History of Sudley Post Office

In July 1997, Manassas National Battlefield Park started a project to stabilize the Sudley Post Office building. Archaeologist Dr. Matt Reeves and students from the University of Maryland performed an archaeological survey around the historic structure. The archaeological part of the project was a cooperative venture between the University of Maryland, and the National Capital Region of the Park Service. When this dig was completeed, the structure eventually went through a stabilization program to help arrest further deterioration of the building.
1861 map of the Sudley area

Sudley Post Office sits on land that was originally part of the Middle Bull Run tract acquired by Landon Carter Sr. from his father Robert "King" Carter. Landon Carter Sr. passed the portion of land which now contains Sudley Post Office, to his son John Carter (1739-1789). John Carter built Sudley Manor which, along with Pittsylvania, built by his brother, was one of the first large scale agricultural operations in northern Prince William and western Fairfax Counties.

Sudley Mills

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By the late eighteenth century, the land where Sudley Post Office now stands was within an area known as the Sudley Mills tract. The most prominent feature of this tract were the water powered grist and saw mills which could have been in operation as early as the 1760s. These mills were constructed to meet the needs of the Carter family estates as well as milling for local farmers in the neighboring counties. There were a total of seven mills along Catharpin (Cat harp in) Run with Sudley being the farthest downstream and the earliest in operation in the area. Susan Morton, a WPA researcher, recounted a local legend dating to the early nineteenth century of wagons being backed up a full eighth of a mile to have grain processed.

Sudley Mills more than likely operated as a custom mill during the colonial and antebellum time period. Custom mills were owned by local landowners. The larger merchant mills were owned by shareholders. Operators of these larger merchant mill complexes were able to obtain enough capital to operate machinery to fine grind and sieve wheat into flour suitable for export.

Custom mills such as Sudley usually had auxiliary shops such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights and stores as part of their complex. These shops catered to the needs of the customers as well as to the needs of the mill complex itself. Often the mill owners set up these shops to be operated by tenants. During Landon Carter's (John Carter's son) proprietorship, Sudley Mill boasted a store and a blacksmith shop.

1935 1935 August 7, 1997 1997
Sudley Post Office

Key to the success and operation of the mill was the network of roads developed in the area by the early nineteenth century. The main east-west thoroughfare was the Warrenton-Alexandria turnpike established in 1808. There were two north-south thoroughfares leading to Sudley Mills: the Sudley Mill Road (present day Sudley Road), and the Groveton Sudley Road (present day Featherbed Lane). These roads not only facilitated transport of grains to the Sudley Mill, but allowed the processed flour and meal to be brought to markets, such as Alexandria, for sale and export.

Sudley Mill was passed down to John's son, Landon Carter, in 1789. Under Landon's proprietorship, the mill was operated by Thomas Fortune. In the early nineteenth century the mill complex consisted of a store, a miller's house (presumably where Fortune resided), and the mill. Local stories surrounding the operation of the mill under Landon Carter recount that the store was operated by a slave named "Sam".

c1950 c1950 August 7, 1997 1997
Sudley Post Office

According to the Prince William County Land Records, Landon Carter sold the mill complex along with 100 acres of land to Peyton Neville, Benomi Harrison, James MacRae, and John W. Tyler in 1835. This 100 acres included the area on which Sudley Post Office now sits. In the 1840 Federal Census, Peyton Neville's household is listed as containing 33 members of which 22 were slaves and 2 were involved in manufacturing. Given the proximity of the listing to the Sudley area, Peyton Neville more than likely resided in the vicinity of the mill complex. In 1847, Neville sold the mill complex along with the 200 acres, including the land on which Sudley Post Office sits, to R.C. Mackell for $5500. The discrepancy between the original 100 acres and the reported 200 acre sale may have resulted from an original surveying or recording error. Less than two years later, Neville passed away at the Prince William County seat of Brentsville.

R.C. Mackell owned Sudley Mills for almost ten years. In the 1850 census he is listed as a doctor residing in the area of Sudley with $6000 in real estate. Dr. Mackell was born in Maryland, as was his wife Harriet Mackell and sister-in-law Eliza Bennet. Joseph Butter, a miller, is listed as living adjacent to the Mackell household, possibly in the miller's house.

The industrial schedules of the 1850 Census list a grist and saw mill operated by R.C. Mackell. For that year, the mill processed 1500 bushels of corn, 20 tons of plaster, and cut 20,000 feet of timber planks. The amount of grain processed was moderate to small in comparison to other mills in the area, which averaged around 3000 bushels.

In 1856, Mackell sold the Sudley Mill tract to Robert F. Carter. In 1859, his cousin, Robert Carter Weir, bought the Sudley Mills complex along with the 200 acre tract. The 1860 Census lists the R.C. Weir household in the Sudley area. The McDowell Map of 1861 and the Bowen Map of 1862, show Weir as residing to the north of Catharpin Run adjacent to the mill complex. The household contained 5 individuals; Robert, his wife Ann, his two children, and C.H. Lambert and a 27 year old physician. In this census, Weir is listed as owning $8000 in real estate and $5970 in personal estate. While Weir is listed as farmer, he does not appear in the Agricultural schedule in 1860. He does however appear in the industrial schedule in association with a grist and saw mill.

By 1860 Robert C. Weir was able to increase the amount of corn ground at Sudley Mill to 5000 bushels and the amount of lumber cut to 36,000 feet, almost double the 1850 levels. Weir's local connections might have allowed for the increase in the amount of raw products being processed at the mill. These figures indicate that by the mid nineteenth-century, corn comprised 75% of the 10,000 bushels of grains grown in the Manassas area. Wheat and buckwheat accounted for most of the remaining 25%.

1965 January 9, 1965 August 7, 1997 1997
Sudley Post Office

Prior to 1860, the use of the land and structures of Sudley Post Office was associated with the mill complex. As part of the tract, the structure(s) of the Post Office, were sold as a portion of the mill complex in the land transactions of 1835, 1847, 1856, and finally in 1859. There is the possibility that these structures served for housing laborers attached to the mill or as an auxiliary complex such as a blacksmith shop.

The Thornberry Household (1850-1871)

For the period after 1860, available evidence more strongly points to the use of the property and buildings of the Sudley Post Office by the household of John Thornberry. One of the structures on the property was used for his wagon and wheelwright activities. The Thornberry household may have resided on the lot as early as the mid 1840s. This is based on the appearance of John Thornberry's household in the 1850 and 1860 Census for the Sudley area. In addition the Prince William County property tax records for 1844 list the Thornberry household as not having any additional males over the age of 18 and having no property that was subject to taxes.

In the 1850 Census, the household is listed with John Thornberry as a 25 year old wagon maker along with his wife Martha. The couple is listed as not owning real estate in 1850, but in 1852 the Thornberry household property was assessed at $79 with 4 cattle, one silver plate, a clock and $40 in household furniture. In the 1860 Federal Census, Martha and John are listed with five children between 3 months and 12 years of age. John is listed as a wheelwright with $760 in real estate and $1576 in personal estate. In this same year, county tax records list his personal property at a value of $84 and the household is credited with two female slaves over 16 years of age, one cow, a clock, $4 in silver plate, and $50 in furniture.

In 1865 John Thornberry purchased the four acre lot where Sudley Post Office now stands. There exists the possibility that John had purchased the lot from Weir by 1860, but the deed was not recorded until 1865, as there were no deeds recorded in Prince William County during the Civil War. Prior to the purchase, the Thornberrys would have occupied the lot as tenants.

There are some details of the Thornberry household that are recounted in a letter written by John Thornberry's daughter Laura. She related that the family had lived in the structure for some "15 or 20 years". She also recalled that her father was a "carpenter, wheelwright, undertaker" and also ran a blacksmith shop for his own work. One Map of 1861 shows a "Wheelwright Shop" being located in the vicinity of Sudley Post Office and the Thornberry's residence.

1965 January 9, 1965 August 7, 1997 1997
Sudley Post Office

Thornberry probably operated his shop through a tenant arrangement. As a tenant, he either would have been required to pay rent or provide services to the mill. Given the diversity of craft activities that Thornberry was engaged, he probably paid rent to the succession of owners of the mill complex from the 1840's to around 1860. Thornberry's shop would have potentially serviced the wagons that brought grain, corn and timber to Sudley Mills. Being the only blacksmith listed in the immediate area, the operators of Sudley Mill might have relied on Thornberry for repairs to machinery.

The Civil War

The Civil War's association of Sudley Post Office centers around the First Battle of Manassas. A massive federal force of over 35,000 men led by General Irvin McDowell Irvin McDowell advanced from Washington D.C. toward Richmond to take the Confederate capital. To protect the railroad junction at Manassas, the Confederate forces positioned themselves along Bull Run to a point above the Stone Bridge. On the morning of July 21, McDowell sent his attack column of 15,000 men, on a long march north toward Sudley Springs Ford. This route took the Federals around the Confederate left. To distract the Southerners, McDowell ordered a diversionary attack where the Warrenton Turnpike crossed Bull Run at the Stone Bridge. Confederate Colonel Nathan G. Evens Nathan Evans, commanding at the Stone Bridge, soon realized that the attack on his front was only a diversion. Leaving a small force to hold the bridge, Evans rushed the remainder of his command to Matthews Hill in time to check McDowell's lead unit.

