Zipping along Route 50 west toward the mountains, it is incredibly easy to miss Mt. Zion Church. It’s tucked semi-hidden in the Southeast corner of the Watson Road roundabout, the first of several roundabouts you’ll hit in the vicinity of Route 15. It’s marked and easy enough to find if you’re looking for it, but very easy to miss altogether if you’re unaware of its significance.
The large, slightly menacing brick building, built to house a breakaway Baptist contingent eager to establish a church based on absolute Calvinist principles of predestination, according to the Mount Zion Church Preservation Association’swebsite, first took in parishioners in 1851, serving a mixed congregation of black, white, slave and free. But for a few years during the Civil War, when it found itself caught in a land constantly switching between Union and Confederate control, it stayed in continuous operation until 1980. While it has a rich historical pedigree throughout its life, its most significant role occurred during multiple engagements during the Civil War.
“Mt. Zion Church was used as a hospital a couple of times during the war,” states Tracy Gillespie, historic site supervisor for Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority who oversees the site. “During the Battle of Aldie especially, in 1863, it was a Union hospital set up by Union doctors to tend to the wounded and the dying. We have evidence of them being here, including some graffiti.”
Mt. Zion owes much of its historical significance, like many sites in Northern Virginia, to Col. John Singleton Mosby.
“Mosby’s first rendezvous with his Rangers occurred here at Mt. Zion in 1863. In July of 1864, just to the East of the church, Mosby engaged and overwhelmed the 2nd Massachusetts cavalry, who had been searching for him. He came down from the Point of Rocks area [north of Leesburg] to meet them.”
Specifically, a contingent of 150 men, including 100 members of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry and 50 from the 13th New York Cavalry, set out to find Mosby and reclaim some Union bounty he had taken in a raid north of Leesburg, according to an account by Col. Charles R. Lowell, the commander of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. The expedition force, led by Major William H. Forbes, spotted some of the wagons near Aldie. The chance was, as Col. Lowell later described, “an excellent one to whip Mosby and take his gun. I have no doubt Major Forbes thought so too.”
Unfortunately, the only gun taken was Major Forbes’ and a number of his men. “It was an overwhelming victory for Mosby,” said Gillespie.
During the Battle, the church once again found itself used as a hospital. According to reports on the Mount Zion Preservation Association’s website, 12 Union soldiers were interred in a mass grave in the cemetery – although their remains may have been removed and reburied at Arlington, according to Gillespie. The cemetery does hold the remains of many Confederate soldiers.
While the church is not always open to the public, it is open on the fourth Sunday of every month. “We have a local historian there to discuss the history of the church and the history of the war,” said Gillespie. “We also will have one or two volunteers to do living history, usually a nurse and some medics. We also will hold a larger event on Sept. 24 and 25 which will feature a Union encampment and other activities.”
For more information, contact the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority at 703-352-5900.