Bitterness unchecked: Jane Swisshelm reflects on the women of Fredericksburg in 1866

The image of fraternity is firmly fixed in the American imagination as it relates to the Civil War. Men could kill each other, but in quieter moments still be inclined toward kindness, even brotherhood. To some wishful modern eyes, the war was absent of bitterness.

In fact, the war and its aftermath was tinged with intense rancor. No place do we see that more vividly than at Fredericksburg. Usually that rancor is the domain of Southerners, outraged at the fate of Fredericksburg and its civilians. But bitterness cut both ways, as evidenced by the words of Union caregiver Jane Swisshelm. Though largely unknown today, Swisshelm was one of America’s remarkable women of the mid-19th Century—a reformer, newspaper publisher, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate.

In May 1864, she was among probably 500 civilian relief workers (perhaps 30-40 of them women) who came to Fredericksburg to care for the flood of Union wounded from Wilderness and Spotsylvania—something close to a humanitarian catastrophe. Her experience in Fredericksburg, vividly described (though almost completely overlooked by historians) in an 1866 letter and postwar memoir, left her with perhaps the harshest vision of Fredericksburg women in existence. Swisshelm’s bitterness was fueled by the reluctance of Fredericksburg women to help. I present this not to suggest that her observations are in any way objective or valid—there is another side to this story, which we will explore in our next post.  I share it solely to demonstrate the powerful sense of anger that war engendered (we will share more of Swisshelm’s writings, along with a look at where she did her work, in a future post).

Swisshelm wrote this letter in September 1866—just over two years after her time in Fredericksburg, before notions of reconciliation compelled writers to leave out the “unseemly” aspects of the war. It was published in the Central Press, September 29, 1866. She did her work in the town’s theater, Citizens Hall, in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and in the courthouse—all on Princess Anne Street.

Princess Anne Street, taken almost directly in front of Citizens Hall and St. Mary's Catholic Church (Swisshelm's primary workplaces). Both are off the image to the left. The engine house mentioned by Swisshelm was on the side of the Circuit Courthouse--the building with the cupola.


Continue reading

Our role as memorialsts: no self-consciousness required, only awareness

From John Hennessy (the following is a short excerpt from the keynote address I am giving tomorrow at North Carolina State’s conference on Public History and the Civl War; we have written on this question previously here and here):

Some people rebel at the idea that we, as history professoinals, engage in memorliazation. In our role as memorialists, haven’t public historians been wrong all these years—party to a destructively positive view of the Civil War and American history–one that has achieved reconciliation at the expense of good history and historical justice?

For those of you who think we have, I’d aver we must humble ourselves. Public history and public historians invariably reflect society; we don’t lead it. We are not making society more diverse. We did not initiate the Civil Rights or Women’s Labor movements. Nor did public historians assert the primacy of reconciliation above good history 100 years ago. But we have reflected all these things faithfully in their time. When the nation (assuredly a white-themed nation) demanded it, we emphasized themes of shared sacrifice, courage, and reconciliation—and until the 1980s we gave little thought to the idea that something might be amiss. Today we engage in a more diverse history because our society is more diverse. We will continue to evolve over time. The public asks questions or makes demands, scholarship blazes a trail, and we facilitate understanding and, hopefully, meaning.

So, we need feel no self consciousness about our historic role as memorialists—and nor should we feel self-consciousness in our continued role as memorialists—though our commemorative role sometimes annoys and offends some in adacemia, and even some within the public. That we are bound by tradition or conditions explicit or implied…or influenced by the ardor of participants or their descendants…is not unique. In fact, it’s almost universal within our industry. Do you not think public historians at LBJ didn’t ponder, “What would Lady Bird say?” Or at Selma to Montgomery, John Lewis and other Civil Rights veterans don’t influence how the story is told at the Edmund Pettus Bridge? Has interpretation at Little Big Horn been affected by the emerging voice of Indians’ descendants? What about Rosie the Riveter, Alcatraz, or Manzanar? Do you think the King family has had a little bit of influence in the presentation and public perception of Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site?

These forces are part of the public historians’ world. Our challenge is not to resist them, but to understand them. And more importantly to help our visitors understand them.

“An abundant increase in brotherly love”: battlefields as a platform for reconcilation, 1928


From John Hennessy:

Most of the legislation creating America’s battlefield parks, including ours here in Fredericksburg, is a legacy of the commemorative and reconciliatory efforts of veterans—conceived in a period where a visitor’s understanding of context was assumed, when the ownership of the war’s memory, legacy, and meaning was unchallenged, and when the nation was focused on repair rather than division. To find vivid evidence of this, you need look no further than our own back yard.

Judge Edgar J. Rich, a Harvard graduate, Boston attorney, friend of Douglas Southall Freeman, and convert to Southern sentiment (he “visited the South in a blue uniform, but returned in gray,” he said) gave one of the keynote addresses at the dedication of the park in October 1928–his job apparently was to dedicate the tablet that would stand at the entrance to the park.  The local paper called Judge Rich “renowned” as the “greatest student of the Battle of Chancellorsville.”  The ceremony was held not in the park, but at Smithfield, then called the Mannsfield Hall Country Club. President Calvin Coolidge was in attendance.  Rich said: Continue reading

Schooling antebellum style

From John Hennessy:

One of the most common questions I get is about school and education and Fredericksburg before the Civil War–indeed, Hannah offered up that very question earlier today over at Mysteries and Conundrums. My work on the topic is limited, but here’s what I know–with the request that if anyone knows more, we’d be happy to have you pitch in.

Smithsonia was the Female Orphan Asylum, and it still stands on Amelia Street. It housed and educated as many as 15 girls at a time.

For decades before the Civil War, Virginia’s elites railed against the concept of universal education (and the likely taxes attached thereto) so loudly trumpeted by Jefferson and Madison. That meant Virginians were largely on their own, which in turn meant that education was the domain of the very rich or, ironically, very poor. (Susan Dunn has some excellent passages on the retarded state of Virginia’s education in her book Dominion of Memories, which you should read if you have not.)  The value of education for the masses was hardly recognized by those masses in the years before the Civil War.  The Virginia Herald of November 28, 1830, includes this lament that most students would likely have agreed with (many surely still do).

“What are the beatitudes of a scholastic paradise? To be fagged, flogged, thumped, and coerced to mental labor and constrained in personal liberty. This may be all very proper and salutary (so is physic) but it is not happiness, and there is very, very rarely an instance of a boy, while he is in one of these prisons of the body, and treadmills of the mind, who is – not always wishing to get out of school and to get home.

Fredericksburg had schools for both rich and poor children, boys and girls, plus of course the common run of private tutors working with individual families. There were probably more than a dozen purely private, tuition-based schools in Fredericksburg. Continue reading

Something awry: a telling question

From John Hennessy:

A few weeks ago my colleague Steward Henderson and I gave a tour, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg.” Though we gave the tour first over the summer as part of History at Sunset, this particular program was for 70 people from three historically black churches in town. It was almost entirely an African-American audience. The tour went well–I think most of the sites and material was new to much of the audience. The energy level was high all around.

In the midst of it, a gentleman pulled me aside and said, “Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.

The comments speak loudly to how at least a small corner of Fredericksburg’s African-American community (which probably reflects a much broader view) perceives the role of the NPS in the interpretation of the Civil War. We can hardly fault the perception–for many decades, such a tour would simply never have been done. But, the comments do suggest that while we have done much to broaden our understanding and interpretation of the Civil War and its implications for all Americans, some people still see the NPS as, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, hostile to an interpretation of the war that goes beyond traditional bounds. I am not discouraged by this, but this little whack upside the head is a reminder that we have much work yet to do.

Slavery and motherhood for the mistress

From John Hennessy:

Betty Herndon Maury

I have always been struck by this short passage from the diary of Betty Herndon Maury, Matthew Fontaine Maury’s daughter.  She wrote it on September 6, 1861, a few weeks after the departure (for what cause she does not say) of the family’s house slave, Rebecca, leaving Betty and other members of the household to tend things formerly taken care of by slaves, including parenting  

Made Nanny Belle a rag baby last night. She is more delighted with it than with the finest wax doll. It is the first time that I ever took the time or trouble to devote an hour solely to her amusement.

Nanny Belle was five years old.

Carolyn Carpenter has edited, expanded, and had published Betty Herndon Maury’s diary, as part of the most recent issue of the CVBT Journal. You can find it for sale here.  It is one of the best.

The smartest reading out there…

From John Hennessy:

The blogosphere is bewildering, and we’re all glad you have found your way to Fredericksburg Remembered and Mysteries and Conundrums on a regular basis. The public response has been both surprising and gratifying.

But our tiny efforts are fairly narrowly focused to our own world here around Fredericksburg and the issues that affect us with respect to  history. For a bit of a broader view, I’d like to suggest you take a regular look at a few other blogs out there. This by no means represents anything approaching a comprehensive review of Civil War blogs, but these are the ones I check on a regular basis, and why. There are surely other worthy efforts out there that I have overlooked. 

Crossroads, by Brooks Simpson. Brooks is a professor at Arizona State University. His new blog represents the perfect match of mind and medium. Thoughtful, thorough, and VERY smart, it’s worth a mouse click every day. I learn something almost every time I visit. 

Civil War Memory.  The liveliest of all Civil War blogs–and the target of many unhappy people–this is the domain of Kevin Levin, an accomplished educator and historian currently in Charlottesville (soon to be in Boston). Kevin is smart and provocative. He does not suffer foolishness readily, and so he is inclined to call people on their claims, which in turn often yields some intense debate–debates that by themselves are useful looks at America’s psyche as it relates to the Civil War.  You might not always agree with Kevin, but he will get you thinking. 

