Centreville during the Civil War


Centreville is an unincorporated community in Fairfax County, Virginia, settled by the English in the 1720s. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), its elevated topography and its proximity to Washington, D.C., made Centreville attractive to both the Union and Confederate armies. So, too, did the junction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad with the Manassas Gap line, a few miles to the southwest, which allowed the village to be used as a supply depot throughout the war. The First Battle of Manassas (1861) and the Second Battle of Manassas (1862) were fought nearby, and the Confederate partisan John S. Mosby used the village as a base during the war.

Centreville is located on a high plateau where various creeks flow into Bull Run. Virginia Indians carved a trail through the site connecting the Occoquan River to a pass in the Blue Ridge Mountains; the trail, used by English settlers, would come to be known as the Mountain Road. In 1739 Willoughby Newton of Westmoreland County acquired 1,719 acres of land on either side of the Mountain Road and established the settlement that was first called Newgate after a tavern built there about 1749. Centreville was established by the General Assembly in 1792, deriving its name, according to an 1835 gazetteer, “from its central position, being about equidistant from Leesburg, Middleburg, Warrenton, Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria.” The village’s fortunes hinged on that central position, but Centreville began to decline as nineteenth-century turnpikes and railroads largely bypassed it. In 1854, the population was only 250; by 1860, it was probably less.

On May 23, 1861, the eligible voters of Centreville unanimously ratified the Virginia Convention‘s Ordinance of Secession, 105 to 0. Because of the village’s location near the junction of two important railroads, Centreville held strategic interest for both the Union and Confederate armies. It lay within striking distance of the United States capital and was near a rail connection to the Shenandoah Valley. When Union general Irvin McDowell‘s army marched in the direction of Richmond in July 1861, it made camp in Centreville and skirmished with Confederates under James Longstreet at Blackburn’s Ford on the road between Centreville and Manassas Junction. Three days later, on July 21, the first major battle of the war, the First Battle of Manassas, was fought at Manassas Junction and along Bull Run.

Union wounded from the engagements at Blackburn’s Ford and Manassas overwhelmed the town, with homes, hotels, and the stone Methodist church all used as hospitals. Still, one Union soldier complained that “in this poverty-stricken town, it was impossible to find supplies of any kind or description. The few people who remained had either hidden, sold, or been deprived of their stores.”

Victorious Confederates, under the command of Joseph E. Johnston, set up winter camp at Centreville, reducing the area’s forest to build and heat one-room log cabins, many of which were given names, such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The soldiers also built miles of earthworks that looked impressive from afar in part because they were embellished with so-called Quaker guns, or logs made to resemble cannons. Union major general George B. McClellan was convinced not to attack, and after Johnston withdrew on March 8, 1862, he sailed his Army of the Potomac all the way to the Virginia Peninsula.

Union soldiers arrived in Centreville on March 10, 1862, and occupied the village for much of the rest of the war. The Confederate partisan John S. Mosby was a force in the area. His 43rd Cavalry Battalion became so dominant in Fauquier, Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William counties that the region became known as “Mosby’s Confederacy.”

By the end of the war, Centreville was devastated. An observer at the dedication of monuments on the Bull Run battlefield in 1865 described it as “a desert.” In 1914, a journalist added to that: “If ever a village was killed in war it was Centerville [sic]. Perhaps it was choked by smoke of burning powder or smothered by the sulphurous gas from guns; perhaps it was blighted by the rain of shell or overcome by the horrors that it saw. Today it bears wounds and scars. Its wounds are bullet-pitted walls and shot-riven trees. Its scars are sunken graves and vine-veiled redoubts.”

English settlers arrive in the area around present-day Centreville.
Willoughby Newton of Westmoreland County acquires 1,719 acres of land on either side of the Mountain Road and establishes the settlement that will become Centreville.
ca. 1749
A tavern called Newgate is built near present-day Centreville, giving the community its first name.
The General Assembly establishes the town of Centreville, in Fairfax County. The village was originally called Newgate.
May 23, 1861
The eligible voters of Centreville unanimously ratify the Ordinance of Secession, 150 to 0.
July 21, 1861
The First Battle of Manassas is fought, overwhelming nearby Centreville with wounded Union soldiers.
August 1861—March 1862
Confederates under Joseph E. Johnston make camp at Centreville, building earthworks and embellishing them with so-called Quaker guns, or logs made to resemble cannons.
March 8, 1862
Confederate troops withdraw from Centreville.
March 10, 1862
Union troops occupy Centreville after the retreat of Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate army.
  • Smith, Eugenia B. Centreville, Virginia: Its History and Architecture. Fairfax, Va.: Fairfax County Office of Comprehensive Planning, 1978.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Centreville during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/centreville-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Centreville during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 24 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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