From the pamphlet entitled
The Stone House,
Silent Sentinel at the Crossroads of History
By Michael D. Litterst
As the nation moved closer and closer to armed conflict after the firing on Fort Sumter, it became increasingly apparent that Manassas Junction area would become a point of strategic importance for both sides. The rail lines, leading west to the lush Shenandoah Valley and south through central Virginia to the Confederate heartland, were important avenues for supplies and men for the infant Confederacy. Wishing to protect these vital arteries, Confederate forces began massing around Manassas Junction as early as May, 1861. When the Union troops set out in search of their Southern counterparts, military activity in the vicinity of Manassas was likely.
Not until Union commander (26k) Irvin McDowell mapped out his strategy on the night of July 20, however, did it become apparent just how close to the Stone House the action would take place. McDowell's plan to flank the Confederate position along Bull Run was destined to bring the bulk of the Union forces down Matthews Hill from the north along the Manassas-Sudley Road and , if all went as planned, straight to Manassas Junction. This route of march would bring approximately 15,000 Fedreal troops directly past the Stone House. However, the failure to properly execute this movement on the part of the Northerners would ensure that the Stone House would witness major events of the coming battle, not merely the passing of the Federal army.
Delays on the morning of the 21st by the Federal flanking column allowed the Confederates to shift the bulk of their defenses from the Stone Bridge, one mile east, to Matthews Hill. With only 900 troops, Confederate Colonel (24k) Nathan G. "Shanks" Evans hoped just to block the Federal advance down the Manassas-Sudley Road long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Deploying the 1st Louisiana Battalion (under the command of Major Roberdeau Wheat) and six companies of the 4th South Carolina about 250 yards south of the crest of Matthews Hill, Evans was ready and waiting by 9:30 a.m.
Supporting the Confederate infantry on Matthews Hill were two guns, a section of the Lynchburg Artillery, commanded by Lieutenant George Davidson. Davidson commanded one of the pieces, in battery on the north side of the Warrenton Turnpike, across from the James Robinson farm. The second gun, commanded by Lieutenant Clark Leftwich, took up position on Buck Hill, immediately behind the infantry. Leftwich's position was approximately 100 yards north of the Stone House, with one of its limbers and its caisson parked in the yard of the house. When the opening salvos of gunfire startled the attendant horses, the frightened beasts "ran off, and dashed the caisson to pieces."
Reinforced with the brigades of (30k) Barnard E. Bee and (24k) Francis Bartow, Evans' defensive line managed to hold its own for the better part of ninety minutes. Eventually, however, Federal drives against both flanks collapsed the Confederate line. The Union troops, though, were just as disorganized in their success as the Southerners were in their retreat, and failed to capitalize on this turn of events. No orders for pursuit came from the Federal high command and many Union officers made their own decisions to keep moving.
Colonel Andrew Porter, commanding one of the lead brigades, decided to continue the momentum of the Federal success on Matthews Hill. The 27th New York was ordered forward without halting as it arrived on the field. Colonel (27k) Henry W. Slocum led his troops down the Manassas-Sudley Road toward the Confederate forces falling back toward Henry Hill.
Major (27k) J.J. Bartlett of the 27th reported charging the Confederates, who were "strongly positioned in and about a large stone house, with a battery commanding the approach." The New Yorkers' thrust quickly sent lingering Confederates headlong from the protection of the Stone House toward Henry Hill. The Empire State (New York) troops advanced to the Stone House, where they attempted to reform their lines. Col. Slocum directed the color guard to form to the left of and in the rear of the house, in hopes of redressing the line there.
However, the 27th soon came under a heavy fire from (29k) John Imboden's artillery, posted on the heights at the north end of Henry Hill. Slocum ordered his men to shift to the left, in hopes of finding enough cover to restore order to his wavering ranks. What he found instead was a brisk fire-fight with the Hampton Legion, who were posted in a lane near the James Robinson house. Faced with a stubborn resistance from the South Carolinians, the 27th gave up their hard earned territory around the Stone House and fell back toward Buck Hill, where they resumed their skirmish with the Legion - albeit at long range.
As the maelstrom of the escalating battle moved south to the fields of the widow Judith Carter Henry, the Stone House came alive with activity. As both surgeons and wounded Union soldiers began to seek shelter from the battle, the Stone House became an obvious oasis. The protection provided by its strong stone walls, the fresh water provided by its well, and its position along the main road back to the hospitals of Washington made the Stone House an ideal field hospital site.
