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.

When the battle ended and I heard that the Union army had been defeated, I couldn’t believe it. My mistress said to me, “Yo’ know the Northern soldiers cain’ fight us hyar.”

But I said: “Ain’ God the captain? He started this war, and he’s right in front. He may stop in his career and let yo’ rest up a little bit now, but our Captain ain’ never been beaten. Soon He’ll start out ag’in, and yo’ll hear the bugle blow, and He’ll march on to victory. Where the Bible says, ‘Be not afraid; yo’ shall set under yo’ own vine and fig tree,’ that means us slaves, and I tell yo’ we ‘re goin’ to be a free people. You-all will be gittin’ yo’ pay sho’ for the way you’ve done treated us pore black folks. We been killed up like dogs, and the stripes you’ve laid on us hurt jus’ as bad as if our skin was white as snow. But I ain’ gwine to run away or from my children in the river as some slaves have, for I’m as certain this war will set us free as that I stand hyar.”

I tol’ her jus’ what I thought, and my mistress said, “Fanny, you is foolish,” and my master said, “You ain’t got no sense.”

And I said to my master, “When I was a young girl yo’ sold ninety-six people at one time to pay a debt.”

Then I sat down and cried, and the white people stood there and laughed at me. “Lord,” I said, “I’d rather be dead than have my children sold away from me.”

From Clifton Johnson, Battleground Adventures in the Civil War. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1915.  Page 150. The book is available on Google Books.

26 thoughts on “A slave reacts to Union defeat at Fredericksburg–strategizing for freedom

  1. Great post. I am very interested in women’s accounts of the Civil War as well as where they lived. Can you give me directions to Santee?
    Thank you.
    Kay Wilson

  2. Thank you for posting this, Samuel Gordon from Santee was my grandfather’s grandfather. I sent a link to your article to my Gordon cousins. I found a copy of the book Battleground Adventures in the Civil War online. What interesting reading! An incredible narrative of what life was life during the War of Northern Aggression and afterwards.

    • Thanks very much, William. Santee has a terrific history. It’s a place I’d love to include on a tour one day–perhaps later in the 150th. If any of your family has information about Santee or its role in the war, we’d love to know what you know…. Thanks again. John H.

      • It would be interesting to identify Fannie’s identity using available electronic research records. From her oral history, we know that Fannie was 90 years old in 1912, making her approximate birth year 1822. Fannie was “nearly forty years old when the war began” As Fannie had been raised in the Gordon house, I assume she was born at Santee. Fannie was married “a right smart while” around the time of the Civil Way, and eventually had 12 grown children, including twins who were very young during the war time. Finally, from Mrs. Gordon Fannie had learned various domestic arts such as weaving, sewing, and spinning, so I assume this would have been her post-Santee profession. Finally, Fannie lived with one of her daughters in Fredericksburg, and probably had spent most of her post-Santee life in that city.

        This information should allow a researcher to triangulate available information to identify Fannie with a high degree of certainty.

      • The slave in the oral history was probably Fannie Lee, wife of John H. Lee. I found Fannie by looking up families living near Samuel Gordon in the 1870 census. The Lees were listed on the same census page as the Gordons, indicating a close proximity to Santee. The 1870 census information related to Fannie Lee’s age and her family size, including twin girls Rachel and Betsy, closely matched the narrative.

        The Lees moved from Santee to Fredericksburg sometime after 1870. A son, Fitzhugh, was born February, 1870, but was not listed in 1880 and probably had died.

        In 1900, Fannie’s occupation was listed as washer woman; John was a waiter. At that time, their children numbered 13, with five children still living.

        John died sometime prior to 1910 as he was not included on that census and Fannie’s marital status was listed as widowed. At this time, Fannie was living with her daughter Bettie Braxton, the married name of her twin daughter Betsy, and three grandchildren.

        I hope this satisfies some of your curiosity about Fanny, who was an interesting woman with an interesting story.

      • William: I had looked for Fannie, but missed her in the 1900 census apparently. This is terrific stuff. The number of former slaves that we have been able to follow into freedom hereabouts is tiny, and your likely identification of her adds richness to the story. Many, many thanks for sharing this information. John H.

