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Leesburg and the Civil War: "A perfect sneering nest of Rebels" (1861-1865)

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Citizens Enlist • "Dog Money" •  Battle of Ball's Bluff •  Confederate Forts
Confederate Evacuation and First Union Occupation • From Second Manassas to Antietam
The Shelling • General Early's Army Passes Through • Mosby's Rangers

Leesburg was a prosperous southern town of about 1,700 at the outbreak of the Civil War. It was strategically (or uncomfortably) near the border, located just two miles south of the Potomac River, which then divided the United States from the Confederate States of America. Loudoun County's two delegates to the Virginia Secession Convention in April 1861, Leesburg attorney John Janney (whom the convention elected its president) and John Armistead Carter, voted against secession. The Ordinance of Secession passed nonetheless by a vote of 88 to 55. The next month Leesburg men overwhelmingly ratified the Ordinance with a vote of 400 to 22.

By war's end, Leesburg changed hands about 150 times over the course of the war, and had suffered not only from the frequent raids and combat in its streets but also the disintegration of civil authority. The following items highlight Leesburg's varied and precarious experience during the four years of hostilities.

Leesburg is a participant in the Virginia Civil War Trails program.


Citizens Enlist (April-May, 1861)

Many Leesburg men joined the cause of the Confederacy. The Potomac Greys (Company H, 8th Virginia Infantry) and the Leesburg Cavalry (Company K, 6th Virginia Cavalry) were mainly Leesburg men, while the Loudoun Artillery and the Loudoun Guard (Company C, 17th Virginia Infantry) drew men from all over Loudoun County, including Leesburg. Northwest of Leesburg many Germans and Quakers in Lovettsville and Waterford, areas that had opposed secession, formed Loudoun's only Union unit, the Loudoun Rangers.

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"Dog Money" (May 1861)

Dog Money $.50
Leesburg 50¢ note. Leesburg Municipal Currency ("Dog Money") (SC 0034), Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA.

During the Civil War, the Town of Leesburg issued its own currency in small denominations, known locally as "Dog Money" because it had a picture of a dog on it. At that time banks were prohibited from issuing banknotes in denominations of five dollars or less, and silver coins were becoming scarce. 

On 31 May, 1861, Leesburg Town Council adopted an ordinance authorizing an initial printing of $18,500 in denominations of $1.00, 50¢, 25¢, and 12½¢. By the end of the war the total amount authorized was around $93,500.

Technically, the notes were illegal. The act authorizing Virginia cities and towns to issue money was not passed until 29 March 1862, almost a year after Leesburg began issuing its money. The notes were unconstitutional under the Federal and Confederate Constitutions, which prohibit states from printing paper money. However, when the Town Council authorized the first issue of currency, Virginia had just seceded from the United States and had not yet joined the Confederacy; as far as Virginians were concerned, no higher constitution applied. Even after Virginia joined the Confederacy, the Confederate Government did nothing to repress state or municipal currency.

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Battle of Ball's Bluff (21 October 1861)

After the Union defeat at Manassas, Leesburg was occupied for much of the autumn of 1861 by Confederate troops under the command of Colonel Nathan "Shanks" Evans. Evans commanded the 8th Virginia Infantry, which included Leesburg's own Company H, the Potomac Greys, three Mississippi infantry regiments, and a company of Richmond Howitzers. Union movement on the Maryland side of the Potomac caused Evans to fear an attack, and, without orders, temporarily evacuate Leesburg on the night of 16 October. After a reprimand from his commanding officer, General P.G.T. Beauregard, Evans and his troops were back in Leesburg by 19 October.

The evacuation of Leesburg had been observed by the Union. General George McClellan, torn between wanting "a slight demonstration" to test the mettle of the Confederates and fearing a trap in Evans' evacuation, ordered a reconnaissance mission on 20 October, testing westward towards Leesburg from Dranesville. Simultaneously, McClellan ordered Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone to conduct a bombardment of the supposed Confederate position at Edwards Ferry. When there was no reaction to either maneuver, General Stone sent Captain Chase Philbrick of the 15th Massachusetts Infantry to determine enemy position; the inexperienced captain mistook a stand of trees for an unguarded camp.

This "camp" became the target for the raid on the morning of the 21st by 300 men of the 15th Massachusetts under Colonel Charles Devens. When the Union raiding party discovered no encampment where Philbrick had reported, Devens requested new orders rather than retreat. His new orders came with 350 reinforcements and instructions to expand the raid into a reconnaissance towards Leesburg. Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker, a serving U.S. Senator from Oregon, who arrived at General Stone's camp mid-morning on the 21st, was sent to evaluate the situation. On his way to the Potomac, Baker met one of Devens' messengers, who reported that the enemy had been engaged. Baker ordered as many Union troops as he could locate to cross the river to Virginia, but there were insufficient boats to provide for efficient transport. In total, approximately 1,720 Union troops crossed from Maryland into Virginia.

