Choices: Fredericksburg and the American Colonization Society

From John Hennessy:

To assist in the regeneration of one continent and the amelioration of another, are the noble ends before us.

– Report of the Fredericksburg Auxiliary, American Colonization Society, 1834

We like our history in contrasting bundles–Democrats and Republicans, secessionists or unionists, white and black, pro-slavery and anti-slavery, and so on.  But rarely are things so simple.

Virginian Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia, 1847

Fredericksburg was a slave town. In 1860, one-third of its population was enslaved. The domestic slave trade here was a significant industry–local newspapers routinely carried ads for the sale of slaves (we have written extensively about this here, here, here and elsewhere). Slave jails dotted the landscape, and slave coffles were a common sight in town. Town council passed laws in support of slavery and slaveowners. Slavery was a constant in the landscape, clearly part of Fredericksburg’s fabric.

But it does not follow that Fredericksburg was monolithic when it came to the issue of slavery. White residents did not always abide what we presume was conventional wisdom–the bland acceptance of slavery.  They did not always conform to our traditional understanding of Fredericksburg as a “slave society.” Rather Fredericksburgers were acutely aware of the intellectual and moral dilemma slavery presented, and each was well aware of the choices available to them in pre-war Virginia. Most chose to embrace slavery. Others acted on their instincts to ameliorate or mitigate the impact of slavery, both on slaves and on Fredericksburg society. (I have, incidentally, found little evidence of Fredericksburgers standing up to actively oppose slavery. Abolitionists were a rare, perhaps extinct presence.)

The major vehicle for those whose moral compasses compelled them to take action to improve the condition of slaves (without ending slavery) in Fredericksburg was the American Colonization Society. Continue reading

Nautical connections: Fredericksburg’s three legit naval heroes

A guest post from Russ Smith, Superintendent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP.

[ We are pleased to welcome Russ Smith to Fredericksburg Remembered. Russ has done extensive work on the Herndon Family over the last several years, and has thus encountered many things Naval in nature. He shares with us some of his observations about some of Fredericksburg’s nautical connections.]

Fredericksburg is fortunate that a wise and farsighted city government has strengthened the city’s ties to the Rappahannock River.  Like many river towns, 20th century Fredericksburg virtually turned its back on the river that once provided access to the world.  City Council has reversed that trend by embarking on projects to physically reconnect the community to the river.  As these changes take place, it is fitting to reconnect with Fredericksburg’s maritime heritage as well. 

Matthew Fontaine Maury

A particularly interesting epoch of that heritage took place in the mid-19th century with three Fredericksburg officers who gained national fame within years of each other.  Ironically, these naval heroes, Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873), William Lewis Herndon (1813-1857), and Neil McCoul Howison (1805-1848) are most recognized for the contributions they made on dry land, rather than the sea.   

It’s not surprising that young men in 19th century Fredericksburg should dream of going to sea.  Ocean-going ships may have given up on the painful slog up the Rappahannock River, but ships still made regular runs from the town to the major seaports of Baltimore and Norfolk.  Maritime activities still employed Fredericksburg residents.  The 1850 U.S. Census for Fredericksburg still listed 29 sailors, 1 Navy captain, 3 Navy lieutenants, plus 1 seaman and 1 boatman. Continue reading

The lower Caroline neighborhood fights against a slave jail

From John Hennessy (much of what follows is derived from in a short piece I did in the Journal of Fredericksburg History, published by HFFI):

The place is popularly and benignly known as the post-war home of Sue Chancellor, who, as a 14-year old, found herself and her family caught in the maelstrom of the Battle of Chancellorsville. After the war, she and her husband Vespasian Chancellor (her cousin—hence she experienced no change in her name with marriage) moved into 300 Caroline and lived there till her death in 1936.  For decades the home was widely known as the “Sue Chancellor House.”

Slaves waiting for sale.

But the house has an uncommon pedigree beyond Sue Chancellor’s residency there.  It has a brief, vivid connection to the slave trade.

In the 1830s, Mrs. Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford lived down the street with her husband William Matthews Blackford, at what is now 214 Caroline (Fredericksburg’s homes did not get fixed street addresses until the late 19th century).  Though the family would later contribute five sons to the Confederate cause, they were in fact social progressives, advocating education for slaves, colonization for freedmen and freewomen, and evincing discomfort with the institution, though they owned slaves themselves. For several years, Mrs. Blackford kept a journal, “Notes Illustrative of the Wrongs of Slavery.”  (Read an earlier post about Mary Minor Blackford here.)

In that undated journal, Blackford wrote that “there is within a few yards of our house…a tolerably large brick house owned by Judge Green,” noting that “the front and side of the building are on the street”—confirming that the house was on a corner lot. Continue reading

An important insight into slavery and emancipation

We don’t normally just refer you to other things here, but given how much we have have talked about slavery and freedom on Fredericksburg Remembered, we feel duty-bound to point you to Eric Mink’s latest post on Mysteries and Conundrums about an enslaved husband and wife at Fall Hill. The materials Eric turned up in Abraham Tuckson’s pension file (he was killed at the Crater in 1864) represent one of the clearer looks into the fabric of slavery in the late 1850s that we have.

The mystery of Mary Caldwell’s “Aspen Cottage”

Some evidence suggests that Mary Caldwell lived on Princess Anne Street.

From John Hennessy:

So far as we know, there are four surviving diaries of civilians that record some span of daily life in Fredericksburg during the Civil War. The best known is Jane Beale’s, which will be published anew in improved form by Historic Fredericksurg Foundation this spring. Beale was a teacher whose diary is rightly famous because of her oft-quoted account of being under fire on December 11, 1862 (though there is much more to it than that). Betty Herndon Maury’s diary has just been re-published in the latest issue of Fredericksburg History and Biography–the journal of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. Maury was the daughter of Matthew Fontaine Maury, an astute observer, and an eloquent Yankee-hater. Like Beale’s chronicle, Maury’s diary substantially covers only through late 1862.

