A Confederate Spy, at Home in Virginia

Winifred Meiselman, above in her kitchen, and husband David have been preserving their home in the Herndon area, below, for 35 years. The house, known as Merrybrook, was where Confederate spy Laura Ratcliffe lived after the war.
Winifred Meiselman, above in her kitchen, and husband David have been preserving their home in the Herndon area, below, for 35 years. The house, known as Merrybrook, was where Confederate spy Laura Ratcliffe lived after the war. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Linda Wheeler
Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Herndon area home of Confederate spy Laura Ratcliffe, a dark-haired beauty who saved Col. John Mosby's life, is reminiscent of a fairy tale setting. The old frame house is protected by broad-branched oaks and graced with a nearby creek that sparkles in the sunlight.

Last month, this rare piece of Fairfax County history in Floris, cut off by expanding highways and spreading development, gained a bit of protection with its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

When owners Winifred and David Meiselman bought Merrybrook 35 years ago, Centreville Road was two gravel lanes, and the surrounding property was farmland. The view from the living room window was of cattle, and the couple's three children had horses and chickens and a much-loved, blue-eyed pony named Billy. Hot summer nights were spent sitting in the yard enjoying the quiet of country life, probably just as Ratcliffe and her family had done when the property was known as Brookside.

In applying for the National Register, Win Meiselman turned to a "drawer full of stories" she had collected over the years about Ratcliffe. "I didn't know for sure which ones were right," she said.

Research proved some of the stories to be true and others not.

Ratcliffe did not grow up at the 1 1/2 -story farmhouse or live there during the war. It became her home shortly after the war ended and for the next 50 years. It was here that she married Union veteran and longtime admirer Milton Hanna. When he moved in, another addition was added to the circa 1820 house that already had been expanded several times.

It is the only surviving structure associated with Ratcliffe.

Her earlier home, where Mosby was a frequent visitor and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart wrote a romantic poem about her, titled "To Laura," has disappeared from the landscape but is generally believed to have been about a mile south of Merrybrook.

The story of how Ratcliffe saved Mosby's life was told by Maj. John Scott in his 1867 book, "Partisan Life With Colonel John S. Mosby," and was included in the National Register application.

Ratcliffe was known to have befriended Mosby, so a Union soldier, who had stopped by one day to buy supplies, couldn't resist bragging to her that he and his troops were going to catch the "Grey Ghost" that night in an ambush. He wasn't worried that she would warn Mosby because the weather was too cold and wet, and the mud too deep, for most women to travel.

When the Union soldier left, Ratcliffe and her sister set out on foot to warn Mosby of the danger. That night, Mosby did not appear where he was expected.

Besides keeping Mosby informed of Union troop movements in the neighborhood, she also allowed her house to be used as his headquarters. He often met his men at a large rock near her home, which later became known as Mosby's Rock. That was where she would leave money and information for him.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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