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.

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