Last year, one of my fun day-trips was to historic Manassas for the Civil War weekend. Among the other activities–including a parade, living history, and book signings–there were hayrides to nearby Liberia Plantation.
As I’m sure anyone reading this blog will be aware, Manassas was the sight of two major Civil War battles: First and Second Manassas (or Bull Run, depending on which side you were on). First Manassas (July 21, 1861) was the first major engagement of the war; spectators came down from Washington City, just twenty-some miles away, but the spectators were scattered by the unexpected ferocity of the fighting. The losses that day (about 5,000 total casualties) would pale in comparison to later battles, even to the much large Second Manassas, fought August 28-29, 1862 (around 18,000 total casualties; for comparison, there were about 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg). At the time, it was considered a bloody fiasco.
Often lost in the action-packed stories of the battles are the stories of the civilians. People lived in houses in the midst of the fighting. Some were directly in the line of fire. Homes and lives were destroyed. In Manassas, eighty-five-year-old Judith Henry was killed during the First Battle of Bull Run; Union troops thought there were hidden sharpshooters in the house and blasted it with artillery, wounding the old woman fatally.
Not every house was directly in the line of fire. Some were used as field hospitals and headquarters. Liberia Plantation, located about four miles south of what was the main battlefield, was the home of the Weir family. It was built in 1825. The Weirs had about 90 slaves and a dozen children; they planted wheat and other grains and kept sheep and other livestock. It was a successful plantation when war broke out in 1861. In June that year, the ill-prepared armies clashed near Liberia, where the Alexandria and Orange Railroads converged. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard made the house his headquarters. It was big, commodious, and impressive enough for a general. The Confederates won the battle of First Manassas, sending the Union troops fleeing ignominiously back to Washington City. It’s said that Jefferson Davis himself came to Liberia Plantation, where he spoke to his generals and decided his army wasn’t prepared to pursue the routed Federals.
The tides turned somewhat in 1862. The Weir family fled as the Union army closed in. Second Manassas was also a Union loss, but during the time the Union Army was there, General Irvin McDowell made Liberia his headquarters. President Lincoln apparently visited to check on General McDowell’s health, so both presidents set foot in Liberia during the war, along with many other luminaries (generals and cabinet members).
When the family returned to Liberia Planation, the surrounding area was devastated by the battle. The house and land were devastated; the house, although a headquarters, certainly was in a bad state, the trees lining their drive had been cut down, and soldiers had written graffiti all over the walls. In 1867, William Weir passed away and left Liberia to his son Walter.
The plantation became a dairy farm in 1888 and continued as such until 1947. Over the decades, the land that had once belonged to the house was sold off and developed until very little was left. In 1986, the house was donated to the city along with 5.6 acres of land (the original plot of land was 1,600 acres). The city buffered the house by buying an additional 12.6 acres around Liberia.
Today, Liberia Plantation is still an impressive building. From the outside, it’s a handsome, proud-looking brick building. Inside, it’s currently in the middle of a restoration, but even so, it’s impressive. Downstairs, the entrance hall is high-ceiling and gracious, with broad decorative arches, big doors to the front and back (for a good cross-breeze), and lovely old floors. There are two parlors and a little kitchen (added sometime in the 1940s or 1950s) that was probably some kind of butler’s pantry leading to the service corridor and to the outbuildings beyond (most importantly, the kitchen).
The walls look a bit rough. During the restoration, the workers have removed layers of wallpaper and paint. Underneath, they found Civil War-era graffiti in almost every room. It wasn’t only generals who were there. It was soldiers, too, using the house as temporary shelter. For some reason, people in all time periods feel the need to leave their mark; these men sure did. Their pencil signatures are still visible, though they’re generally faint and sometimes illegible. In one room, a soldier worked out a math problem on the wall. The amount of graffiti on the walls is an indication of just how poorly the soldiers treated the house.
But there’s another bit of writing on one wall that wasn’t put there by the soldiers. In a small room upstairs that was converted into a bathroom (and is being converted back), the Weirs marked their children’s growth by making lines on the wall.
The outbuildings are gone now, though there is a well house down a short path, where items like butter would have been kept cool by the water. A Gone-With-the-Wind style porch was put on in the 19th century and has been replaced with more appropriate front steps. Near the house is also a family burial plot, which was moved from its original position because of encroaching development. A lot is missing, and a lot has changed, but the work being done is bringing Liberia back to life.
That work costs money, and right now, they don’t have the money they need. Very dedicated people are involved–our guide clearly cared very much about the place and its history–but they haven’t reached their fundraising goal. There seem to be a few things in their way. The city hasn’t okayed a Facebook/Twitter presence. The house is invisible from the street, and there are no signs to indicate it even exists, even though it’s in the middle of a bewilderingly grown-up area. It belongs to the city instead of, say, the National Park Service. (That’s not to say that the city isn’t doing good work; it’s just that the NPS is much bigger and might have the resources to put it literally and figuratively on the map.) This house was an important component of two major Civil War battles, it was visited by both the Confederate and Union presidents, and it’s a beautiful example of an Antebellum plantation house, representing the lives of civilians and slaves before, during, and after the war. Perhaps most intriguing is the name of the plantation. Liberia is, of course, a country in Africa. In the Antebellum period, many white opponents of slavery advocated colonizing freed slaves to Liberia.The Weirs, while they owned slaves, advocated this plan, too. They also demonstrated a lot of trust in their slaves: when they left in 1862, they put an elderly slave couple in charge, and one of their mills was run by a slave. The story of the house, and the complicate relation of the owners to slavery, is itself worth preserving.
So, I am going to go ahead and ask any readers here to donate, it their able, to the preservation of Liberia Plantation. It is money well-spent, I promise.
You sent money to:
Manassas Museum System
9101 Prince William Street
Manassas, VA 20110