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.

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