopulos said. Others camped near Carlin Springs and, later, what is now Bluemont Park. On June 1, a skirmish erupted at Arlington Mill, near today’s 7-Eleven at Columbia Pike and S. Dinwiddie St. (The county erected an historical sign there in 2017, aided by Vaselopulos.)
Troops also used Columbia Pike on their two-day march to the July 21 Battle of Bull Run. Following that surprising Confederate triumph, Rebel troops approached the Federal capital. “If they had taken Arlington Heights, Lincoln would have had to skedaddle,” Vaselopulos said.
Of 20,000 rebels in the region commanded by P.G.T. Beauregard, J.E.B. Stuart and James Longstreet, some by the end of summer penetrated to Halls Hill and Upton Hill along Four Mile Run. Vaselpulos focused on the undersung “Skirmish Near Balls Cross Roads” of Aug. 27, citing New York Times reporting and soldier diaries. Union cavalry were sent into thick woods seeking stragglers from Bull Run. The 400 Union troops confronting 600 Confederates had orders to make contact but not to try to win. For two hours beginning at 2 p.m., the two engaged in small arms fire. The Rebels (about where Ashlawn School is now) held their ground. So they could claim they won the skirmish despite 11 dead versus only “several” Union deaths.
In late September, the Confederates withdrew, and Gen. George McClellan marched up Upton Hill, where Yankees discovered the Rebels’ fake “Quaker cannon” (you can see replicas there). Arlington’s legacy, Vaselopulos said, “is the building of the Army of the Potomac.”
Washington Golf and Country Club, after nearly 80 years, still displays the framed program from the birthday celebration it hosted for President Franklin Roosevelt.
The date was Jan. 30, 1941; the music by Phil Lampkin and His Dance Orchestra; the beneficiary of proceeds the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
Cross-grain sponsors included the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the Arlington County Women’s Democratic Club. Organizers included sheriff (and high school basketball coach) J. Elwood Clements, Mrs. Crandall Mackay and Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Campbell (he the civil rights attorney, she Elizabeth, the future founder of WETA.)