On May 18, a vibrant crowd of more than 130 historical enthusiasts were mesmerized by the long-anticipated unveiling of the Civil War Trail’s marker entitled, “Mystery of the Centreville Six.” The gathering took place at the McDonald’s restaurant at 5931 Fort Drive in Centreville, and centered around six Union soldiers whose remains were originally discovered in 1994.
The story dates back to the earliest days of the American Civil War and is as much a forensic one as it is a historic one.
Jim Lewis, author of the marker and master of the dedication ceremony, attributed the marker to the Bull Run Civil War Round Table’s efforts to bring closure to the story as part of its mission to remember, preserve, and educate.
Former Sully District Supervisor Michael Frey led off the program with a message regarding Centreville’s rich historical heritage and his support for the project. Lewis then proceeded to relate the sharp fight that took place two miles towards Manassas in mid-July 1861.
Kevin Ambrose, local relic hunter and keynote speaker, proceeded to recount how he was the one who discovered a skull and skeleton on the property in 1994 while looking for relics, and reported it to the appropriate authorities.
Both the Smithsonian Institution and Fairfax County Archeological Services got involved.
To the surprise of all, five additional burials were then discovered, all lined up in a row. All six burials were exhumed and contents examined in order to identify the bodies. Those efforts led back to soldiers in the earliest days of the Civil War. However, specific identification was inconclusive.
When Jim Van Valkenburg, the McDonald’s owner/operator and sponsor of the marker, applied for a permit to build the restaurant, he initiated a process which eventually led to a very well-publicized mass excavation and exhumation of a total of six Union soldiers’ remains in 1997.
The mystery arose as many thought the soldiers had to be Confederates, due to their large winter encampment in Centreville 1861-1862. Further study of the forensic data, as well as genealogical and military records, eventually led to identifying the soldiers as Union soldiers of the 1st Massachusetts Infantry, some of whose men had died fighting at the Battle of Blackburn Ford, just three days before 1st Manassas/Bull Run. They were amongst the earliest casualties of the Civil War.
Finally, after receiving an offer to bring the soldiers back to their home state, the soldiers were reinterred with full military honors June 2006 in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, on Cape Cod. The dedication of this marker brings closure to the mystery and those whose steadfast efforts brought this remarkable story to light, in addition to educating current and future generations.
The Civil War Trails program connects visitors to more than 1,650 sites across six states. The program’s signature signs bring the modern landscape to life as visitors stand in the footsteps of soldiers, citizens, and those fighting to gain their freedom. Each Civil War Trails site is marketed internationally by state tourism offices, destination marketing organizations, and municipal partners.
Fairfax County offers dozens of historic attractions including two dozen Civil War Trails sites. “After the 150th Anniversary of the Civil war ended, we were pleasantly surprised to see a continued interest in travelers of all generations wanting to seek out our Civil War Trails markers.” explained Patrick Lennon, Director of Marketing for Visit Fairfax. “We see that visitors not only use their time to explore the hallowed grounds, but also take the opportunity to essentially use the markers as starting point to visit the surrounding area's restaurants, wineries, breweries and other attractions."
The program continues to experience record visitation providing a strong return on investment and revenue for local jurisdictions. “Our program is experiencing its largest and most dynamic audience to date.” explained Drew Gruber, Executive Director of Civil War Trails. “Authentic places, green spaces, and personal stories motivate visitors and Civil War Trails delivers.”