Merrybrook, Laura Ratcliffe, and Mosby's Rock
Backstory and Context
In the early 19th century, the Coleman family owned a substantial amount of land in Fairfax county. Around 1820, they set to work building a farm house on part of their property, which they called Brookside. The home would go on to be renovated numerous times over the next two centuries, resulting in a structure that reflects Early Republic, Greek Revival, and other architectural influences. Brookside began as a simple, but sizable, dwelling. Around 1850, a central hall (later converted into a living room) was added to the home. A one-story kitchen was built in the mid-to-late 1800s. In 1869, Ann Ratcliffe bought 13 3/4 acres from the Coleman family, including Brookside. Ann died in 1878, and her daughters Cora and Laura Ratcliffe inherited the property. Laura, impoverished by the Civil War, married her neighbor, well-to-do northerner Milton Hanna, in 1890; however, he died in 1897.
Laura Ratcliffe first met Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart while she worked as a nurse for the rebel army in the winter of 1861. Stuart and Laura ended up writing regular letters, and he gave her his gold watch chain and an album of poems and signatures. Stuart visited her during his Christmas Raid in late December 1862, after leaving Fairfax Courthouse; it was then that he introduced Laura to Colonel John S. Mosby. It is also reported that this visit was when Stuart allowed Mosby to begin operating as an independent raider with a small band of men, later known as Mosby's Rangers. Just over a month later, on February 7th, 1863, soldiers from the 1st West Virginia Cavalry were planning to trap Mosby near her home. However, a Union lieutenant, supposedly at the Ratcliffe’s farm to buy milk, bragged to Laura about the planned attack, saying, “I know you would give Mosby any information in your possession, but, as you have no horses and the mud is too deep for women folks to walk, you can’t tell him; so the next you hear of your ‘pet’ he will either be dead or our prisoner.” Laura was undeterred: she and her sister set out for the home of their cousin, George Coleman, to send him to Mosby, but ended up running across Mosby himself on their journey. He later wrote, “But for meeting them, my life as a Partisan would have closed that day.”
In addition to saving his life, Laura also showed him what is now known as Mosby's Rock, which they used as an information and money drop site and a meeting place; it is located near Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. While Laura Ratcliffe did not live at Brookside during the Civil War (she most likely lived approximately 2.5 miles south), it is the only remaining home connected to her life. She and her husband are also buried nearby. (The grave is located in a grove of trees in front of the Washington Dulles Marriott Suites.)
During the time that Cora and Laura lived in the home, around 1893, another expansion occurred: a bedroom and more living space were added to the home. Laura died at age 87 in 1923, and the property (one of three she had owned) was passed down to her cousin Mamie Wiley. One final major addition was constructed in the 1940s or 1950s, when a den was built onto the home. Threatened by development, it was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register on March 7th, 2007, and to the National Register of Historic Places on April 26th, 2007. The home, now known as Merrybrook, is still a private residence. Many architectural details survive, including the ceiling made with wood from broken-up river barges, a "Jefferson staircase" similar to the one at Monticello, and doors that automatically close (to conserve heat). Several outbuildings, some dating as far back as the late 1800s, also remain on the grounds.
1) A Beautiful Spy, Virginia Living. September 5th 2014. Accessed June 25th 2020. http://www.virginialiving.com/culture/a-beautiful-spy/.
2) DeCecco, Anne. Merrybrook Could Join Nat'l Historic Register, Observer Online. March 16th 2007. http://observernews.com/stories/current/news/031607/historic.shtml. Internet Archive Wayback Machine. September 27th 2007. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20070927205918/http://observernews.com/stories/current/news/031607/historic.shtml.
3) Jones, Devry Becker. Fisher, Bernard. Laura Ratcliffe: Civil War Spy, HMdb.org. May 11th 2020. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=126642.
4) Laura Ratcliffe: Confederate Spy in Virginia, History of American Women. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2006/09/laura-ratcliffe.html.
5) Mauro, Chuck. Laura Ratcliffe, Herndon’s Confederate Spy, Herndon Historical Society. Accessed June 25th 2020. http://www.herndonhistoricalsociety.org/images/08._Laura_Ratcliffe.pdf.
6) Meiselman, Winifred. Meiselman, Ellen. Virginia Department of Historic Resources Staff. Necciai, Terry. Hellman, Susan. Merrybrook, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Virginia Department of Historic Resources. April 26th 2007. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/029-0245_Merrybrook_2007_NRfinal.pdf.
7) Orrison, Rob. “…please furnish better mules…”— JEB Stuart’s 1862 Christmas Raid, Part Two, Emerging Civil War. December 30th 2014. Accessed June 25th 2020. http://emergingcivilwar.com/2014/12/30/please-furnish-better-mules-jeb-stuarts-1862-christmas-raid-part-2/.
8) Prats, J. J. Richardson, Jay Randall. PaulwC3. Laura Ratcliffe, HMdb.org. January 22nd 2020. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=1642.
9) Ratcliffe/Coleman/Hanna Family Cemetery; Fairfax County Cemetery Survey; Library, Fairfax County Virginia. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/library_cemeteries/Cemetery.aspx?number=FX064.
10) Swain, Claudia. Herndon’s Laura Ratcliffe: A “Very Active and Cunning Rebel”, Boundary Stones: WETA's Local History Blog. May 14th 2013. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://boundarystones.weta.org/2013/05/14/herndon%E2%80%99s-laura-ratcliffe-%E2%80%9Cvery-active-and-cunning-rebel%E2%80%9D.
11) Swain, Craig. Prats, J. J. Mosby's Rock, HMdb.org. June 16th 2016. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=2165.
12) Swain, Craig. Richardson, Jay Randall. Mosby's Rock, HMdb.org. Accessed June 25th 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=9957.
Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Merrybrook_Exterior.jpg)
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Wikipedia - Public Domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Laura_Ratcliffe_Portrait.jpg)
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