Leesylvania State Park

By James R. Arnold, and published in Northern Virginia Heritage, October 1985 (Vol. VII, No. 3)

In April 1985 the Virginia State Park system formally dedicated a new park in Northern Virginia. The dedication brings to fruition the dreams of local historians and members of the Society of the Lees of Virginia. Their effort over the past 30 years has preserved for public enjoyment a fascinating historical site. Leesylvania State Park, on which is located Freestone Point, is a 508 acre park with almost 3 miles of water frontage on the Potomac River between Neabsco and Powells Creeks. It has a rich history dating back to early Indian settlements. The former house site of Henry Lee II, father of Light Horse Harry Lee and grandfather of Robert E. Lee, is on park grounds. A moss covered knoll marks a Lee family grave site. Eroded earthworks on a 110 foot bluff overlooking the Potomac show the location of a Confederate battery occupied during the Civil War. Today, as one of the newest and northernmost state parks, Leesylvania is being developed as both a historical site and a recreational facility. As Park Service development continues to prepare the site for public access, it is worthwhile to recall Leesylvania's varied history.

Archaeological evidence indicates that Leesylvania's wooded ravines and shoreline resources early attracted Indians to the site. While a comprehensive archaeological survey has not been completed, it is likely that transient Indian populations visited the site as far back as prehistoric times. The Potomac River and its adjacent creeks provided the reason for such visits. The offshore waters teemed with fish prompting the first European explorer to write that the "abundance of fish Iying so thicke with their heads above water . . . we attempted to catch with a frying pan." (1) The Indians netted the fish and then dried their catch on shore. Extensive populations of otters, beavers, and muskrats lived in nearby marshes, offering a rich source of fur for clothes. In addition, the area lies beneath the great Atlantic flyway frequented by migratory water fowl. Here was another source of food to bring visitors. Thus early Indians established seasonal camps at Leesylvania to utilize its abundant natural resources.

The early history of European settlements in Virginia involves the radiation of explorers and settlers from Jamestown up the rivers of the Tidewater. As early as 1608, Captain John Smith explored the upper Potomac, documenting what he saw in his meticulous journal. The richness of the region astonished Smith: "These hils many of them are planted, and yeelde no lesse plenty and variety of fruit then the river exceedeth with abundance of fish." (2) As the basic survival battles were fought and won by the Europeans, more colonists came to Virginia. In 1651 the first royal land patent was issued in what later became Prince William County. It had taken a little over 50 years for colonists to expand from Jamestown to Leesylvania.

England encouraged settlement in order to forestall the rival colonial empires of France and Spain. A major additional incentive arose from popular acceptance of a curious Indian custom, tobacco smoking. The dominant role of tobacco in encouraging state settlement and expansion is exhibited in the "Proclamation for Settling the Plantation of Virginia 1625." (3) In this proclamation, King Charles commanded that settlers clear land and grow tobacco since it was "our pleasure is all such sovereign tobacco may be freely exported." (4) This mandate contributed to the development of the famous Tidewater plantations. Tobacco would be grown wherever possible, including along the banks of the Potomac.

Land was granted by the King as headrights with "50 acres being given for each person transported into the 'Kingdom of Virginia.'" The Leesylvania tract comprised four such headright grants. The first was issued in 1654.(5) The property passed to the Corbin family in 1658. Henry Corbin deeded the land that encompasses Leesylvania State Park to his three-year-old daughter, Laetitia. The terms of the guardianship stated it was to become hers outright either upon her coming of age or upon her marriage.(6) In 1674, Laetitia Corbin married the 27-year-old son of one of her guardians, Richard Lee II. The land passed into the hands of its most famous owners.

For four generations spanning some 90 years the Lees did not settle on this property. However, title continued to be held by various members of the Lee clan until 1747 when Henry Lee II became the first Lee family member to reside here. He named it "Leesylvania," a title meaning Lee's woods. The year 1753 witnessed a momentous occasion when Lee "married Lucy Grymes, the 'Lowland Beauty' mentioned by Washington Irving as the object of an unsuccessful courtship by the youthful George Washington."(7)

Among the eight children born at Leesylvania were Henry Lee III, Revolutionary cavalry leader, Governor of Virginia, and father of Robert E. Lee; Charles Lee, George Washington's personal lawyer and Attorney General of the United States; Richard Bland Lee, the first Congressman of Northern Virginia and a person influential in moving the capital to Washington, DC; and Edmund J. Lee, Mayor of Alexandria.(8) It was a remarkable collection of gifted public servants who were born on this site. [Note: In the paper version of this edition, the next article describes the Lees of Leesylvania...]

