This letter was written by Jane (“Ginnie”) M. Ayre (1844-1885), the 17 year-old daughter of English emigrant William Mason Ayre (1818-1899) and his Virginia native wife, Martha Ann Reid (1817-1889), of Centreville, Fairfax county, Virginia. Ginnie and her older sister, Mary Catherine (“Kate”) Ayre (1843-1926) were the oldest of nine children born to the couple. The William Ayre farm was located on present-day Stringfellow Road (Section 45-3) near Chantilly, six miles west of Fairfax. It was known as the Buena Vista Farm in later years.
She wrote the six-page letter to a dear friend named “Minnie” who probably resided in Maryland, beyond enemy lines, with whom she mostly likely had a previous acquaintance while attending the Fair Hill Boarding School for Girls. Ginnie married Leander Makely in 1878 but died seven years later. The mail had to be smuggled across enemy lines by those who were able to obtain passes—more easily done at this stage of the war than later.
In her January 1862 letter Jennie speaks of the family’s displacement from Fairfax to Farquier county, Virginia, due to the war and also of the depredations by Union troops in their former home near Centreville.
[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]
January 16th 1862
My dearest Minnie,
Months, long long months fraught with good and evil have passed. What have I been doing during this time? Moving from place to place, fleeing from our enemies. Oh, Minnie, you know not what we have suffered. You have been spared the many trials we have undergone—driven from our home in dead hour of night. I fear never again to enter its portals. Our once bright and happy home—the scene of so much happiness—is now nothing but misery and ruin. Where once the merry laughter which once resounded through its halls, the groans of the sick and dying are heard. I will not complain though for it might have been worse. I left home the 1st day of June and did not return until August & then left again in October and never expect to return.
We are [now living] about three miles from Rectortown at the “Old Glasscock House.” It is called Benvanue. It was once an elegant house. We did not succeed in getting our furniture from Fairfax. Our parlor though boasts of six chairs, centre table, two book tables, one writing desk with book case attached, piano, & a few pictures. I forgot a carpet. Now, is not it an elegant parlor [these] war times? The remainder of the house is furnished tolerably enough to say we are comfortably fixed. We came here two weeks before Christmas & have had company every day since; persons in the neighborhood are very kind. We had four soldiers to spend Christmas. Two of them were those “hot headed South Carolinians” as we used to say. Four South Carolinians left us last Tuesday. We are looking for a sick Lieutenant up every day & two Captains.
Oh, I have so much to tell you. I would give anything to see you tonight and have a good old Fair Hill talk. 2 Oh please come and see me soon. I would rather see you tonight than anyone in the wide, wide, world. Minnie, do come soon to see me. When the Yankees came up to Manassas, they pilfered our house—but only took two negroes. You must not say or think anything of my writing on this paper for I have better but Mother is from home and has the desk.
All I have written is about myself. How egotistical (one big word in this letter). How about Minnie? I know you do not think I deserve to be forgiven for not answering your letter before this—but did you know all circumstances, you would not censure me one particle but be surprised that I had lived long enough to write this. I heard you all had gone away and knew no better until last August. I passed through Hamilton and enquired at the toll gate and found report to be false and since them I have not had sense enough to write a letter and have not yet. Please forgive me this time and I will promise never to be so remiss again.
Lacie Glasscock was over to see me last week. We had a long talk about you & wished for you. I heard last week that Fair Hill school was quite full. A Mr. Brooke from Maryland, [who] escaped the same time Mr. Berry (Uncle [James] Thrift’s Lieutenant) [of Co. G, 8th Virginia] did, told me all about the Federals taking Bettie Posey & her parents prisoners 3 and sending to Washington D. C. [Gen. Dan] Sickles has their house for [his] headquarters. Mr. Brooke returns in February and will carry several letters for me. If you know Alice Matthews’ address, please send it to me. Would not you love to see Alice & Sallie Cole? I have had one letter from Edie Smee. It came home by private conveyance. Have you heard from any of them? I have so many things to tell you that I cannot write.
Pappa starts to Alabama next week and will be gone a month & when he returns, we all expect to move out. I believe it will break my heart if I have to leave Old Virginia. I’ll tell you a secret—I am not going there. I’ll tell you where I am going when we meet—-if we ever do, that is. I would come and see you tomorrow if I could. I expect I would talk you to death in one hour so I’ll not come. Please come and see me and stay several weeks with us. I would write with ink but there is company in the parlor and the only inkstand we have is in there. I am up in Mother’s room with slight headache (or heartache). I could write all night but old Professor Bartenstein 4 is here and is obliged to leave early tomorrow so I will have to take my music lesson tonight. I wish he had not come this evening.
When the Eighth [Virginia] Regiment 5 was at Leesburg, I visited it frequently and always thought of you as I passed through Hamilton. We have two lady friends of Mother’s from South Carolina staying with us. Minnie, I would not send you this scribble but knowing you will not think any less of me for it, for you know I am writing at night without paper, pen or ink—am I not excusable? I won’t have anything to do but write letters this whole winter and I expect you will get tired of reading my productions.
George Dandridge is down at [ ville]. Papa is going to Fairfax in the morning. He goes down about once every week. He expects to bring some soldiers up with him when he comes. I wish you could have seen Grandfather’s old place after the Yankees left it. They cut up all the carpets with their bayonets, poured out all the preserves, broke every door about the place, took all the wearing apparel of five families who had deposited them there & a quantity of bed clothes. Took all the horses on the place and then gave all the negroes free papers. Oh, you who have not seen them know nothing about the depredations they commit.
