By Mike Kane and Tracy Gillespie
In February 1865, Eliza Davis, living on a farm two miles east of Aldie, wrote to her mother-in-law in Connecticut a first-hand account of life on the home front during the Civil War:
“I hope you are getting along comfortably in these times of War and Calamity . . . But you only know of war by rumor. I have lived on the battlefield for the last four years, have seen the dead and dying all around me…. Providence would see…our barn and the [nearby Mt. Zion] church…as hospitals…both have been full of wounded, dead and dying at the same time. An army of men encamped about on every side, in every direction as far as the eyes can see….
“You would ask if I am not afraid. I was at the beginning of the War as timid and nervous as most people, but now since I have seen and realized so much of War, I have become hardened and almost fearless…. None but an eye witness has an idea.”
Indeed, Eliza had a front-row seat to view the fighting of the Civil War and the devastation left in its wake. She and her husband lived across the road from Mt. Zion Old School Baptist Church, now Mt. Zion Historic Park, a property of NOVA Parks. Eliza witnessed the movement of Union and Confederate troops along Little River Turnpike (now Rt. 50), and observed the cavalry battles of Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville in June 1863, when Mt. Zion was used as a hospital for the wounded and ill of both sides. One year later, Eliza experienced the July 6, 1864 fight at Mt. Zion, when forces led by local Confederate Colonel John Mosby attacked Union forces of the 2nd Massachusetts and 13th New York cavalries. This 1864 fight began east of Mt. Zion, near the current-day Buddhist Temple on the south side of Rt. 50 and swept west over the fields to the church. A small fight in comparison to others, it nevertheless was an overwhelming victory for Mosby and his men.
Built as a place of worship in 1851, Mt. Zion became a place of war from 1861 to 1865. The transition may have been inevitable. Mt. Zion’s location on a high point at the intersection of the Little River Turnpike and the Old Carolina Road made it a visible local landmark for travelers from its earliest years. But during the Civil War, its hilltop location where these two then-prominent roads met, made the church an important reference point for troops moving through an area that shifted between Confederate and Union control.
In 1998, Mt. Zion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognizing the church’s architecture and the events in and around the church that have made a significant contribution to the narrative of America’s history. Remnants of the Old Carolina Road and the church’s cemetery, including at least 33 African-American grave sites outside the cemetery walls, were identified as important contributions to this designation.
With the help of many generous supporters and committed partners, NOVA Parks and the Piedmont Environmental Council are working to preserve the history and beauty of the church and the surrounding open space so visible from the hilltop. NOVA Parks acquired the church and seven surrounding acres in 2007, shortly after it had been restored by Loudoun County and the Mt. Zion Church Preservation Association. The historic building is open to the public and for educational programming on a regular basis, and the property is open daily during daylight hours.
PEC owns 171 acres of rural land visible from Mt. Zion’s hilltop, including the adjacent Roundabout Meadows Community Farm property, where PEC and its volunteers grow fruit and vegetables that are donated to Loudoun Hunger Relief. And, working in collaboration with the Mt. Zion Cemetery of Aldie, Inc. and the Fauquier-Loudoun Garden Club, PEC and NOVA Parks have opened a public trail on the roadbed that was once the Old Carolina Road, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the quiet beauty of this historic landscape.
Mt. Zion continues to be a prominent landmark for travelers. Its hilltop location now serves, for many people, as the point where Loudoun County’s congested suburbs fade and the beauty of the rural Piedmont’s forest and farmland come into view. The conservation work ensures that future generations will enjoy the welcome relief that comes from reaching the countryside. As Loudoun County’s suburbs creep further westward down Rt. 50, conserving Mt. Zion and the surrounding landscape has never been more important.
Come visit the Mt. Zion church and the surrounding PEC and NOVA Parks conservation lands that once served as the backdrop to Eliza Davis’s witness of the Civil War. These lands tell Eliza’s story, but also the stories of so many others who have shaped, and been shaped, by this hilltop landmark.
To learn more about visiting these sites, including now during the COVID-19 outbreak, go to novaparks.com/parks/mt-zion-historic-park and pecva.org/our-mission/working-farms-and-food/roundabout-meadows-community-farm.
[Mike Kane is Director of Conservation of the Piedmont Environmental Council. Tracy Gillespie is Historic Site Manager of NOVA Parks. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.]