Judith Carter Henry at the Crossroads
Carl Weinberg is the editor of the OAH Magazine of History.
On the morning of July 21, 1861, Confederate sharpshooters took over Judith Carter Henry’s house. Located on the family estate of her late husband, Dr. Isaac Henry, a U.S. Naval officer, the “Spring Hill” house sat atop Henry Hill, a gently sloping rise located in a tiny, unincorporated patch of land in Prince William County, Virginia called Manassas Junction, named for two railroad lines that crossed there. Since dawn that day, tens of thousands of Union and Confederate troops had been clashing over a series of bridges and fords on a small local creek called Bull Run. And now the action had shifted to Henry Hill, where the outcome of the first major land battle of the Civil War would be decided.
An eighty-five-year-old invalid, Judith was confined to her bed, but she was not alone. Judith’s daughter Ellen took shelter in the fireplace. And lying underneath Judith’s bed was Lucy Griffith, a young enslaved woman Judith had leased from owner Alexander Compton, a neighbor who served as the wartime minister of the nearby Sudley Methodist Church. Stationed on the second floor, the rebel snipers looked west out of Judith’s bedroom window and waited for Union soldiers to get within musket range. Moving up Henry Hill, troops of Battery 1, First U.S. Artillery, under the command of Captain James B. Ricketts, dragged their ten-pounder Parrott guns (each one weighing some 1,800 pounds) within sixty yards of the house. Then all hell broke loose. The sharpshooters opened fire from the house. Ricketts ordered a gun crew to fire back at Spring Hill. A ten-pound shell crashed through Judith’s bedroom window and tore off her foot. Later that day, she died and became the first civilian casualty of the Civil War.
Not only did Judith Carter Henry’s house sit literally at the point where Union and Confederate forces met—with tragic results for her—but Manassas Junction and the carnage that took place there proved to be a crossroads in a number of ways, all of which help illuminate the contributions our authors have made to this issue, the second installment of our Civil War at 150 series. As the crow flies, the shortest route from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, the Confederate capital, was a highway that went roughly south. But as Louis Masur and J. Ronald Spencer inform us in their essay, supplying troops (and feeding horses) was far more efficient by rail, and the Union boasted more than twice as much trackage as the Confederacy. By rail, the route ran southwest from Washington along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad (through Manassas Junction) to Gordonsville, and then southeast along the Virginia Central to Richmond. Crossing the Orange & Alexandria at Manassas was also the Manassas Gap Railroad that ran west to the Shenandoah Valley. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston proved that line’s strategic importance when he gave Union Major General Robert Patterson the slip and ferried thousands of his troops eastward to Manassas, where they joined their comrades in battle on July 21.
It was not only railroads that were joined together at Manassas Junction but men from near and far. From Judith Carter Henry’s neighborhood, twenty-one-year-old Alexander H. Compton, Jr., son of the Sudley preacher, had just joined Company C of the Virginia Eighth Infantry and was on the field that morning. Calling themselves the “Evergreen Guards” (and after the battle, the “Bull Run Rangers”), Private Compton and his fellow soldiers were fighting on their home turf. Not only did they fight with an emotional attachment to home, but as Joseph Glatthaar notes in his essay, nine of every ten men enlisted in the Confederate armies as privates hailed from slaveholding families. Compton fit the bill. James B. Ricketts, the man whose order ended Judith Carter Henry’s life, by contrast, was a New York–born career Army officer who had seen action in the Mexican and Seminole Wars. On July 21, he was wounded four times, left for dead, then captured, and held in a Richmond prison for half a year. It was Compton’s Eighth Virginia regiment that finally captured Ricketts’s big guns on Henry Hill after they changed hands seven times in the course of the afternoon.
Less literally, First Bull Run proved a crossroads on the issue of whether or not the Civil War would become a crusade to end slavery. As observers from both sides noted after the battle, enslaved Southerners played a key role in performing “gratuitous labor,” constructing fortifications and freeing up white Southerners to serve in combat. This fact accelerated congressional action on the First Confiscation Act signed by Lincoln less than three weeks later, which was the first halting step toward the Emancipation Proclamation of the following year. As Thavolia Glymph notes in her essay on noncombatant labor, “the Union won the contest in large part because it won the battle for the labor of African Americans.” In Manassas Junction on July 21, one of these was an enslaved man named John Parker, ordered by his master to accompany him into battle as part of an artillery crew. Parker’s story has been selectively quoted by neo-Confederates to promote the idea that thousands of black Confederates fought the Union. But Parker himself demolished this argument when he recalled that “we only fought because we had to. We wish[ed] to our hearts that the Yankees would whip and we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.” More recently, consulting editor Carol Sheriff found herself in the national limelight when she exposed a new elementary school text, Our Virginia: Past and Present, used in her daughter’s fourth-grade class, for perpetuating this myth.
The centrality of Judith Carter Henry’s house also suggests the ways in which the “civilian” and “military” spheres of the Civil War intersected and could become indistinguishable. Not only did Spring Hill become a strategic asset and target, but we might think about how Henry fits into the three-part typology that Joan Cashin outlines in her essay, in which (white) American civilians are true believers, uncertain, or resisters. If family traditions weighed heavily in her perspectives, one would expect Henry would have favored the Confederacy descending as she did from one of Virginia’s most powerful slaveholding families. She was the daughter of Landon Carter, Jr., whose Pittsylvania tobacco plantation was located just a mile from Spring Hill in what is today Manassas National Battlefield Park. That park is just one of the many historic sites that can be invaluable tools in teaching about Civil War mobilization, as James Whittenburg tells us in his essay. Judith Carter Henry was the granddaughter of Landon Carter, Sr., who lived in Richmond County’s Sabine Hall, and is the subject of Rhys Isaac’s fascinating Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom (2005). And she was the great-granddaughter of Robert “King” Carter, one of the wealthiest men in colonial Virginia, who died in 1732 owning some one thousand slaves and three hundred thousand acres of prime farmland. It was stories of “illustrious” families like the Carters that provided material for the image of the “gallant” South, embodied in the post-Civil War “Lost Cause” mythology that Kevin Levin’s essay identifies as a key ingredient in Hollywood film depictions of Civil War mobilization, most notably in Gone With the Wind (1939).
On July 21, 1861, Americans collectively held their breath, hoping to discover whether the fate of the nation might really be decided in a short war. By the end of the day, and five thousand casualties later, with Union troops streaming back to Washington, D.C. in a disorganized retreat, it was clear that America would walk a long, bloody road before resolving the sectional conflict that had exploded at Fort Sumter that April. Today, the resources for studying how they traveled that road are plentiful, as Anne Ward tells us in her essay on online Civil War primary sources. To her list we might add the excellent National Park Service historical inquiry site that begins with the photo of the ruins of Spring Hill and takes us through the complex story of the drama that unfolded in Manassas Junction on July 21, 1861. Indeed, a full accounting of Judith Carter Henry’s life and death can help us make sense of the fascinating history of Civil War mobilization.
Carl R. Weinberg