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The Widow Henry

Judith Henry house on the Manassas battlefield.jpg

Originally aired on July 24, 1998 - In part 204 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson describes the horrific battle at the home of Judith Henry, the only known civilian to die at the Battle of First Manassas.

#204 – The Widow Henry

War is neither nice nor fair. One of its worst aspects is that the innocent so often suffer as much as the guilty. A case in point was Mrs. Judith Henry. She was the grand-daughter of famous aristocrat King Carter, whose holdings included three hundred thousand acres of what is now northern Virginia. Judith Carter grew up in luxurious splendor. In 1801, she married Dr. Isaac Henry, one of the U. S. Navy’s first surgeons. The couple settled in a one and a half story log home on three hundred and thirty acres a few miles to the south of the Carter estate in Prince William County.

Following Dr. Henry’s death in 1829, his widow spent the next twenty-nine years in the Henry home. It stood near the top of a dominant hill overlooking a stream called Bull Run. The property was mostly open country dotted here and there by cedars and pines. The farm slowly went into disrepair. By July, 1861, the elderly Mrs. Henry was confined to her bed. Living with her were two invalid sons, a daughter and a black servant.

Suddenly on Sunday morning July 21st the first major battle of the Civil War exploded on and around the Henry farm. Confederate cannons south of the home opened fire at Union batteries north of the Warrenton Turnpike. Shells whistled over the Henry family from two directions. The two sons attempted to move their mother to safety, by placing her on a mattress and starting toward a neighbor’s home. Yet the shellfire was so heavy and Mrs. Henry so hysterical that the sons bowed to her wishes and took her back home.

By early afternoon, Henry Hill was full of deafening noise, smoke and sudden death. The daughter suffered permanent hearing loss as a result of the noise. She was hovering for protection near the fireplace in the Henry house. The widow Henry was upstairs in her bed being attended by servant Lucy Griffith. Union Captain James Ricketts soon moved the body of cannon halfway up the slope of Henry Hill and no more than three hundred yards from the home. After Ricketts got his guns in line several of his men began dropping from bullet wounds. The Federal officer concluded that the shots came from Confederate snipers using the cover of the Henry home. Ricketts quickly turned his guns and fired into the dwelling.

One of the first shells entered the upper level of the home, shattered Mrs. Henry’s bed and sent wooden splinters flying through the room. Lucy Griffith, who had taken cover underneath the bed, was so badly wounded in the heel that the servant was permanently crippled. Mrs. Henry had a foot blown almost completely off and suffered additional wounds in the neck and side.

Throughout the remainder of the afternoon the critically injured widow, her wounded servant, her shell-shocked daughter and the two helpless sons sought to console one another as the battle intensified and the home was slowly shot to pieces. Mrs. Henry died near sundown. A son rushed from the home, lay face down in the yard and occasionally lifted his head to shout tearfully, “they’ve killed my mother”.

The next day Confederate soldiers buried eighty-five year old Judith Henry in a small family cemetery a few yards from the house.

Several years later a two story frame home was built on the site of the log structure where the Henry family had known so many years of peace and joy.

Mrs. Henry had long dwelt in historical obscurity. The aging widow surely suffered the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was the only known civilian to die in the Battle of First Manassas. Yet she was but an early fatality in what became America’s bloodiest contest.