Historic America

Blackburn’s Ford Battlefield

A couple interpretive signs are all that mark the location of this prelude to the first major battle of the Civil War.

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The Battle of Blackburn’s Ford was fought on July 18, 1861 between Union forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler and Confederate forces commanded by Brig. Gen. James Longstreet in Prince William and Fairfax Counties, Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle was a Confederate victory and resulted in 151 total casualties.

In mid-July 1861, Union Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s 35,000-man Army of Northeastern Virginia advanced into Virginia toward the railroad junction at Manassas. Standing in his way was the 22,000-man Confederate Army of the Potomac under Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. At Centreville, McDowell ordered Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler’s division to look for a crossing over Bull Run Creek at Blackburn or Mitchell’s fords. At Blackburn Ford, Tyler saw only a few Confederate artillery pieces and ordered forward a single brigade commanded by Col. Israel B. Richardson.

Tyler failed to see Brig. Gen. James Longstreet’s brigade hidden in the woods on the opposite shore. The inexperienced combatants subsequently slugged it out in the oppressive afternoon heat, until the 12th New York Infantry Regiment began to withdraw. After several hours of fighting, Union troops fully retreated in the face of Confederate reinforcements under Col. Jubal A. Early.

When the smoke cleared, 83 Union and 68 Confederate soldiers lay dead or wounded. The casualties paled in comparison to the First Battle of Bull Run, which would be fought nearby just a few days later. But it set the stage for what was to come. The victory raised morale in the green Southern recruits, while dampening their opponents’ spirits. Bruised at Blackburn’s Ford, McDowell decided to advance west and flank the Confederate army at Stone Bridge over Bull Run Creek, igniting the first major battle of the war.

Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery, the legality of secession, and the primacy of the Federal government. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most of the war’s battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.

The area surrounding Manassas Junction has undergone significant development in the intervening decades, and there are no monuments to mark the skirmish at Blackburn’s Ford, prelude to the first major battle of the war. A Civil War Trail marker was installed sometime in the last decade or so overlooking the Centreville Road bridge crossing Bull Run.

In 1994, Kevin Ambrose was metal-detecting in the woods north of the battlefield and discovered the unmarked graves of six soldiers from the 1st Massachusetts Infantry who were killed during the battle. An investigation by the Smithsonian Institution determined their likely identities and the remains were repatriated to Massachusetts and buried with honors. A McDonald’s now stands at the location.

Blackburn’s Ford Civil War Trails historical markers are located at the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail Parking Lot on the north bank of Bull Run Creek near 7152 Centreville Road, south of Comptons Corner (GPS coordinates 38.803493, -77.449756). The McDonald’s where the six Union soldiers’ bodies were discovered is located at 5931 Fort Drive in Centreville, Virginia. Six blue rectangles mark their former burial spots.

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