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.  He listened in amazement as Rowe revealed himself as Fredericksburg’s newest secessionist–a powerful voice in a formerly conservative town, himself a metaphor for a town in dramatic transition.

We had listened to [Mr. Rowe] on the previous Friday night; we had heard him when advocating the cause of Douglas, the Union, the Constitution, and enforcement of the laws. Then he was manly, dignified, eloquent, logical, and patriotic. As a friend, we loved him; as a citizen, we respected him; as a patriot, we admired him. Now, as a traitor to his country, we pitied him; for his treason, we scorned him.

Rowe “‘put it on thick and heavy’ to the Union-shriekers, submissionists, [and] Abolitionists,” remembered Hunnicutt, and the crowd grew raucous.  Hunnicutt himself soon tried to take the stand, but Rowe refused to yield.  It quickly became apparent to Hunnicutt that secessionists had infiltrated the meeting and meant to take it over.  What followed was one of the most tumultuous scenes in the history of public discourse in Fredericksburg.

Here followed a scene that beggars all description. For upwards of fifteen minutes the tumult was like the continuous roaring of many waters,—each party calling on their speaker to go on, go on, go on, and each swearing that the speaker of the other party should not speak. It was a rich scene for civilized, patriotic, Christian men!

The Unionists eventually got control of the room, but “hisses and huzzas” punctuated Hunnicutt’s speech.  At least one egg flew across the room, hitting a woman in the in the back of the head.

Secessionist J. Horace Lacy, perhaps the most sought-after speaker in the region. One newspaper called one of his speeches “thrilling, brilliant, noble, flashing, rippling, roaring, rushing….” Another referred to him as a “windbag.”

Hunnicutt done, J. Horace Lacy–the region’s most profligate speaker and an avowed secessionist–tried to take the stand.  The tumult rose again.  Wrote Hunnicutt, “the secessionists swore he should speak, and many of the Union men swore he should not speak.” The courthouse filled with “hisses, huzzas, clapping of hands, stamping of feet, beating of seats and stoves with walking-canes.”

The Unionists finally brought the mayhem to an end by….

…turning out the lights.

“An instant, general ‘skedaddling”took place,” wrote Hunnicutt, ” for fear ‘somebody’ might ‘get hurt.'”  The Fredericksburg News concluded about the meeting:  “Anarchy seems to be upon us.”

When the Unionists turned out the lights that night, they turned out the lights on Union too.  This was the last Unionist meeting held in Fredericksburg.

South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and on April 15, 1861, President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops from Union states—including Virginia—to put down the rebellion.

Fredericksburg and Virginia then did exactly what they had said they would do (for a post on that, click here).

On April 17, in the House of Delegates chamber in the capitol in Richmond, John L. Marye—the “slow coach”—cast his vote for secession.  Thirty five days later, more than 2,000 Fredericksburgers and Spotsylvanians voted in favor of secession.  Only four voted against–none in Spotsylvania County.

(The secession vote is worth a post all its own, which we will do in April. Suffice to say that the votes were made by voice–with many listeners–and intimidation of potential “no” votes was rampant. The nonexistent opposition implied by the vote totals is almost surely not a faithful reflection of the collective psyche of the community, which included a surprising number of outright Unionists.)

James Hunnicutt never wavered from his belief that secession was a horrible mistake for Fredericksburg and Virginia. He quickly became reviled, and under intense public pressure he stopped the presses of his Christian Banner that May. He would open again only during the Union occupation of 1862 (we’ll write more about Hunnicutt in a future post).

For his part, G.H.C. Rowe devoted himself to the Confederacy, but war brought him personal ruin. Arrested by the Union authorities in 1862, he suffered the loss of a child, the descent of his wife into infidelity and alcoholism, and various other disasters that eventually led to his commitment to the Eastern State Asylum in Williamsburg.

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

  1. An excellent account of those tumultuous days. Also a reminder that the events leading up to the war were not only about the blue and gray, but also about shades of gray.

  2. Thank you for this history. I have long suspected that the Hunnicutt side of my family (in Raleigh, NC) my have originated with this James Hunnicutt- I surely would like to claim kin. The Raleigh Hunnicutts were Republicans during the 20th century in the very middle of the solid democratic South… so I take that as some evidence of our scallywag heritage. Do you all have information about what happened to James Hunnicutt after he left Fredericksburg?

    Ben Hunnicutt
    Iowa City

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