On August 22, 1853, George Archibald McCall, after 31 years of military service in the United States Army, resigned his commission as colonel and Inspector General of the Army. The Philadelphia-born McCall retired to a 42-acre farm east of West Chester in West Goshen Township on Goshen Road (and present-day Phoenixville Pike) near the old Fern Hill station of the West Chester Railroad (later Pennsylvania Railroad). It is presently not known whether he built the mansion known as “Belle Aire” or simply expanded an earlier farmhouse. McCall was the great-grandson of George McCall who came to Philadelphia from Scotland around 1701. He was the youngest son born to Archibald and Elizabeth Cadwallader McCall on March 16, 1802. Young George would later receive an appointment to West Point and graduated in the class of 1822 where he ranked 26 out of 40. He then embarked on the first phase of his military career which took him to Florida, the southwest, and the western part of the United States. He would serve in both Seminole Wars as well as the Mexican/American War of 1846. He was recognized for his actions at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma.
He married Elizabeth McMurtrie (1829-1903) On August 13, 1851, at the age of 49. After resigning in 1853, he and his wife went to Europe for a year to improve his health which had deteriorated during the Mexican campaigns. In 1855, the family settled at Belle Aire and they had five children with one dying in infancy. It should also be noted that on his return from the war with Mexico the citizens of Philadelphia presented him with a ceremonial sword.
The pleasant life of the Belle Aire estate was interrupted with the outbreak of the Civil War. The Governor of Pennsylvania appointed McCall as Major General of the Pennsylvania Militia. In May of 1861 he was commissioned Brigadier General of volunteers and would help form 15 of the 25 Pennsylvania regiments into the Pennsylvania Reserves Division. McCall’s Division of the Army of the Potomac consisted of Regiments 1 through 15 (they would later be designated 30-44). General McCall was instrumental in helping defeat the Confederates under General J.E.B. Stuart at Dranesville in Fairfax County, Virginia, on December 20, 1861.This small victory was the first for the Union Army in the East. The Pennsylvania Reserves Division was then assigned to the 2nd Division of the 1 Corps, and by the time of the Peninsula Campaign, were part of the 3rd Division, V Corps. McCall and his men saw very heavy action in the Seven Days Battles, especially Mechanicsville, Gaines Mill, and Glen Dale or Frayser’s Farm. It was at Frayser’s Farm on June 30, 1862, that McCall was wounded and captured. He would be sent to Libby Prison in Richmond where a previous illness added to his suffering. In August of 1862, Brig. General George A. McCall was exchanged for the Confederate Brig. General Simon A. Buckner. He went on sick leave and re-resigned from the military on March 31, 1863. It should also be noted that the citizens of Chester County presented him with a ceremonial sword in 1862.
While on leave at his farm, McCall was a Democratic candidate for Congress in the fall of 1862 and was defeated by John M. Broomall, the Republican candidate. He would spend his time at Belle Aire involved with agriculture, natural history, and scientific pursuits with Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences. He died at Belle Aire on February 25, 1868, and was buried at Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia. Before his death, 105 of his letters were assembled and were published posthumously by J. B. Lippincott & Co. in 1868 under the title of Letters from the Frontiers, Written During a Period of Thirty Years’ Service with the Army of the United States. Newspaper records show that the family remained at Belle Aire. McCall’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth “Bessie” McCall married Edward F. Hoffman there on October 19, 1887.
When the property changed hands is not exactly known. A 1915 Daily Local News article indicates that Henry K. Kelly of Fern Hill and a veteran of the Civil War has been a long-time “dweller in the suburbs of West Chester.” Another clipping from 1920 relating to the probated will of Mrs. Elizabeth McCall Hoffman states that “her early life was spent at Belair, now the home of Henry Kuhl Kelly.” It appears that the name Belle Aire followed the McCall family. Henry K. Kelly’s funeral was held at “his late home at Fern Hill.” The 1940 obituary of his daughter Margaret describes her as having lived until recently at Fern Hill when the property was sold to Joseph W. Passmore. The pre-Civil War railroad tracks are gone as is the Fern Hill railroad station. West Goshen Township records show that Belle Aire was demolished in 2012. Thirty-two acres and outbuildings remain today under ownership of members of the Passmore family.
Written by Thomas M. Walsh