Caroline Street

From Hennessy (another one of a short series on some of Fredericksburg’s most prominent streets–see our ode to a changing Sophia Street here):


The 900 block of Caroline. Note the Colonial Theater and especially--at right--Ulman's Jewelers and Goolrick's pharmacies, both in business on the same location. Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation

For more than two centuries, Caroline Street (known as Main Street for most of its existence) was the shopping Mecca for residents of the Fredericksburg region, be they borne by cars, horses, or carts.  While William Street housed businesses and the occasional warehouse, Caroline was the town’s retail center, selling everything from the latest European fashions to bat guano (for fertilizer).  Town council battled constantly to keep Caroline and neighboring streets pleasant for visitors and shoppers, urging 19th century residents to stop simply dumping refuse in the street and trying (vainly) to convince residents to keep hogs off the pavement–threatening to shoot or confiscate the hogs if the residents failed to comply.  Finally in 1832 Council simply banned hogs in town altogether.

The Victoria Theater–today an annex to the Baptist Church. HFFI

Parades and presidents (Harrison, Bush, and McKinley among others), protesters and Santa Claus have all frequented Caroline.  George Weedon kept his tavern here, at the corner of William, and there entertained some of the greatest men of Revolutionary America, including Jefferson and Washington. One hundred and eighty five years later in a department store a few doors away, more recent patriots conducted sit-ins, seeking equality under the very laws forged by Jefferson and Washington. In the 20th century, Caroline Street assumed the aspect of a classic American downtown. Two theaters (the buildings still stand) offered the latest movies; the soda fountain at Goolrick’s Drugstore dispensed milkshakes and malts (it still does, as President George Bush noted during his visit there in 1992)), and nearby stores offered virtually everything residents of the Fredericksburg region needed (though you could no longer get guano).

Rarely has the Rappahannock risen to flood Caroline, but it did in 1942. Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

Much of the upper end of Caroline above Hanover was destroyed in the great fire of 1807. You’ll find, therefore, few buildings here of anything but brick. Indeed, most of the 1000 block on the east side of the street was destroyed again in the bombardment of December 1862. But most of Caroline Street retains the character it has had for most of  two centuries. A few detached older residences like the c1769 Chimneys at 623 remain interspersed among buildings that have long-held storefront businesses.  Above these storefronts the owners often lived, and today apartments thrive there (the key to any successful historic downtown is to keep people living in it, and Fredericksburg has many).

A rather scraggly Santa is greeted at the train station for his annual trek up Caroline Street, about 1940, UMW Digital Archives.

At its northern and southern fringes, Caroline became residential. But the heart of Caroline retains its traditional functions, though the hogs are gone.  Each year Santa hauls up the rear of Fredericksburg’s Christmas parade along Caroline, following precisely the same route traveled by President William McKinley when he visited Fredericksburg for the great meeting of the Society of the Army of the Potomac in 1900. And, every year, Santa continues to draw a bigger crowd than any of the thirteen sitting presidents who have been to Fredericksburg did during their visits.


Fundraising for freedom: Chatham slave Ellen Mitchell buys herself (and her family)

From John Hennessy (The story of Ellen Mitchell was first discovered several years ago by then-park-intern Jim Broomall, now on the faculty at Virginia Tech.  Since Jim’s work, we have continued to add details to the story. What is presented here is a combination of Jim’s seminal work and that later research):

Something uncommon happened in Fredericksburg in the spring of 1859–something noted across the nation.

Ellen Mitchell, 27, was literate and, clearly, resourceful.  Born of a slave mother and a white father, “she has a brunette complexion, but her features bear no resemblance to those of colored persons,” a reporter wrote.  Her five children, ages 2-12 (Virginia, Horace, Josephine, John, and Martha) were “white,” conceived of a white father who, the Times reported, “has now deserted her, gone to California.”

Chatham in 1863, just four years after Ellen Mitchells departure.

At least through the 1850s (if not her entire life) she was owned by prosperous widow Hannah Coalter, the mistress of Chatham. When Hannah Coalter died in 1857, she sought to manumit her 92 slaves–in a fashion. She stipulated in her will that they could choose to immigrate Liberia or “any other free state or country in which they elect to live.”  If they chose to remain in Virginia, Coalter permitted them to select their preferred owner from “among my relations.”

Those “relations”–the heirs to the estate–challenged the will in court, seeking to overturn Coalter’s attempted emancipation by arguing that because slaves were property and not citizens, they had no legal ability to make decisions on freedom, bondage, or place of residence. The Virginia Supreme Appeals Court agreed (it was a significant decision in the pre-war evolution of law as it related to slavery).  The slaves of Hannah Coulter, including Ellen Mitchell, her 58-year-old mother Amelie Keating, and her “five white children” would not go free.

