From the summer of 1863 to the summer of 1864, the dynamics of the war had changed. In the summer of ’63, Lee’s Army was on the offensive and seen as largely invincible. The Battle of Aldie had occurred that summer, as a result of the Confederate Army moving north towards Gettysburg. Gettysburg changed everything, and Lee’s Army was now in trench warfare outside of Petersburg, with Grant using the superior resources of the Union to crush Lee’s Army.
In an effort to shake up the dynamics of the war and cause the Union to pull troops away from Petersburg, Lee sent General Early on a mission to attack Washington.
So, it was in this setting that Col. John S. Mosby, famous Confederate Ranger, received word to assemble his force and disrupt communications between Washington and Harpers Ferry to assist with Early’s offensive. When Mosby put out the call for troops, he never knew whether he would wind up with fifty soldiers or three hundred and fifty. While he had a small group of regulars, many of those that came to join him were Confederate soldiers on furlough that were in the area. When he assembled his group in Upperville on July 3rd, they were 250 strong and even had one cannon. On the 4th and 5th of July, they attacked the Union base across the river at Point of Rocks. They cut the telegraph wires that ran between Washington and Harpers Ferry, and left with a number of wagons full of Union supplies. The battle at Point of Rocks included a victory by Mosby’s forces over the Loudoun Rangers, a group of Union Cavalry that came largely from the Waterford area.
On the evening of the 5th of July, Mosby ate dinner at Temple Hall Farm, home of Henry Ball. Ball had fought at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff three years earlier at the beginning of the war, and was unboundedly familiar with many in Mosby’s party. Elizabeth White, wife of Confederate Cavalry officer Elijah White, was living with her neighbors at Temple Hall Farm.
One of the interesting events of July 5, 1864 is that at the same time Mosby’s troops were camped in and around Temple Hall, the women of Temple Hall, Elizabeth White, Bettie and Kate Ball and their friend Annie Hempstone, went across the river at White’s Ford and were arrested. These women had been identified crossing the river the previous fall and summer without permission and were suspected of being spies. Major Thompson of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry noted “these ladies are bitterly hostile to the U.S. Government, have near relations in the Rebel Army, and are eminently disposed and capable of doing much injury to the Union Cause.” These friends were taken to Washington and held in the Capital Prison. Annie Hempstone wrote years later that they were actually on a mission to smuggle clothes and boots for some members of Elijah White’s 35th Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry who had family in Maryland. And, that after being released from prison, these women came back into Virginia with the boots and clothes tied up in their hoop skirts.
A few hours after the women were arrested on the Maryland side of White’s Ford, Mosby heard the news that Union Cavalry forces under the command of Major Forbes were nearby in Leesburg.
Forbes’ forces, based out of Falls Church, were on a scouting mission of the Aldie area. After riding up Rt. 50 (known at the time as Little River Turnpike) and finding all quiet in Aldie, they proceeded up Rt. 15 to Leesburg, where they heard the news of Mosby’s raid on Point of Rocks, but did not know where his forces were.
Mosby moved his group to the Waterford area for the night and laid his plans to engage Forbes the next day. Knowing that Forbes was likely to retrace his steps and go back to Aldie before turning east to head towards their base, Mosby headed out in the morning of the 6th to get ahead of Forbes and ambush him along Rt. 50. From Leesburg, Mosby took the Carolina Road following the path of modern day Evergreen Mill Road. On the south side of Goose Creek, he took a route that brought him to Rt. 50, near what is Lenah Farm Road today.
Forbes’ group stopped at the field across the road from Mt. Zion Church (the property recently acquired by the Regional Park Authority) for several hours to make dinner. Growing impatient for the Union Cavalry to move towards his trap, Mosby’s force moved west to find Forbes.
The two forces were roughly equally matched with about 150 mounted cavalry each. As the Union forces saw the approaching Confederates, Forbes lined most of his group up on the south side of the road, with his advance guard on the north side. The first shot was fired by the one cannon Mosby had, which was in the middle of the road. The Union forces returned fire with rifles. Then the Confederates gave a yell and charged.
The fighting lasted about an hour, and in the course of the hand-to-hand combat that ensued, Mosby and Forbes fought each other with Forbes cutting through Mosby’s clothes with his sword. In the end, Forbes’ horse was shot by Mosby and pinned his leg, causing him to be captured. The Union line broke and fell into a disorganized retreat, with some of the Union Cavalry being chased for miles.
Three days later, General Early and his 15,000 Confederates attacked the City of Washington at Silver Spring, Maryland, and a nervous President Lincoln witnessed the fighting. As a result of the attack on Washington and, to a lesser degree, the skirmish at Gilbert’s Corner, General Grant ordered additional troops posted around Washington to help secure the Capital, pulling forces away from the front lines. The events of July 5th and 6th, 1864 in Loudoun County did not change the course of history, but do illustrate the important role our area played in the Civil War. The addition of public parkland at Gilbert’s Corner, where this skirmish took place, and the efforts to gain approval for new parkland at White’s Ford, will help round out the system of historic parks in Loudoun owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, that preserve today the important places and events of the Civil War in Loudoun County and help to make this area a center for historical tourism.