Down the Potomac to Aquia and Stafford County: Unique Glimpses of Antebellum Life on the River

from: Harrison

The ship-to-shore fighting at Aquia Landing in late May and early June 1861 noisily raised the curtain on a new genre of literature featuring that place and other locales in the Fredericksubrg area: accounts of life within and between two contending militaries.

These wartime diaries, letters, and reports, and the postwar reminiscences that followed, overshadowed a subtler but still intriguing genre focusing on prewar life, which itself had not lacked for contention and conflict.

At one place in particular, antebellum life acquired a scenic, contemplative backdrop as it flowed along one of the the busiest corridors in Virginia:  the railroad that opened from Richmond to Fredericksburg in 1837, and in 1842 from Fredericksburg to Aquia Landing. When northbound passengers reached the railroad terminus at Aquia and transferred to steamboats for the next stage of their journey, to Washington and railroad connections to points beyond, they made a sudden transition from confining, monotonous views of scrubby woodlands bordering the tracks to broad vistas of the Potomac River. Since the eighteen-teens, Potomac steamboats had been carrying passengers to and from Alexandria, Washington, and various landings in the Fredericksburg area.

While my knowledge of the literature on antebellum Potomac life is not sufficient for me to nominate its ideal eyewitness writer, I am able to recommend, highly, at least one eyewitness illustrator. On a June day in 1853, a British artist and curator named George Wallis voyaged from Washington down the Potomac to Aquia Landing, where he would board a train that carried him through Fredericksburg to Richmond. Wallis was in the midst of what ultimately became a 5,000-mile tour, tasked by his government with evaluating American art and manufactures.

Thanks to the generosity of a descendant, part of Wallis’ portfolio today resides at the Library of Congress.

In the course his journey down the Potomac, on June 26, 1853, Wallis sketched a steamboat:

blog Wallis a 2 final
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The Interpretive Value of Different Perspectives

From John Hennessy. This is a reposting of the most popular post ever on Fredericksburg Remembered–it originally appeared on July 9, 2010 and received more than 2,000 reads in a matter of days. There’s no figuring what catches on……

Beaumont, Helen Bernard's occasional residence on the site of what is today the Burlington Coat Factory on Route 3 near I-95.

Let me share with you two narratives reflecting on the same moment in history: the arrival of the Union army opposite Fredericksburg on April 18, 1862.  The first is an account written by Helen Bernard, a white resident who lived just outside town (from Rebecca Campbell Light’s excellent War at Our Doors.).

Beaumont, Spotsylvania County.  Good Friday, 1862. I write while the smoke of the burning bridges, depot, & boats, is resting like a heavy cloud all around the horizons towards Fredcksbg. The enemy are in possession of Falmouth, our force on this side too weak to resist them…. We are not at all frightened but stunned & bewildered waiting for the end. Will they shell Fbg., will our homes on the river be all destroyed? …. It is heartsickening to think of having our beautiful valley that we have so loved and admired all overrun & desolated by our bitter enemies, whose sole object is to subjugate & plunder the South…..

Every word in that account is vivid and valid.  It is a powerful description of what the arrival of the Union army meant to most white residents in Fredericksburg.  It also reflects what has over the decades been our traditional understanding of the event hereabouts.

But here’s another description of precisely the same moment in time, written by another Fredericksburger, the slave John Washington.

April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quiet…until every body Was Startled by Several reports of [Yankee] cannon…. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. [But] every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees, for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen.   I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt…like I Was certain of My freedom now.

Same event, powerfully described, but totally different in meaning to each writer.

I offer these up not as matters of history, but as matters of interpretation–the value and richness of differing perspectives.

Next:  Are we historians or memorialists?

At Mysteries and Conundrums: Precursor to Brooklyn–The Mystery of Washington Roebling’s Wire Bridge in Fredericksburg.

The Irony of John Washington’s Childhood Christmas

From John Hennessy:

Fredericksburg slave John Washington spent the first years of his life hired out (with his mother and siblings) to a farmer in Orange County. In his memoir, he remembered Christmases there.

At Christmas time the Slaves were furnished with their new cloths Hats or caps Boots and shoes.  From the oldest to the little children they would be summoned to the “Great House” as they called it (the owners) and each man and woman would receive their Christmas gifts namely Flour, Sugar, whiskey, Molases etc. according to the number in the family and they would go their cabins and for the next six days have a holiday and make thing lively with egg nogg, opossum, Rabbit coon and Everything of the kind.

