From John Hennessy:

One of the things I like best about our History at Sunset programs (read about History at Sunset here) is that they invariably lead us into new material, new things, new ideas.  That’s certainly been the case for the last few days as I have been getting ready for this Friday’s program–our first ever at Aquia Landing.

Aquia Landing in 1863. It likely looked much like this in 1865, when workers white and black assembled there to help rebuild the RF&P Railroad

Today it’s a windswept, forgotten place. But for a few days in 1865, Aquia Landing was front-page news across the country. The New York Times of August 5, 1865, blared, “Riot at Aquia Creek.” While the Times’s reference is brief, it certainly got my attention, and a little digging turned up a few other accounts of the events of August 3, 1865.

Racial violence on a large scale was a rare thing in the Fredericksburg area during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Indeed, while I am aware of a few incidents involving individuals or small groups (including an attempted lynching at the Fredericksburg jail in 1904, which you can read about here), I know of nothing that approached the scale of what happened at Aquia on August 3, 1865, when army troops were called over from Stafford Court House to quell the unrest, which they apparently did in brutal form.

The context is straightforward.  In the months following Appomattox, the Fredericksburg region waited impatiently for the reopening of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad–which had been repeatedly ravaged during the war. The company established a major base camp at Aquia–one that employed workers both white and black–many of the latter no doubt newly freed slaves.  The tension between the two groups burst forth in early August.  Here is the account from the Fredericksburg New Era:

The Aquia Creek Case—It seems that a negro named Jacob cursed a white man named A.T. Terry, who told him he was not putting the track right, and threatened to strike him with a hammer.  Jacob says Terry cursed him and threatened to kill him.  Terry afterward thrashed Jacob with switches, with the knowledge and assent of the Superintendent.  About thirty negroes then went at night to the white mens’ quarters, armed with sticks, and, it is said, “tools.”  The twelve white men ran off. The soldiers from Stafford Court House came about daylight, and beat the negroes generally, Jacob included.  One negro, who resisted arrest, was shot by the guard and died instantly. Another was wounded. The parties have all been arrested, and the matter is undergoing investigation before Captain Seligson, Provost Marshall.

It’s notable that the trigger for the revolt was, apparently, the “thrashing of Jacob with switches”–an unpleasant throwback to the methods of control and intimidation used to sustain slavery.

Reported from New York to Singapore (though, interestingly, it received only a paragraph in one of the two Fredericksburg newspapers then in print), the incident at Aquia Landing was seen, at least, as symptomatic of the trials faced by a society undergoing dramatic social transition. The Philadelphia Age, a leading Democratic newspaper, saw the “riot” as a foreshadow of failure:  ‘The negro plot discovered at Aquia Creek is the first startling exhibition of the bad effects of the doctrine of negro equality that has been developed in an associated form. What will the Republican State Convention, which meets at Harrisburg on the 17th, say about this phase of their doctrine? Will they cry long live the demon of radicalism, and thus sanction and endorse the negro assassination plot against the whites at Aquia Creek?

There remains much to learn about the incident and how it was perceived. But, I thought I’d share this tidbit of history in rather raw form, as evidence of just how interesting working in the field of public history can be.  I’ll share more on this as it comes to hand.