Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Aftermath of Battle: "Collateral Damage"

This piece serves as homage to Judith Carter Henry, the first civilian killed in the Civil War.

The Notions of Safety and Security
The Final Chapter in the Life of Judith Carter Henry

In the summer of 1861, Judith Carter Henry was an 84-year-old widow, living on a small farm just south and east of the intersection of the Warrenton Turnpike and Manassas-Sudley Road near Manassas, Virginia; Spring Hill, the farm was called.  She had lived there for 35 years and, in fact, was born less than a mile away.  For most of those years she had lived a quiet farm life, marking the changing seasons with the cycle of planting and harvesting, and raising four children, watching them grow to adulthood.

But in July of 1861, things took a dramatic and unfortunate turn for the elderly widow.  Union and Confederate troops had gradually begun moving into the region, and Judith’s daughter Ellen, who lived with her mother, became gravely concerned.  In May her brother Hugh, living in Alexandria, VA, had written a letter emphasizing his belief that their mother’s “entire helplessness” should keep her safe from harm from the invading armies.  But Ellen, and another brother, John, who lived nearby, feared the worst. They determined to try to move their dear mother to safety.  Despite evidence that the fighting was edging ever closer, Judith, who was frail and bedridden at that point in her life, did not want to leave the familiar and comforting surroundings of her home.  She protested as, on the morning of July 21, they attempted to carry her from the house on a mattress, and the group made it only as far as the spring house: not only was Judith begging to be taken back, but Ellen and John also realized that the troops were too close and the situation was too dangerous to permit their plan to work.  So they returned to the house, and Judith was carried to her bed. They could only hope that Hugh’s earlier assurance of her safety would prove true.

As morning turned to afternoon, Union artillery moved their guns onto the Henry House property, not far from the house. They soon discovered they were being fired at by Confederate sharpshooters, who were either hidden inside the house, or just outside of it and using it for cover.  Since nearly all of the other residents of the immediate area had long since fled to safety, Captain James B. Ricketts had no idea there were civilians still inside.  His immediate goal was to put an end to the firing of the Confederate sharpshooters, and he shelled the house.  One of the shells burst in Judith’s bedroom, and she died of her wounds soon after.

A woman that history has recorded only as “Florence”, attended the memorial service for Judith Henry held on the grounds of the farm, two days after the battle. In a letter to her sister, she gave this account:

        The papers will have told you before this reaches you that old Mrs. Henry was killed during the
         battle…I do not think I ever felt more deeply than when I stood among the wreck and ruin of her
         home and saw the poor mangled body of the old lady placed in the coffin and borne to her last
         resting-place by stranger hands…Around the Henry garden, where a fence had stood on Sunday
         morning, was a hedge of althea, the only things that had escaped destruction.  They were loaded
         with crimson and white blossoms, and you cannot imagine how strangely they looked in their
         purity and beauty amidst that scene of desolation and death.  I stopped to gather a few of these
         “roses of Sharon” to place on the coffin…

In 1870, a new house was built to replace the one in which Judith’s life ended.  A photograph, taken in 1896, features a very elderly Hugh Henry seated on a chair on the porch of this house, the same house that stands on the battlefield today.  In the picture, just to the right side of the porch, can be seen a vigorous Rose of Sharon, quite possibly one of the very ones that were such a part of Judith’s happier times at Spring Hill.


  1. Great post, love the picture! I've been to the Henry House site a number of times... felt sad for Mrs. Henry.

  2. Thanks, Linda -- visiting the Henry House site and farm is what made me believe I needed to create a piece of art in Mrs. Henry's honor. I'm glad you enjoyed it!