The land at Leesylvania continued to be developed under the guidance of the Lee family. Leesylvania's development mirrored the economic activities taking place in the county as a whole. The depression in tobacco prices in the 1700s led to economic diversification among the plantations and estates of Prince William County. The closest important port to Leesylvania, Dumfries, became a major shipping center. Local iron deposits, coupled with available water power, spawned an active pig-iron industry, which cast valuable munitions for the patriot armies during the impending war. As late as 1787, Thomas Jefferson was to write about the bustling mining activities at Taylor's Forge on nearby Neabsco Creek.(9) But prosperity was interrupted in 1775 when news of the outbreak of hostilities in Boston reached Virginia, propelling one of Leesylvania's children into the forefront of Revolutionary history.

As the fever of Revolutionary ardor swept the thirteen colonies, prominent citizens of Prince William County met to determine upon a course of action. A Committee of Safety formed, which included Henry Lee II of Leesylvania and his neighbor, Thomas Blackburn of Rippon Lodge. The Committee acted as somewhat of a vigilante group in its efforts to restrict all trade with Great Britain. But, "on the positive side, it was to encourage the improvement of the breed of sheep, improve the methods of agriculture, promote frugality, economy and industry at home."(10)

Such mercantile considerations had to be put aside when news of the outbreak of war reached Virginia. The local militia and minutemen organized into units. Henry Lee II was appointed as their leader, the County Lieutenant. His first concern was for the important port of Dumfries. Since the British had overwhelming naval superiority in these waters, British ships sailed with impunity along the Potomac and in the Bay. The militia frequently rallied to threatened points to resist possible enemy landings. To protect Dumfries, Lee stationed the militia on Quantico Creek two miles below that port.

In 1781, the practice alarms and excursions paid off. In early April, British raiding vessels appeared on the Potomac. These included the privateer ships, the Trimer and Surprise, along with a sloop of war. A small schooner set off from the Trimer in an attempt to capture an American ship docked at Alexandria. The raiders were discovered and captured. Upon interrogation, they indicated the British intention to burn George Washington's house at Mount Vernon (an event possibly forestalled by the collaboration of Washington's cousin Lund), ravage Leesylvania, and capture Henry Lee II and George Mason. The vigilant patriots in Alexandria and Lee's militia foiled most of this plan, although the raiders did manage, in the words of Henry Lee II, to take "thirty negroes and the overseer, from the Plantation of Consellor Carter... Plundered the House of Messres Gerard Hooe, John Washington, and many other persons of all their furniture & other valuable Effects... carried Mr. Neale off and also a son of Mr. Hanson Plundered the house of the Priest and many others. Mr. George Dent's houses, they burnt, and a fine stallion and two chair horses sufferred in the flames."(11) Life was anything but secure in the homes of the patriots along the Potomac.

Henry Lee II had additional responsibilities during this period. He served as the Presiding Justice of Prince William County, a member of the House of Burgesses, and the County representative in the Virginia Revolutionary Conventions. With all these duties, he was not too busy to respond to George Washington's request to construct a road to shorten the distance from Alexandria to Dumfries in order to facilitate the transport of military goods. This became Telegraph Road and was one of Prince William's major contributions to the war effort.

But the County's main contribution was Henry Lee II's son, Henry Lee III, known as Light Horse Harry. This patriot was born at Leesylvania on January 29, 1756. Graduating from Princeton at 17, Harry returned home to find the issue of separation from England the dominant topic of concern. A friend of George Washington and a superb rider, Harry found his skills perfectly meshed with his country's needs when war broke out.

Commissioned as a Captain, Lee handpicked the members of his 5th Troop of Continental Light Dragoons. After leading each potential recruit on a grueling steeple-chase, he would wheel his horse about and charge with drawn sword! If the recruit did anything but meet the challenge steel on steel, he was politely refused into the ranks. In this way, a young' intrepid group of 82 cavalrymen was chosen. They quickly showed their mettle.

Dispatched to George Washington's Army, Lee's men demonstrated the classic mounted and dismount tactics of light dragoons. Among the various exploits they seized a loaded convoy of provisions, which they brought back to Valley Forge to feed and clothe the army at a time when it almost dissolved from lack of supplies. Later, after being promoted, he led his men on a daring commando style raid against a British fort at Powles (Paulus) Hook near New York City. Again his success provided a valuable tonic at a time when America seemed war weary. When the British turned their attention to the South, Washington sent several elite units to oppose them. Prominent among these was Lee's command, now a mixed horse and foot group styled "Lee's Legion." During the Southern Campaign in the Carolinas, the Legion performed prodigies of valor, winning renown at Guilford Courthouse and during Greene's campaign against Cornwallis.

