An appreciative crowd of 100 gathered at the Burke Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department (BVFRD) on Saturday, Feb. 14, to honor the Wood Cutters and the Teamsters who came to Burke to aid the Union Army. The event culminated in the unveiling of a plaque at the entrance to Fire Station 14 dedicated to the freed and escaped slaves who risked their lives for the cause of freedom.
Years of research and planning went into the creation of the marker, a process that was not lost on John Powers, BVFRD vice president. “This is a very unique place, and the marker needs to reflect the values of this department and the men and women who volunteer here,” he said.
Debbie Robison, Fairfax County History Commission member (Sully District), explained who the Wood Cutters were and their contribution to the war effort. Thousands of slaves made their way north and settled into camps in Burke to help the Union Army cut trees used for fuel, railroad ties and bridge tresses, up to 1,000 cords per month. Because they were outside Union lines, the Army did provide soldiers for protection, but the men knew they were risking their freedom. In fact, some were captured by the Confederate Calvary, and returned to the South. To sidestep having to return the men as part of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Army classified the Wood Cutters as “contrabands.”
Robison then told the story of a wagon master, several contrabands and 25 mules, who were captured on Oct. 28, 1863, by Confederate “guerillas” and were forced to lead their captors back to the station guard. One of the contrabands managed to escape and warn the Union garrison that they were soon to be under attack, and the Army was able not only to repeal the Confederates, but also recover the wagon master, contrabands and mules, who were left behind in retreat.
The current Burke fire station stands where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad served as a major Federal timber transportation center. The dual significance of the property was not lost on Fairfax County Chairman Sharon Bulova and Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard Bowers. “It’s a long-standing tradition in the fire service to honor those who have shown acts of courage and valor,” said Chairman Bulova. “That is so demonstrated by the people we are honoring today.” Added Bowers: “This is a great opportunity for Fairfax County, [Burke] Station 14, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, and our brothers and sisters to honor the past and pave the way for the future.”
Captain Charles Pullen, president of the Progressive Firefighters of Fairfax County, closed the event noting the courage, heroism and sacrifice of the Wood Cutters and Teamsters. “It took a lot of courage for those men to do what they did. I think that this marker is fitting that it’s here at the fire station, where we have co-workers, both career and volunteer.”
The Burke Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department wishes to thank the Rev. Dr. James T. Murphy, Jr., and the Male Choir of the Greater Little Zion Baptist Church for providing the Invocation and inspirational music for the ceremony, and Virginia Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-41) and Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) for attending.
The marker is on permanent public display at the entrance to the Burke Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, 9501 Old Burke Lake Road, in Burke.