Part of the USA Today Network

One-tank road trips: Fairfax Court House, Virginia

I spent a day in Northern Virginia this past week with a Civil War living historian friend of mine and his wife. Among our many stops was old Fairfax Court House, Virginia, the site of one of the Civil War’s earliest skirmishes. On June 1, 1861, a company of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry attacked and scattered two newly raised Confederate cavalry companies in a sudden attack at 3:00 a.m. The Federals rode through Fairfax’s streets, where they encountered the Warrenton Rifles. In a series of charges, the Union troopers failed to dislodge the Warrenton boys, who for much of the fight were led by a civilian, former Virginia governor and U.S. congressman William “Extra Billy” Smith.

The old historic courthouse building in Fairfax, Virginia, was next to the campsite of the Warrenton Rifles. During the Civil War thousands of troops (both Union and Confederate) would march or ride past this structure, or camp near it.

This stone memorial commemorates the June 1861 Skirmish of Fairfax Court House in which Capt. John Quincy Marr, a former Virginia state assemblyman, died. He was the first Confederate officer killed during the Civil War.

In 1861 this impressively restored brick house was the Joshua Gunnell home. Extra Billy Smith was sleeping in an upstairs bedroom when he heard the commotion from the Union cavalry attack outside in the street. He prepared and loaded a Maynard rifle which he carried with him after smuggling it from Washington D.C. hidden under a woman’s skirt. Racing outside in the darkness, he took command of the Warrenton Rifles (Captain Marr was missing and later found dead from a gunshot). Smith, a former attorney in San Francisco and long-time politician), was in his early-60s but was still feisty and full of fight. He later became a Confederate general and fought in the Gettysburg Campaign.

The Old Jail Museum in Warrenton, Virginia, contains this glass display case with some artifacts from John Quincy Marr’s life.
Watch for Scott L. Mingus, Sr.’s new book in 2011 — Gettysburg’s Controversial Old Confederate General: Gov. William “Extra Billy” Smith of Virginia.

All photographs taken September 28, 2010, by Scott Mingus.