The Traveling Thornberrys–images at Sudley

From John Hennessy:

Last week we shared what I think is one of the truly iconic, metaphorical images of the war. That same day, photographer George Barnard took several more images. They are generally familiar to people who have spent time with Manassas, but there are a few things that jumped out at me.

Back when I was up to my ears in Manassas stuff, I was startlingly disinterested in historic images, doing little more than glancing at the few wartime images of Manassas then available and blandly accepting conventional wisdom (or traditional captions) about them. But getting ready for various events or tours associated with the 150th thrust me back, and this month for the first time (I blush to say) I took a close look at the newly available hi-res scans of  Barnard’s spring 1862 images. I was immediately struck by the presence of the children in most of the images–clearly kids who had tagged along with the photographer, and whom he had decided to incorporate into his photographs. More interesting is this: they are almost certainly the Thornberry children, who lived just up the hill from Sudley Springs Ford. Samuel was 12 in 1860; his brother Joseph, 7, toddler Annetta,  and Laura, 5. All four appear in the image of the ford at Sudley Springs on Catharpin Run (above), but the boys continued on with Barnard and appear in several other images, both of them very neatly attired in miniature Confederate uniforms.

Here is an image of the Thornberry House (more commonly called “Sudley Post Office,” though it was not used in that function until after the war). For time unending, this had been identified as the obscure Thornton House, which stood a mile or so northeast of Sudley. But some really excellent detective work by long-time (he was there BEFORE I got there in 1981) museum technician Jim Burgess confirmed that it is indeed an image of John and Martha Thornberry’s home (read his analysis of the image here).

And there, standing on the pile of boards in the yard are Samuel and Joseph Thornberry.

A couple of quick things about the Thornberry House. Most famously, it was to this house that Rhode Island Major Sullivan Ballou–he the author of what must now be the most famous of all Civil War letters–was carried after he was mortally wounded on Matthew’s Hill, and it was here that he died and was buried in the Thornberry’s cabbage patch days after the battle.  Laura Thornberry also remembered a horrific scene in the yard of the house during the Union army’s visit in March 1862–perhaps only days removed from this image. Here father had been wounded in the nearby battle on July 21 (the only local resident to become a military casualty), and had recently returned home.

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…for [spying]. … 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.

For a nice modern view of the Thornberry house, check out Harry’s image over at Bull Runnings (in fact, you should check out Harry’s site completely–it’s excellent).

One of the most frequently published images Barnard captured during his visit to Sudley is this one, of children kneeling before makeshift graves crudely marked northwest of Sudley Church.

There again are Samuel and Joseph.
It’s interesting to ponder the circumstances and decisions that led the children to be included in these images. Clearly Barnard thought they added a touch of humanity to the views–and they do, especially in this one, which would be entirely forgettable if not for the children (those, by the way, are almost certainly Union graves they are kneeling before). It’s hard not to speculate that the kids’ Confederate uniforms had something to do with Barnard’s desire to use them. That they would agree–with the ostensible consent of their mother and father (who had recently been abused by the Yankees)–is also curious.
This view is taken on the north bank of Catharpin Run, looking southwest. That’s the spring house for Sudley Springs at right, and beyond is Sudley Church, sitting in an oft-described grove of trees. The road leading up from the ford is to the left.  The Thornberry’s house is just of the left edge of the image–it sat on top of the knob visible at left.  But, note…here again is a Thornberry, this time the younger boy, Joseph.
Barnard concluded his series with a couple images of Sudley Church itself.
Our friend John Cummings points out that in the view above the boys appear one final time, posing with a Union cavalryman on the front porch.  (John is about to publish a book on Manassas photography–as you may know, his work on Civil War photography has been nothing but impressive.)
Sudley was the first major field hospital established anywhere during the Civil War–indeed, after the Union wounded were evacuated, the Confederates continued to use it for months. The stumps of trees cut down are a visible reminder of this long-term use of Sudley Church. The photographic documentation of the area, thanks to Barnard, is as thorough we have of any part of Manassas Battlefield.
Here’s a map of Sudley and relevant sites I have put together…

10 thoughts on “The Traveling Thornberrys–images at Sudley

  1. John,
    Excellent piece of detective work on the children. They have been a long standing mystery, especially with the boys wearing what do look like junior rebel uniforms.
    As for the front of the Church image, there is another exposure which looks to be the identical camera position, where the two boys are standing atop the little porch with a cavalryman leaning on his sword.
    The kneeling before the graves picture is taken south west of the church, and south of the bend on modern Featherbed Lane where it turns west. I included a glimpse into this location on February 7, when I announced my upcoming Manassas book.
    Initially the goal was to be ready with the volume for sales at the 150th events just recently past, but my publisher and I decided that it would be better to include the sesquicentennial events and not leave readers hanging. The new publishing goal is this fall.

    John Cummings

    • john im in northern wi. ive been cartaker of what was sherrytwn now ghost town , but isac geo thornberry and family plot was all but forgotten till i fixed fence . made granit headstone 4 outside fence to make good the 7 headstones that had been stilen . im going to try n send you this coming weeks newspaper on how im ice age trail tourguid .historian protector ..i just found out about famouse boys and laura thornberry .

  2. I know it’s an old posting, but I am wondering if anyone knows whose buildings are in the right background on the photo. Presumably that would be across the Bull Run in Fairfax County. Probably near the grave site of Willie Preston of the 4th VA.

  3. The children’s father was my great-great grandfather; I am descended from Delilah “Lily” Thornberry, who was born in 1863–these are all her older siblings. Such a treat to find this!

  4. I am a researcher for my family. These photos bring to light the life of the Civil War – Thank you so much for sharing them with us.

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