On its face, this description bespeaks of good treatment, even happiness.  Indeed, at no point in Washington’s memoir does he describe physical abuse or rebellion. Frequently, fond memories tinge his narrative. In fact, when amidst war he was forced to leave Fredericksburg for the final time–the place where he was enslaved for most of his first 24 years of life–he admits that he cried.

John Washington, early 1870s.

It is an easy thing to shop John Washington’s memoir–or the historical record as it relates to slavery–and pluck out passages that would allow the uninquisitive to conclude that slavery wasn’t such a bad thing (people do that regularly.)  But to do that with Washington or slavery at large requires the complete ignorance of context:

– State law forbade John Washington from attending school, from learning to read and write.

– John Washington’s birth was not recorded. His marriage in 1862 was not recognized legally. And, had he died in slavery (he did not), his death would not have been recorded. In fact, it’s likely his name would not have appeared anywhere, except as it related to his value on the open market at the time of a change of ownership.

– Once married, he could not visit his wife without permission.

– Town law required him to move off the sidewalk when a white person approached.

– Had he  been emancipated, state law required him to leave the state of Virginia within one year (leaving behind family members in the process).

– Prior to 1855 (when the African Baptist Church came into being), John Washington was required to sit with all other slaves in the balconies. The floor of the church was reserved solely for white congregants.

– After 1831, gatherings of all African Americans (including at church) had to be supervised by a white man.

– Town law forbade John Washington from being on the street at night or on Sundays in order to “preserve the good order of the town.”

– When his grandmother committed some transgression in the 1820s, her owner was able to hire a man in town for $1.34 to whip her. The punishment of slaves helped support a small industry of trade and punishment entirely dependent upon the institution.

– From at least the 1820s on, the town had at least one man whose primary business was the buying and selling of human beings; the sale of slaves was a regular occurrence in Fredericksburg, with its attendant destruction of families and communities.

– If John Washington ran away, not only would he have to contend with local slave patrols intent on preventing his escape, he would also have to circumvent the power of federal law, which likewise mandated his capture and return to bondage.

Slavery was more than the relationship between master and slave. Beyond the master stood the authority of government (national, state, and local), which imposed control, denied freedom, and ensured that slaves remained largely nameless and silent.

The great power of John Washington’s narrative is in its description of his struggle against the constant drumbeat of dehumanization. His is a constant quest for freedom within the bonds of slavery–for time and space, for choice and initiative. That he did not run away bespeaks not of happiness. That he did not rise in violent rebellion does not imply contentedness. Rather, his choice to endure slavery in anticipation of a brighter day was a reflection of the heaviness of the bonds that held him. His determination to wring what joy he could from life despite his condition is a testament to the human instinct (possessed by Washington in huge measure) to find joy and happiness wherever and whenever we can, no matter the circumstances.

Indeed, most slaves found joy where they could–with family, in song, in faith, or in slight bits of extra time or space to be more free. But to suggest, as many still do, that slaves who were occasionally happy were “happy” as slaves  is to betray a misunderstanding of both history and humanity. If you doubt that, read John Washington. He clearly loved life–and found joy wherever he could, including and perhaps especially at Christmastime.  But just as clearly he abhorred slavery. The distinction between the two is worth noting, both as historians and people of conscience.

Merry Christmas.

The false dignity of historical memory

From John Hennessy:

Kevin Levin has an interesting post today over at Civil War Memory, asking whether or not, really, the American public is divided in its perceptions of the American Civil War. His is a thoughtful, provocative forum, well worth reading.

On a separate note, few things have reshaped our understanding of the Civil War and its place in American culture more than the emergence of “memory studies” over the last 25 years. In the business of public history, nothing is more important than understanding how the public’s perceptions of history have evolved and come to be what they are. Public memory as a lens through which to understand the perceptions of our forebears is very useful thing.

But, it seems to me that viewing memory retrospectively and viewing it in the present are two different things. Have we gotten ourselves into a place where we accord misplaced dignity to bad history practiced in the present by referring to it as “memory?”

Increments: pieces of history that matter

From John Hennessy:

One of the great dilemmas that face public historians–especially on battlefields–is detail. How much do we tell? How detailed should we be? I’d suggest that details are useless unless directly connected to a larger point. An avalanche of detail is the great enemy of battlefield interpretation, so far as the general public is concerned.

Maybe the most famous increment of all: the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, where thousands fell trying to seize or defend this nondescript ridgeline.

