Resisting freedom in an interesting way–and adding 32 names to The List

From John Hennessy:

Slaves resisted bondage, and their owners resisted freedom, sometimes in interesting ways.

The home of William Little on Princess Anne Street. From here Libby McCaw and her two daughters and Nancy Smallwood and her five children escaped to Union lines and eventually to Washington DC.

Here are three short letters written by Fredericksburg residents in September 1862–just after the end of the Union occupation and while 19 local residents were still being held as “hostages” in Old Capitol Prison in Washington (they’d been arrested by Union authorities over the summer in retaliation for the Confederate arrest of several Unionists in the Fredericksburg region). The letters were destined for those hostages.  The citizens sent the package north with a “colored boy,” who reached Washington on September 20, when he was intercepted by Union pickets commanded by General John C. Robinson.  General Robinson forwarded the notes with the endorsement, “The colored boy, carriage & two horses, which I send you, were stopped by our picket line today.  The accompanying papers were found in the boy’s possession.  I send the whole to you for examination.”

What makes these letters especially interesting is that they are intended to woo back to Fredericksburg slaves who had escaped into Union lines that summer–accomplishing by suasion what the law could no longer compel. The idea, apparently, was that upon the hostages’ release (which came a few days later), they might find the slaves in the city (or find someone who could) and convince them to return to their owners.

John L. Marye Jr., later mayor of Fredericksburg and lieutenant governor of Virginia, sought the return of Lucy Ann Washington and her six children.

The three letter-writers were both prominent and closely connected. Henrietta Fitzhugh owned Boscobel Farm (we published her claim for the loss of slaves different from those listed here in a previous post). Lawyer William A. Little owned a farm adjacent to Boscobel and a home on Princess Anne Street in town. His next door neighbor on Princess Anne Street was the third writer, attorney John L. Marye, Jr., the son of John Marye of Brompton and future Lieutenant Governor of Virginia.

The letters are a clear indication that times were changing fast in Virginia in later summer 1862. Gone are illusions that the fugitive slave law might work on slaveowners’ behalf. Instead, Fitzhugh, Little, and Marye were reduced to mere argument.  Those arguments reveal a simplistic vision of human existence that seems amazing in retrospect, but that was unremarkable at the time:  all that mattered was kind and proper physical treatment (still a common argument in defense of American slavery–“we treated our slaves well,” to quote a person on a tour a few years back). Presuming that the writers had some hope of their arguments succeeding, it would seem that the psychological lure of freedom (imperfect though freedom certainly was) did not loom as a major obstacle to their persuasive efforts.

Each of the pleas is preceded by a list of slaves lost and thought to be in Washington D.C. in September 1862. The lists are particularly useful and revealing, often including last names (a rarity) and details about their physical appearance or occupations. Marye’s letter seeks the return of an entire family.  I include the full text of the letters after the jump, below.

Here are the efforts to coax free people back into slavery:

Mrs. Fitzhugh wrote:  If any one will find Said Slaves in Washington & inform them that if they desire to return to their Home at Said Farm, they may do so & will receive the same treatment to which they have always been used there, & will not be sold or punished for their desertion-a liberal reward will be paid for Said Servants on their return

From Little:  A liberal reward will be given for to any one who will inform said negroes that they may return to this house and will be treated as heretofore & not sold or punished & will facilitate or [ill] their return so that I can get them again.

From Marye:  If Lucy Ann & the children, after trying their new mode of life, desire to return to my home and my service, this is to tell them that they will much the same treatment in all respects, which they have had throughout their lives.

We will add 32 names to The List.  The full text of the letters follows.

Continue reading

Toward freedom: a narrative newly found

From John Hennessy (apologies for the silence of late; I am back from nearly two weeks of travel):

They are among the most prized of all primary sources: the slave narrative. Of the millions of people who toiled in slavery across America’s expanse and history, narratives from only about 200 of them have found their way into print. Fredericksburg is fortunate to have two narratives produced by slaves who toiled here, and who ultimately found freedom from slavery here: John Washington and Noah Davis (we’ll post on Noah Davis soon–the circumstances that begot his narrative were unusual, his story vivid–but in the meantime you can find a copy of his book here).  Only one, Washington’s, reveals to us the frantic quest for freedom that accompanied the arrival of the Union army here in the spring and summer of 1862–until now.