The Stone House quickly swelled to capacity, with wounded Federals filling every inch of the structure's available floor space. Corporal William H. Merrell, a member for the 27th New York who was wounded in the chest during his unit's final push for the Stone House intersection, reported that the cellar quickly filled, with the men lying on the muddy dirt floor. Likewise, according to Merrell, "the floor above was also covered with wounded soldiers."
Despite the fact that the heaviest fighting that afternoon had shifted south to Henry Hill, these wounded troops in the Stone House continued to come under fire throughout the afternoon of July 21. Corporal Merrell reported that "the rattle of musket balls against the walls of the building was almost incessant." A few of the projectiles apparently found their mark as well, entering through the windows of the house and further wounding three of its occupants. Incredibly, according to Merrell, an artillery projectile likewise entered the structure through an open window or door, but passed through the house without further incident!
This continued shower of lead in the area brought two skulkers from the Confederate lines into the Stone House basement in an apparent attempt to shield themselves from the intense storm of shot and shell. Unfortunately for them, despite their best efforts (one of the men even stashed himself in the cellar fireplace), they were both wounded - one of them severely - as they lay on the floor among the wounded Federals.
As the battle raged and the Stone House continued to be peppered by shot and shell, some of its wounded occupants apparently became concerned for their further safety. In an attempt to signal the building's neutrality as a hospital to the antagonists on the outside, one of the inmates placed a havelock on the end of his bayonet and waved it about. This merely had the effect of drawing more attention to the site, as the signal "was greeted with a shower of balls from the Confederates." Supposing, perhaps, that a more official looking banner would serve with more effect, "a yellow flag was displayed from the floor above, but it was likewise disregarded." Regardless of the effectiveness of this flag, it apparently remained in place for the remainder of the day. The Confederate troops who retook the structure in late afternoon reported capturing the "stone house of Matthews, from which a hospital flag was suspended."
As a source of potable water, the well of the Stone House was a busy place throughout the afternoon and was used by troops of both sides. Corporal Willam Merrell was awestruck as he watched a Federal leave the safety of the Stone House with two canteens in an effort to bring some water back for its wounded occupants. This soldier "received five or six musket balls, in different portions of his body " yet was not fatally injured."
Late in the day, with McDowell's army in retreat, a soldier in the 5th Massachusetts could not resist the temptation of fresh water from the well and stopped long enough to fill his canteen. While there he took the time to give a drink of water to a wounded Confederate, and during this delay, was set upon by another Southerner who, "with fierce oaths" demanded his surrender. But the wounded recipient of the Unionist's kindness spoke out on behalf of his Good Samaritan: "No, let him go, he gave me drink." The soldier was then permitted to continue on his way, while others with him were taken captive.
By late afternoon, the Stone House was in full operation as a field hospital. Federal surgeons who were set up there worked feverishly treating the wounded that kept arriving. As the Union line on Henry Hill crumbled under the weight of the Confederate attack in the late afternoon, the Federal troops and surgeons at the Stone House suddenly found themselves behind Confederate lines. The suddenness of the reversal and the disorganization of the Federal medical staff forced some units to abandon their wounded at the Stone House for want of ambulances. The 5th Massachusetts reported leaving five men at the Stone House, with the possibility that as many as 23 had been abandoned there.
During the Federal retreat, a company from the 28th Virginia reclaimed the Stone House for the Confederates. These jumpy troops, just completing their first day of battle, entered with drawn bayonets and demanded a surrender, "intimidated as though they had anticipated a successful resistance". However, the surgeons were too busy and the wounded too fatigued to offer any protest, and the Stone House fell to the Confederates much more peaceably than it had been taken by the Federals.
According to the official report of Colonel Robert T. Preston, commander of the 28th Virginia, thirty-six Union troops in the Stone House surrendered themselves in the aftermath of the conflict. He reported as well an additional unspecified number of dead Federals in the house. The Confederates also captured 100 firearms, suggesting that perhaps as many as that number had passed through the building and received some sort of treatment that day. Among the prisoners was Corporal Merrell of the 27th New York, who was taken to the Lewis plantation, "Portici," and from there on to Richmond.
Also among the captured were a Federal surgeon and assistant surgeon, the latter (after being immediately paroled) remaining to continue working on his wounded compatriots. These two officers were likely Surgeon James Norval and Assistant Surgeon Andrew McLetchie of the 79th New York (Highlanders).