But, there are times when detail is the ONLY way to make something meaningful…and in that vein, I would throw this out:

Men come to the field of battle for a cause.  They often understand the cause imperfectly or simplistically, but still commit with all their might, ready to give their lives.  Achieving that cause—be it suppression of a rebellion, reunification of a divided nation, freedom for slaves, defense of a home, or independence—is a process of increments. Soldiers of the Civil War came to know that their efforts on a given day would not sweep away a rebellion, secure independence, or guarantee freedom. Rather, they came to know, sometimes painfully, that all they could do was succeed in the one tiny increment assigned to them.

Sometimes their task on a battlefield entailed gaining or defending just a few feet of farmland. Sometimes it involved buying, with blood and toil, nothing more tangible than time—time enough to allow others to do something more substantial.  The men knew this and usually acted without hesitation, confident that even though they may not have understood the “why” of their assignment, their commanders did.  And so, men often hurled themselves into places or attempted to do things that in retrospect seem insane (especially at Fredericksburg) or awe inspiring—and sometimes both.

Today, these sometimes small, often violent increments of history find expression only in the places where they happened. The idea that the wave of a general’s arm or a single sentence could instantly redefine a place–a ridge top, a river crossing, an earthwork, or a fenceline fifteen feet in front–to be worthy of an individual soldier’s complete bodily sacrifice is, when you think about it, a remarkable act of faith. Continue reading

A mystery: the letters of Jane Beale

From John Hennessy:

The entrance to Jane Beale's house on Lewis Street in Fredericksburg.

The Historic Fredericksburg Foundation is about to republish Jane Beale’s outstanding diary–one of the best contemporary chronicles of life in Fredericksburg during the first two years of the Civil War. Beale’s diary is most frequently quoted for its intense, dramatic description of her experience in December 1862, when she and her family fled town under fire to find refuge at Beauclaire Plantation. But maybe its most useful passages deal with the Union occupation of 1862 and, especially, Fredericksburg’s painful (for white residents) transition into a life without slavery.

While working on the introduction to the Jane Beale volume (along with Barbara Willis), I came across a passage in Dora Chinn Jett’s In Tidewater Virginia (page 41) that spoke of Fredericksburg’s refugees.

To those of us who have left peaceful firesides, with love, and family and friends around, the voice of this great-throated chimney spells cheer and peace and abounding good will. But to a mother brought face to face with this cheerful scene, after the horrors of that deluge of shot and shell, in the battle of Fredericksburg, it meant all that, and much more.

She wrote thus to her son: “When Mrs. Temple met us in the yard with her warm cordial welcome and led us into the right, cheerful-looking room, where a good fire was blazing, and kind, sympathizing friends were all around…and when we lay down in comfortable beds, far away from the sight and sound of battle, we felt indeed that, after all, we were dealt with by a kind Father. Continue reading

The ordeal of Fredericksburg’s refugees–a powerful account

From John Hennessy:

I write this at 1:34 p.m. on December 11.  One hundred and forty-eight years ago this moment, the town of Fredericksburg was under furious bombardment by the Union army. While many civilians had left in the previous weeks, some of them had returned prior to December 11, thinking that the feared battle would not in fact come off.  Jane Beale and her family were among these.  When the bombardment started that day, Mrs. Beale took her children and slaves to the basement of her house on Lewis Street.  After a brief lull at 1 p.m., the firing intensified again. Beale wrote in her diary:

…The sound of 173 guns echoed in our ears, the shrieking of those shells, like a host of angry fiends rushing through the air, the crashing of the balls through the floor and upper stories of the house, I shall never forget to the day of my death, the agony and terror of the next four hours, is burnt into my memory with a hot iron. I could not pray, but only cry for mercy. 

When the firing subsided hours later, Beale and many other trapped residents made their escape. Throughout the night and into the next morning hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, refugees streamed out the roads leading south and west from Fredericksburg.  A Confederate soldier from Georgia, writing the next day (December 12), left one of the very best descriptions.  Continue reading

Fredericksburg’s Battle Anniversary: An Invitation…and Some Rare Pictures

from: Harrison

This weekend marks the 148th anniversary of the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, specifically of its first two days. The commemoration includes an opportunity to tour the battlefield in an evocative, candlelit atmosphere and, the next day, understand the 1862 fighting and its later remembering, through the words of historian Frank A. O’Reilly, its foremost scholar. These events are free to the public:

December 11 (Saturday): Join National Park Service historians for a “Candlelit tour of the Sunken Road” on the Fredericksburg battlefield. The program will focus on how the people who lived along and fought in the Sunken Road confronted life-changing decisions, from secession to the life-and-death struggle on December 13, 1862. Three identical tours will begin at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, 6:00 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 7:00 p.m.