Scott's Dam on the Rappahannock, where our unnamed slave crossed to freedom


As evidenced by this blog and the steady stream of new material over at Mysteries and Conundrums, we constantly receive, find, or learn new things (the quality and quantity of these things on the blogs even amazes me, and I’m in the middle of it every day).  Most recently I found issues of the Washington National Republican for 1862–issues that include regular reporting from Fredericksburg during the spring/summer Union occupation. There’s much in there interesting and good, but by far the most valuable item to emerge appeared in the September 22, 1862 issue, page 1, column 1.  It is the transcribed narrative of an unnamed slave who, as the Union army pulled out of Fredericksburg in late August and early September, fled from his workplace in Richmond and made his way to the Rappahannock in a quest for freedom. There is much important in the narrative. It documents the exodus of a slave from nearly 60 miles away; it vividly portrays both the dangers and the help the unnamed slave encountered along the way; and perhaps most importantly, it gives us a terrific look at the rather inhospitable greeting most slaves likely received upon their arrival in Washington.

You can read the entire narrative here. But here are the most relevant sections, with annotations added in bold italic for clarity and images for amusement. Note the observation at the end that “some colored people hate the Union people just as their master’s do.”  Interesting stuff. Much work remains to be done on this narrative, but here it is in relatively raw and unexplained form.

A Contraband’s Story:  His Escape from Richmond and Things as he Left Them

We have had an hour’s talk with a man of color from Richmond, whose narrative is worth repeating. It is substantially as follows.

I am in my thirty-fifth year.  I have been a slave all my life till this moment.  Nearly twelve years ago I was sent southward as far as Richmond, where I was hired out, and where I remained a dining-room servant in a private family all the time. Continue reading

Presidents in the Burg–Eisenhower under threat

From John Hennessy:

Last night we had 100+ at the Fredericksburg Area Museum for our presentation on Presidents in Fredericksburg. Given that about 25 people could not get seats, we’ll be presenting it again in November.  Lots of new faces.

Is there a town of comparable size in America that has attracted such a steady procession of political punditry as Fredericksburg? Of America’s 45 presidents (including the rebellious one in Richmond), at least 24 of them have visited Fredericksburg–half of them while in office (since our last post on this, I have confirmed that John Tyler was here, as well as Grover Cleveland). I am virtually certain that two more were here–Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson–but can’t yet prove it.

By far the most dramatic visit came in 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower rode into town (28 minutes late, the newspaper reported) to participate in a Mother’s Day ceremony at the grave of Mary Washington.  While the nature of the visit was common (the Mary Washington monument is a favorite destination for presidents coming to Fredericksburg), it came in the midst of a frantic investigation into a threat on Eisenhower’s life.  Word of the supposed plot came from a man who reported he was offered $500 to shoot the president in Fredericksburg.  The informant claimed to have been approached the day before by two Puerto Rican men on Princess Anne Street. They offered money, and promised that if the informant failed in his attempt, they would be nearby to finish the job.

Bear in mind, in 1954, the words Puerto Rican nationalist and president provoked loud alarm bells in the wake of the failed, bloody attempt on Truman’s life by nationalists in 1950 at the Blair House.  Local police deemed the informant reliable (he had helped with two other cases previously), and Secret Service officers and Fredericksburg detectives fanned out through town.  They could not confirm his story.

When the president arrived on that rainy Sunday (as many as 3,000 turned out in the gloom to hear him), more than 70 law enforcement officers surrounded the speaker’s podium at the monument.  The newspaper also reported that 46 members of the Mary Washington College cavalry troop were on hand (I’m not sure today’s secret service would include them in a list of assets available to help protect the president).  The president knew nothing of the threat, and much of the audience was unaware too.  But tension hung over the proceeding.  Fredericksburg’s police chief said, ““I was under right might tension from the time the President arrived to the time he left.”

The president spent exactly 23 minutes in Fredericksburg that day, and nothing happened.  While police were never able to substantiate the informant’s story, neither were they able to prove it  a lie. And so no charges for filing a false report were ever filed.

If you want to read news coverage of the event from the Free Lance-Star in 1954, click here.

While here, Eisenhower offered up these words:

I feel highly honored…in joining with you in paying tribute to Mary, Mother of Washington. And on this day…we will…think of the great attributes of patience in adversity, of courage against all difficulty….If we remember these things, then such celebrations as these take on added meaning for all of us….For myself, I think I could add one more word—a tribute to the state that gave George Washington his mother and gave me mine.  Thank you.

One thing we can surely say about presidential visits to Fredericksburg: while there have been many, none have produced anything approaching soaring oratory,  Eisienhower’s included.

The List

From John Hennessy:

It is both the most basic and the most complex and intriguing of historical documents: the list. Lists are sometimes surprisingly elusive, but hugely valuable. You’d think we’d have a list, for example, of all those men killed in the battles around Fredericksburg–after all, the most basic of honors to a fallen soldier is remembering his name. Until a few years ago we did not. Today, of the 15,000 men buried in the National Cemetery in Fredericksburg, more than 12,000 are unknown.

In and around Fredericksburg during the spring and summer of 1862, as many as 10,000 slaves passed into Union lines to freedom. While we know a fair amount about them collectively, we know almost nothing about them individually (except John Washington)–where they came from, where they ended up, the path taken by their lives in freedom, or, most basically, their names.  The folks who have created and now manage the Fredericksburg-Stafford Trail to Freedom project have taken it upon themselves to change that. They have undertaken an intriguing project to name as many of that summer’s slaves-seeking-freedom as they can, and they ask your help in doing it. Stafford historian Al Conner is leading the effort.

It’s a formidable challenge. Slaves, while in slavery, had no legal names, and rarely do we have anything more than a nickname, a trade, or a value to start with. But still, compiling what we do know will invariably lead us to pierce the veil of anonymity and silence for at least a few–to learn something of their lives, something of what form their uncertain journey into freedom ultimately took.

Here are some examples of what we do know, taken from the claims filed by Confederate citizens for reimbursement for lost “property”–human beings–in the National Archives. Continue reading

The Exchange Hotel: temporary home for escaped slaves

From John Hennessy:

The conventional wisdom in Fredericksburg is that the Exchange Hotel, at the corner of Caroline and Hanover Streets, was not built until after the Civil War.  Not so.  More than that, we have just discovered a piece of the building’s history that surely elevates this already notable place to the upper echelons of Fredericksburg’s wartime structures.

The Exchange Hotel, corner of Caroline and Hanover

Before the Civil War, the Exchange Hotel was owned by the irrepressible Peter Goolrick, who lived across the street (where Irish Eyes now is) and owned more properties in Fredericksburg than anyone else. The hotel burned in late 1857, apparently completely, and spectacularly so–the falling rubble actually did minor damage to Goolrick’s house across the way. Goolrick was, however, covered by insurance, and by 1859 or so, reconstruction began.  According to newspaper accounts, the re-built building was largely completed before the Civil War.  But, because of the war, the hotel did not open until 1868–hence the belief in its postwar construction date. The Exchange is perhaps the largest ante-bellum privately owned building in Fredericksburg .  When it reopened it was valued at $13,000, making it one of the most valuable buildings in town.

We have known nothing of the history of hotel during the war, until now.  The presence of the Union army stimulated the exodus of as many as 10,000 slaves from surrounding counties. Their destination: Fredericksburg, the Rappahannock, and eventually Aquia Landing and Washington DC. This exodus presented a major challenge to Union authorities. We have known that they used the Circuit Courthouse on Princess Anne Street. But here is something new. The Richmond Examiner of September 19, 1862, includes a fabulous account of the Union occupation of town that summer and this reference to the Exchange Hotel.

“The new Exchange hotel and the Court House were turned into negro quarters, and from five to fifteen hundred negroes were generally loitering around.  When they got too thick they were sent off, but continued accessions kept up the supply to the full capacity of the respective buildings.”

Next time you settle in for pesto nachos and a beer at J. Brian’s, ponder that previous use of the place.

Life in the face of looming war

From John Hennessy: 

Oh but for the accident of birth we missed the chance to see The Great Wizard of the World. 

Fredericksburg News, December 11, 1860

Here is a little item from the Fredericksburg News of December 11, 1860–nine days before the dismantling of the nation began with the secession of South Carolina. On top is an ad for the upcoming show at Citizens Hall on Princess Anne Street: A night in Wonder World–of magic, mystery, and mirth–with Professor Anderson. Below is an ad for the upcoming military fair for the benefit of the Fredericksburg Battalion of volunteers, a clear signal of what was coming. 

Citizens Hall was one of the most important now-vanished buildings in mid-19th Century Fredericksburg. It stood next to old St. Mary’s Church on Princess Anne, and while it hosted various meetings and gatherings, it mostly served as the town’s theater from 1851 until its loss to fire in the 1880s. It was at Citizens Hall that the Sweeneys performed in 1858, and where you could have seen Signor Blitz and his Learned Canary Birds, or the Holman Juvenile Opera Troup, which consisted of “the most talented children in the world.” 

The only known image of Citizens Hall, extracted from the 1856 Sachse panorama of Fredericksburg. Citizens Hall is the white building at center

 During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers put on performances at Citizens Hall. In 1864, it was turned into a Union hospital. Both Jane Swisshelm, one of America’s only female newspaper publishers of the time, and Julia Wheelock worked there nurses.  Both left vivid accounts of their experiences (while Wheelock’s is often quoted, Swisshelm’s has been largely ignored, though it’s perhaps the best of all the 1864 chronicles of Fredericksburg as a “City of Hospitals”).  

The newspapers are full of vivid little pieces like the ad above–items that reflect the vitality of a town spinning toward disaster.