      • Fannie and John H. Lee lived at 228 Princess Anne Street, Fredericksburg, by 1888, according to the city directory. The property was owned by Fannie’s daughter, Bettie, into the late-1930s. Old insurance maps from the 1890s indicate that the original house had two floors and a 12″x12″ addition, which is the house’s current configuration. Living accommodations may have been cramped in 1910 when Fannie lived with her daughter and three grandchildren. With two stories, Fannie’s house was larger than other single story “cabins” in its vicinity.

      • John and Fannie Lee owned their house at 228 Princess Anne in
        Fredericksburg starting in 1883-84, approximately when the two-bedroom residence was built. Purchased from William B. Young, who owned a grocery store and restaurant, this property appears to be the only home the Lees ever owned. At least two of the Lee’s married children helped to secure financing for the house by guaranteeing the bank loan. The assessed value of the Princess Anne property was $900 in 1885; in 2009 the property assessment was $309,000.

        The Princess Anne house was two blocks from both the main passenger station of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad and from the busy Rappahannock River, crowded with steam boats and other commercial activity. The Lee’s neighborhood would have been perpetually filled with the sounds of steam whistles and clanking noises from both the railroad and the river.

        When John Lee died prior to 1910, possibly in 1909, the property was left to his “beloved wife Fannie” for the rest of her life. When Fannie died in 1919, the property passed under John’s will to the Lee’s five living children and two grandchildren (the grandchildren divided 1/6 share of the estate that would have gone to their deceased parent). Most of the Lee offspring lived in other places by this time, such as in Richmond and Baltimore. One of the grandchildren, Cordley Wright, a Fredericksburg barber and son of Bettie Lee Braxton, bought the
        Princess Anne house from the other beneficiaries, living there with his family his until his death in 1931.

      • Fannie died May 14, 1918, making her approximately 96 years old. Apparently Fannie and husband John did not know their exact birth dates; in the 1900 census, the birth months are marked “unk” (unknown). The question about where the Lees are buried might be found on Fannie’s death certificate (378-13564), which I might have in a few weeks.

      • Fannie Lee died 1918 May 14 when she accidentally fell out of bed and broke her neck (senility was listed as a secondary cause of death). Cordley Wright, who reported the death, did not know how old his grandmother was, listing Fannie’s age as “about 90 years.” Fannie was buried two days after she died at Shiloh Cemetery.

      • Fannie’s cause of death was a fracture of the surgical neck of the femur, not a fractured neck (I misread the death certificate).

      • Fannie was mentioned several times in the society section of the Washington Bee, an influential African-American newspaper of the day. Bettie Lee’s second husband, Robert A. Braxton, had the occasional attention of the Bee’s society columnist, who reported when the Braxtons made trips to see Fannie in Fredericksburg. From what I can tell, other of Fannie’s children found success with their careers and families. This certainly reflects well on Fannie’s commitment to providing her offspring with quality educations and a strong sense of family.

    • My grandmother’s grandfather was Samuel Gordon (Patsy Fitzhugh Gordon) of Santee. My great grandfather was Robert Voss Gordon and my grand mother was Fannie Corbin Gordon Holloway. My uncles were born at Santee and my father was born in Fredericksburg 10 years after my grand-parents moved to town. My immediate family still lives in the area, maintaining the Gordon cemetery at Flintshire Farm, near Santee. We maintain good relations with the current owners of Santee. I currently work at Kenmore due to my love of the mansion as well as family history.

      I would love to re-connect with some of the Gordon cousins.

  3. My cousin Bill sent us this information and I agree, it is fascinating. I might have some pictures of Santee. I could also check a history book that I have compiled on the family by Patty Gordon Cook who is still in Virginia. Santee is privately owned and not by any family members. It has been years since I have been there and I have forgotten the name of the present owners. They resorted the house and grounds well over 30 years ago. I think the owner is a doctor.

    One story is that the family silver was burried at Santee near a lilac bush in an effort to keep the Confederate and Union soldiers from stealing it. After the war it was dug up and the family had it in Fredricksburg. My great grandfather (Samuel Gordon, son of Samuel and Patsey Fitzhugh) left Fredricksburg and eventually made his way West, ending up in St. Louis. After he was settled, he wrote his sisters about the silver and bought it from them. I believe they needed the money by that point. The silver was in St. Louis for years, owned by my grandparents and then parents. My parents gifted it to Kenmore about 1991 and it is on display in the museum.

    Hope this helps with some stories.

