The Civil War’s First Civilian Casualty Was an Elderly Widow From Virginia

Union gunfire killed 85-year-old Judith Carter Henry on July 21, 1861—the day of the First Battle of Bull Run

View of Henry Hill in March 1862
By March 1862, Judith Henry's Virginia home had been reduced to rubble. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

When elderly widow Judith Carter Henry learned that the Union Army was on its way to attack the Confederates gathered near her Virginia home on July 21, 1861, she was reluctant to flee to safety.

After a Union shell pierced her house on Spring Hill Farm, however, the bedridden 85-year-old reportedly allowed her children to carry her on a mattress toward a neighbor’s property. Surrounded by the smoke and gunfire of the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Battle of First Manassas), the group didn’t get far before Henry begged to be taken back to her home of some 35 years.

The decision to turn around proved fatal for Henry, who soon became the first known civilian casualty of the Civil War. Her accidental killing marked a grim turning point in the deadliest war in American history—a conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians between 1861 and 1865.

Photo of Henry House following the First Battle of Bull Run
Photo of Henry House following the First Battle of Bull Run Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Henry’s death came as a shock to both sides,” says Liz Hokanson, the education and youth programs coordinator at Manassas National Battlefield Park. “It’s understood that this is not going to be the last time this happens.”

The exact details of Henry’s final hours are mired in myth and contradiction. Still, her status as the war’s first civilian casualty is undisputed.

“I dislike using superlatives like first or last of anything, but in this case, it seems to be true,” says Garry Adelman, chief historian of the American Battlefield Trust. “For most of these things, they get challenged a lot. But this seems to be ironclad.”

According to historian Carl R. Weinberg, Confederate sharpshooters took up positions in Henry’s home as Union soldiers approached on the morning of July 21. After her failed escape attempt, the widow took shelter in her bed, while her daughter Ellen hid in the fireplace. Lucy Griffith, an enslaved teenager whom Henry had leased from a neighbor, sought refuge under the bed.

Union Captain James B. Ricketts ordered his men to converge on the house, unaware that civilians remained inside. Hoping to stop the enemy sharpshooters, the Union soldiers fired their artillery from a distance of between 60 and 300 yards. Shells ripped through the house, partially blowing off Henry’s foot and inflicting several other injuries. Ellen suffered hearing loss, and Lucy hurt her heel. Henry died later that day and was buried in front of her home.

Judith Henry's gravestone
Judith Henry's gravestone Billy Hathorn via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

In his official report, Ricketts wrote that “[w]e ascended the hill near the Henry house, which was at that time filled with sharpshooters. I had scarcely gotten to the battery before I saw some of my horses fall and some of my men wounded by sharpshooters.”

The captain added, “I turned my guns on that house and literally riddled it. It has been said that there was a woman killed there by our guns.”

The elderly widow was the first in a lengthy list of civilian casualties. By the end of the Civil War, an estimated 50,000 civilians had died of causes ranging from gunfire to starvation to disease. Among them were Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade, a Gettysburg resident shot while she was kneading dough in her sister’s kitchen on the morning of July 3, 1863, and James R. O’Neill, a war correspondent killed during the Baxter Springs Massacre in October 1863.

“Henry’s story takes on importance because it’s a good example of people struggling to survive in the middle of all this,” says Hokanson.

Two months before the First Battle of Bull Run, Henry’s son Hugh Fauntleroy Henry made what would prove to be an overly optimistic prediction.

“Should troops be passing about the neighborhood, you and mother need not fear them, as your entire helplessness, I should think, would make you safe,” Hugh wrote in a May 30, 1861, letter to his sister Ellen.

The ruins of Henry House
The ruins of Henry House Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Instead, the clash—which ended with a Confederate victory—left the Henry matriarch dead and the longtime family home significantly damaged. Reports of the building’s fate vary, with sources alternatively suggesting that Confederate soldiers stripped the building of its wood to build shelters or removed its doors to serve as litters for transporting the wounded. Either way, a March 1862 photo of Spring Hill Farm (now better known as Henry Hill) shows the main house in ruins.

Henry’s significance in Virginia history stems not only from her tragic death but also her ties to a prominent local family. Born Judith Carter in 1776, she was the daughter of landowner Landon Carter Jr. and great-granddaughter of Robert “King” Carter, one of the wealthiest and “most powerful Virginians of his day,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia. At the time of Robert’s death in 1732, he owned at least 295,000 acres of land, much of which was cared for by enslaved people.