Dead Confederates.  Texan Andy Hall backs up his arguments–and demolishes others’–with consistently impeccable research and logic. There is little shrill at Dead Confederates, but much passion. Andy seems to be one of those bloggers who doesn’t say anything until he’s ready, and once he’s ready, it’s best to listen.   

Cenantua’s blog. Robert Moore lives in the Shenandoah Valley and on a regular basis offers up small tidbits that tell us big things about the Civil War and, especially, the South, which of course was not as monolithic as some of us would like it to be.

Uproar in Fredericksburg 150 years later, Part 2: the end of Union, March 11, 1861

From John Hennessy (for Part 1 of this post, click here)

The Fredericksburg Courthouse, scene of the tumultuous March 11, 1861 meeting that marked the end of Fredericksburg’s dance with Unionism.

Lincoln’s inaugural, with its pledge to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government,” transformed Fredericksburg’s collective view on secession. Local observers saw those words as the dreaded threat of “coercion” against the South, something Fredericksburgers and Virginians had long declared intolerable.  The  tumult of Fredericksburg’s debate over Union or secession came to a crescendo on March 11, 1861, when the town’s dwindling population of Unionists called a meeting at the courthouse on Princess Anne Street–an attempt to counter the turnout of secessionists in the same building just three days before. The spiritual leader of the town’s Unionists was newspaper editor James W. Hunnicutt, whose Christian Banner was Frederickburg’s best-selling paper in the years before the war. But Hunnicutt was not alone in his Unionist sympathies. Grocer Hugh Scott (the father of “shell baby” in 1862), clothier James McGuire, and Northern-born dentist M.A. Blankman were among a fair list of Fredericksburg luminaries in the courthouse that night. But, Hunnicutt soon divined, there were far more than just Unionists in attendance.

No, this is not John Brown, but James Hunnicutt, Fredericksburg’s unabashed Unionist, and ultimately perhaps the most hated resident in Fredericksburg’s history.

When Hugh Scott, the chair, called for a speech, George Henry Clay Rowe, a former elector for Stephen Douglas, a Unionist, a former agent of calm, rushed to the podium to speak. Rowe was 33-year-old lawyer who had carved out a successful practice in town, and while he eschewed elected office, he was everywhere involved in the town’s politics. In every public gathering prior to this night, he had espoused unwaveringly for Union. And as he approached the podium, Hunnicutt expected him to do so again.

But Hunnicutt was wrong.  Continue reading

Uproar in Fredericksburg 150 years later: the rise of secession and the end of Union, Part 1

From John Hennessy (for Part 2 of this post, click here):

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Fredericksburg was undergoing a painful, tumultuous transformation in its consideration of Virginia’s place (or not) in the Union.  A look through this local lens tells us a great deal about how the secession crisis played out in Virginia.  Fredericksburg, like every community in the South,  approached the issue of Union or disunion in its own way, guided by its own principles (often in common with many of their Southern brethren)–each buffeted by economic, social, and political forces most clearly displayed at the local level. Fredericksburg is a vivid case study in a nation’s and a state’s march toward secession and war.

Princess Anne Street, Fredericksburg. The courthouse, with the round cupola, was the site of two of Fredericksburg's most important public meetings.

Prior to the election of 1860, the discourse here among white residents focused on the nature of the Union, the reach of the federal government, the protection (and indeed extension of) slavery, and which of the candidates offered the best prospect for addressing the community’s concerns.  Fredericksburg was in no way monolithic in 1860. About 45% of local voters cast ballots for Bell’s Constitutional Union party–which embraced a solution to the ongoing debates about slavery and the nature of government within the existing Union.  Just over 36% cast their votes for the secessionist candidate, Breckinridge.  Lincoln was not part of the discussion. His name did not even appear on the ballot here.

After Lincoln’s election, the debate here shifted. Fredericksburgers spent far less time considering the fate and nature of the Union and nation, and instead shifted their focus, and debate, to the fate of Virginia and its place within that Union. In December 1860, the white residents of town established a clear road-map for the journey forward, setting conditions they deemed necessary for Virginia to remain in the Union.  You can find our post on that here. Put simply, the debate in Fredericksburg between the election and March 1861 focused on two things.

–  Were Virginia’s interests so allied to those of the Deep South that it should join them? The debate revolved not around the virtues of slavery (which were presumed), but of the Union—and whether the Union as it was would threaten slavery and a “southern way of life” built upon a foundation of slavery.

–  What steps would the Federal government take to counter secession. Would the federal government try to coerce seceded states back into the Union with force? And, worse, would Virginia, as part of the Union, be called upon to help vanquish the wayward secessionists?  This was the great question.

Reflective of the town’s conservative approach, in February voters elected relative conservative John L. Marye of Brompton to represent Spotsylvania County at the secession convention in Richmond (click here for a post about Marye’s views on slavery and secession).

But something changed dramatically on March 4. It was not simply that Lincoln was inaugurated–everyone knew that was coming. Rather it was what he said. Continue reading