The martial tradition of Leesylvania continued, albeit somewhat diluted, when Charles Lee's son sold the property in 1825 to Henry Fairfax whose son, John, inherited part of the estate in 1847. When the Civil War broke out, Fairfax joined the staff of the famous Confederate General James Longstreet. What Fairfax lacked in formal military training he made up by personal bravery. A fellow staff officer wrote "Major Fairfax was then of middle age, tall, courtly, and rather impressive... He lacked nothing in courage, was brave and would go anywhere... he was the most pious of churchmen and was a born bon vivant, knowing and liking good things. Whiskey later was hard to get, yet he managed to have always a good supply on hand."(12) Taking charge of Longstreet's camp mess, Fairfax presented sumptuous repasts that gained renown throughout the army. His good nature and whiskey did much to maintain staff morale during the long war.

The land itself at Leesylvania also played a prominent role in the war. The Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 drove the Union troops back to fortifications surrounding Washington, D.C. Confederate troops advanced up to these fortifications and encamped. A no man's land extended in an arc along the Virginia shore of the Potomac from above Arlington through Alexandria. Confederate leaders felt they lacked the strength to drive the Union army across the river, while the Union leaders doubted their ability to act aggressively until their forces had been reorganized. During this extended lull a period of recruiting and training began for both armies as new men were summoned to the front.

However, the fertile strategic brain of Robert E. Lee recognized that inactivity favored the Union cause. Consequently, he promoted a scheme to seriously impede the Union build-up. Washington was connected to the North via a single track branch line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and via seagoing vessels sailing the Potomac. At this time Washington was a port city with the river its major supply route. Recognizing this, on August 22, 1861, Lee issued orders to block the Potomac by building a series of artillery positions that commanded the sailing channel. It is ironic that one of these positions was to be located on the grounds of his ancestral home. For the next six months, military and political attention focused on the crucial Potomac River passage into the capital.

On the Virginia shore, several prominent bluffs presented potential artillery sites to interdict the river. The most northerly of these was Freestone Point on the Leesylvania plantation. From Freestone to Chopawamsic Creek, along a six mile front, Confederate soldiers and slave laborers began to fell trees and dig fortifications at strategic sites overlooking the river. On Freestone Point a four gun battery position was prepared.

Union leaders recognized the vulnerability of the Potomac shipping lane. Shortly after the fall of Fort Sumter, the U.S. Navy created the Potomac Flotilla. Its mission was "keeping the river open to Union shipping and restricting communications between the Virginians and the Confederate sympathizers in southern Maryland."(13) To accomplish this task the flotilla patrolled the river collecting reports of Confederate building activity from civilians and escaped slaves. For example, the U.S.S. Seminole picked up a group of escaping slaves on September 23 who reported "two hundred men with siege guns passing through . . . on their way to Freestone Point."(14)

But the Confederates hid their activity from the vigilant Navy by working at night and keeping a shield of trees standing between the gun positions and the river. However, Confederate engineers quickly realized that guns on Freestone Point would not have the range to reach the shipping channel. This discouraging information was turned to advantage. The Freestone Point battery would be revealed to the Union and thus distract attention away from the more important sites at Evansport (now Quantico Marine Base) and Cockpit Point. When the U.S. Navy ship Jacob Bell scouted Freestone Point on September 25, it noted the fresh turned earth, and fired six shells to disperse the workmen.(15)

But the Freestone battery continued to fire on vessels of the Potomac Flotilla. A Union threat against the position prompted the local Confederate commander to order up the 6th North Carolina Infantry from nearby Dumfries to repel a possible landing.(16) The threat did not materialize, but both sides maintained an uneasy wariness occasionally interrupted by violent bombardments. Thus the Freestone battery achieved some success in its diversionary role.