The new owner of Chatham, J. Horace Lacy, acquired most of the slaves from the Coalter estate–and so Ellen and her family would remain at Chatham, at least so it seemed. Ellen soon learned of Lacy’s plan to send slaves south to work on his plantation, “Boscobel,” near Monroe, Louisiana. The New York Times later reported that Ellen “peremptorily refused” to go and “Lacy, fearing the consequences, determined to sell her and her children.”

The laundry at Chatham. It seems likely that Ellen Mitchell, a lundress, worked in this building.

J. Horace Lacy was no newcomer to slavery, and certainly he had faced down defiance or resistance many times over. Exactly why he might have “feared the consequences” of keeping Mitchell and her children in his ownership is not clear (it seems unlikely a mother with five children would be a serious threat to run away or inflict violence). But, obviously, Ellen Mitchell had some leverage in this negotiation–indicative of the growing bargaining power of slaves as the institution sped toward its dissolution. In any event, Lacy decided to sell. Ellen Mitchell’s friends (we do not know whether they were black or white, or both) apparently advocated  that the young mother and children be sold to Fredericksburg slave trader George Aler (see here for more about Aler).

Perhaps Lacy sold Ellen Mitchell with conditions, or perhaps what happened next was at Aler’s discretion (though we do not know him for his enlightened thinking), but in late 1858 he agreed to allow Ellen Mitchell to fundraise for freedom–hers and her children’s. The deal:  if she could raise $1,000 and deliver it to Aler within three months, she could would thereby purchase her family’s freedom. He gave her permission, “simply on her word of honor,” to travel to the North to seek the funds.

Her journey began in March 1859, the clock ticking toward a March 30 deadline.  Continue reading

Shell Baby

From John Hennessy:

A little tidbit–a departure from our more serious tone of late.

The home of Hugh and Anne Scott at the corner of Prince Edward and Amelia--where "shell baby" was born

Shopkeeper Edward L. Heinichen has left one of the most vivid accounts of wartime Fredericksburg–including the best description of scenes in the streets on December 11, 1862. I have used his material in any number of programs, and in 2007 the memoir was published in full by Joe Rokus in the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust’s excellent  journal, Fredericksburg History and Biography.

During the bombardment on December 11, 1862, two civilians are known to have died: a slave killed huddling under her bed on or near Caroline Street and a teenager named Jacob Grotz, the son of one of the few Jewish shop owners in town. Of all this Heinichen remembered:

That, however, did not lessen the number of white people in town, for during that noisy day Mrs. Hugh Scott gave birth in her shell-riddled house to a little girl afterwards always going by the sobriquet of shell baby.”

It’s a delightful little story. But, is it true, and who was “shell baby?”

Hugh Scott, 50 in 1862, was perhaps Fredericksburg’s most prominent grocer, frequently advertising in local newspapers–a large stock of “groceries, guano, family flour, agricultural implements, etc.”  He lived with his wife Anne Clarkson Scott–22 years his junior–on the corner of Amelia and Prince Edward Street.

The census of 1870 shows a seven-year-old boy–not the girl suggested by Heinichen–in residence at the Scotts. Further digging turned up confirmation that the story of “shell baby” is based in fact.  On either December 11 or December 13, 1862, Anne Scott gave birth to a little boy, William S. Scott, who would grow to become the president of the Missouri & Illinois Coal Company.  A brief biography of him in the Centennial History of Missouri says he was “born at Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 13, 1862, on the day of the great battle of Fredericksburg, and buildings all around the Scott home were that day struck and torn by shells.”

William S. “Shell Baby” Scott.

A profound and ubiquitous image: slaves crossing the Rappahannock

From Hennessy (cross posted at Mysteries and Conundrums–in case some of you don’t get over there on a regular basis).  For an additional post related to this image, click here.

The image is captioned, “Fugitive Negroes fording the Rappahannock (during Pope’s retreat).” It is perhaps the most widely used of all Civil War photographs,simply because there is simply nothing else like it. The image appears in dozens of exhibits and publications that treat the subject of slaves seeking freedom–including some in the Fredericksburg region–and over the course of the Sesquicentennial, will surely appear many more times. But what do we know about the image?  What does is show?  Where and when was it taken? And is it really relevant to portraying the exodus of slaves to or with the Union army in the summer of 1862? (You can download and explore the image yourself here.) Continue reading

Fighting for Fredericksburg’s streets: marbles and cents and shooting hogs

From John Hennessy:

We have this idea that children are newly annoying–that in the good days, children behaved, watched their manners, and never engaged in untoward–God forbid even illegal–behavior.  Here’s some evidence that adults have always complained about the tendency of children not to follow the grown-ups’ rules. It appears in the Weekly Advertiser for January 29, 1859, under the title “Pitching Cents.”

