Posted by: Mysteries&Conundrums | December 15, 2010

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.

Mrs. Temple was almost certainly Elizabeth Temple of Beauclaire Plantation, off Harrison Road in Spotsylvania County (click here for more on the destinations of Fredericksburg’s refugees). We know from Jane Beale’s diary that she concluded her dramatic flight from town on December 11, 1862, by arriving at the Temples. In her diary she describes it thus:

….when we drove up to the door the family rushed out and my dear friend Mrs. Temple carried me into the house almost in her arms, weeping as she went, at the idea of the dreadful peril to which we had been exposed all day. She gave up her most comfortable room for our accommodation and in a nice old-fashioned easy chair, before a blazing wood fire with my children around me….

Beale's diary, entry for December 12, 1862. Fredericksburg Area Museum. Click to enlarge.

It’s difficult not to believe that the letter quoted by Dora Chinn Jett was written by Jane Beale. Which begs a question: where and how did Jett get access to them when she wrote her book in 1924? (Jett was from Falmouth, but she lived for a time in the 1880s in Fredericksburg at 1015 Charles Street, just a block away from Jane Beale’s house.)  Where are Jane Beale’s letters today?

It’s a good mystery. If any of you might want to take on helping to find the answer, let us know. We would hope that with the letters might be an image of Jane Beale, for as of this moment none is known to exist. We’ll be working on this. If any of you have knowledge or thoughts…or can pass this along to someone who does…that would be very much appreciated.

By the way, the original of Jane Beale’s diary is on permanent display at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, which has become a very good regional history museum with new exhibits and some great programs.  Check it out.


  1. Coincidentally, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust (CVBT) has undertaken the publication of another famous Fredericksburg female diarist: Betty Herndon Maury. This wartime diary, originally published in 1938, appears in Richard B. Harwell’s bibliography, “In Tall Cotton: The 200 Most Important Confederate Books for the Reader, Researcher, and Collector” (1978). The 1938 publication, limited to 25 copies, is exceedingly rare and coveted by bibliophiles. We are indeed fortunate that these women, and others, left their detailed accounts of wartime Fredericksburg. And thanks to organizations like CVBT and HFFI, these wonderful journals are made readily available to the public.

    • Jerry’s: Betty’s diary is in some ways superior to Jane Beale’s, but Betty was not in town during the battle, which means hers has gotten less attention. Lizzie Alsop’s fabulous diary is also now being edited by a fellow in Richmond. Only one other diary remains that I know of: Mary Caldwell’s, which has some important passages, but is not as important as the others, save for the fact that hers is the only one that covers the late war period. I wonder what else is out there….

      John H.

  2. John:
    Dora Jett, in 1924, could have read the (Jane Beale letter) passage in
    Robert Reid Howison’s “Fredericksburg: Past, Present and Future,” published in Fredericksburg in 1898 (Williard Adams, Pub.). RRR included the same passage …”When Mrs. Temple…” in a lengthy excerpt of a (Jane Beale) letter to her son:
    RRR wrote “The scenes of terror and danger passing in the town were pictured in a letter from a lady to her son in the army. She had remained until the bombardment. She wrote:
    “Our lives are all spared…..”
    RRR was Jane Beale’s brother, and may have have gained access to her letter(s)through Beale/Howison family members after her death.

    • Robert Reid Howison = RRH (not RRR).

    • Thanks for that information, Rebecca. We have some leads with the Howison/Beale clan that we will follow up and see if anything develops…..

  3. Where does one acquire a copy of these diaries?

    • Sarah: The diary of Jane Beale is about to be republished by the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation. We will surely make note of its availability on here. I am told it goes for printing this week, and should be back a few weeks following. I’ll let you know. John H.

  4. Wouldn’t the “Mrs. Temple” mentioned in Jane Beale’s Diary, who greeted her at the door, have been Mrs. Lucy Lilly Robinson Temple? I believe she lived at Berclair during the Civil War. If I’m incorrect, who would the “Elizabeth Temple” have been? I know Ben Temple’s mother was Elizabeth Skyrin Temple but I don’t know that she was alive at that time. Ben and Lucy’s first child was named Elizabeth but died within one year of birth.
    Thank you!

    Evelyn Heath

  5. I have so enjoyed the WAR AT OUR DOORS by Ms. Light and would like to know if any details have come to life about events in the sisters’ lives? I am especially interested in their friendship with Colonel John Pelham. Are there other details in existing letters or anywhere not published about their reaction to his death in March, 1863? I know there were lapses in the journal, but I am just curious about this omission. I additionally researched and found photos of other plantation houses mentioned in the diary. I thank all of you in Fredricksburg and vicinity for your fine work in preserving such marvelous historic sites. Please inform me where I can purchase the diaries being reprinted.I am delighted to say that I have the Jane Howison Beale journal, published in 1979. Wasn’t this family conspicuous in the movie GODS AND GENERALS?
    Thank you for your time and patience in listening to an avid diary collector and reader.
    Carol May, Mobile, AL

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