Some bothersome source material: Is the Amos Benson-John Rice story true?

From John Hennessy:

John Rice, 2d New Hampshire, wounded through the lungs on Matthews Hill.The story is one of the cornerstones of Manassas lore and a powerful symbol of post-war reconciliation–the Manassas version of Fredericksburg’s Richard Kirkland:  John Rice of the 2d New Hampshire is hopelessly wounded near Matthew’s Hill and left for dead.  But local resident Amos Benson and his wife Margaret find him and intervene, caring for him along the roadside (without moving him) for more than week, watching him make a miraculous recovery. Once well enough, Rice is sent to Manassas and then to Richmond with other wounded Union prisoners. In 1886, this is how Rice described his experience to a reporter:

“[After being wounded], my comrades bore me off in the wake of our retreating forces toward Sudley Church, where our surgeons had established a hospital. In a short time, being closely pursued by the enemy and finding that I was apparently dead, they laid me under a fence and made their escape. Some two days after the battle I recovered consciousness but was unable to move…In this condition I was found by Amos Benson and his wife, who lived on the opposite side of Bull Run. They were returning to their home at evening, after spending the day at Sudley church….Benson, discovering life in me, brought an overworked surgeon from the church, who, however, turned away with the remark that he had no time to spend on so hopeless a case. Mrs. Benson meanwhile brought me food from her house, while her husband removed my clothing and scraped away the vermin that were praying upon me. They continued to feed and care for me till at the end of 10 days I was so far revived that the surgeons were persuaded to remove me from under he fence to more comfortable quarters in a freight car at Manassas Junction, whence in a few days I was carried to Richmond and consigned to Libby Prison.” [From the Springfield Republican, November 24, 1886]

(Harry Smelzer has a very nice post on the Benson-Rice story and the sites today.)

More than 25 years after the battle, Rice returned to the battlefield and looked up the Bensons, now living next to the abandoned cut of the Unfinished Railroad, across from Sudley Church.  They had a joyful reunion, and Rice asked if he could do anything to thank them for saving his life.  The Bensons asked for nothing, but did say that the church, much damaged during the war, still had an outstanding debt it was finding difficult to pay. Rice returned to his home in Springfield, Massachusetts and published the story in the Springfield Republican. Within days, he had collected enough money to retire the debt on the church and sent it along.  The story received national publicity.

It’s all good, and there is ample documentation to confirm the events of 1886, when Rice and Benson reunited.  But, in going through some newspaper material recently, I came across an article in the Lowell Daily Citizen from February 3, 1862. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

A famous image–and a metaphor for the war

From John Hennessy (writing on Manassas for the first time in this forum):

Over the last fifteen years or so, my forays back into Manassas-related topics have always been unadventurous, relying almost entirely on things I uncovered and learned years ago rather than trying to hunt up (or even keep track of) new material. In the last week, though, I have had occasion to do some work in preparation for the tour I’ll be giving at Manassas this coming Friday as part of the 150th there–a look and walk through of the community of Sudley and its experience during and after First Manassas. This demanded that I not only revisit the material I’d accumulated way back when (it’s hard for me to admit that anything meaningful in my life could have happened nearly thirty years ago, hence the vagary), but also dig into what has become available since then. I’ve learned a good deal, some of it thanks to the seminal work of others.

Above is an image you and I have probably seen a thousand times, but never really took in closely. It shows four children sitting along Catharpin Run at Sudley Springs Ford, with seven Union cavalarymen looming on the far bank. Taken in March 1862, if there is an image that better serves as a metaphor for most white Virginians’ perception of the Civil War in its early months, I haven’t seen it: children facing down looming disaster in the form of Union soldiers.

We’ll write about the children visible in this image (for some of them appear in others taken the same day), but suffice to say that it’s virtually certain that these are the four children of John and Martha Thornberry, who lived just up the hill from the ford. Continue reading