A few memories of the “War Between the States” by an eye witness, for my grandson, Westwood Hugh Fletcher. — Mrs. Laura Fletcher
On July 21st, Sunday, 1861 I sat on the hill side across the road from old Sudley Church and watched the firing of the muskets and the cannons, and the falling men. In a short time the army wagons began coming by piled as high as anyone would pile up wood, with the bodies of dead men that had been killed that day. They were taken to Sudley Church cemetery and dumped in a pit prepared for them. My Father, John F. Thornberry, Grandfather of Westwood Hugh, was in that great battle, was wounded and disabled for service any more. My father and mother with five little children (I was one of them) lived across the road from the church and two and a half miles from Manassas. On Saturday evening about 7 o’clock my uncle, William Wilkins came to my mother and insisted on taking her and us children to his house for the night as fighting would begin during the night. Mother said, “If you think so, I will get the children’s clothes for Sunday School and I will go.” He replied, “They will not need any clothes for Sunday School for there will be no Sunday School tomorrow.”
He was right, for 2 o’clock Sunday morning the Northern Army began pouring in about fifty feet from where my mother had just left. At Manassas they met the Southern Army from Richmond and the fighting began.
About 2 o’clock the Federal army began hauling off their dead and dumping them in the pit they had prepared for them at Sudley Church. As young as I was, I shall never forget the scene. I remember their faces yet.
Sunday night about 8 o’clock, my uncle heard someone whistling a long shrill whistle. He said, “That is someone in distress. I am going to look for him.” He found a young soldier boy about seventeen years old, lying in the woods. He asked him what he wanted. He said, “I want my mother.” He asked him where his mother was and he said at home in Michigan. He wanted to get him something to eat. He said no that he wanted water. Uncle went to the spring and filled his canteen. He drank it all. He went back to the spring and filled again and put it where he could get it, bade him goodbye, told him he would see him early the next morning. His reply was, “No, I will be gone before tomorrow.” When Uncle went back the next morning, he was dead.
When he related it, how my mother and aunt cried. I wondered why they cried, they did not know him. I know now why they cried!
That was Sunday evening. The next morning (Monday) my mother went to our home. It was desolate. She with us children left it Saturday evening as we had lived in it for 15 or 20 years, and there was not an article of anything in it. Ten men had bled to death in mother’s bedroom the night before. Carpets and all furniture were out and gone. We never saw any of it again, or anything else. The old farm well in the back yard was almost full of everything that would go in it. Such as china ware, cooking utensils, flat irons, and every thing you can imagine used in a family was thrown in it. Of course everything was broken. How we all cried over it; and no prospects of replacing any of it.
My father was brought to my Grandfather’s from the battlefield of Manassas, with typhoid fever (from a wound) and remained ill for eight weeks.
It was the Federal army that destroyed everything in its path. I don’t know how the Southern army did, as I am only writing from memory. This was the beginning of the war and terrible it was. They thought it was their duty to destroy everything they came to. My father lost in one day, over two thousand dollars worth of property. You may think I am exaggerating, but I will numerate some of the loss.
My father was a carpenter, wheel-wright, undertaker. Everything was made by hand. He also ran a blacksmith shop for his own work. I am writing that you might know how destructive everything was.
After my father got back, living in his own home, a terrible noise was heard one night about 2 o’clock. Ten Federal soldiers came to our home and burst the front door down. A piece of it struck my mother in the face and disfigured her very badly as well as hurting her. They arrested my father and oldest bother, who was 16 years old, for spies. They were not spies and never had been. They took them away to Washington, put them in the “old Capitol” prison, and it was three months before mother heard a word from them.
The next morning before taking them to Washington, the soldiers got a rope to hang my father, placing it around his neck. This did not occur in our house but just outside of our yard. My brother begged and cried like a baby not to hang his father, “He didn’t do anything.” One of the men said “Search his pockets before you draw that rope.” There they found a diary of his whereabouts. That saved him; he always kept one.
The Second battle of Manassas began the 26th of August, three years after. That was worse than the first. We were driven from our home by big cannons planted on the east and on the west of our home, and while we were at breakfast, two men soldiers on horses, came to our front door and said, “Get out of here. There are 12 cannons planted on two sides of your house, and you will be blown to pieces.” We got out as quickly as possible. We took refuge in the yard of “Uncle Tommie Hutchinson” and watched the firing all day.
About 12 o’clock the cannoning stopped, but the musketing kept on, until four o’clock in the afternoon. Such sights were never seen. My father hid in the ice-house all day. It was the 26th of August and the ice was low.
He walked out to the battlefield and tried to count the dead men, but could not. He got as far as one hundred and fifty and had to stop; he got sick and could go no farther. It was on the unfinished railroad between Alexandria and Manassas. The Southern Army ammunition train was cut off from their regiment and they had nothing to fight with and they used the crushed rock from the railroad. So many were killed with it.
Now this is true, every word that I have written.
Mrs. Laura Fletcher
December 12, 1936
This account was written by Mrs. Laura (Thornberry) Fletcher (1854-1937), in December 1936 (age 82). She was the granddaughter of Rev. John Trone of Buckland Mills. Her mother was Martha (Trone) Thornberry. An aunt, Mary (Trone) Wilkins, was married to James Wilkins, a tenant farmer living on Stony Ridge, off the Groveton-Sudley Road. Laura had a son, Westwood Hugh Fletcher (grandson?), and three daughters: Boude Thompson, Estelle Blacketer, and Olive Carry.
Source: Norman M. Fletcher, Ft. Myers, FL
The following notes are provided by Museum Specialist, James Burgess:
1. The hillside on which Laura sat on July 21, 1861 was undoubtedly the Wilkins house site on Stony Ridge, which would have afforded a view of Sudley Church and the battlefield.
2. While not disputing the possibility of a wartime mass burial at Sudley Church, there was no established church cemetery at Sudley until 1896.
3. John F. Thornberry served briefly with the “Ewell Guards”, Company A, 49th Virginia Infantry.
4. William Wilkins was actually Laura’s older cousin (not uncle). He was 17 years old at the time of First Manassas. In 1862, he joined the Prince William Cavalry (Company A, 4th Virginia Cavalry). Laura may have him confused with his father, James Wilkins.
5. By most accounts Union forces did not arrive at Sudley Springs until 9:30 a.m. Since Laura’s mother had evacuated her and her siblings to the Wilkins home the night before, Laura’s knowledge of the Union army’s time of arrival is suspect. It is commonly known that the Union army broke camp in Centreville about 2 a.m. and this may have influenced her memory.
6. Laura’s mistaken belief that the Second Battle of Manassas began on August 26, three years after the first battle clearly reflects the effects of age on her memory. (It began on August 28, 1862, 13 months after the first battle.)
Contributed to Bull Runnings by James Burgess, Museum Specialist, Manassas National Battlefield Park
See here for more on the Thornberry children, including a photo of Laura.