Perhaps the best of all local diaries has yet to be published: the journal of Lizzie Alsop. Lizzie was the teenage daughter of Sarah and Joseph Alsop, who lived at what is today 1201 Princess Anne Street. Though she spent part of the war away at boarding school in Richmond, Lizzie’s is the most wide-ranging chronicle, offering vivid details about life under Union occupation, gossip about local residents, and even a primer in 19th century courting mores–Lizzie was the object of affection of many a Confederate officer, and left each of them wanting. She hated Yankees as passionately as she loved her nascent nation.

But there is fourth diary, little known and never published. Continue reading

The wound inflicted: Memorial Day, reconciliation, and a rebuke

From John Hennessy:

For fifteen years after the creation of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, local Memorial Day observances for the Union dead were commonly organized and led by Fredericksburg’s African-American community. Indeed, as Donald Pfanz has pointed out in his soon-to-be published history of the creation of the National Cemetery, in 1871 the Memorial Day ceremony included both black and white participants–a rare phenomenon that provoked rage in the local community. Years later, the Free Lance published a bitter remembrance of that day (the editorial in fact reveals more about white attitudes in 19th century Virginia than it does about the Memorial Day in question):

Some twenty years ago on the 30th of May, Decoration Day, a few colored people, a scattering crowd of men, women, and children, headed by a forlorn white man in the person of a postmaster or deputy collector of internal revenue, and preceded by a wheezy band of dilapidated instruments blown by unskilled players, use to straggle out to the National Cemetery and scatter a few faded flowers over the graves. The white people looked on in disgust and contempt, and many refused to give the small darkey flowers for the ceremony. It was a pitiful sight, an honor sought to be paid by those who scarcely knew what honor meant, to the dead, in a land that regarded them as occupying dishonorable graves.

Still, the efforts by the local Black community to commemorate continued unabated until 1884. That year, the quest for national reconciliation overawed local African-Americans’ determination to honor and remember the Union dead. The episode is Blight’s Race and Reunion in microcosm–a vivid example of how the desire for reconciliation apparently helped separate African-Americans (indeed all Americans) from the emancipationist legacy of the war. Continue reading

Fredericksburg mobilizes for a new war–1941

From John Hennessy:

Caroline Street before WWII. Goolrick's Pharmacy is at right. Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

Seventy years ago this month, Fredericksburg, like the rest of America, was mobilizing for war.  There was little in Fredericksburg’s experience to distinguish it from thousands of other towns across America, but still the rather frantic arousal that followed Pearl Harbor offers up some interesting tidbits about how World War II would reverberate across the American landscape.

On the evening of December 12, 1941, the military call—666—sounded on the city’s fire alarm system, summoning the Virginia Protective Force. The Fredericksburg battalion of the VPF, commanded by former WWI pilot Captain Josiah P. Rowe, had been mustered in March 1941. It numbered sixty men, and since March had been drilling weekly for precisely a moment like this–when they would “provide a force of trained men to render protective service in an emergency during absence of the National Guard on active duty.” That December evening they hurried from across the city, assembled, and received orders to protect Fredericksburg’s strategically important landmarks: the Embrey Dam above Falmouth, the Chatham Bridge, and, most importantly, the Route 1 bridge over the Rappahannock at Falmouth.

The most important strategic asset in Fredericksburg--the Route 1 Bridge at Falmouth, under guard by the Virginia Protective Force in December 1941 or early 1942. Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

Of those landmarks, the only one that would receive extended attention was the Falmouth Bridge, which would be guarded 24/7 for many weeks. The VPF strung lights beneath the bridge to illuminate the work of any would-be saboteurs. One man constantly patrolled the span, while two kept watch from below. For a time, the soldiers stopped and inspected every car that crossed the bridge (traffic would be backed up for 20 miles if that happened today), but even in 1941 and 1942 that proved impractical. Continue reading

A lynching foiled in Fredericksburg–1904

From John Hennessy:

There are few images calculated to unsettle modern Americans more than those that emerged from the spate of lynchings that plagued the nation in the six decades after the Civil War: rogue mobs, often with the implicit approval of local law enforcement, seeking vengeance on those (usually though not always black) convicted or even suspected of crimes deemed especially offensive. This was the fate of Culpeper resident Allie Thompson, charged (possibly falsely) with sexual assault on a white woman in 1918. Local white men dared not risk a trial, and on November 24, broke into the Culpeper jail, hauled him three miles outside town, and hung him from a tree.  I am unaware of any lynching closer to Fredericksburg than Thompson–to my knowledge, none occurred in Fredericksburg, Stafford, or Spotsylvania.  That, however, was not for a lack of trying.

In November 16, 1904, a “mulatto” man named Charles H. Blandford of Spotsylvania, wanted for an unspecified “serious” crime, was identified by residents on the streets of Fredericksburg. One of them brought him down with a brick to the head. Blandford was arrested and hauled off to the jail behind the Circuit Courthouse, along what has long been known as “Jail Alley.”  The local newspapers for some reason did not report the nature of his crime, but whatever it was, it charged elements within the local community. That very afternoon there was talk around town of breaking Blandford out of jail and imposing some street justice upon him.

Local law enforcement heard the rumors, and police sergeant J.Conway Chichester remained watchful at the jail until 1 a.m. Sensing that the threat had passed, Chichester finally went home. But, someone was watching, and soon after Chichester departed, a group of “40 to 50 men” emerged from the shadows, armed with crowbars and rope, extinguished the gas lamp in the alley, and got to work. Continue reading