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Confederate Spy Laura Ratcliffe's House Has Friends

Nancy Jennis Olds & Kathryn Jorgensen

(Feb/Mar 2007) HERNDON, Va. - The recently established Friends of the Laura Ratcliffe House group will learn on March 7 if the Confederate spy's house will be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

On that date the Virginia Department of Historic Resources will hold a meeting in Richmond to review proposed nominations.

bout 100 people have already joined the Friends to help protect Merrybrook, the historic house where Win and Dave Meiselman have lived since 1971. And more are welcome.

"The purpose of the group is to make people aware of the danger the house is in," says Win referring to encroaching commercial development. There are no dues or regular meetings.

"If we need letters or people showing up at hearings we might have to call on members. Mostly it's for information and to get ideas from people who are familiar with history and saving houses. We welcome any and all suggestions."

A special treat for members will be occasional open houses at the historic house. The oldest portion of the house, a cabin no longer standing, was built about 1793. The oldest part of the current house dates to approximately 1820. Today it stands on 3.2 acres, which includes the brook for which the house is named. Win says the property was part of the 180-acre Coleman farm. The Colemans were Ratcliffe cousins and the families owned large farms between Herndon and Chantilly.

Laura Ratcliffe was born on May 28, 1836, in Fairfax, Va., to Francis Fitzhugh and Ann McCarty (Lee) Ratcliffe. She moved with her mother and two sisters to Frying Pan (later Herndon) after her father's death.

She was an attractive woman, as the only surviving photographic portrait reveals. With rich dark hair, lovely arched eyebrows and enchanting eyes, it is no wonder that Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart fell under her spell. Stuart appeared smitten in his numerous letters and romantic poetry, despite the fact that he was married with a family. However, Laura Ratcliffe was more than just a local beauty. She was a Confederate spy.

She was also a friend of John S. Mosby, the "Gray Ghost." Ratcliffe likely saved Mosby's life by enduring snow and bitter cold to warn him of an impending Union ambush at Frying Pan. She relayed intelligence to the Confederate forces in the area.

She conveyed messages and concealed captured Federal money by a large rock (Mosby's Rock) at the top of Squirrel Hill near her home.

Laura's brother, John R. Ratcliffe, was a private in the 17th Virginia Infantry, Co. D, the "Fairfax Rifles." He died of illness at Chimborazo Hospital Number 1 in Richmond on Oct. 29, 1864, at the age of 31.

After the war Laura Ratcliffe was determined to manage the family properties, visiting them on horseback. While relatively well-off before the war, the Ratcliffes faced some lean years after the war.

In her later years, the Confederate patriot was courted by a Union war veteran, Milton Hanna, who moved to the area after the Civil War. They married when Laura was 50 years old.

The couple lived at Merrybrook, which then was known as Brookside. Milton Hanna is believed to have constructed the late-19th-century addition. He died about seven years after their marriage.

Laura Ratcliffe Hanna remained at Brookside the rest of her life. She was active with the farm until her 78th year when she fell and broke her hip. Modesty prevented her from seeking a doctor's care. Friends and servants provided for her needs and she enjoyed receiving neighbors and friends in her parlor.

Visitors noted that "Miss Laura" remained as sharp as ever, always reading the daily newspaper. She was reticent to speak about her Civil War adventures and she never received recognition for her service to the Confederacy.

Upon her death on Aug. 8, 1923, she was on view in her parlor for the last time. Laura Ratcliffe Hanna was most proud of the fact, and noted it in her will, that she did not owe anyone anything, according to Win Meiselman.

Laura willed her property to relatives. A cousin sold the house, which went through several owners and rentals until the Meiselmans bought it. The house was in basically good shape, but needed upgrading of systems, roofs and painting.

"It has such character that it draws people back," says Win, recounting former residents who have stopped by and asked to see the old house again.

One told of a secret room, which she believes was an enclosed bay window area that was removed in later construction. Another told of Laura's old chair rocking by itself. An old key was found in a hidden staircase.

The Meiselmans had a ghostly experience on their first night in Laura's house. They had settled down to a quiet dinner after unpacking when they heard footsteps running on the roof. They investigated, but no one was there. The footsteps resumed as soon as they started their meal. Once again, no one was there.

"Mosby is checking up on you," a neighbor told them.

Colonel Mosby and Laura Ratcliffe didn't need to worry about the homeowners. They are captivated by their treasured home's history and aim to keep it that way forever.

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