By Marianne E. Weaver
Less than a mile from the noisy congestion on Sudley Road, tucked behind bustling athletic fields of Stonewall Middle School, the Ben Lomond Historic Site sits in an oasis of green, providing visitors with a multi-sensory re-creation of the Civil War era.
The sounds of cars and kids don’t penetrate the walls of the house that was built in 1832. Modern sounds are replaced with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of life at the Pringle Hospital just after the end of the First Battle of Manassas.
“When I turned off the main road with all the shops and restaurants, I didn’t have high hopes for the visit,” said Juliet Hills of Herndon, who visited in May, “but, in fact, once on site, it was quite easy to feel the history of the place and imagine its past life.”
Ben Lomond is more than a restored historical building; it is a living, breathing part of history.
After the Battle of First Manassas, Ben Lomond served as a Confederate field hospital to treat the wounded. Today, the house is filled with reproductions that guests are encouraged to handle.
“This is an immersion into a Civil War hospital,” said Paige Gibbons-Backus, historic site manager at Ben Lomond. “This site looks like a hospital, has the smells of a hospital, offers samples of the cuisine for visitors to taste, and with the new audio, now has the sounds of the hospital.”
In 1830, Benjamin Tasker Chinn inherited the Carter plantation, about 5,000 acres in Prince William, and within two years built the two-story main house, smokehouse, dairy and slave quarters. In 1836, he married Edmonia Randolph Carter, who changed the plantation’s name to Ben Lomond, after her
family’s ancestral home.
Prior to the Civil War, Chinn leased the property to the Pringle family, Scottish immigrants who, along with their enslaved workers, farmed corn and wheat and cared for hundreds of Merino sheep.
Immediately after the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861, Confederate soldiers informed the Pringles that the house would be converted into a Confederate field hospital. The Pringle family stayed, but moved all of their belongings into one small bedroom on the second floor. A red flag was hung outside the home, identifying the property as a hospital. One of two main rooms on the first floor was converted into a surgery room where countless amputations were performed. The second room became a recovery room.
For nearly a month, the house was crammed with the wounded and recovering, and the grounds of the plantation were covered with encamped troops. In the winter, the house was re-established as a hospital treating diseased men. By 1862, the Confederates evacuated, but Federal soldiers ransacked the house,
destroying furniture and littering the interior with graffiti.
Sights and Sounds
Ellen Crites, of Aldie, visited for the first time last summer and then returned with a homeschool group that fall. “The staff is friendly, great with kids and good at fielding all types of questions,” she said. “The grounds are spacious and well-tended. This is a place where you can really connect with history.”
That connection with history, said Gibbons-Backus, is the goal. Upon entering the house, visitors find themselves in the surgery room filled with reproduction artifacts. Visitors are encouraged to touch the surgical tools, crutches and uniforms while listening to an audio reenactment that captures the sounds of the time: cannon fire in the distance, the urgency of surgeons operating in less than desirable conditions and the cries of patients.
“We walk visitors through the amputations,” said Gibbons-Backus. “They hear what happens and see all of the tools.” The script is based historically on the treatment of John Rose, whose leg was amputated. The doctor details the surgery, while visitors see the tools used. When he realizes the lack of bandages, he directs his assistant to tear up the curtains. True to the story, only remnants remain covering the windows.
Across the hall, visitors entering the recovery room are assaulted by the scent of gangrene with hints of smoke and sweat. They are offered a sample of hardtack, an unleavened bread made from flour, water and sometimes salt. “I found the smells just bearable but can imagine some would be overwhelmed and distracted,” Hills noted.
Upstairs, two rooms with original floorboards are open for viewing. The Pringles’ room, which was home to Andrew Sr. and his two adult sons, is filled with reproductions of their sparse belongings and sounds of their discussions about their situation.
Throughout the house, soldiers left their mark—their signatures—on the walls of Ben Lomond. The house is a member of the Northern Virginia Civil War Graffiti Trail, a collection of historic homes and buildings that were vandalized during the war. Although most of the graffiti in the house is covered to protect it from UV rays, sections are still visible, including the signature of Medal of Honor recipient Private
William Wallace Cranston, U.S. Army. He was awarded the medal for extraordinary heroism on May 2, 1863, while serving with Company A, 66th Ohio Infantry, in action at Chancellorsville. Cranston was one of a party of four who voluntarily brought in a wounded Confederate officer from within the enemy’s line in the face of constant fire.
Touring the House
Like all Prince William County historic sites, Ben Lomond is open for general tours Thursday through Monday from May to October, from 11:00 a. m. to 4:00 p. m.; grounds are open from dawn until dusk. The buildings are open by appointment from November through April.
Ben Lomond tours cost $5 for adults, free for children under 6, $3 for active military, $3 per person for groups of 10 or more and $2 per student for student programs (call for reservations) and accompanying adults are free.
New this year, the Ben Lomond Historic Site has added candlelight tours, allowing visitors to experience the hospital as it may have looked, smelled and sounded after sundown. For reservations, call 703-367-7872.
Marianne Weaver ([email protected]) is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a B.A. in English from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.J. from Temple University. She lives in
Gainesville, Va., with her husband and two children.