Women And The Civil War
For women living in Virginia during the Civil War, the home front was very near the front lines.
By Claudette Ward/Centre View
September 1, 2005
During the Civil War, for many Southern women the phrase "home front" was not a metaphor. The war transformed their homes into hospitals and headquarters that were looted for supplies, burned or shelled. Southern women found themselves thrust by circumstance as well as by choice into nursing the sick and wounded and, more rarely, into intelligence work and even the defense of their homes and families. Following the Second Battle of Manassas, Caroline Machen, whose family owned that land that now comprises E.C. Laurence Park, held off a group of Union soldiers intent on breaking into her house, where her husband lay sick, until an officer came by and ordered the men away. Centreville was strategically located at a crossroads and on high ground near a railroad that connected the two opposing capitals and thus was one of the war’s early focal points. It was in fields near here, at the battle of Bull Run, that many men engaged in their first combat. A second battle was fought on those same fields a little more than a year later, almost immediately followed by the battle of Chantilly. Centreville was also the site of a network of defensive earthworks and camps, occupied alternately by Confederate and Union troops. Thus Centreville entered the lives of soldiers and the war entered the lives of Centreville’s civilians.
The following vignettes reveal the impact of the war on the lives of two of Centreville’s women, Sarah Summers and Mary Taylor Burke.
IN 1859, SARAH (SALLIE) SUMMERS moved to Level Green Farm in Centreville with her sisters and brothers and widowed mother, Marianna Johnson Summers. Many years later, Sallie wrote the story of her life, including her vivid memories of Centreville in 1861, when she was 15 years old.
By early June 1861 the Southern soldiers were encamped all around the Summers farm. The young soldiers went swimming in the run behind their house and picked cherries as they walked through the orchard. The boys came to the house to buy vegetables, chicken and eggs from Summers, who thought that was an excuse, because they liked to sit and talk to the girls. War seemed to be just one big encampment.
Suddenly, it all changed. About the middle of the July the Southern troops hurriedly marched away in the direction of Bull Run and Manassas. The Summers children sat on the fence and watched as troop after troop passed along the road by the gate.
The cause of their sudden departure was soon apparent, as the Union troops moved in from Fairfax Court House. Regiment after regiment marched down the road in front of the house. Summers had a fine field of corn, already several feet tall, right in front of the house, but the road was not wide enough to suit the troops and they tramped right through the cornfield. The corn was flattened to the ground and ruined.
They were soon in the midst of the Union army. A northern regiment camped across from their house. Their tents were even pitched in the yard. Col. Platt and Col. Fisher had their wives with them, and they moved into rooms in the Summers house.
On July 18, there was an engagement at Blackburn’s Ford (near where present day Route 28 crosses Bull Run). Bullets were falling in their yard. One almost hit Summers. Soon the wounded were being brought back. The porches of their house were turned into hospitals, with the wounded everywhere.
Of the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, Summers wrote: "The first we knew of the way events were going on the afternoon of the 21st was when Col. Platt and Col. Fisher sent saddle horses for their wives to get back to Washington without delay. "The roads and fields were soon filled with Union soldiers running like mad to get back to Washington. They were so scared they hardly knew which way they were running. It was a hot Sunday afternoon and they were all nearly dead for water. Our well had gone dry that summer and we would direct them to the springs."
The Summers family and their servants hid in the basement until almost morning, when they finally ventured upstairs to get some sleep. When they awoke, it was raining. As they were eating breakfast, they heard horsemen coming into their yard. It was the southern cavalry, looking for any Union soldiers.
In the fall, the Confederate winter encampment began. Gen. Beauregard had his headquarters in the Stewart house across the road from Level Green. He sent an officer to inform Summers that he would require her house for the use of his staff officers. Despite the fact that Summers was very sick with the measles she had caught from the soldiers, the officer said they had to leave. Army wagons and an ambulance were there the next morning to take them to the home of Mrs. Johnson, her mother, who lived near New Baltimore.
The Summers family could not return until late in 1865. Everything in the house was gone, and the house damaged. All of their trees had been cut down, the fences all destroyed. With the help of their old neighbors who had stayed in Centreville, they began to pick up the pieces of their lives and restore their house and farm. Though Sallie later immigrated to California, there are descendants of the Summers family still in Fairfax County.
MARY TAYLOR BURKE was one of the Centreville residents who did not leave during the Civil war. She stayed in her modest home near the corner of Union Mill and Braddock Road throughout the war. Living behind the lines of either the Southern or Northern armies was very difficult. Burke and other residents tried to get along with whatever forces were there.
After the Civil War, she filed a claim to ask for reparations from the U.S. government for property taken from her during the war. In her testimony she tells something of her experience living in Centreville during the Civil War. In her own words:
"I knew General Howard; he had his headquarters in my house. Captain Lakeman and Lieutenant Brown stayed at my house for three or four days. General Howard’s division camped at my place from Friday to Monday the days of the 1st Bull Run Battles. I sent my son in the night to show General Howard and his division the nearest and best way to the Turnpike when the army was in retreat after the 1st Bull Run Battle.
"They took my corn, potatoes, yearlings, poultry and my oats. Everything else was taken by General Reno’s wagon train in August 1862, after 2nd Bull Run when they camped on my place for three days. "My horse was taken by Stahl’s cavalry. They were there a month in the fall.
"During the middle and latter period of the war, the Union troops were occupied on and around my place regularly. General Hays’ command was occupied there in 1863. I have taken care of sick and wounded soldiers and officers at my house many times. I cooked for them regularly when camped near me. There were eight officers at my table the night after the battle.
"When my property was taken, I wrote it down so as not to forget it and have kept the memorandum from which my petition was made out, which I now offer as part of my testimony."
Gen. Oliver Otis Howard was made a brigadier general for his gallant service in the First Battle of Bull Run. In 1862, he lost his right arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks, but continued to command at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Chattanooga. In 1865 he became a commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and took a deep interest in the liberated slaves. In 1869, he was chosen to be president of Howard University, which was named in his honor.
Gen. Alexander Hays was in command of the 3rd Brigade, which were the Federal troops guarding the picket lines along Bull Run and at Union Mills in 1863. Gen. Hays was killed about a year later at the Battle of Wilderness.
Mary Burke’s husband, Benjamin Burke, and her father, Thomas Taylor, voted for secession at Centreville, May 23, 1861. Her son, Thomas T. Burke, was a member of Company A, 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry: Mosby’s command. He joined Mosby July 5, 1863.
Mary Burke’s house is still there. Her descendants still live in the area. Mary’s great-grandson, Julian Burke, was mayor of Clifton, 1970-1972 (his picture can be seen in the pages of "Clifton: Brigadoon in Virginia," by Nan Netherton).