Unison Historic District Offers a Window to the Civil War

The village of Unison in western Loudoun, as if charmed in some way to keep from changing, is a quiet hamlet of well-kept old buildings, with many farmhouses, barns and churches that measure their age in centuries.  They are settled into a landscape of farm fields and stone walls, where the curving hills and stands of trees give way, in their own rhythm, to views of the calm blue line of mountains on the western horizon.

It’s the roads in Unison that historians get most excited about, says Mitch Diamond of the Unison Preservation Society, which is leading efforts to list this area as a historic district on the state and national registers of historic places.

These narrow, unpaved thoroughfares wind between deep-cut banks, often hemmed in by canopies of trees or lined by traditional dry-stack stone walls.  At one point, travelers on these gravel roads must ford a river.  Here, as in few other places, the landscape retains the feel of the nineteenth century—when country roads like these were the conduits of the Civil War.

The tranquility of the landscape around Unison makes all the more startling the violence that intruded on November 1, 1862 when the vanguard of the Union army met, to their surprise, a band of Confederate cavalry led by J.E.B. Stuart.  In Unison’s open fields and narrow roads, soldiers fought all day for control of the ford across the river.  The next day, Union troops, with reinforcements, advanced from the village of Philomont toward Unison.  Mr. Diamond recreates the scene: “It was a Sunday morning.  The Union army comes marching down the road, led by a brass band. The people in Unison hear the boom of the drums and the bugles and they know what’s happening. They flee the churches and they go and hide in their cellars.  The Confederates line up through the village and fight on this road.”  Bombardments left the village in flames.

For three days, the Confederates kept falling back—but not without a fight for every hill and stream along the way.  The Union troops kept adding reinforcements until they outnumbered the Confederates four to one.  The line broke, and Stuart’s troops fled across the Blue Ridge to safety.  But they had done their job.

The Battle of Unison—which involved no more than 5,000 soldiers at its height and fell between the terrible battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg—never drew much attention from historians.  But research initiated by the Unison Preservation Society has shed new light on its importance.  A report on the Battle of Unison published in 2008 by the National Park Service, states: “Its significance pivots not on size or casualties but on the question of time.’”

This battle was planned by President Lincoln himself, as General Lee’s army was retreating from the bloodbath at Antietam.  Lincoln realized that Lee’s army, on the west side of the Blue Ridge, was actually further from Richmond than was the Union army in Maryland.  Lincoln’s plan was for the Union army, under General McClellan, to march to Richmond first and cut off the Confederate army from its capital.  Aware of the danger, Lee sent J.E.B. Stuart’s band to spar with the advancing northern army.  This resistance delayed the Union long enough for Lee to rush his forces to Culpeper and set up defenses.  The North lost its chance to end the war after Antietam, and Lincoln fired McClellan for bungling the opportunity.

Today, says David Edwards, Director of the Northern Virginia office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, “When you drive through the Unison area, unlike any other battlefield, you are looking at what Civil War soldiers saw.”  One reason why the battlefield is so well-preserved is the exceptionally high concentration of conservation easements.  Of the 8,000 acres in the proposed Unison Battlefield Historic District, in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties, 4,400 acres – or 55%— are protected by conservation easements.

Paul Hodge, the founder of the Unison Preservation Society, emphasizes that recognition as a historic district conveys advantages for local residents and carries no restrictions.  Unlike local historic overlay districts, which are part of the zoning code, listing on the state and national registers does not change what landowners can do with their property.  It does not allow public access.  But it does help landowners get grants for restoring historic buildings and make it easier to protect land with conservation easements.  The designation can also help protect an area from intrusive infrastructure, requiring that any project involving federal funds (such as a highway) attempt to minimize its impact on historic resources.  Primarily, this honorary designation helps to keep historic landscapes vital by calling attention to the stories that took place there, inspiring neighbors to take pride in the area and motivating voluntary preservation efforts.   PEC has been assisting the efforts of the Union Preservation Society to gain recognition for the historic district—as PEC has actively supported the designation of such districts throughout our region, which now includes an extraordinary 87,000 acres of historic districts.  Mike Kane, PEC’s Land Conservation Officer for Loudoun County, says, “We appreciate the opportunity to work with citizens and civic groups like the Union Preservation Society to preserve the integrity of the landscape.”