The History of Leesburg
On September 14, 2008, The Town of Leesburg celebrated its 250th birthday. As of 2007, the town had been county seat for 249 of the last 250 years.
Prior to European settlement, the area around Leesburg was occupied by various Native American tribes such as the Tacci, Siouan and Piscataway. European settlement of near Leesburg began in the late 1730s as tidewater planters moved into the area from the south and east establishing large farms and plantations. Many of the First Families of Virginia were among those to settle in the area including the Carters, Lees and Masons.
The genesis of Leesburg occurred sometime before 1755 when Nicholas Minor acquired land around the intersection of the Old Carolina Road and the Potomac Ridge Road (present day Route 7) and established a tavern there. Despite lack of growth around the tavern, upon Loudoun’s formation in 1757, Minor dubbed the sparse collection of buildings about his tavern “George Town” in honor of the reigning monarch of Great Britain. The village’s prosperity changed the following year when the British Colonial Council ordered the establishment of the county Court House at the crossroads. Accordingly Minor had a town laid out on the traditional Virginia plan of six criss-cross streets.
On October 12 of that year (1758) the Virginia General Assembly founded the town of Leesburg upon the 60 acres (0.24 km2) that Minor laid out. Leesburg was renamed to honor the influential Thomas Lee and not, as is popular belief, his son Francis Lightfoot Lee who lived in Loudoun and brought up the bill to establish Leesburg, nor as is sometimes thought, Robert E. Lee (his great grandnephew). When the post office was established in Leesburg in 1803 the branch was named “Leesburgh”: the ‘h’ was dropped in 1894.
During the War of 1812, Leesburg served as a temporary haven for the United States Government and its archives (including the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and portraits of early American leaders) when it was forced to flee Washington, D.C. in the face of the British Army. When reconstruction began on the Capitol, Potomac Marble from quarries just south of Leesburg was used.
Early in the American Civil War Leesburg was the site of the Battle of Balls Bluff, a resounding Confederate victory. The battlefield is marked by one of America’s smallest national cemeteries. The town frequently changed hands over the course of the war as both armies traversed the area during the Maryland and Gettysburg campaigns. The Battle of Mile Hill was fought just north of the town prior to its occupation by Robert E. Lee in September 1862. Leesburg also served as a base of operations for Col. John S. Mosby and his partisan Raiders, for whom the Loudoun County High Schoolmascot is named (the Raiders). Although many people consider the local courthouse to be one of the few courthouses in Virginia that was not burned during the course of the Civil War (1861–1865), it was not in fact built until 1894.
In the 20th century, Leesburg was the home of World War II General George C. Marshall, architect of the famous Marshall Plan that helped re-build Europe after the war, and radio personality Arthur Godfrey, who donated land for the town’s first airport.
Today Leesburg continues to serve as the center of government and commerce for Loudoun County. The town’s Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and cited as one of the best preserved and most picturesque downtowns in Virginia. Downtown merchants have recently labeled themselves “Loudoun’s Original Town Center,” largely in response to the growing number of mixed-use shopping in proximity.
The Leesburg area contains 21 entries on the National Register of Historic Places, including:
- Dodona Manor, the restored, early 19th century home of George C. Marshall, a general and diplomat who received the Nobel Peace Prize and owned the home from 1941 until his death in 1959.
- Morven Park, the estate of Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis; and
- Oatlands Plantation, a National Historic Landmark.
- White’s Ferry, the only ferry across the Potomac River, has its Virginia terminus just outside the town. It is a cable-guided car and passenger ferry. A ferry has plied the river from this site since 1828.
- Exeter Plantation.