During and after the battle, structures in the Sudley area were used to shelter the wounded. Sudley Church served as a field hospital. Sudley Church and neighboring structures were deemed to be out of the range of fire, but close enough to the wounded to be suitable for hospitals. By the early afternoon of July 21, Sudley Church was completely filled with injured and dying soldiers. Three neighboring structures were ordered to be "cleared out" and these along with the yards were filled with the injured.

More specifics on the use of the Thornberry home for the wounded is recounted by Laura Fletcher, daughter of John Thornberry. In her account, she recalled that her uncle, William Wilkins, had her mother and the five children stay at his farm to the south along Groveton-Sudley Road during the battle.

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Sudley Post Office

    "She [Martha] with us and the children left it on Saturday evening as we had lived in it for fifteen or twenty years, and there was [on Monday morning] not an article of anything left in it. Ten men had bled to death in mother's bedroom the night before. Carpets and all furniture were out and gone. We never saw any of it again, or anything else. The old farm well in the backyard was almost full of everything that would go in it. Such as chinaware, cooking utensils, flat irons, and everything you can imagine used in a family was thrown in it. Of course everything was broken. How we all cried over it; and no prospects of replacing any of it."

Mrs. Fletcher's description also revealed that John Thornberry served in the battle, presumably in the Confederate forces, and was injured. Along with being injured in battle, John Thornberry had over 2000 dollars worth of property destroyed - his tools and shop.

Laura Fletcher recounts that the Second Battle of Manassas had less of an impact on the the Thornberry's property than the First Battle of Manassas. However her family once again vacated their home during this battle. She did not report any damage to the home as had occurred during the First Battle.

Reconstruction and Growth

Following the War, the Sudley community witnessed a period of rapid change. The Sudley area had been devastated by the two battles and took from five to eight years to recover. The effects of the devastation are most evident in the tax assessments of the Thornberry property. The deed for the conveyance of the property to Thornberry from Weir was recorded in 1865. At that time the land and buildings were sold for $300. While it is not possible to determine if the actual sale had occurred before the War, the census records of 1860 indicate an earlier transaction listing John Thornberry as the property owner. In 1867 this same land, including both buildings, was assessed at $160. These property values remained the same until 1870 when Thornberry was assessed as having $200 in buildings and $100 in land. Assuming the 1865 deed transaction represented the 1860 value of the land, it was ten years before Thornberry was able to improve his structures back to their pre-war value. By the 1870 census, Thornberry was listed as a blacksmith, and he and Martha had increased their household by one child. Also listed in the household was Weston Fletcher a "watchman in factory". Presumably Fletcher worked at the Mill. Fletcher would later marry Laura Thornberry.

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Sudley Post Office

The 20+ year tenure of the Thornberry household at Sudley ended in 1871 when the property was sold to Carson Mathew. By 1880 the Thornberry household had moved to the Village of Buckhall (located south of Manassas) where he and his son were listed as blacksmiths. Martha Thornberry died in 1884 and John passed away less than four years later.

Like the Thornberry's property, Sudley Mill also underwent changes following the War. In 1865, Robert Weir sold the mill complex to William and Susan Sullivan, and later the 45 acre tract that contained Weir's house. Less than three years later, the property was sold to Charles Thomas of Pennsylvania. In 1875, the mill again changed hands to Charles Fetzer of Pennsylvania who operated the mill for the next thirty years. Fetzer was responsible for rebuilding the mill as a three story frame building with a stone foundation. Fetzer also installed a steel overshot wheel and a timber dam with a mill pond to feed the race.

By 1871 the growth of the Sudley community necessitated that the Post Office be moved from the Stone House to Sudley. That same year Carson Mathew bought the lot containing the Post Office from John Thornberry. Probably there were modifications made to the structure to accommodate the Post Office. In 1885 Carson Mathew died and the house and property passed to his wife. Elizabeth Mathew operated the post office until 1903. At that time the mail service was moved to Catharpin.

During the thirty years the structure served as a post office, there were few changes made that improved the assessed value of the property. For four years after the Carsons acquired the property, the assessed value of the buildings remained at $200. However, the assessed value of the land went down by twenty dollars. After that, both the property and building values remained the same until the turn of the century.

Elizabeth Mathew passed away in 1904 and her niece, Georgia Anderson, inherited the house along with "one bed with bedclothes, one chest of drawers, and one half dozen chairs". Based on the property values, Georgia Anderson probably did not reside in the former post office. In the year following her acquisition of the property, its value dropped $50, and by 1932 the value of the structure was not even listed.

In 1935 C.G. Perry bought the property and made enough improvements to the structure to have it valued at $200 by 1938. The Perry's then sold the lot to H.R. Woodward and his wife Velma K. who used the structure as a vacation home until it was sold to the Park Service in 1966.

Upstairs Living room

Original text by Matt Reeves. Edited by Frank Harrell

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