There is an ordinance of the corporation forbidding this game in the streets, and yet it is done on Main street, almost daily, and actually in sight of the officers. The writer of this has several times stopped it in front of his door, not a long walk from the post office.

By far the best image of Fredericksburg's 19th century streets is this 1864 view of William Street between Charles and Princess Anne. By most accounts, the trash and debris seen here was typical even in peacetime. Town council fought a constant battle to keep the streets neat and clear.


The gambling that is still suffered to be carried on in our streets, is on the increase. On Hanover street, between Main [Caroline] and the African Church (on Sophia), crowds of boys, black and white, may be frequently seen though the week, especially on Sunday, to the annoyance of the quiet of this section of town.  We do earnestly hope that he officers will put a stop to this disgusting practice of pitching cents, and playing marbles, which is truly demoralizing.

Council also waged a persistent battle to keep Fredericksburg’s streets clear of hogs. In 1806 council indicated it would have all hogs wandering the streets shot. But the next year, perhaps sensing opportunity, council declared all hogs in the streets would be caught and resold. In 1814, councilmen reverted back to the shooting policy…until finally in 1832 council simply banned hogs in town altogether, though that did little to solve the problem. Several more times over the years council alternately threatened to shoot or sell stray hogs. But still the porkers wandered (though one hasn’t been seen on the streets in a while).

At other times, council passed laws preventing residents from building houses or fences in the streets (1809) and preventing residents from leaving dead animals on public thoroughfares.  But war changed their attitude. In 1862, council gave permission for the streets to be blocked in the construction of Confederate gunboats (none were ever completed here).

The 1861 scarlet fever epidemic–the worst human disaster in Fredericksburg’s history (excepting battles, of course)

From John Hennessy:

The graves of Evy and George Doswell, ages 2 and 5, who died within five days of each other in November 1861. Th

The hysteria that attends epidemics is nothing new. Over the decades, Fredericksburgers regularly faced down incoming waves of illness, though not without drama and excitement. In 1790 and again in 1792, the town stopped incoming ships at Hazel Run and established a temporary hospital at Sligo (next to what is today Dixon Park–a later Victorian house stands on the site now) in a successful effort to prevent smallpox from entering Fredericksburg. In late 1832 and early 1833, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera ravaged the east coast, and for months Fredericksburg’s newspapers nervously monitored the approach of the disease, which got as close as Richmond. The Virginia Herald repeatedly tried to assured distant readers that the town had not been infected and was open to visitors. Still, one resident reportedly became so panicked at the approach of the disease that he “whether from fright or actually contracting the disease” died. The cause of death was attributed to “accidental” or “sporadic” cholera.

Betty Herndon Maury, whose daughter Nannie Belle got scarlet fever in November 1861. She survived.

While the town dodged death in the 1790s and 1830s, it did not in late 1861 and early 1862, when an epidemic of scarlet fever ravaged Fredericksburg. Because by then the war was on, and newspapers from the period are scarce, the documentation of this epidemic is sketchy, but everything suggests that the plague was extensive and deadly, preying exclusively on children–taking, Jane Beale tells us, “at least one hundred in its dreadful course.” Proportionately, it may well have been the greatest human disaster to ever befall the residents of Fredericksburg [setting aside, of course, the battles].

[The epidemic was not confined to Fredericksburg. In Richmond, James Longstreet and his wife Maria Louisa lost three children to scarlet fever in January 1862, at the same time the sickness was raging in Fredericksburg.]

The sickness arrived in Fredericksburg in September, 1861, and the first known to die was Wilmer Hudson, 8, the son of schoolteacher John and Pamelia Hudson. The Hudsons would be the first to suffer, and they would suffer more than any household in Fredericksburg. In November Emma, 5, and son Auburn, 3, died 13 days apart, leaving the family with just one of their four children.  Through October and into November the sickness quickened its pace, spreading its deadly tendrils across town. Betty Herndon Maury’s daughter, Nannie Belle, took ill.  Betty wrote in her diary on November 18, at the peak of the epidemic, “Nannie Belle is still too sick for me to think of writing regularly in my diary.  The scarlet fever is an epidemic here now, and many children are dying every day from it.  I shall be so thankful if my little wee lamb is spared.”

