Lying for love, 1864 style

From John Hennessy:

Pardon the momentary departure from our strictly Fredericksburg-area themes, but I think this little passage has especial relevance to today’s society. It is proof that the penchant for improving oneself through false description is not new. It’s a little late for Valentine’s Day, but perhaps amusing for those of you for whom the day still glows.

This is a letter written by a Union Lieutenant (at least so he claims) in February 1864 to a woman who had responded to his “lonely hearts” ad published in a northern magazine or newspaper.

Before proceeding farther truth and candor compel me to acknowledge that a little desception was used in the advertisement in the “Waverly.” In other words my true description differs materially from the one therein set forth, and may not please you as well as the one “fancy painted,” but I thought it was all for fun, therefore funningly gave a fictitious description as well as cognomen. Be it known unto you then, this individual is twenty-nine years of age, five feet and eleven inches high, dark blue eyes, brown hair, and light (ruddy) complexion. There you have it. How do you like the descripion? Me thinks I hear you answer. I dont like it so well as the advertised description. Well! I’ll admit it is not quite so fascinating to a young lady as the fictitious one…

The original of this letter is in the special collections at Virginia Tech. You can find the entire letter here

On a slightly different topic, all of us are a bit overawed with exhibit and other work at the moment, and so our attention to the blog has lagged a bit.  We should be through the backlog soon enough and back to our customary rate of what we hope are interesting and useful posts. 

“Is not the Negro a man?” A letter from Stafford, 1862

From John Hennessy (for a relevant earlier post, click here):

This image was first published in 1835, its refrain picked up by a Union soldier in 1862.

I continue to work through source material related to the 1862 exodus of slaves through Fredericksburg. One of the more interesting aspects of all this is gauging the response of Union soldiers to the appearance of slave in Union lines. While many are racist, few can muster themselves to oppose freedom when confronted by it in human form. More importantly, the presence of slaves prompted a good deal of reflection by soldiers on slaves and slavery, some of it eloquent, some of it colloquial, but all of it revealing. Here is a letter written by a soldier of the 20th New York State Militia just a few days after the Union army’s arrival on the banks of the Rappahannock. It is one of the most eloquent we have of a soldier–clearly predisposed to favoring emancipation–grappling with (and taking advantage of) this new an unexpected phenomenon. Written on April 29, 1862, it was published in the Kingston Argus on May 7. We don’t know the man’s full name. He merely signed the letter, “C.”

“Contrabands” still come pouring in upon our camps, very many of them seeking and finding employment, and profession uniformly the utmost anxiety to escape from their impatiently-borne thraldom.  That strong attachment to “Massa” and “Misses”, which, I often heard it said at the North, would lead them to cling to their Southern homes and refuse freedom even if it were offered, I havn’t yet happened to see,–  With one voice they breathe longings for a Northern home, eager to turn their backs upon their masters forever, if they can only carry their families with them.  It is impossible to look upon these poor people, an abject, meek…as they seem, so anxious to emerge from their condition of involuntary servitude, into an atmosphere where they can breathe as freely as the white man does, without feeling one’s sympathies strongly enlisted.  One finds the question rising involuntarily, Is not the negro a man? Warmed with the same sun, hurt with the same weapons, having the same feelings, affections, aspirations that the white man has?  Why then should he be a slave to his fellow man?

But I have no room for speculations here, and will only add, that your correspondent, in common with many others in the regiment and surrounding ones has secured the services of a man Friday, who was coachman and man of all work, to a prominent secessionist farmer down the Rappahannock.  I find him a capital “help”–skilled and prepared to render almost any service required [line missing] and his “Massa” is a violent rebel, with two sons in the rebel army, I shall have no compunctions whatever in using the services of the “contraband” in promoting the interest of the Union cause, by promoting for the present those of one of its humblest supporters–and of giving him besides such “aid and comfort” in the matter of reaching the freedom that he craves, as shall not come in conflict with the sacred Constitution.

