Wednesday, August 31, 2016

History Everywhere! Finding a Confederate Spy

I recently had to get an oversized document scanned. So I went to the closest copy center which had a scanner big enough, which was in the Worldgate Centre, a shopping, office and hotel plaza in Herndon, Virginia. As I was leaving I remembered the grave of a famous Confederate spy was supposed to be somewhere on the grounds of the plaza.

And sure enough, just across the parking lot from the hotel entrance I spotted a historical marker and small fenced graveyard in the middle of a grove of large holly trees.

Laura Ratcliffe historical marker at Worldgate Centre, Herndon, Virginia;
personal collection
Grave of Laura Ratcliffe; personal collection

Laura Ratcliffe was known as a local beauty. Among her many admirers was J.E.B. Stuart, a Confederate States Army officer during the Civil War.

Laura Ratcliffe; courtesy of the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society

Laura was born on 28 May 1836 in Fairfax City, Virginia, to Frances Fitzhugh Ratcliffe and Amy McCarty Lee. She was a 6th cousin of General Robert E. Lee. After her father died, her mother and two sisters moved to Frying Pan (which is now part of the Town of Herndon).

Merrybrook, home of Laura Ratcliffe during the Civil War. The home is one
the grounds of Arrowbrook Park but is privately owned and currently occupied;
personal collection

Laura met James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart when she and her sister were nurses in at his winter camp in 1861. She is also said to have saved the live of Colonel John Singleton Mosby, leader of Mosby Rangers and known as the Gray Ghost. He stayed at the Ratcliffe home whenever he was in the area.

Mosby Rangers fought a guerrilla war with small detachments attacking the enemy behind their lines and then disappearing into the country side. They also disrupted communications and transportation. Laura would learn about Union military activity in her area and leave Mosby messages under a rock on Squirrel Hill, a part of the Ratcliffe's property. She saved his life when she communicated to him that the Union Army were planning on setting a trap for him near her home. A Union Army officer described her as a "as a very active and cunning rebel, who is known to our men, and is at least suspected of assisting Mosby not a little in his movements."

After the war Laura married a Union veteran, Milton Hanna. During her lifetime, Laura never received recognition for her role as a Confederate spy. She died on 8 August 1923 at Merrybrook, her home (photo above). Among her personal effects an album of poems was found. There was an inscription which was signed by JEB Stuart and several of his officers, which read:

"Presented to Miss Laura Ratcliffe by her soldier-friend as a token of his high appreciation of her patriotism, admiration of her virtues, and pledge of his lasting esteem."

Map of the Centerville Road-Dulles Access/Toll Road interchange in Herndon,
Virginia; Google maps modified using Microsoft Powerpoint

Civil War Guerrilla Partisans: Mosby's Rangers


  1. What an interesting story. The most amazing part, I think, is that she married a Union veteran. I never would have expected that.

    1. That surprised me, too, but they didn't marry until 1890 so I imagine much of the hostile feelings felt on both sides were at least somewhat diminished.

  2. I believe the house on the map was the home of Laura after the war and she married.