From John Hennessy:
Fredericksburg, taken from below Chatham. The date is 1863, but the Chatham bridge likely looked much the same after the storm of April 10, 1861.
While the people of Charleston S.C. awoke on April 12 to the boom of cannon surrounding Fort Sumter, the people of Fredericksburg awoke to a torrent of another sort. Thanks to three days’ rain, the Rappahannock was flowing at a rate note seen since 1814. Two of the area’s bridges were doomed (not for the last time in coming years).
On Wednesday morning [April 10] the swollen, turbid mass of water, increasing rapidly in height and volume, raged onward with such force as to sweep away panel after panel of the Falmouth Bridge, which with similar velocity, struck the Chatham Bridge amidships, and carried off about one-third of that structure in its destructive course. In a few hours the whole of Falmouth Bridge had disappeared, and from bank to bank surged the resistless tide of waters….From the Island under the Chatham Bridge, which had been engulfed some time previously, a wide and yawning chasm separated the broken wood-work, and the exulting waters rushed through, bearing along the ‘dismembered fragments of a once glorious union.’ Staffird had seceded by the force of circumstances….Lower down the river the shipping was in much danger. One schooner, the D.K. Hopkins, was carried off, and a small river steamer was floated on shore and landed in the bushes. The Gas Works were overflowed, and the town has been in darkness ever since. Mr. Marye’s new Corn-Mill was endangered by the fierce current, and 150 barrels of Corn, we understand, were ‘cast upon the waters’ without hope of return, however. Numerous houses, kitchens, &c on Water Street suffered severely—the water ten feet deep in some, and one family had to be taken out in a boat, from an upper window. No loss of life reported, but one man, Captain Stevens we believe, was accidentally carried down the river on a portion of Falmouth Bridge, but rescued near French John’s after an exciting involuntary voyage….
While the Fredericksburg News was full of portentous news about coming war–“War seems inevitable,” editor Archibald Little declared–Fredericksburg’s life rhythms went on little affected. The paper advertised a particularly relevant speech at Citizens Hall: “The Old Dominion! As She Was, Is, and Will Be.”
Elsewhere local citizens ruminated on more prosaic things, like a petition to the new President in Washington asking him to keep the town’s long-time postmaster Reuben Thom in place. Thom was 79 years old (one of the few people in town who likely remembered the flood of 1814) and an institution–“emphatically a good man,” said the News. But Thom was a secessionist, and the newspaper saw in his prospective appointment the chance for the new president (Lincoln) to reach across sectional divides, place party politics aside and rise “superior to these little, petty political prejudices…and show himself superior to party distinctions.”
Events of the following weeks would render the citizens’ petition for Thom moot, but he would indeed be appointed postmaster of Confederate mails. Like Fredericksburg, Thom and his family suffered severely amidst the war that loomed in the newspapers that April 12, 1861. His house at what is today about 919 Caroline Street burned in the bombardment of December 11, 1862–indeed, he and his family huddled in the basement until flames forced them into their garden. His neighbor John Wallace saw him soon after the battle, “I met in the street Mr. Thom who told me he was utterly ruined, I can assure you I felt deep sympathy for him. He is not alone, many are in the same situation.”