December 12 (Sunday): Join National Park Service historian Frank O’Reilly for a tour of “Clear the Way! In the Footsteps of the Irish Brigade.” Frank, accompanied by reenactors of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, will lead a tour-tour walking tour that follows the route of attack of the Federal Irish Brigade through the streets of Fredericksburg and across the Bloody Plain below Marye’s Heights.

Frank’s tour begins at 12:00 p.m. at the Fredericksburg City Dock, located at the end of Sophia Street, and concludes at 2:00 p.m. at the Kirkland Memorial.

Immediately following the Irish Brigade tour on Sunday December 12th, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will hold its annual commemoration ceremony at the Kirkland Memorial, located on Sunken Road a block north of the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. Frank O’Reilly, who is also author of The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, will then present the keynote address, “Remembering the Battle of Fredericksburg after 148 Years,” for this year’s ceremony. In addition to his remarks, the event will include color guards, living history soldiers, the laying of wreaths at the monument by various, history related organizations, and the playing of taps.

(For further information or in the event of inclement weather, call 373-6122.)

Speaking of evocative, the vast Civil War output of special artist Alfred R. Waud (pronounced “Wood”) includes this sketch of Fredericksburg during the December battle. The appearance of the sketch on this blog may represent its first-ever publication despite its status, at least in my opinion, as one of the most powerful artworks in Waud’s entire portfolio:

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The tangled web of personal motivation and national purpose–a challenge for public historians

From John Hennessy:

It is one of the most interesting of all conundrums presented to public historians working at a Civil War site: a visitor comes in and asserts his understanding of the war based on family history: “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. My great-great grandfather didn’t own slaves—he sure as hell didn’t fight to preserve slavery. He fought to defend his home, the way of life of his community and state. You are wrong to tell people the war was about slavery.”

An exchange (or rather soliloquy) like this is probably a weekly occurrence at a Civil War park. It reflects one of the biggest challenges of our business: interpreting an event in which visitors are often highly invested and possessed of information that reflects generations of conventional wisdom.  Add to that the work of constituent groups (does any other period of history beyond our memory have active constituent groups?) committed to affirming a certain memory of the war, and we are left with a tangled mosh of history and memory that makes our jobs both more difficult and interesting.

This visitor’s soliloquy highlights one of the salient facts about the Civil War’s place in American culture: in no other era of American history have we as a nation permitted the personal motivations of soldiers (often imperfectly remembered or revised over time) to define in the public’s mind the cause and purpose of war. Continue reading

Joy and sorrow: the state of the war in Fredericksburg, 1863–a letter from Jennie Goolrick

From John Hennessy:

Here is a little item that constitutes one of the more useful and descriptive letters written from Fredericksburg by a civilian. It is a letter from Virginia (Jennie) Goolrick, the daughter of Peter Goolrick–an Irish-born entrepreneur who was in many respects the most active entrepreneur in Fredericksburg. The Goolricks lived at the corner of Hanover and Caroline Streets–the buildings that today house Irish Eyes and the Griffin bookshop.

By the time Jennie wrote this letter, Fredericksburg had been occupied twice by the Union army, subject to bombardment and looting, and quarters for occupying Confederate troops.  September 1863 was a period of calm and reflection. Jennie’s letter, though short, is the best testament of conditions and morale in the town in the second half of 1863.

September 4, 1863

Mr. Winn.  . . .

My life since the beginning of the war has been very much chequered – one day a heart overflowing with joy, the next full of sorrow. One day feeling quite secure in my old home, then perhaps the next all hurry, bustle & confusion in preparing for refugee life – so much so that I never feel settled anywhere for any length of time .

. . . We have many friends to see and as our acquaintance in the army is by no means limited owing to the presence of so many soldiers in & near the old burg since the very commencement of the war. Two regiments on picket only on the river just at Fredericksburg – as both have bands of music we are well supplied with that article – in the afternoon it is quite fashionable to visit headquarters where a crowd can be seen & sweet music enjoyed . . .

The town suffered a great deal from the bombardment, but more from the sacking & occupation as barracks. I am happy to say we fared better than most – only one bomb that passed through the roof of the back porch & although the house was robbed of many valuables we saved most of the furniture by moving. We find it impossible to keep servants this close to the border, so during the war we get along with as few as possible – some of the most useful having already bade the Confederacy adieu. I cannot possibly attempt a description of the Yankee occupation – the newspaper correspondents can’t do the subject justice and of course I ought not to think about it . . . .

Your sincere friend, Jennie G.

The original of this letter is in the Bidgood Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society.