At our home, they were not quite so vicious. They enquired of the negroes where Kate and I were and sent their love to us. I expect some of our acquaintances were them. In fact, I know they were. Please don’t show this miserably written letter to anyone but burn it as soon as read. Please write soon—very soon—and the next letter I write I will promise to write more legibly.
I must go down now and take my music lesson. Please write soon. Your devoted friend, — Ginnie Ayre
Direct your letter to Rectortown P. O., Fauquier county, Va.
P. S. What has become of the Mr. Hopkins?
1 Built of stone construction, Benvenue was constructed around 1824 on 335 acres then owned by John P. Duval. Enoch Glasscock purchased the farm in 1849 and just as the Civil War began, Glasscock sold it to Samuel Tebbs. Interior chimneys are present on either end of the house. The facade (south elevation) holds a centrally located entrance that is flanked by tall six-over-six, wood-sash windows. A round-top transom is set above the entrance door and the bay is detailed with an elaborate pedimented aedicule surround. Other classical elements include the modillion blocks along the cornice line of the house. [See National Register of Historic Places.]
2 The Fair Hill Boarding School for Girls (Fair Hill Seminary) was “one of the earliest schools in the county to include a program for girls. With the help of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting, Samuel Thomas and his wife Anna, both Quakers, opened a school for boys at Fair Hill in 1819. A year later, Margaret Judge added a girls’ department. The Thomases’ school closed in 1829; ten years later, Phineas Paxson bought Fair Hill, and turned it into a girls’ boarding school. In 1850, Richard and Mary Kirk took over the school, with William H. Farquhar as Principal. Mary Coffin, a young woman from New York state, taught at Fair Hill from 1854 to 1865, when the school closed. Her memoirs, published in 1916, provide a wealth of detail about the school during its last decade. According to her recollections, the school averaged 45 students a year, primarily drawing from Montgomery County. About a quarter of the students were Friends (Quakers), and some of these girls were from Quaker families in DC and Alexandria. In the early days of the Civil War, nearly two-thirds of the students withdrew, because of the school’s proximity to the fighting in Baltimore. The school closed for good in 1865 (the building itself burned down in the 1970s), although the Fair Hill Fund continued to provide money for local education.” [See Digital Maryland
3 Richard Barnes Posey (1806-1880), his wife, Elizabeth (Berry) Posey (1812-1887), and his daughter Elizabeth (“Bettie”) Posey (1844-1923) were all arrested and taken to prison in Washington D. C. on the charge that they signaled Union troop movements to Confederates by displaying signal lights (see newspaper clipping above). The family was released from prison in late November 1861, “no just grounds of suspicion having been established against them.” The Posey residence was described as sitting on an eminence “some sixty or seventy feet high” commanding a view of the Potomac river approximately “a half mile or so” from the river behind Budd’s Ferry in Charles County, Maryland. Bettie Posey probably was a school mate of Ginnie’s at the Fair Hill Boarding School. Ginnie claims that the Posey Home was used by Gen. Daniel E. Sickles for his Headquarters. See historical marker on the Port Tobacco Road. Sickles was in Charles county from October 1861 until March 1862 while training troops.
4 Ferdinand Bartenstein (1815-1884) was a music teacher who resided in Alexandria, Virginia in 1860. He was born in Hochkirch, Saxony, Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1846 and married Elizabeth Cole Gordon in 1847.
5 Co. G of the the 8th Virginia Infantry (“The Bloody Eighth”) was recruited in Fairfax county by Captain James Thrift, Gennie’s uncle. The regiment took part in the Battle of Manassas. Held in reserve until afternoon, it then advanced to Henry Hill where they fought hand to hand with the 69th New York and the United States Marine Battalion. In August, they relocated to Camp Carolina, just outside of Leesburg where they remained until March 1862, taking part in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff during that time. In April 1862, Capt. James Thrift was promoted to Major of the regiment. He was mortally wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines. He died at Richmond on 2 June 1862.
The Fairfax )Virginia) Herald of October 5, 1888 contained the following article: “War Incident. An incident occurred after the battle of Gettysburg, at night, which shows how kindness is appreciated by soldiers who have been prisoners in the enemy’s hands. A private by the name of Iden, a member of one of the companies of the 8th Va. Infantry, being wounded and left in the hands of the enemy, but able to walk, asked to be taken to the officer of the day. He was conducted to that officer, who asked what he wanted of him. He politely asked him if he would make a detail and have the wounded of his regiment brought off the field and carried to the hospital and cared for. The officer asked him what regiment he belonged to. He answered, ‘The 8th Va. regiment of infantry.’ Whereupon he promptly replied: ‘Certainly; I was taken prisoner by that regiment at Ball’s Bluff and caried to Manassas by Capt. Thrift, of that regiment, who treated me so kindly while I was a prisoner under his charge, that it will give me a great deal of pleasure to render any assistance to that command to alleviate their sufferings.’ He at once had the detail of men made, procured a flask of brandy and went in person with Iden, and had every man of that regiment removed to the hospital that could be found that night. I am sorry that I cannot give the officer’s name. He belonged to a Massachusetts regiment. A member of the 8th Va.”