Two battles, thirteen months apart, were fought at or near Bristoe Station during the American Civil War: Kettle Run on August 27, 1862 during the Northern Virginia Campaign and Bristoe Station on October 14, 1863 during the Bristoe Campaign. Bristoe Station was a stop on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, an important rail line running north-south from Alexandria, Virginia to Gordonsville. It formed the northern half of the only rail link between the Union and Confederate capitals at Washington, D.C. and Richmond. Bristoe Battlefield was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park is the result of a compromise between development and historical preservation. As part of Centex Homes’ application to rezone agricultural land and develop New Bristow Village near the historic site, it promised to dedicate 127 acres as a Heritage Park to the Civil War Preservation Trust and identify and preserve mass graves of Confederate and Union soldiers. The Prince William County Board of Supervisors approved their application in 2002.
Today, you can walk 2.7 miles of trails through woods, wetlands, and wind-swept hills where armies marched, camped, and fought over 150 years ago.
Bristoe Station was first used as a Confederate camp after the First Battle of Bull Run in the fall of 1861. Burial sites for men from Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina regiments tell a tale of disease and hardship in Civil War military encampments. It’s estimated that over 500 men were buried here after disease swept through the camps. Archeologists have identified the exact location of the 10th Regiment Alabama Volunteer Infantry cemetery, but its graves are anonymous. A sign highlights the home counties of these men.
Confederates returned in August 1862, this time under command of Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, who fought a small rearguard action against Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Much of the battle took place west of the park, near Kettle Run (hence the name), and resulted in approximately 600 casualties. This portion of the park is accessed along a gravel trail, mostly through woods and tall grasses. On my visit, the ground was wet and sloppy, but a wooden plank path kept my feet dry over the deepest part of the wetland.
There are no monuments here, only interpretive signs telling the story of the battle. The 1862 trail loops around in a large field behind General Kirkland Drive and returns to the parking lot, although a path does connect it with the 1863 trail.
In October 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee tried to catch Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac off guard and get around his flank. If successful, he potentially could have destroyed a large portion of the Union army and prolonged the war. Meade smartly withdrew, and Lee’s pursuit resulted in the culminating Battle of Bristoe Station, a minor engagement compared to previous and future battles. The Confederates were repulsed, taking over twice as many casualties as their opponent.
The 1863 trail is longer and better paved than the 1862 trail. If you start from the parking lot, you will enjoy a sweeping view of the battlefield from the top of a hill before a downhill walk and loop through open fields. Interpretive signs tell the story of the battle from beginning to end. An old farm cemetery from the 1880s is also located along this trail.
It’s sad that it took so long for someone to preserve and interpret at least a portion of these battlefields, but thanks to cooperation between real estate developers and the Civil War Trust (now the American Battlefield Trust), this historic site will be preserved for generations to come. Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park is a wonderful place for a stroll or jog, and a place to appreciate and learn about the area’s military history.
Battlefield Heritage Park, off Bristow Road near 11639 Iron Brigade Unit Avenue in Bristow, Virginia, is open from dawn to dusk.