She would be, but many others succumbed.  J. Temple Doswell and his wife Evelina lost five-year-old George on November 10. Just nine days later disaster again visited their house at the corner of Princess Anne and Lewis Streets when two-year-old Evy Doswell succumbed. 

Fredericksburg’s register of deaths records at least 39 deaths related to the epidemic–all but one of them children (the records are clearly incomplete, but certainly supportive of the idea that this was a disaster on a  huge scale for such a small town). The record of funerals at St. George’s gives us an additional two names.  The plague roared to its climax in December, claiming 38% of known victims. 

Continue reading

An 1865 Visit to Fredericksburg–Mary Washington, a school, and an orphan


Laura Smith Haviland


In September 1865, suffragist, reformer, and advocate for education for newly freed slaves Laura Smith Haviland visited Fredericksburg.  Her especial focus was on schools–especially schools for former slaves–and she spent time at a school for 181 white children operated by a Miss Strausburg (about whom I can learn nothing, and cannot pinpoint the location of her school). Her account provides a fairly vivid look at Fredericksburg just months after the end of the war. It was published in 1881, part of A Woman’s Life Work: Labors and Experiences of Laura S. Haviland.

On September 15, I took a steamer for Richmond, Virginia, and arrived on the 16th at Fredericksburg. Here were standing many chimneys, showing us the waste places and burned houses in this small but quaint old city. I called at the teachers’ boarding-house, kept by a good Union family, Wm. J. Jeffries [a Maryland-born shoemaker who lived at what is today 1104 Prince Edward Street–the house still stands]. Mrs. King accompanied me to the soldiers’ hospital. Here, as elsewhere, the poor suffering soldier seemed rejoiced to see and hear the representative of their mothers. After reading the Scripture and prayer I left a number in tears.

Here was the home of General Washington’s mother. I visited the house, and a feeling of solemnity came over me as we passed through her sitting room into the large bed-room, where report said she died. Nearby is her tomb. The pedestal only stands erect, but badly marred by the chisel in chipping off pieces, by hundreds of visitors. Our teachers inquired if I would not like a chip from the tomb. I told them that no chisel or hammer should be applied for me; but I picked up a little piece at its base. We had gone but few rods before a carriage drove to the tomb, and the chisel and hammer were flaking off keepsakes for four men. The long block of marble designed to have been placed on the pedestal lay near it half buried in the ground where it had lain nearly or quite a century.

After inspecting the rebel earth-works and rifle-pits, I visited Miss Strausburg’s school of 181 poor white children, quite unlike any colored school I had visited any where, as to order. They commenced to sneer at me the moment I entered, but their teacher invited me to speak to the school, and they became at once quiet and respectful. Little James Stone asked permission to sing for me, and he sang a religious hymn in which nearly all the school joined. To my surprise they sang the “Red, White and Blue” and “The Soldier’s Farewell to his Mother,” for which I thanked them. In passing along the street after the school was dismissed, many of the children came out with their mothers, pointing toward me. At two places I halted to speak to them and their mothers, which pleased them very much.


The Mary Washington Monument, which Haviland refused to vandalize, but availed herself of a piece anyway.



The next day I visited a few Union families, who gave some interesting facts concerning their trials. I left two dollars with one sick woman, who wept as I left her. I called at Major Johnson’s headquarters. He was very anxious to send on an orphan baby one year old to Camp Lee orphanage, in Richmond. He gave me a paper that would secure its admission. On arriving at Richmond I left my charge at the orphanage. As no name was on the paper, or was given to me with the child, the matron, Mrs. Gibbons, named him Haviland Gibbons.

Sophia Street–historic change and a look back

From John Hennessy:

The 700 block of Sophia Street today--the site of the new Riverside Park. Shiloh Old Site is in the distance.

Every town has such a street or neighborhood—the place where all else that doesn’t seem quite to fit resides, the place where constant change is the rule, and constancy seems elusive. Fredericksburg’s Sophia Street—especially below the Chatham Bridge—is such a place.  Known for decades as Water Street, its status as Fredericksburg’s “utility room” is rooted in its nearness to the river, which every few years rises to submerge sections of the street, rendering all in its path dubious, if not ruined.  The regular ebb and flow of water—along with every town’s need for utility space—rendered Sophia/Water Street what it was: a slightly awkward, sporadic mix of open space, modest houses and (below the bridge) tenements, with a sprinkling of warehouses, outhouses, an icehouse, and even a jail thrown in.  At its southern terminus sat the town docks.

