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Leesburg Historic District
When Dolley Madison fled the marauding British in 1814, she headed to Leesburg, where many Washingtonians now go for a day of antiquing, shopping, and dining. Leesburg traces its roots to the 1722 Treaty of Albany, when the Iroquois abandoned all lands east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the colony of Virginia.
The town originated as an outfitting post for the French and Indian Wars and was later named the site of the Loudoun County courthouse. It is where President James Madison spirited the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution during the War of 1812 and where James Monroe kept a house and drafted the Monroe Doctrine.
During the Civil War, its location, close to the division between North and South, put it at the center of combat action. The nearby Battle of Balls Bluff marked an early Confederate victory; Col. John Mosby later used the city as a base of operation for his raiders.
Leesburg became a boomtown in the 1980s as tech business sprung up along the Dulles Airport corridor, pushing the suburbs farther west. Today, much of its downtown area is preserved, featuring an abundance of antiques shops, boutiques, and cafés. A vast outlet mall on Route 7 on the city’s eastern boundary draws bargain shoppers from around the region.
The magnificent Oatlands Plantation (20850 Oatlands Plantation Lane, Leesburg, Va., 703/777-3174, www.oatlands.org, Mar. 28-Dec. 30 Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., tours on the hour 10 a.m.-4 p.m., $10 adults, $9 over age 59, $7 ages 6-16, free under age 6) appeals to fans of plantation homes.
Oatlands is a massive Greek Revival mansion built in the 1820s by a Carter, one of the state’s founding families. Its 360 acres contain a number of houses as well as formal gardens, with terraces and plantings harking back to the period when Carter first began work on the home in 1803. Prior to the Civil War, Oatlands housed the largest slave population in Loudoun County, numbering 128 people. The home later became a girls school, a summer boardinghouse, and a weekend property for a prominent Washington couple who preserved the property and restored the gardens.
A favorite activity at Oatlands is afternoon tea; the calendar varies, but on special weekends and throughout the fall, Oatlands hosts high tea and speakers on subjects ranging from gardening to the Civil War and the history of tea.
Balls Bluff Battlefield Regional Park
To get to Balls Bluff Battlefield (Balls Bluff Rd., Leesburg, Va., 703/737-7800, www.nvrpa.org, daily dawn-dusk, tours Apr.-Oct. Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., free), you pass through a subdivision of McMansions—a landscape that belies the Civil War skirmish, the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, that happened here on October 21, 1861.
The result of miscommunication between Maj. Gen. George McClellan and his men, Union forces crossed the Potomac River at an unknown steep spot in the river, and believing they had found a line of Confederates, began preparing for battle. A lack of reinforcements and poor communications among the Union soldiers gave the Confederates time to organize their forces, and by mid-afternoon, the battle was practically over, with one U.S. senator, Col. Evan Baker, dead and 553 Union prisoners taken.
The tiny battle was significant in that it led Union commanders to continue second-guessing their decisions throughout the rest of the war. Today, the small regional park has a number of trails, none longer than two miles, and is home to the third-smallest national cemetery, containing the graves of 54 Union soldiers.
Of the hundreds of ferries that crisscrossed the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland, only White’s Ferry (24801 Whites Ferry Rd., Dickerson, Md., 301/349-5200) remains, a cable-towed barge that carries cars, cyclists, and hikers traveling between Leesburg and Poolesville, Maryland. While it’s not worth driving out of the way for, there’s something enchanting about waiting in line for a five-minute crossing on a flat ferry named the Gen. Jubal Early, especially if you happen to be traveling between rural Maryland and northern Virginia.
A store on the Maryland side sells T-shirts and refreshments and rents canoes and bikes. White’s Ferry is popular with commuters and is at its most crowded during rush hour. It is also subject to the whims of the Potomac River; if you plan to go, call ahead to check the ferry’s status.
The store is normally open from mid-April through October, although don’t be surprised if you find it closed, with operators posting Facebook status updates such as: “Sorry, no way. There’s about three feet of the Potomac River in it.”
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition