From John Hennessy:

I have been working this week on my talk for this weekend’s Years of Anguish program at the Baptist Church (you can find more about the event here–excuse the flippant title accorded the piece by the newspaper). My task is to track Fredericksburg’s and Spotsylvania’s slide toward secession. The preparation for special programs like this is always intense, but the payoff is learning much that is new–and getting to plow through primary source material rather than the very important government work waiting on my desk.

"Beaumont," the home of George Guest and his wife Mary Eliza Bernard Guest, torn down in the 1980s

I’ve done dozens of programs over the years, but whenever I touch on the civilian story related to Fredericksburg, I keep finding myself coming back again and again to Rebecca Campbell Light’s compilation of the letters and diaries of the Bernard sisters, War at Our Doors. Marriage scattered the sisters across the Rappahannock Valley during the war, from Culpeper to Fredericksburg to Port Royal, but many of the passages relate Fredericksburg’s condition at critical times of the war. The local seat for the Bernard sisters was a home called Beaumont (later Altoona–above), located on what is today Route 3, just short of I-95–on the site of the Burlington Coat Factory.  The house was torn down in the 1980s. Mary Bernard married Englishman George Guest, and during the war frequently hosted visits from her sister Helen Struan Bernard.

Helen’s writings constitute some of the most lyrical,moody expressions available to us–they convey a powerful sense of time and place. Take this quote, which I will use in my talk this weekend.  It was written on April 21, 1861, in Port Royal (fifteen miles downstream from Fredericksburg) just four days after the Virginia convention passed the ordinance of secession.

…All has been quiet & pleasant enough but abroad we hear nothing but war & tumult, the greatest excitement prevailing throughout the whole length and breadth of the land, troops collecting from all points and the dreadful fact forcing upon our minds that Civil War, with all its untold horrors, is actually at our doors…..Rumours come & and are contradicted & followed by others in such rapid succession that I know not what to believe. We talk of war, but we know not what it is.  It has been heretofore all a myth to us in this happy land, a thing belonging entirely for the books & far off countrys. I shudder to think the sad experience we may have gained before another year has passed.

If you haven’t read it, you should.  Very good stuff.  Rebecca’s next book about the Wells family of Fredericksburg, Between Two Armies, will be published next year, to be followed by yet another compilation of source material focused on the Hamilton family of Hamilton’s Crossing fame. She is rapidly becoming the maven of civilian source material related to the Civil War hereabouts.

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