Henry's great-grandfather, Robert "King" Carter
Henry's great-grandfather, Robert "King" Carter Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Judith grew up on the Carter family’s Pittsylvania estate, a lavish plantation tended to by as many as 150 enslaved people. Built by Landon around 1765, Pittsylvania was used as a field hospital during the First and Second Battles of Bull Run and was destroyed by a fire in fall 1862.

Pittsylvania stood close to Henry Hill and is actually visible in the far right corner of the 1862 photo of Henry’s razed home. Adelman likes to stand in front of Henry House and look toward what was once Pittsylvania.

“Standing at one spot today, you can track [Henry’s] entire 80-plus-year life,” he says. “Everywhere she lived, … the entire life and locations of Judith Henry can be interpreted from one square foot of land on the Manassas National Battlefield. The only reason we can do that is because it was preserved.”

Judith married Isaac Henry, a surgeon in the United States Navy, around the turn of the 19th century and moved to the Henry Hill House in 1825. Isaac—the son of immigrants from Northern Ireland—died of pneumonia in 1829.

View of Henry Hill today
View of Henry Hill today Tom Mills via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0

Per the National Park Service, which cares for Henry Hill as part of Manassas National Battlefield Park, Henry’s son Hugh built a new house near the site of the original one after the war, in 1870. A teacher by trade, he provided for his sister Ellen, his Carter cousins, and his orphaned nieces and nephews. (His brother John “died immediately after the war, leaving three” children behind, wrote Hugh in an 1882 letter to a cousin.)

To make extra money, Hugh offered tours of the hill to veterans and visitors alike. He died in 1898 and was buried alongside his mother and sister. The replacement home remained in the family until the early 1920s and today houses the park’s visitor center.

The First Battle of Bull Run occupies a unique place in Civil War history as the first major battle of the conflict. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, both sides scrambled to prepare for the impending fight. As troops mobilized, a few minor clashes broke out, among them the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia, which produced an estimated 84 casualties on June 10, 1861.

After Fort Sumter, “the big emphasis is going to be training and preparing—and for the Union, trying to get to Richmond,” the Confederate capital, Hokanson says.

“We have a tendency to say here that [Bull Run] is the first major land battle,” she adds. “It was certainly the first one with consequences.”

Artist's depiction of the First Battle of Bull Run
Artist's depiction of the First Battle of Bull Run Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In July 1861, Confederate troops gathered at Manassas Junction, about 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., to guard key railroad supply lines. Some 35,000 Union soldiers commanded by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell left D.C. on July 16, crossing Bull Run, a gentle, meandering stream with steep embankments, to reach the enemy. Like their 20,000 Confederate counterparts (under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard), the Union troops were inexperienced and unprepared for the realities of war.

On the afternoon of July 21, as soldiers clashed on Henry Hill, Confederate reinforcements arrived to turn the tide of the battle. Around 4 p.m., they struck a sharp blow against the Union troops, who fled for their lives in a humiliating defeat. Soldiers threw down their weapons and ran from the battlefield, passing shocked spectators—including a group of senators—who’d gathered to observe the action.

“I saw the 12th New York regiment rush pell-mell out of the wood,” one reporter commented.

At the time, Bull Run marked the bloodiest battle fought in American history, with an estimated 3,000 Union casualties and 1,750 Confederate casualties. Few realized that the clash was a harbinger of battles still to come, from the September 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam—the bloodiest single day in American history with nearly 23,000 casualties—to the Battle of Gettysburg, which produced some 51,000 casualties between July 1 and 3, 1863.

Men sit near the Manassas Junction railroad in 1862
Men sit near the Manassas Junction railroad in 1862. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A second battle took place in the same area just 13 months later, in late August 1862. Known as the Second Battle of Bull Run, or the Battle of Second Manassas, it resulted in around 22,000 casualties. Once again, the Confederates emerged victorious.

The First Battle of Bull Run represented “the end of innocence” for observers who’d expected the war to conclude quickly, says Adelman.

“Both sides thought it would be quick,” he explains, “but within a day or two they realize … that this was going to be a long year, and that’s when you have everyone gearing up for a longer haul.”

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