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:
As in the writings of the chronicler of another great river, these vessels and others like them offered stages upon which the Potomac’s Hucks and Jims, its cub pilots, omnipotent captains, and flamboyant raftsmen, could perform. Wallis selected from the Aquia-bound passengers a sampler of the infinite variety of additional actors: a clergyman (below left) and, below right, a “white seaman” and a “col[ore]d. man”:
At voyage’s end, at Aquia, the Englishman turned his gaze back northward and sketched the view along the Potomac, with the Maryland shore at right and the tip of Brent’s Point and the Widewater Peninsula, on the Virginia (Stafford County) shore, at left:
It’s easy to understand this picture, with its lazy sails in the distance, as epitomizing an idyll dispelled in 1861. Yet the same stretch of water had long hosted an ongoing conflict between slavery and freedom. (See last three paragraphs here for an example from 1775.)
Prior to the spring of 1862, when the current of outcomes at Aquia began shifting dramatically in favor of freedom, most of the losses in the conflict were sustained by enslaved people, with notable but rare exceptions such as Henry “Box” Brown’s incredible journey out of slavery, through Fredericksburg and Aquia Landing, and up the Potomac in 1849.
In 1853, the very same year that Wallis made his sketches, Solomon Northup, an African-American from New York and the father of three, published a book about his kidnapping and enslavement.
Northup’s classic account, Twelve Years a Slave, included a descripton of his first journey as a captive. The initial stage of this trip bore him from Washington to Aquia Landing in a Potomac steamboat in the spring of 1841, en route to Fredericksburg and points south. The scenery that greeted him, Northup later wrote, encouraged a mindset with which he confirmed the dire nature of his predicament, steadied his morale, and began planning his escape:
Reaching the steamboat, we were quickly hustled into the hold, among barrels and boxes of freight….
None of us slept that night but Randall and little Emmy. For the first time Clem Ray was wholly overcome. To him the idea of going south was terrible in the extreme. He was leaving the friends and associations of his youth—every thing that was dear and precious to his heart—in all probability never to return. He and Eliza mingled their tears together, bemoaning their cruel fate. For my own part, difficult as it was, I endeavored to keep up my spirits. I resolved in my mind a hundred plans of escape, and fully determined to make the attempt the first desperate chance that offered. I had by this time become satisfied, however, that my true policy was to say nothing further on the subject of my having been born a freeman. It would but expose me to mal-treatment, and diminish the chances of liberation.
After sunrise in the morning we were called up on deck…. A mulatto woman who served at table seemed to take an interest in our behalf—told us to cheer up, and not to be so cast down. Breakfast over, the hand-cuffs were restored, and Burch [the slave-trader] ordered us out on the stern deck. “We sat down together on some boxes, still saying nothing in Burch’s presence. Occasionally a passenger would walk out to where we were, look at us for a while, then silently return.
It was a very pleasant morning. The fields along the river were covered with verdure, far in advance of what I had been accustomed to see at that season of the year. The sun shone out warmly; the birds were singing in the trees. The happy birds—I envied them. I wished for wings like them, that I might cleave the air to where my birdlings waited vainly for their father’s coming, in the cooler region of the North.
In the forenoon the steamer reached Aquia Creek. There the passengers took stages—Burch and his five slaves occupying one exclusively.
(They boarded stagecoaches, rather than a train, because the Aquia-Fredericksburg segment of the railroad was not opened until 1842, as noted above.)
Noel G. Harrison