Today the 500-900 blocks of Sophia Street are undergoing a historic change, as the city seeks to reconnect to the Rappahananock River waterfront. Below Chatham Bridge over the last six seven decades, buildings have come down periodically–some to make way for more parking, and more recently for a riverside park.  Parking areas now back up to the businesses on Caroline Street, rendering the west side of Sophia slightly disarranged. The changes going on now have the feel of permanence about them, which inspires a look backward. (Bear in mind that the most recent improvements on Sophia–the construction of Riverside Park–have not claimed buildings of historic import. The lost buildings discussed below were taken down more than a half-century ago).

The former sites of buildings on the east (river) side of Sophia Street.

By far the most prominent building on mid-Sophia Street was the original Fredericksburg Baptist Church.  When the white Baptists moved to the bigger, present present site on Princess Anne Street, they sold the original church to its African-American members.  The African Baptist Church became, after emancipation, Shiloh Baptist Church, and the congregation still exists on that site.

Sitting somewhat awkwardly next to the church was the community ice house, clearly visible in wartime images.

The African Baptist Church, and next to it the ground-level roof of the community ice house, owned in 1862 by A.P. Rowe.

Below the icehouse was a mix of tenements and single-family homes, steadily demolished over the years, mostly to make way for new parking in the 20th century. These sorts of working class houses have become increasingly rare in Fredericksburg (we’ll point out a few survivors in future posts).

719 Sophia Street, just below the African Baptist Church

The site of 719 today. Continue reading

The Women of Fredericksburg Mobilize

From John Hennessy:

 Just a week after the Virginia convention declared Virginia’s secession, the women of Fredericksburg started mobilizing in anticipation of impending war. Women of the town’s most powerful families convened a meeting to form the “Mutual Aid and Soldier’s Relief Society.” The Society was ready, they declared to “cut and make any garment they may require, and to furnish many articles requisite for the sick and wounded.  Orders may be left with any one of the Directresses, and shall be promptly executed.  The Society also request of all friendly to the cause they represent, Donations of Yarn, Woollen Socks, Flannel, Calico, old Linen, &c. which may be sent to any one of the directresses.”

This was not an unusual step on Southern towns, but the resolutions passed by the leading women of Fredericksburg in forming the new society are worth reading. They are a vivid look at both the spirit of an aroused community and the social status of women at the time.  The resolutions were published in the Fredericksburg News, April 24, 1861.

We, the ladies of Fredericksburg, Falmouth, and their vicinities, tho’ hitherto silent observers, have not been uninterested spectators of the condition of our State and Nation, we firmly believe the course pursued by Virginia has been ever true and just, alike honorable to herself and others–and whereas whilst acting as mediator, the Olive Branch has been forcibly wrenched from her hand, and War made inevitable.

We here resolve.  1st, Whilst we deeply deplore the sad necessity of war, we will…cheerfully submit to any privations our men or rulers may direct


Juliet Neale, a founding member of the Relief Society in Fredericksburg. She would later gain some fame for her work at the Confederate hospital at Belvoir, in Spotsylvania County. Image courtesy Fredericksburg Area Museum

2nd. We will deny ourselves as far as possible all the luxeries [sic] of dress and table that our men may expend more for the defence of our homes and liberties, and for the comfort of those who may be called to peril their lives for the same; and that we will labor with our hands for this end.

3rd.  That our ornaments of house and person shall not be withheld, if needed, to promote the interests of our State and Nation, but shall be freely given up, as we prefer like the matron of old, when asked for our jewels, to point to our sons.

4th.  We will from this day forth, purchase no article that is not grown, manufactured, or imported into some Southern State, or that is not now in the possession of our merchants, milliners, &c.

5th.  Should our aid as nurses be needed at the Camp or Hospitals of our gallant defenders, we will glory in showing that it is not in England alone a “Florence Nightingale” may be found.

6th.  A the interruption of all business in our Town may be productive of suffering to many, we request the Benevolent Society to organize immediately and report to us the wants and conditions of the poor and sick who may be sufferers from this cause.

7th.  On every Thursday afternoon at five o’clock prayer meetings will be held through out the Town at places appointed to invoke for our State and cause the aid of Him without whose blessing nothing can succeed or prosper, and for the preservation of our Husbands, Brother, and Sons.

8th.  We invite all the Ladies of our State to correspond and co-operate with us in all our labors of love for the promotion of the safety and comfort of those around us, and of those who may be called to fight the battles of our State.

9th.  That for the furtherance or our efforts and labors we organize a society.

While we know much about the society’s founding, we know little of its work as the war progressed–or even if it continued to meet.

The women who constituted the Society were generally the the partners of some of the most powerful men in town. All were among the approximately one-third of Fredericksburg households that owned slaves. Continue reading