Hugh Henry was a schoolteacher working in Alexandria when the first battle of Manassas was fought on July 21, 1861. When he heard about the battle, he was concerned because his eighty-four-year-old mother, Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, and his sister, Ellen were still living in their family home, Spring Hill Farm which had been right in the middle of the major fighting in the battle on July 21st.
Hugh had a hard time getting to his family’s home from Alexandria and arrived two days after the battle to find his mother had been killed, his sister had been injured, and his childhood home was destroyed. This was horrible news that he could never have guessed would happen.
In fact, on May 30, 1861 two months before the battle, he had written a letter to his sister, Ellen that:
"Should troops be passing about the neighborhood, you and mother need not fear them, as your entire helplessness, I should think, would make you safe.”
On the day of the battle, in the afternoon, Confederates were around Mrs. Henry’s house firing at a battery of Union cannons on Henry Hill. The commander of that battery, a man named Captain James Ricketts turned two of his cannons on the house and fired. Mrs. Henry was wounded and died as a result. Hugh’s sister, Ellen, was made nearly deaf by the sound as she hid in the fireplace. There was also a third person in the house. Lucy Griffith was a 14-year-old enslaved girl that had been hired out by Mrs. Henry. She was seriously injured, but like Ellen, survived. Mrs. Henry became the only civilian who died as a result of this battle, and everyone acknowledged what a huge tragedy this had been. The house was destroyed, and by the time the Confederates moved out of the area in the spring of 1862, very little was left of it.
Very quickly after the end of the first battle of Manassas in 1861, out of respect for Mrs. Henry, soldiers and other people began to refer to the hill her farm, Spring Hill Farm, say on as Henry Hill or Henry House Hill. These are the names that are still used today to talk about that hill.
Following the war, Hugh would come back and build a house near where his mother’s house had once stood. The house below is what he built. In 1882, he wrote a letter to one of his cousins where he said:
"As I am an old bachelor and have spoken of my responsibilities, I must explain myself. My brother John died immediately after the war, leaving three entire orphans for me to provide for and educate, and in addition to this, I have been obliged to take care of, and provide a shelter for my Sister, and do what I could for the Pittsylvania Family, and with no other resource than my school in Alexandria. I am however relieved in some measure from my responsibilities, as my brother’s children are all self-supporting… All of them I hope are destined to do well…”
One of the reasons he wrote to his cousin was in the hope that she would help the family by sending some money. From the end of the war until his death, Hugh took care of his family. This included his orphaned niece and nephews; his sister; and his cousins whose plantation home, Pittsylvania had been destroyed in the war. For Hugh, who was a teacher, money was always tight, and the end, his life was a struggle for survival.
One of the ways that Hugh tried to earn some money was by giving tours of the hill he lived on to people, including soldiers that had fought in both battles of Manassas. He said in a letter to one of his cousins in 1888 that:
“A few weeks ago, a number of the Officers and privates of the 71st New York [regiment] came here to me to show them the precise ground on which their [regiment] and other [regiments] fought in the battle of ’61 and 62’ which I was able to do from having witnessed the 2nd three days battle, and from my fine collection of battle maps, Official Reports, [et cetera]..."
One of his cousins, Edwin Carter wrote in a letter in 1895 that Hugh was suffering,
"…very much from old age. He says he is 82 years… His nephews are very anxious for him to sell, being a noted place, he can sell it for a good price. Some days he takes in as much as five dollars from visitors on the battlefield.”
When Hugh died in 1898, his cousin Edwin wrote to a family member to let them know about, “…the death of Cousin Hugh Henry… he suffered no pain… He was buried by the side of his mother and sister [Ellen] in the house yard where he lived. The graves are enclosed with iron railing.”
Hugh was buried outside of his house alongside his mother and sister. You can visit their graves at Manassas National Battlefield Park today.
Who was Hugh Henry?
Why do you think Hugh felt that his mother and sister would be safe if soldiers came by their house?
Why do you think that Hugh might have chosen to build a house on the site where his mother had been killed and why didn’t he sell the property?
What problems did Hugh face in his life and how did he choose to solve them?
Why did Hugh give tours to soldiers who either had fought at the battles in 1861 and 62, or soldiers from regiments that fought on the battlefield? List as many reasons as you can!
What do you think the experience was like for Hugh when he returned home in July 1861? What did he see, think, and feel?
Last updated: June 28, 2021