Meanwhile, as the main sites neared completion they were armed with heavy guns dragged up from the former U.S. Navy yard at Norfolk. The trees in front of the batteries were partially sawed through so when the order to open fire came, they could be easily toppled to create a clear field of fire. Although the Confederates planned to reveal their batteries simultaneously in order to achieve maximum surprise, over-zealous gunners couldn't resist firing prematurely at targets of opportunity. Nonetheless, the batteries had achieved enough success that by October 25, 1861 the Potomac was effectively closed to merchant traffic. Ships were diverted to Baltimore where they unloaded their valuable supplies to be carried over the creaking, overstrained rail line to the Capital. Soon shortages began to be felt and commodity prices rose dramatically. Civilians suffered a particular lack of fuel as winter neared. "Every person in Washington is suffering,"(17) wrote one beleaguered civilian. The military ran low on forage for their mounts and draft animals. This prompted the Union to launch foraging expeditions into nearby Virginia thus precipitating such large skirmishes as the action at Dranesville. A U.S. Naval officer lamented the sad state of affairs and wrote "so long as the batteries stand, the navigation of the Potomac will be closed."(18)

The Union commanders began to organize countermeasures. A first step was determining exactly what they were up against. Toward this end, intrepid officers accompanied a certain Professor Lowe during ascents of moored, hot air balloons on the Maryland shore of the Potomac. From their lofty perches they observed and charted the Confederate positions. Union battery sites were built across from the Confederate sites and periodic duels raged across the river.

This state of affairs could not continue. Political pressure from Lincoln on down forced the ponderous thinking Union commander, General McClellan, to plan a combined land and amphibious thrust against the artillery positions. As winter passed into spring, 1862, intelligence of the Union plans reached the cautious Confederate commander, General Joseph Johnston. Consequently, he drafted orders to evacuate the Potomac position. On March 8, 1862, Lincoln signed the order for McClellan to advance. On March 9, the Confederates retreated from their fortifications, and, according to local legend, abandoned the Freestone Point guns by dumping them into the river (in fact the guns were most likely removed on December 15 when other, more effective Confederate batteries became active). The blockade of Washington had been lifted.

The fortification on Freestone Point reminds the contemporary visitor of a time when the Capital felt itself threatened by enemy action. The Potomac blockade was an attempt to isolate Washington from the bountiful resources of the remainder of the Union. The six mile section of river that was dominated by the Confederate batteries with their approximately 37 heavy pieces of artillery represents the most effective concentration of anti-shipping guns during the entire war. Even the famous batteries at Vicksburg could not generate as much effective firepower as the guns along the Potomac. The Confederate batteries in Virginia had a more expansive field of fire and were better sited for firing against naval targets from the lower Potomac bluffs than those in Mississippi. Consequently, even a fast naval ship could be kept under fire for over an hour compared to a much shorter danger period experienced by ships running the Vicksburg guns. It is noteworthy that General Whiting, one of the prominent Confederate commanders along the Potomac, applied the experience he had gained on this front to the benefit of his cause. When transferred to command of the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, he organized his defense with such skill that Wilmington successfully resisted the efforts of the U.S. Navy for almost three years. Whiting's Wilmington was the last port to fall to the Union blockade.

The remaining history of Leesylvania is one of sad and steady decline until very recent times. After the war, John Fairfax returned to his property on the Potomac, dividing time spent there with his other estate Oak Hill (located near Aldie and the former estate of President Monroe). After John's death the Fairfax family leased Leesylvania to the Quakers. For the first time, in the later 1800s, Leesylvania was victimized by unrestricted development. First, a rail line connecting Washington with Fredericksburg was completed in 1872 (the contemporary line bisecting the property follows this track). Then, the tenants allegedly timbered the entire estate, an activity leading to a lawsuit. While it is asserted that all of the trees were downed, some ancient trees survived and the forest recovered at least enough to support further lumbering during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Fortunately, such development slowed when a private hunting and fishing preserve was established at Leesylvania. Wealthy guests stayed in magnificently arranged private Victorian rail cars or at the Fairfax house, which was converted into a hunting lodge. Thus the water resources that attracted the pre-Colonial Indians brought a new generation of admirers But this tranquil interlude ended around 1910 when the Fairfax house burned down. The brick chimney and stone foundation are all that remain.

Apparently before this fire the property was in decline. It was rumored that the fire was started by illegal transients who had moved in to occupy the hunting lodge and its outbuildings During prohibition, bootleggers moved in establishing numerous whiskey stills. Perhaps the ghost of John Fairfax approved of this particular illicit activity! Until the 1950s the property fell into disuse, becoming choked with the second generation forest and brambles that cover the ground today.

