Is it Washington — or Little Washington?

There has been an enthusiastic thread of posts of late on Rappnet, Rappahannock County’s email list-serve, regarding the name of Little Washington applied to the county seat.

Part of  Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss’ 1862 map of the region.
Part of Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss’ 1862 map of the region.

The town officially is known as Washington, Virginia, and has been called such over the course of the past 240 or so years. George Washington is believed to have surveyed the town as a young man in the employ of Lord Thomas Fairfax as part of his land holdings.

Some of the postings on Rappnet indicated that there are those who believe that “Little” Washington is of relatively recent vintage, perhaps spurred by the establishment 30-plus years ago of The Inn at Little Washington. But the name Little Washington appears to go back at least 170 years or so. It was reported on the list-serve that Mary Ann Kuhn, proprietor of the Middleton Inn in Washington (and a former editor of this newspaper), discovered an envelope postmarked 1840, addressed to “Middleton Miller, Little Washington, Va.”

This is, so far unconfirmed, as the present writer has requested but not received a photocopy of the envelope. Postage stamps did not come into use in the United States until 1847, so a question remains about the postmark.

There is in existence a map of Rappahannock County drawn in 1862 by Maj. Jedediah Hotchkiss, cartographer on the staff of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, which was later reissued by the U.S. War Department in 1866. Maj. Hotchkiss referenced the county seat of Rappahannock County on his map as Washington C.H. This appellation (which stands for “Court House”) was commonly used to designate the county seat of counties in Virginia: Orange C.H.; Culpeper C.H.; Spotsylvania C.H.; Madison C.H. and so on.

Records created during the War Between the States, 1861-1865, indicate that Little Washington was a name already in use some 150 years ago.

The military of the United States and the Confederate States were no strangers to Rappahannock County. In late June 1862, Maj. Gen. John Pope organized the Army of Virginia, numbering some 65,000 Union troops, near Sperryville. During July and August of that year, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks camped the troops of his command, the Second Corps de Armeé, in and around Washington.

In “The Official Records of the Union & Confederate Armies in the War of The Rebellion,” a 128-volume set of books published by the U.S. government between 1881-1901 which contain every piece of military correspondence, dispatches, battle reports and maps of both armies during the conflict, there are numerous copies of dispatches and reports referring to Little Washington.

Gen. Banks used both Little Washington, Va., and Washington, Va. as datelines for many of his dispatches. Gen. Pope himself issued orders to his army on Aug. 4, 1862, directing the army to prepare to march out of Rappahannock County towards Culpeper. His orders were datelined “HQ., Army of Virginia, Little Washington, Va.”

It makes sense that the name of Little Washington would be used by Union officers and commanders in communications to differentiate from the seat of the national government and the Union War Department.

On May 15, 1862, Confederate Col. Thomas Munford, commanding the Second Virginia Cavalry, reported to Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell of the sharp fight against Union troops at Battle Run Church (near modern-day Ben Venue). His report is dated “Little Washington, Rappahannock County, May 15, 1862 — 7 p.m.” In his report to Secretary of War George Randolph in Richmond, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, on Nov. 10, 1862, made reference to a brigade of cavalry and some infantry located at Little Washington in his report of the engagement at Corbin’s Cross Roads (today’s intersection of Viewtown Road and Seven Ponds Road near Amissville).

In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg in July, Brig. Gen. George Custer established his headquarters of the Third Cavalry Division at Amissville, from July 21-31. Several of his dispatches to his superior, Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton, commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac, make references to Confederate cavalry observed at Little Washington. In one dispatch to Gen. Pleasanton on July 24, 1863, Gen. Custer made reference to a body of some 20,000 Confederate troops marching south between his headquarters and Little Washington, passing through Gaines’ Crossroads (Ben Venue). It was the presence of these troops which caused Gen. Custer to take his division of cavalry towards Laurel Mills, where on July 24, the general engagement took place at the south end of Battle Mountain, and which forced Gen. Custer to extricate his badly outnumbered Union force and retreat quickly back to Amissville.

In the autumn of 1864, during the military affair in which Flint Hill resident and a member of Mosby’s Rangers, Albert Willis, was captured in the blacksmith shop at Ben Venue and hanged without trial near Huntly, a report was sent by two of the Rangers to Col. John Mosby who had witnessed Willis’ execution from a distance; the Rangers reported that they had scouted the roads toward Little Washington and found only a few scattered Union soldiers.

One comment which was made on RappNet referred to the question of how George Washington himself referred to the town in Culpeper County — Rappahannock County was not created until 1833, 34 years after Washington’s death). Perhaps an examination of Gen. Washington’s letters and correspondence may reveal what he called the town he surveyed as a young man — if, in fact, he did refer to it at all.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at