After trying unsuccessfully to break out of their position on the river bank, the Union retreat began late in the afternoon, with the Confederates holding the high ground of the bluff. The result was chaos and confusion. The Union suffered 223 dead, including 166 soldiers who drowned and Colonel Baker, 226 wounded and 553 captured soldiers. The Confederacy suffered 36 dead, 117 wounded and 2 captured soldiers. Confederate cavalry corporal Elijah V. White, a Loudoun County farmer, engineered the capture of 350 of the Union soldiers. Union prisoners were held on the courthouse lawn, and wounded from both sides were placed in homes and public buildings.

The Battle of Ball's Bluff was the largest battle of the war fought in Loudoun County. The engagement, numerically small in both total combatants and losses in comparison with other battles of the war, had lasting impact in the politics of how the war was conducted. Outrage over Union losses at Ball's Bluff, Manassas, and Wilson's Creek led to the creation of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Confederate Leesburg, on the other hand, celebrated the victory.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority preserves much of the battlefield and the national cemetery at Ball's Bluff Battlefield Regional Park. Self-guided tours and trail maps are available, as well as volunteer-guided tours on the weekends.

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Confederate Forts (Winter, 1861-1862)

After the Battle of Ball's Bluff, General Hill oversaw the completion of Forts Evans, Johnston and Beauregard on the hills surrounding Leesburg. Many Leesburg residents, including anti-war Quakers and slaves, assisted in the construction. Fort Evans was built between Leesburg and the river; it still stands on a hill behind Shoppers Food Warehouse on private property. Fort Johnston, built on Leesburg Mountain west of town, also still exists on private property. Fort Beauregard was built southeast of town, but its exact location is unknown.

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Confederate Evacuation and First Union Occupation (March, 1862)

On 6 March, Hill was ordered to evacuate Leesburg and destroy all forage in the surrounding countryside as he went. Two days later, Fort Johnston fell to Union troops under the command of Colonel John Geary. George Fox, the Clerk of Court, hastily evacuated the county's records to Lynchburg; he returned with them, undamaged, in August 1865. Leesburgers were not overjoyed by the presence of their new occupiers, who imposed martial law. One Union solder referred to them as "a perfect sneering next of Rebels," and wrote "The people were the bitterest in their hatred of Northern mudsills of any we had met."

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From Second Manassas to Antietam (September 2-6, 1862)

After a stunning victory at the Battle of Second Manassas at the end of August 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to take the war onto northern soil. On 2 September 1862, his advance troops, the 2nd Virginia Cavalry, under command of Colonel Thomas Munford, found Leesburg occupied by the Loudoun Rangers, and Cole's Cavalry, from Maryland. Munford's troops drove the Union troops out to a mile north of town — Mile Hill — where the Union troops suffered heavy casualties, and eventually retreated to Maryland.

Two days later, Lee arrived with the rest of his troops. Lee himself stayed at the home of Henry Tazewell Harrison (205 North King Street), a distant relative, where he had his hands, which had been injured at Second Manassas, examined by Leesburg's Dr. Samuel Jackson. During his stay, Lee visited his friend John Janney. On the morning of the 5th, Lee met with Generals Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and James Longstreet in the Harrison Hall dining room. Later that day, the Confederate troops crossed the Potomac River at White's Ford into Maryland. Stuart and his cavalry returned through Leesburg in mid-October.

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The Shelling (September 17, 1862)

The same day Generals Lee and McClellan faced off at the Battle of Antietam, Union Lieutenant Colonel Judson Kilpatrick, with the 2nd New York Cavalry and 4 cannon, faced off against members of Confederate Captain Elijah V. White's 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry on the hill where Edwards' Ferry Road and East Market Street now meet. The town was shelled and White was seriously injured during the skirmish, after which both sides withdrew.

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General Early's Army Passes Through (June 13-16, 1864)

After Confederate General Jubal Anderson Early's Shenandoah Valley campaigns during the summer of 1864, which culminated in the Battle of Monocacy on 7 July near Frederick, Maryland and even closer threats on Washington itself at Forts Stevens and DeRussy on 11-12 July, Early pulled back to Leesburg. He crossed into Loudoun at White's Ford on the 13th, and encamped his army north of town for two days. On his way back to the Shenandoah Valley, where he continued to challenge Union forces into October, Early marched his troops south on King Street and west out of town on Market Street — Leesburg Turnpike — on the 16th. They were followed in close pursuit by Union General H.C. Wright's 6th Corp and General George Crook's 19th Corp, both of which also passed through Leesburg. Fighting also occurred later that afternoon at Hamilton and Purcellville further west on the Leesburg Turnpike.

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Mosby's Rangers (January 1863 - April, 1865)

If the Union Loudoun Rangers, who frequented Leesburg during the war years, were not warmly welcomed by the majority of Leesburgers, the same cannot be said for Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby's Rangers, the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. The Rangers often came to town to visit Pickett's Public House, now part of the Loudoun County Courthouse Complex. Federal raiding parties often came to Leesburg in search of them. On 29 April 1864, members the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry under command of Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, supported by auxiliary infantry, arrived from the east via Leesburg Turnpike, hoping to find some Rangers. They surprised the Rangers at Pickett's. In the ensuing skirmish, some Rangers were wounded or captured, while others fought their way out.


Discover more about Leesburg during the antebellum years.

Discover more about Leesburg during from 1866 through the Second World War.

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