- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2007


One of the Confederate heroines of the Civil War lived on a farm just south of the village of Herndon in the Frying Pan area now called Floris.

Laura Ratcliffe, true to her Southern heritage, provided support to both Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Confederate Col. John S. Mosby during the war. While she nursed wounded soldiers for Stuart, she is acknowledged by Mosby himself for saving his life.

In February 1863, Mosby was riding just south of Herndon, where a small number of Union soldiers were doing picket duty at a crossroads near Laura Ratcliffe’s house and the Frying Pan Church on Centreville Road.

A larger number of Union troops were hiding in a grove of pine trees surrounding the intersection. The Union plan was to entice Mosby to attack the small number of pickets and then the larger number of soldiers would rush from their hiding place in the woods to capture Mosby and his men.

Laura Ratcliffe was well known to the local Union troops as a Confederate sympathizer and friend of Mosby. One Union soldier, Capt. William Glazier of New York, described Ratcliffe as “a very active and cunning rebel, who is known to our men, and is at least suspected of assisting Mosby not a little in his movement.”

He noted that Union soldiers took extreme precautions to keep the locations of pickets a secret, yet “by the means of Miss Ratcliffe and her rebellious sisterhood, Mosby is generally informed.”

Unfortunately for the plan, one young Union soldier came to Ratcliffe’s house to buy milk and eggs, and trying to impress the attractive Southern girl, boasted openly about the trap: “We’ll get Mosby this time. On his next raid he will certainly come to Frying Pan and it will not be possible for him to escape.”

He even told Ratcliffe he knew she would warn Mosby if she could. “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 by the time you hear of your pal, he will be either dead or a prisoner.”

As soon as the soldier was gone with his milk and eggs, Ratcliffe set out with her sister, mud or no mud, to tell local sympathizers to watch for Mosby to warn him.

She walked north on Centreville Road to the home of George Coleman, hoping that he would help her. While at his house, she saw the Confederate cavalry through the window and dashed out with her sister to warn Mosby himself. They had literally come in the nick of time. The Union plan had worked. Mosby had seen the pickets and was preparing to attack. Warned of the trap, however, and not having enough of his own men, Mosby changed his plans and rode in the opposite direction.

Mosby wrote about the incident in his memoirs, crediting Ratcliffe by name:

“We then proceeded on toward Frying Pan where I heard that a cavalry picket was stationed and waiting for me to come after them. I did not want them to be disappointed in their desire to visit Richmond.

“When I got within a mile of it and had stopped for a few minutes to make my disposition for attack, I observed two ladies walking rapidly toward me. One was Miss Laura Ratcliffe, a young lady to whom Stuart had introduced me a few weeks before, when returning from his raid on Dumfries, with her sister. Their home was near Frying Pan, and they had got information of a plan to capture me, and were just going to the house of a citizen to get him to put me on my guard, where fortune brought them across my path.

“But for meeting them, my life as a partisan would have closed that day. There was a cavalry post in sight at Frying Pan, but near there, in the pines, a large body of cavalry had been concealed. It was expected that I would attack the picket, but that my momentary triumph would be like the fabled Dead Sea’s fruit, ashes to the taste, as the party in the pines would pounce from their hiding-place upon me.”

Mosby continued to operate in the area, especially in Frying Pan, for the remainder of the war. He continued to be aided by Laura Ratcliffe, quite often using her house as his headquarters. He also made use of a large, unique-looking flat rock on her property near her house, which became known as “Mosby’s Rock.”

The rock is still located at the south end of Big Boulder Drive in a housing development built in 2000, but at the time was located along a road through the Frying Pan Church area. The rock was used as a common meeting place for Mosby’s Rangers, some of whom were Herndon-area residents.

The rock was also used as a center for military information and post office for Confederate friends. Ratcliffe used it as a hiding place for loot Mosby’s men had taken during their raids upon a Union wagon train and turned over to Ratcliffe for safekeeping. They turned over several thousand dollars, which Ratcliffe hid from the searching Union officers. After the Yankees failed to find the money, Ratcliffe returned it to the Confederates. This was one of the many ways that Ratcliffe supported her homeland during the war.

Ratcliffe would eventually earn the nickname “Mosby’s Pet” for her support. She is buried at the location of the house where she went before finding and warning Mosby. This is right in front of the Marriott Hotel in the Worldgate Shopping Center, on Centreville Road just north of the toll road in Herndon. She is buried with her husband, Milton Hanna, and her sister.

Charles V. Mauro is author of “Herndon: A Town and Its History” and “Herndon: A History in Images.” He lives in Herndon.

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