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Civil War Home Seeks National Recognition

Home of local civil war legend Laura Ratcliffe under review for national accolades.

It is a house of subtle but antique quality, firmly rooted at the banks of a small creek. Most of the materials used to construct it, including a kitchen ceiling made from the wooden side of a barge and the majority of its pane glass windows, are older than any living human being on the planet.

Visible through the maple trees that dot the long, green property are multi-storied defense contractor office buildings and commercial hotels. Bordering its eastern edge, what was once a small two-lane road, is now the six-lane Centreville Road, replete with mini-malls filled with fast food restaurants and office supply retail chains. The rumble of the Dulles Toll Road is just barely audible when standing in the front driveway to the historic home.

This historic home of Laura Ratcliffe, who had worked as a spy for the Confederate army during the Civil War, stands as one of the only remaining vestiges of the war between the states in western Fairfax County.

It is for this reason that Win Meiselman and her husband David, who have owned the home for the last 35 years, are seeking to this year join the National Register of Historic Places. The couple are expecting a decision from the National Park Service, who judges the nomination, in the first few days of March.

"This really is the last remaining house of this age, in this area and really in existence," said Win Meiselman, while sitting in the oldest room of the house, a dining room believed to stretch back to the start of the 19th century. "Over the years, and with all the development there have been so many of these homes go under the bull dozer — and we've been fortunate to hold on to this one."

THE INITIAL WING of the home, which included the dining room, which still stands intact with a majority of the original building materials, was constructed in the 1820s, according to historic research done by Win Meiselman. Back then, the home was owned by the Coleman family, and part of a large farm property that covered more than 100 acres, she said.

Ratcliffe, a distant cousin to the legendary Gen. Robert E. Lee, had a long family history and deep roots to the south, and as a result, was more sympathetic to the rebels as the talks of secession heated up in Washington by the middle of the 19th century.

"I think that it was more of a loyalty to her ancestry," that she held strong convictions to the South during the war, said Win Meiselman. "She had lots of family members who were fighting in the war, and I imagine that she felt that she needed to support them in any way she could."

When the Civil War began, Ratcliffe, who was at that time in her mid-20s lived not in the home, but somewhere in the vicinity of what is now the Floris area, near Frying Pan Park. It was in working as a medical assistant to wounded southern soldiers near Fairfax that Ratcliffe first came to the attention of the Confederate leadership.

Since she was located so close to Centreville Road, a major pathway during the war, she began reporting the troop movements of the Union soldiers to southern officers, including Ranger leader Col. John Mosby and Major Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, who later wrote a poem in honor of the young woman.

She eventually grew into a major intelligence asset for the Confederate guerrilla divisions that sabotaged and ambushed the Northern soldiers as they moved through the area, often using the lure of her good looks and friendly attitude to solicit information on future Northern plans.

One of the most famous stories of Ratcliffe's role as a spy during the war came when, at the height of the war, a Northern officer bragged to her about his unit's plans to capture Mosby. Thinking that the winter weather would forbid the young woman from making it to the guerrilla leader, the officer had little worry that she would make it to Mosby before the trap was sprung.

It was a severe lapse in judgment. Ratcliffe, as the legend goes, trudged through the snow to reach Mosby and warn him of the impending attack. With the advance warning, Mosby organized a counterstrike, and instead of being detained, ended up capturing several Union officers as they awaited orders in what is today downtown Herndon.

THE HOME became known as the Laura Ratcliffe home when she relocated to it following the war.

Ratcliffe later married and resided in the home until her death in 1923, at the age of 87. She is buried along with family members at a site which is now part of Worldgate Center in Herndon.

Despite the fact that she had been a spy for what would eventually become the losing side, Ratcliffe remains one of the lesser controversial characters in the aftermath of the war, said Win Meiselman.

"I'm sure she was disappointed by the outcome of the war, but at the same time she realized that it was over, they had lost and that it was time to move on," said Win Meiselman, who, along with her husband, are from the North. "We were a whole nation again, and I get the impression that she accepted that entirely."

Win Meiselman pointed to the fact that she later married Milton Hanna, a Northerner, and that there are no writings from Ratcliffe espousing slavery, secession or racism.

THE ULTIMATE AIM of Win Meiselman, a former child psychologist, and media professional and David Meiselman, a former economist from the University of Chicago, is to preserve the home for its historic value to the Herndon area and as a memorial to a local figure in the Civil War.

The Meiselmans, who specifically searched for an old home and purchased it before knowing of the story of Laura Ratcliffe, had been tempted in the past to give up the property to developers. Win Meiselman specifically remembers turning down one major developer in the 1980s offering cash for the home.

"To us, we couldn't imagine living anywhere else," she said. "We were very fortunate to find such a beautiful home and with such historical significance — no amount of money can change that."

Other local residents who share the same passion for the area's history have taken up the struggle alongside the Meiselmans in their attempts to preserve the home, forming a loose coalition called "the Friends of Laura Ratcliffe."

"There's not too many of these homes that can provide you a glimpse to that era that are left in this area," said Chuck Mauro, a local historian and author of the book, "The Battle of Chantilly." "There are so many unknowns in history, but this is something that we do know, and that is that Laura Ratcliffe lived here."

If the property is selected for the National Register of Historic places it will join the 44 individual properties present in Northern Virginia listed in 2006, according to Lynn Garvey Wark, commissioner of the Fairfax County Historical Commission. Other registered sites include Frying Pan Farm Park, Gunston Hall in Mason Neck, Va., and the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon.

"When you think about the area, this is one of the last cultural landscapes that we have to give us a window into what life was like in the 19th century," said Garvey Wark. "I absolutely think it belongs on the National Register — I think it can only aid in preserving this wonderful property."

For Mauro, a member of the Friends of Laura Ratcliffe who is currently working on a book about the Civil War figure, the preservation of the home is of utmost importance.

"This woman is just unbelievably fascinating," Mauro said. "To think that we have this little sliver of the Civil War right here in Herndon, it's just something that makes this community that much more special."