Fredericksburg and the new Confederacy

From John Hennessy:

We have passed the 150th Anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as President of the new Confederate states, which at the time did NOT include Virginia. The people of Fredericksburg watched the tragic contortions of a nation in crisis with great interest. But they did not react to notably to Davis’s inauguration. Instead, Fredericksburgers and Virginians in general navigated a careful course–still uncertain whether their interests could best be protected within or outside the Union.

On December 17, 1860, the people of Fredericksburg (at least the white residents) adopted a document that would be by far the town’s most important collective expression on Union and disunion–indeed it would be their blueprint for the secession crisis. They mapped out precisely how the community–and by extension presumably the state–would respond in the face of the acts of the Federal government. The document clearly states the cause of white Fredericksburgers’ grievances, their self-image as Southerners, and precisely what acts would bring them to conclude that Virginia must leave the Union. The Fredericksburg News said of the meeting that produced this collective resolution, “We have only time to say that we have never seen more unanimity than was expressed last night in the Citizens’ Meeting….The sentiment of all present was to preserve the Union if it be possible on terms alike honorable to both parties.  If this be impossible, then placing ourselves upon our rights, under the guidance of providence, to stand by them come weal or woe.”

Here is the text of the resolutions adopted; they would, in fact, be the road map for the town’s descent into secession. Continue reading

A slave reacts to Union defeat at Fredericksburg–strategizing for freedom

From John Hennessy:

This past week I came across a 1913 interview with a Fredericksburg-area slave. Her name was Fanny, and she was owned by Samuel Gordon and his wife Patsy Fitzhugh Gordon of Santee, just across the Spotsylvania line in Caroline County, about ten miles south of Fredericksburg. Gordon, the former owner of Kenmore, was a scion of Fredericksburg’s wealthiest families (he was worth nearly $200,000 in 1860). Fanny was one of at least 35 slaves he owned.  Despite a number of clues in her narrative–including her postwar residence in Fredericksburg–at this point I have been unable to follow Fanny into freedom. I will continue to work on identifying her.

[Update:  See the comments section for MUCH more on Fanny Lee.]

Santee in the 1930s. The house still stands.

Fanny’s passage on the nexus between the war, Union army, and freedom is interesting on several levels. Hers is the only explanation we have from an individual slave of why she chose not to run away when the Union army came–out of concern for her children and, more importantly, because of her ultimate confidence in Union victory and the end of slavery. It’s clear evidence of a clearly thought strategy, one based on optimism and some careful calculation. Her statement belies the image of the passive, unthinking, loyal slave, and it is an important addition to a small-but-growing chorus of slaves’ voices available to us. Continue reading

“Degradation worse than death”–Lee responds to the Emancipation Proclamation?

From Hennessy and Harrison:

The following appears in a letter from Robert E. Lee to James Seddon, January 10, 1863, urging a concerted effort to increase the size of Confederate armies in the face of the intensifying Union war effort.*  In it, Lee appears to offer commentary on the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation, whose consequences he characterizes darkly and vividly.  Indeed, he seems to use the Proclamation as an argument for redoubled recruiting and a renewed Confederate effort.

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant, R. E. Lee, General.


* O.R. Vol. 21, page 1086. The editors of the ORs incorrectly presumed that this passage refered to a series of orders issued in western Virginia the previous November by Union General Robert H. Milroy, commanding local citizens to pay for the damage done by Confederate raiders.  Clearly, however, the narrow scope of Milroy’s orders (which related solely to the district in which he operated, and which were later repudiated by the federal government) does not comport with the broad commentary offered here by Lee.  Moreover, the Official Records clearly show that on January 10, Lee was still in the process of investigating the nature of Milroy’s orders to confirm they had indeed been issued.

While the January 10 letter to Seddon Lee quoted here does not mention the Emancipation Proclamation by name, it seems apparent that his language refers to it.

