Freedom Hill’s Fort

Trace lines of fortifications appear all around Northern Virginia.  These are reminders of the Civil War and the efforts by both sides (although mostly the Federals) to secure strategically important ground.  Most apparent are the fortifications which secured the approaches to Washington, D.C. extending across parts of Arlington and Fairfax Counties along with the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria.   Beyond that “wall” was a no-mans-land, where partisans raided chased by Federal patrols.  In order to secure vital points, Federals constructed several smaller works.  One of these stood between the towns of Vienna and Lewinsville, within cannon range of the Leesburg Pike.

Freedom Hill is one of several rises between Difficult, Scott’s, and Pimmit Runs.  To the west of the hill, Wolf Trap and Old Court House Runs, both tributaries to Difficult Run, form a series of valleys.  As seen on this cut from the McDowell Map, the hill occupies key terrain commanding the road network.

Freedom Hill Area (from McDowell Map)

The hill is about 500 yards south of the Leesburg Pike (traced in Orange on the map above).  At the time of the Civil War, two roads intersected near the crest.  What was Chain Bridge Road in those days comes up from the southwest from Vienna.  Chain Bridge Road then passed through a couple of turns before continuing to the northeast toward Lewinsville and eventually Chain Bridge near the mouth of Pimmit Run (traced in the map above in yellow).  Heading north out of the intersection was a road (traced in green) intersecting the Leesburg Turnpike, then connecting to the Lewinsville Road.  Johnson Hill Road, from Hunter Mill to the west, also intersected at Freedom Hill (here in blue), eventually connecting to the Leesburg Pike to the east.  (possibly becoming modern McGarity’s Road beyond that point).

A couple of place names stand out on the McDowell map.  First the “Old Courthouse” indicated was the location of the first Fairfax County Courthouse, from colonial times but abandoned in 1752.  Second, “Tyson” indicates the home of William Tyson, postmaster of Beech Grove Peach Grove, and a local Unionist.  John B. Farr, an ardent local secessionist from Dranesville, drove off Tyson in the fall of 1861 (OR, Series II, Volume 2, Serial 115, p. 1290).  Tyson returned later and continued as postmaster.  When that post office closed, the locality was renamed Tyson’s Corner.  Also note the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad (later the Washington & Old Dominion) passing to the south and west of Freedom Hill.

Freedom Hill first appears in the Civil War dispatches with regard to topographical surveys and reconnaissances conducted in October 1861.  Brig. Gen. George McCall dispatched troops to Freedom Hill while covering these activities (OR, Series I, Volume 5, Serial 5, p. 32).  Perhaps then it is fitting to use the McDowell map above, as it was built off the input from those surveys.

The hill became a staging point for numerous patrols into western Fairfax County.  Notably on February 7, 1862, portions of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry used Freedom Hill as a rally point, making a patrol through Vienna, Flint Hill, Fairfax, and Hunter Mill.  The patrol engaged pickets and captured several Confederates.  But Freedom Hill was only used as a temporary base, with all forces returning to Camp Griffin further north along the Chain Bridge Road (OR, Series I, Volume 5, Serial 5, pp. 504-8).   The 5th Pennsylvania made another patrol through Freedom Hill, this time supported by portions the 43rd New York and 6th Maine Infantry Regiments, on February 22.  But again, Freedom Hill was not a permanent base, but rather a staging point (OR, Series I, Volume 5, Serial 5, p. 509).  During the Second Manassas Campaign, no formal base or installation stood at Freedom Hill, but the location was mentioned in several dispatches.

During the spring of 1863, Brig. Gen. Julius Stahel’s Cavalry Division used Freedom Hill while patrolling its assigned sector.  At least one letter from Lt. Col. Russell Alger, of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade, indicates the division maintained a detached outpost (see George Custer’s Ascension to Command the Wolverines, by Robert F. O’Neill, Jr., Blue and Gray Magazine, Vol. XXVI, #3, 2009, p. 27).  In August of that year, Col. Charles Lowell, 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry, posted 75 troopers at Freedom Hill.  Still no garrison held the Freedom Hill, and no permanent fortifications stood on the site (OR, Series I, Volume 29, Serial 48, p. 68).

However on New Years Day 1865, a couple of troopers from the 13th New York Cavalry ran into a concealed force of thirty Confederates near Freedom Hill.  One of the Federals escaped capture, and spread the word, but patrols failed to capture any of the Confederates (OR, Series I, Volume 46, Serial 96, p. 17).  Perhaps this incident was the last straw, as on January 10 Major General Christopher Augur, commanding the Department of Washington, directed Colonel William Gamble to “establish at Freedom Hill a post to be garrisoned by one company of heavy artillery, to be taken from the present location at Prospect Hill.”  (OR, Series I, Volume 46, Serial 96, p. 92).  Gamble’s First Separate Brigade at that time consisted of the 5th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, 16th Massachusetts Battery, 202nd Pennsylvania Infantry, 8th Illinois Cavalry, and the 13th and 16th New York Cavalry (OR, Series I, Volume 43, Serial 91, p. 850).

Thus in all likelihood, the 5th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery built this position:

Remains of the Fortifications on Freedom Hill

Today an artillery position and a few associated mounds stand in Freedom Hill park, along Old Courthouse Road (CR 677).  The layout of the earthwork indicates this to be a field artillery fighting position.  Absent are parapets, ditches, covered ways, or other structures associated with more elaborate fixed fortifications.

Interior of the Works

In profile, the work resembles those seen on battlefields like Gettysburg or Spotsylvania, as opposed to the fortifications in the Washington defenses:

Profile of the Work

The red “stakes” in and around the works are remains of Fairfax County historical markers.  Currently missing, the site is in need of some form of interpretation.

On the McDowell map above, I marked the site of Freedom Hill’s fort with a six-pointed star.  While possible such a star fort stood at the site, that is only speculation on my part.  However, looking to the west, at Vienna, another six-pointed star notes the location of a fortification which does have such a perimeter trace.  Remains of the star fort in Vienna stand on the grounds of the local American Foreign Legion Post.   That fort guarded the railroad line.  But noting the terrain, field contours, and wood lots indicted on the McDowell map, guns from the Vienna fort and Freedom Hill’s fort interlocked across the valley formed by Wolf Trap Run.  A half-dozen Napoleons or rifled guns might seal off any approach from the west.

But today, such a line of sight is a different story.  The ground around Freedom Hill is mixed residential, office complexes, and shopping malls.  Looking from a point about 600 yards west of Freedom Hill near the intersection of Westwood Drive and Old Courthouse Road, this view captures some of the terrain elevations.  The taller trees beyond the turn of the road in the distance are actually those upon Freedom Hill’s southwestern edge.

Freedom Hill from the West

Still one must have a good feel for the geography to even guess at the wartime appearance.

Before closing, I would note that Freedom Hill’s brushes with history did not end with the Civil War.  In the later half of the 20th century, political and business leaders looked for technology centers close to the Capitol, yet distanced to mitigate damage due to some enemy attack.  Given the road structure of the time and many other variables, Tyson’s Crossroads fit that requirement best.  As time progressed, the proliferation of government contractors and government offices brought the need for improved telecommunications support.   Little wonder the first major hub in what we know today as the internet stands on the north side of Freedom Hill (and the MAE-East is not far from there).  If you are interested in that bit of non-Civil War history, which happens to explain a bit about how you came to be reading these words on a computer, it is well documented in Paul Ceruzzi’s Internet Alley:  High Technology in Tyson’s Corner – 1945-2005.