Interpretive Decisions at the Stone House

By Thomas Nank ‘16

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

In her article “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument,” author Joy Beasley discusses the complex history of the birthplace of our first President. Beasley traces the evolution of the interpretation of the site as influenced by many diverse groups and individuals. I have seen similar interpretive confusion recently during my internship at Manassas National Battlefield Park centered on the historic Stone House.

Little definitive information survives on the specific uses of the Stone House during the two battles fought at Manassas, thus giving rise to interpretive confusion surrounding the building. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Little definitive information survives on the specific uses of the Stone House during the two battles fought at Manassas, thus giving rise to interpretive confusion surrounding the building. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Built in the early 19th century, the two-story, red and yellow sandstone residence became a prominent local landmark at the intersection of the Warrenton Turnpike (modern US Route 29) and the Sudley Road (Virginia Route 234) north of Manassas Junction. During the Civil War, the Stone House witnessed significant action during both battles as the roads were used to move troops and the battle lines swept across the property. After the war, the home remained a private residence until its acquisition by the National Park Service in 1949.

Over the years, the house has become the subject of misconceptions and legends. Visitors from the local area and some NPS literature have perpetuated some of those myths. Many visitors believe the structure was a tavern. There is no conclusive evidence of use of the building for that purpose, although an erroneous NPS poster on display inside the structure says it was “built around 1825 as a tavern and residence.” The misconception that the home was a tavern is perpetuated by the NPS, which has installed a wooden “bar” and re-created a simulated public dining room and parlor on the ground floor. No definitive description of either room exists, so the simulated “tavern” space leaves the impression that the Matthews family operated an establishment that served food and drink, and perhaps even provided lodging. There is written evidence that Henry Matthews and his wife Jane, who owned the home from 1850-1865, did sell liquor to travellers and farmers who used the Warrenton Turnpike, probably to augment their small farm income. It is not known definitively, however, if the liquor sold was for public consumption on the premises or in bulk quantities for transport elsewhere. None of the soldiers who occupied the structure during the battles described it as a tavern or public structure of any kind. The simulated tavern set-up is therefore most likely an interpretive leap.

Local traditions and some NPS literature also refer to the building serving as a hospital during the two battles fought at Manassas. Technically, the home’s location extremely close to the fighting would not have made it an appropriate structure to be used for battlefield surgeries and amputations. Although now discontinued, previous displays inside the structure, permitted by the NPS and remembered by many local visitors, simulated operating tables and equipment associated with an army surgical facility, none of which were likely ever inside the building. No known writings from soldiers of the time indicated army surgeons performed operations inside the structure. Army field hospitals were, however, established several miles away to the north and east, well in the rear of the battle lines. Although a small distinction, the building most probably served as a temporary shelter for wounded men, the equivalent of a modern army medical aid station.

Similar to Beasley’s depiction of the Washington birth home interpretive history, the absence of definitive documentation and descriptions of the use of the Stone House during the Civil War have left the door open for interpretive license based on popular memory and incomplete evidence. We know few facts about the wartime building. In the absence of conclusive evidence, rather than perpetuating artificial impressions of its use as a tavern or hospital, official interpretation of the structure should emphasize that there are, and likely will always be, many things we do not know about the structure.


Sources:

Beasley, Joy. “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument,” in Paul A. Shackel, ed., Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape (Florida, 2001): 197-220.

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