A monument to freedom in Fredericksburg?

From John Hennessy:

John Washington preparing to cross--a scene from the film Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free.

I have always been struck that the only memorial to emancipation and freedom in the Fredericksburg area is to a white man.  It is a small plaque at the home of Moncure Conway, the Southern abolitionist who riled Falmouth, Fredericksburg, and Virginia.  This is not to say Conway doesn’t merit such notice. But I do wonder if we have accorded proper credit and notice to the 10,000 or so slaves who acted with their feet months before the Emancipation Proclamation, crossing the Rappahannock to freedom at the rate of as many as 200 a day.

On Saturday, my colleague Steward Henderson and I conducted a tour for about 70 members of Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), Shiloh (New Site), and Mount Zion Baptist Church–all of those congregations descendant from the original African Baptist Church on Sophia Street.  Much of the day focused on sites associated with John Washington, concluding at the site of his crossing to freedom in what is today Old Mill Park. It’s a powerful site and a powerful story.

During our conversation, the idea of a memorial to The Crossing at large (symbolized by John Washington) came up.  Should we as a community, black and white, pursue such a project?  Is a memorial an appropriate way to commemorate the event?  If so, where and how?

Emancipation and Freedom–the difference

From John Hennessy

At a scholarly distance the terms seem synonymous. But close up there was a significant difference.

Former slaves in Union lines, probably in Stafford County, early 1863.

This past week I have been working through source material related to the 1862 exodus of slaves through Fredericksburg into Stafford County–otherwise known in our household now as “the book.” The exodus is interesting and important on a number of levels, not the least of which is the reaction of Union soldiers to both slavery and freedom.  In April 1862, when the Union army pulled into Fredericksburg for the first time, the curiosity of soldiers toward slaves was matched only by the excitement of slaves at seeing soldiers. We may debate the causes and purposes of the Civil War in an abstract way, but there is no questioning that for the enslaved people in the Fredericksburg region (about half the population), the war was all about freedom–their freedom.

Of course Union soldiers brought the full range of political and social perspectives to their first collision with slaves and slavery.  Virtually all by modern standards were racist in their views. Even the most liberal voices in the army convey a paternalism that smacks of white supremacy. Many others held and conveyed attitudes that would today seem nothing short of vile.

Some modern commentators assert that since Northerners were racist, it therefore follows that they could not be willing emancipators (we hear this a good deal at the park).  That is simply not so. No matter their political views, it became very clear very quickly to soldiers that they were indeed emancipators, though generally they saw that role as outside their job description.

It is a certainty of history that early in the war many soldiers opposed emancipation as a political and war policy. The soldiers’ objection to emancipation as policy was rooted partly in racist ideaology, but also in theory and speculation: emancipation would alienate Southerners, rendering the war harder and eventual reconciliation more difficult.

But the experience and writings of soldiers here shows vividly that soldiers could not and did not oppose the reality of human freedom when confronted by it.  While there are certainly examples elsewhere of slaves being dispatched back to owners, the sheer size of the exodus in Fredericksburg rendered that a virtual impossibility (slaves were coming in from up to 60 miles away). Beyond that, among these men who witnessed this exodus, I have not found a single account asserting the wrongness of freedom. Here is a quote from Oliver McAllaster of the 35th New York, whose letters include some of the most objectionable racist diatribes I have seen–a man who clearly opposed emancipation as a policy (the original of this letter is held by the Library of Virginia and is now on display in the Fredericksburg Area Museum’s Letters and Diaries exhibit). But he could not object to freedom in reality, when confronted by it. In fact, he conveys a tone of admiration for the slaves’ tenacity.

It would astonish you if you should see the number of Negroes a running around our and all the other camps in this vacinity.  I would hardly believe there could be the number in Slavery in the whole of Virginia.  They come across the river nights in Boats to get away from their masters.  I saw a couple to day who came some fourteen miles from here last night in the rain.  They took a couple of their Masters Horses and rode in and then sold them for five Dollars a piece.  And nice Horses they were too.  The slave holders will not have one twentieth part of their Slaves left if this army should stay here for weeks and every appearance is now that we shall stay here that length of time.

