Wartime in Washington—Mary Henry on the First Manassas

Throughout the next months, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will feature posts related to the Smithsonian and the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

Photographic portrait of Mary Henry, daughter of first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry (1846-1878

On July 21, 1861, the First Battle of Manassas raged just thirty miles southwest of Washington DC and the Smithsonian Institution Building that housed Secretary Joseph Henry and his family. His eldest daughter, Mary, kept a detailed account of events in the capital during this battle and throughout the Civil War. As the seat of the Union government, and on the boundary of the warring Confederacy, DC stood precariously in the center of conflict. Mary Henry, therefore, had a prominent vantage point from which to view the battle’s developments and encounter its participants.

The march into the First Battle of Manassas began on July 16th. Mary watched the procession of Union soldiers advance into Virginia from a tower in the Smithsonian Building or “Castle.”  She knew many men among those soldiers heading to war, and so remarked that she “could not feel patriotic.”  Instead, she felt sadness and concern, dreading the bloodshed to come. For the next few days, news was scarce; the newspapers printed only vague reports of “engagements at Bull Run” on July 19th. Mary consoled her friend Fanny, whose beau or relative was in the Union ranks across the Potomac.

View from the North Tower of the Smithsonian Institution Building looking west towards the Potomac R

Mary was in church on Sunday, July 21st, when she heard of the full-blown battle being fought at Manassas. Other members of her congregation had relatives on the battlefield, and her dear friend Fanny was extremely distraught. Together they stayed at the house of a friend, where at 10 p.m. news came of wounded acquaintances and Mary could hear ambulances rushing through the streets all night.

On the next morning, the doorbell rang while the group was eating breakfast. The door was opened to two soldiers, “bloodstained and dusty.”  They brought both the good news that Fanny’s man was well, and the terrible story of the battle. One of the soldiers burst into tears three times during his telling of the tale, so horrible was the battle to recount. Later that morning  Mary watched as the remains of the Rhode Island regiment filed back into Washington, describing them as looking weary and exhausted. On July 23rd, a soldier visited the Smithsonian Building to describe the battle to Joseph Henry, and spoke of both the disorganization and inability of the Union army which had caused such devastating losses.

Balloon view of Washington, D.C. - the Smithsonian Institution Building can be seen at the top cente

For days after, confusion ruled. Soldiers crowded the streets of DC, tending their wounds and telling their stories. The Union Army was so devastated that its men were dispersed and left on their own without instruction from their commanding officers. On July 29th, a grieving man sought Joseph Henry’s advice on how to go about visiting the battlefield to search for the body of his fallen son. Mary learned details of the battle, but an exact total of casualties, later estimated to be 4,700 killed and wounded, was not available due to the disordered retreat.

Page from Mary Henry's diary describing her experiences in Washington during the First Battle of Man

Today, on the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas, we appreciate Mary’s records as valuable accounts of wartime  Washington, providing a firsthand view of the occurrences. But to Mary herself, the events she witnessed and described were extremely personal and often tragic. In her journal entries on the battle, one of the first of the Civil War, Mary was concerned for close friends who fought and was saddened by the anguish of the returning soldiers.

Three years later, Mary’s journal entries show that she had become accustomed to the war and its consequences. Describing the Confederate Army’s approach to DC in July of 1864, she wrote, “Life has grown sadly cheap within the last few years.” But her account of that early battle provides an intimate glimpse into the lives it affected. More than just a detail of the proceedings of the battle and its aftermath, Mary’s writing offers an understanding of the battle’s impact on those who experienced the distresses of war.

Read this diary entry and others in The Smithsonian Scrapbook from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.


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