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. It came to our hands about eighteen months ago, thanks to Dr. Keith Littlefield–whose intensive work on the economic development of Fredericksburg constitutes one of the few truly scholarly forays into Fredericksburg’s 19th century history. Mary Caldwell’s diary begins in March 1863 and continues beyond the end of the war, offering a rhythmic recounting of life in Fredericksburg during the last two years of the Civil War. Like Lizzie Alsop, Mary Caldwell was a teenager, priming herself to become a teacher. She was an untiring and unwavering Confederate and a fervent hater of Yankees. Reading her diary, it’s hard not to conclude that she was a cold-hearted soul, stomping on suitors’ hearts and tingeing her prose with malevolence–much of it directed at Yankees, African-Americans, and even Virginia soldiers (she held a warm place in her heart for Mississippians, the principal protectors of town in early 1863, and in her eyes Virginia soldiers paled in comparison). While Mary Caldwell’s diary does not possess the richness of Beale’s, Alsop’s, or Maury’s, it does include some important, vivid passages. Moreover, it is our only consistent chronicle of Fredericksburg during the last two years of the war.  Update:  Jerry Brent shares that Mary’s diary will be published in the next edition of the CVBT journal Fredericksburg History and Biography

In May 1864, Mary described Union ambulances packed in the road around the Fairgrounds, on the left of this image. Was this view similar to the one Mary had from her back window?

Here, though, is the mystery. Where did Mary Caldwell live? Her father, Richard, was a clerk and the brother of former mayor John S. Caldwell, of lower Caroline Street.  Despite the prosperity of his brother, Richard Caldwell seems not to have owned any real estate, and his personal property amounted to just $100 in 1860. Indeed, our best available insights into Richard Caldwell come in the form of letters written by him and on his behalf seeking work with the Confederate government during the war. The family appears in the census (assuming the order of recording was by address, which it usually was) as neighbor to Ann White, and not far from E.L. Heinichen. That would put the Caldwells somewhere between the railroad and Hanover streets, perhaps on Princess Anne. Certainly the Caldwell’s lived the edge of town, because Mary repeatedly refers to going “into town” or downtown. But the most intriguing clue is this. She constantly refers to her home as “Aspen Cottage.”  I’ve never heard of it; indeed I know of few houses in town that had a name. Was this name the pretentious product of a young girl wishing herself to be of higher status? Or does someone out there know something about Aspen Cottage?

Anyone heard of it?

The park’s superintendent Russ Smith is working on a typescript of the diary, which we hope will be available either in published or digital form in the near future.

7 thoughts on “The mystery of Mary Caldwell’s “Aspen Cottage”

  1. John, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust intends to publish this important account in its journal, “Fredericksburg History and Biography” hopefully in the next issue due out in the latter part of this year.

  2. Mary Caldwell: DOB: about 1846
    Father: Richard Caldwell: DOB: 1807
    Mother: Caroline Henry (Verone) Caldwell (1811-1866)
    Caroline and Richard Caldwell had six children.
    Sister: Bettie (Caldwell) Chancellor (1840-1911); married Melzi Sanford Chancellor (1815-1895) on October 18, 1886, becoming his second wife. Bettie returned to live in Fredericksburg at some point after her husband’s death. She was in Fredericksburg as of 1901 when she is listed as Registrar of the Fredericksburg chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

  3. Just a note to readers. The Jane Beale diary is on exhibition at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. Located in the “Fredericksburg at War” gallery, it is one of the finest possessions of th Museum.

  4. Quick question – is Lizzie Alsop’s diary available for purchase online or outside of Virginia? I’m in NC and can’t make a trip to Fredericksburg yet, and I would love to have a copy of her diary. Thanks! =D

  5. John, a possible answer to where Mary Caldwell lived was briefly mentioned in my May 29, 2017 letter addressed to the HFFI Marker Committee, and the NPS, requesting your response.

    If Mary Caldwell in May 1864 could view the ambulances in and around the Fairgrounds, from her back window, would that not place her looking out of the upstairs of the “Jennings House” on lot 22, or possibly lot 41? Lot 22 would have been in direct line of sight.

    John S. Caldwell was the former Mayor of Fredericksburg (1856 -1857) and was also the owner of the Jennings House. Is it possible that he provided the house to Mary, since he lived on 211 Caroline St. Considering he died on March 21, 1863.

    This gives reason why A.K. Phillips is listed as exec to John Caldwell’s estate, and in that same year, he too was on the deed according to our building survey.

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