It emerges clearly from these many letters that to the soldiers among the occupying force in Fredericksburg, there were subtle differences in the meanings of the words emancipation, abolition, and freedom. Soldiers invariably refer to emancipation as a policy–one with which they often disagreed. Abolition was almost always used pejoratively in reference to perceived Northern extremists who espoused emancipation. But freedom was reality, and even the harshest anti-emancipators in the Union army had a hard time not embracing it when in its presence. Moreover they came quickly and clearly to see their own role in making freedom happen.

A remarkable document…additions to The List…and a program alert

By John Hennessy:

The program:  Thursday, February 10, at 7 p.m., at the England Run Branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.  I’ll present The Crossing: Slaves, Stafford, and the Great 1862 Exodus to Freedom. 

One of the unexpected benefits of doing Fredericksburg Remembered and Mysteries and Conundrums is that they have occasionally prompted readers to pass along interesting and important material. Last week I received an email from Patrick Sullivan of South Carolina, who is a descendant of Absolom and Nancy Row of Greenfield Plantation in Spotsylvania (the site is now consumed by the lake and subdivision at Fawn Lake, off Route 621–you can read a nice article on Greenfield here). Pat has spent years accumulating material on his family–some from archives, some from other family members, some from his own collection–and has generously passed along some intensely interesting items.

Nancy Row, wartime mistress of Greenfield Plantation. She authored the affidavit, below. Courtesy Patrick Sullivan.

His collection constitutes a vivid look into one family’s relationship with slavery. He has the proceedings of an inquest into a murder of one slave by another; he has documents relating to Absolom Row’s (died 1855) involvement with slave patrols in Spotsylvania County; he has ads for runaway slaves, newspaper advertisements and articles, ledger books, postwar labor contracts with former slaves, and a variety of other material. He has graciously permitted me to use them as I work on the book, and to share some of the material here. In 1860, Nancy Row owned 24 slaves. 

Given our recent posts about the 1862 slave exodus, perhaps the most immediately interesting piece Pat sent along was this, a statement of slaves lost by Nancy Row in the summer of 1862. It includes the names of 20 slaves: Continue reading

The rawness of defeat and roots of the Lost Cause–an 1865 letter from a Spotsylvania Woman

From John Hennessy:

We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that the “Lost Cause” was the production of Jubal Early and a cabal of sympathetic historians who followed in his verbose wake. But the roots of the Lost Cause run deeper than that, and extend well into the war itself. I share with you today one of the best early examples–an immediate postwar letter written by Hannah Garlick Rawlings of Spotsylvania. Hannah Rawlings, born in 1837 of  prominent family, was a school marm. Indeed, she spent much of her adult life before her death in 1901 as the matron of the Female Charity School on Caroline Street–a post she assumed after the war. During the war, she served as a governess in Orange County, but kept close tabs on her former neighbors in Spotsylvania–the Holladays, Boggs, and Scotts (click here for a terrific memoir by Bradford Ripley Alden Scott, first of Pine Grove in Stafford and later of Bel Air in Spotsylvania.)  Four months to the day after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Hannah poured forth bitterness, lament, and even a hint of  nostalgia for the war just passed in a letter to her sister Clarissa, in Pennsylvania. Here is the most vivid excerpt.

O, Clarissa! We people of the South have drained the cup of bitterness to the very dregs! Hardships and privations of all kinds the loss of fortune and friends-all these could have been, and were, borne without a murmur for the sake of our country. But now, what is there to comfort us! We have no country, our very name is lost to us and we must be identified with the hated “Yankee.”

When I look back upon the events of the last five months, I sometimes feel as if it could not be reality, and that I have been the victim of some hideous nightmare. Continue reading