Perhaps the grimmest chapter in Leesylvania's history now transpired. It came about because of an ancient colonial law and the legal status of gambling in Charles County, Maryland, across the Potomac from Leesylvania. The Freestone Holding Corporation purchased Leesylvania. The Corporation boasted an ambitious development plan complete with a six hundred room hotel, four restaurants, swimming pools, and a "Boat-el." But it was this latter that was the real lynchpin of the development plan: "The operators had taken advantage of the wording of the ancient grant of 1632 to Lord Baltimore that gave Maryland legal jurisdiction over the Potomac River to the high-water mark on the Virginia shore."(19) Thus, Freeston Holding Corporation moored a cruise ship off the point. built a dock out to the ship, and opened a gambling establishment. The combination of gambling and liquor by the drink (both illegal in Virginia at that time) proved irresistible to many.

It quickly became apparent that the grandiose development plans were just a front for the real business of running a low budget, high volume slot machine parlor. Although some recreational facilities were built, the essential nature of the enterprise could not be camouflaged. "To the distress of the local residents, the ship attracted a boisterous clientele of gamblers to this peaceful area. Outraged Virginians protested, and an amicable solution was reached between the Governors of Virginia and Maryland by which the latter agreed to have Charles County void the (gambling) license."(20)The outlawing of gambling casinos off Virginia's shoreline plunged the Freestone Holding Corporation into bankruptcy, forcing it to sell out. Unrestricted, and in this case somewhat unsavory, development had been halted.

Fortune now smiled on this noble estate. The American-Hawaiian Steamship Company, owned by Daniel K. Ludwig, purchased the tract as an investment. The company's attorney happened to be the former Director of the National Park Service. This gentleman alerted the owner, Mr. Ludwig, "an elderly semi-reclusive billionaire,"(21) about interest in preserving Leesylvania as a park. Preservation efforts had been spearheaded by local citizens and historians as well as members of the Society of Lees of Virginia. Daniel Ludwig proved very sympathetic to these efforts. He donated half of the property's appraised real estate value to the Commonwealth of Virginia. When final papers were signed in 1978, Leesylvania State Park was born. The generous Mr. Ludwig wrote "I have always admired the contributions of the Lees to our nation. It is good to know that an area so significantly involved with the history of this illustrious family will be preserved always as one of the Commonwealth's great parks."(22)

And so today the site is under the benevolent guidance of the State Park system. Soon it will blossom into a multiple-use resource that will both commemorate Leesylvania's honorable past and offer a beautiful setting for the enjoyment of outdoor recreation by today's Virginians. (The opening should be in 1986. NVH will keep its readers informed. Editor.)

James Arnold is a free lance historian. He is currently writing a historical novel taking place in Loudoun County during the Civil War.

1. Tyler, Lyon (ed), Narratives of Early Virginia (New York. 1907); p.145.
2. Ibid.: p.86
3. Reprinted by University of Virginia Press, 1946.
4. Ibid.; p.14.
5. Templeman, Eleanor Lee, Leesylvania State Park (manuscript 1984); p.2.
6-8. Ibid., pp.2-3
9. Jefferson, Thomas, Notes on the State of Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1955); p.28.
10. King, Martha Eheart, Bustling Dumfries During the Revolution (address, Aug. 3, 1973).
11. Calendar of State Papers; letter of Henry Lee, County Lieutenant to Gov. Jefferson (Vol.11, Richmond. 1881); p. 21-22.
12. Sorrel, Gen. G. Moxley, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer (New York, 1905).
13. Wills, Mary Alice, Confederate Batteries Along the Potomac (Prince William County Historical Commission, 1978); p.2.
14. Wills. Mary Alice, The Confederate Blockade of Washington. D.C. 1861-1862 (McLean. 1975); p.69.
15. Ibid.
16. Weymouth, T. Jordan, Jr., North Carolina Troops 1861-1865, (Raleigh, 1973) see vol. IV.
17. Hanson, Joseph, Bull Run Remembers (Manassas, 1961); p. 49.
18. Ibid.
19. Templeman, Eleanor Lee, Leesylvania State Park (manuscript 1984); p.4.
20-22. Ibid., pp.2-3

Northern Virginia Heritage

Northern Virginia Heritage - A Journal of Local History was published annually (three issues/year) from February 1979-October 1988 (Volume X, Number 3). Permission has been granted to post several articles related directly to Prince William County. The original copies of the journal are still available in the Virginiana Room of Fairfax County Public Library in Fairfax City, and in the RELIC Room of Bull Run Regional Library in western Prince William County.

Lee Templeman generously granted permission to use the name of her book as the journal's title, and an advisory board of prominent local historians provided assistance to the editor, Dr. Peter Henriques at the History Department of George Mason University.