    Hugh Gordon
    St. Louis, MO

    • Many thanks for the additional information. The Gordons were one of the most important families in 19th Century Fredericksburg, and there are many–the NPS, Kenmore, etc.–who would be gratified to know more about them. I know that the folks at Kenmore have a pretty good handle on the Gordon tenure there, but as the family spread through the area–Douglas to his place on Princess Anne, Samuel to Santee–the picture becomes a bit cloudier. Anything you can add would be much appreciated…. Thanks again. John Hennessy

  4. Duke University has 21 letters related to Santee in their “Elizabeth D. Fitzhugh Papers (1829-1861)” collection. Sec. A items1-22 c.1. Library use only, if anyone is in the vicinity of Durham, NC.

  5. My name is Sally Castles, my brother and I are the owners of santee. My Grand father who was from upstate new york purchased santee in 1940. We have updated the residents while making sure not to harm the structures. We would be interested in the kenmore/santee silver issue for my family has been involved with kenmore for years. Also, are tthe Duke/fitzhugh letters readily avalable to the public?

    Sally and John Castles

  6. Although a bit late in finding this blog entry, I am grateful and appreciate learning more about my family’s history. Mrs. Fannie Fitzhugh Lee is my Great-Great Grandmother on my father’s side. I grew up in the house at 228 Princess Anne St. as the fifth generation of the Fitzhugh/Lee/Wright family to live there. The interview John Hennessy quotes with Mrs. Lee agrees with stories that my father, Maj James T. Wright, USA (ret), often repeated. Her references to the Bible indicate a bond to the fundamentals of Christianity. In Shiloh (New Site) Baptist Church at 525 Princess Anne Street there is a beautiful German stained glass window from the early 1900’s that has the following written on it: “To the Memory of John Henry & Fannie Lee by the Family.”

    The interview poses several points to consider:

    – If John Henry and Fannie Fitzhugh Lee were presumably owned by the Gordon’s why are their last names “Lee”?
    – Is there documentation that supports Mrs. Lee having 12 children? Did she have more undocumented births? The oldest child in the 1880 census is 25. Assuming her birth date of 1824 is correct, does it make sense that she had her first child at 31 or 32?
    – If Mrs. Lee bore 12 children and only seven are recorded in the 1870 census, what happened to the other six?
    – According to the interview Mrs. Lee was distraught about 96 people (slaves) being sold to pay a debt. The complete article mentions her siblings being sold down the river, but were any of her children part of that group?

    Again I would like to offer my thanks to the author of the article and the blog contributors for taking the time and effort of researching an important part of my family history. I look forward to any future posts that aid in providing more of the historical context of Mrs. Fannie Fitzhugh Lee’s life.

    • The number of births (13, with 5 still living) was recorded in the 1900 census. I assume the missing children were born between 1870 and 1900. It would be interesting to have a photograph of Fannie. As one of the bloggers for this thread, how close did I come to having my research reflect reality, based on your family knowledge and lore?


      • The spirit of Mrs. Lee is certainly reflected in the interview/blogs and I believe she gathered attention for her convictions. Of course she didn’t have a platform to project her thoughts except for this rare interview but her legacy was readily apparent even to me as a child growing up in her shadow.

        I actually have a picture of her taken sometime between 1915 to 1918.

    • Eric: Thanks very much for sharing this information. You, Mr. Martin, and the others who have contributed details that have filled out the story of an impressive woman and family. My sincere thanks to you all.

      John Hennessy

  7. The number of children listed in the 1900 census (13 children, 5 living) appears to be an enumeration error, as in 1910 the numbers are 9 children, 4 living. By looking at the 1870 and 1880 censuses, I can account for seven of the nine children, so I assume there were infant deaths prior to 1870. These children could have been born after 1870 as well, although seemingly unlikely Fannie would have been at least 48 years old by then.

    Go to findagrave.com and search for memorial #73206650, which is the entry I created for Fanny in June, 2011. It would be fantastic if you could upload Fannie’s photo to FindAGrave and attach it to the memorial. I was very much hoping to connect with Fannie and John’s descendants when I did my research.

  8. According to ancestry.com, Eric Wright’s father appears to have James Taliaferro Wright (1919-1971). James’ mother was Lillian Agnes Taliaferro. I believe Patsy, wife of Sam Gordon of Santee and Fannie’s owner, was descended from the Taliaferro family as well. Tracing the twists and turns of early Virginia family trees is a dizzying experience.

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