More lost buildings–the view from St. George’s #2

From John Hennessy (read the first post on the St. George’s steeple shots here; download the entire panorama, stitched together, here [patience, it’s a large file]. Pardon the imperfections in the Photoshop work–there are gaps in the images that I stitched together to create this panorama):

Last week we introduced the series of panoramic photographs taken from the steeple of St. George’s in 1888–as well as my attempt to stitch the images together into a single image. After looking into the heart of the town last time, let’s turn our attention westward, between George and William Street, for what I think is the most interesting part of the series, for here are two of Fredericksburg’s most important lost buildings.

To the left is George Street, off the camera to the right is William, and in the far distance is Marye’s Heights The roof immediately below the camera is what was during the war the Farmer’s Bank–the home of the slave John Washington and perhaps the most important Civil War building in Fredericksburg, which we have written about here. Beyond, easily seen, is the Masonic Cemetery, certainly the moodiest burial ground in town and an important landmark during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

There are two supremely important lost buildings in this view worth pointing out–indeed, for one of them, this is the only clear image of it I know about.  In the upper left edge is a church standing on the SW corner of George and Charles.

This is the Methodist Church South, during the war one of two Methodist churches in Fredericksburg. The building gains significance for two reasons. Continue reading

An umnatched visual record: the 1888 steeple shots reveal some of Fredericksburg’s lost buildings

From John Hennessy:

NOTE: I have assembled the steeple panoramas into a single image . It’s a 22mb file–that is to say, large–but I’ve loaded it here if you wish to explore it on your own. We’ll occasionally take a look at this image in the coming month or so, seeing what it can tell us about Fredericksburg’s 19th-century landscape.

In 1888 a photographer mounted the steeple of St. George’s Episcopal Church on Princess Anne Street and took a series of eleven panoramic images of Fredericksburg, spanning the compass. The panorama isn’t perfect–there are gaps–but it is as thorough a documentation of any Virginia town as exists from that period. Explored deeply, the panoramas are a gold mine, revealing a number of buildings since lost,  a town still recovering from war, and a utilitarian landscape that has largely disappeared.

Today we’ll look at the intersection of Caroline and William–the very heart of downtown Fredericksburg. This is one place where the panoramic images match nicely, and I haev put them together here.

Two things emerge from this image. Continue reading

Fighting for Freedom

From John Hennessy:

I found this letter years ago at the New York State Library, and came across it again today–an incredibly eloquent statement about war, written on January 1, 1863–the day of Emancipation. It is from a letter by Horace T. Hanks of the 30th New York infantry, written from his unit’s camp in Stafford County.

Let us be thankful, on this the first day of 1863, that we have been permitted to live and act in this age, and in our limited sphere do our part towards hastining [sic] the coming of this boon to mankind which restor[e]s to every soul, Gods sacred birthright–freedom. I have to day more than ever before thought over the object and purpose of our being far away from the loved ones of home, and among strangers in a strange land….Why are we here? I believe if we are true to ourselves and the light we have, history will answer, ‘to restore the nation a unit, and in doing this God says we must distroy [sic] the cause of all our trouble, and purge the nation of its great sin. And though at times all seems dark and gloomy, and we find ourselves obliged to put up without even the necessaries of life, and with scanty fair [sic] besides still when I can look the whole thing calmly in the face, and realize the cause and the wished for results of the war, and when I remember that we should not live and die alone for this generation but must look to the good of future ages…I can but feel glad that I am here….”

Final plunge–April 15, 1861

Princess Anne Street, the cultural heart of Fredericksburg. Much of the debate over secession took place in the courthouse--the building with a cupola. The public celebrations on April 13, 1861 also likely focused on the streetscape shown here.

From John Hennessy (check out our prior posts on the rise of secessionism in Fredericksburg here.  Click here for a post on April 12, 1861 in Fredericksburg):

On Saturday evening, April 13, 1861, news of the surrender of Fort Sumter arrived by telegraph in Fredericksburg. Unionist James Hunnicutt, who abhorred the idea of secession and for nearly a year had harangued Fredericksburg with dire predictions of the destructive whirlwind secession would bring (he turned out to be right on nearly all counts), recognized precisely what this meant. The Federal government would not stand for rebellion, and Virginia in such circumstances would not stand by the Federal government in any effort to suppress it.  On April 15, Hunnicutt wrote:

“On the receipt of the news on Saturday evening, several guns were fired, the soldiers paraded the streets, several speeches were delivered, many cheers were given, and the doleful ‘ tiger groans ‘ fell upon our ear like the deep mutterings of demons coming up from the regions of despair. At night bonfires were kindled, as if the actors in the drama were eager for light to the downfall of the Republic and the departure of a nation’s glory ‘. Such is the progress of American civilization, such the character of American patriotism, such the character of American Christianity, in this enlightened nineteenth century !”

That very day, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion–3,000 of them from Virginia. As we have noted before, Fredericksburg had long stated that its collective determination to remain in the Union would disintegrate if the Federal government chose to use force against the South. And so it did. By sunset on April 15, 1861, the people of Fredericksburg knew they were going to war.

Just a few years before, Hunnicutt’s newspaper, The Christian Banner, had been the most popular rag in Fredericksburg. On April 16, 1861, faced with nothing but hostility from his anti-Unionist neighbors, Hunnicutt suspended publication of his newspaper. Continue reading

Fredericksburg April 12, 1861

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.”

The other side of Swisshelm’s rage–Confederate women, the hated Yankees, and calculations to preserve home

From John Hennessy:

In a recent post I shared the 1866 testimony of Jane Swisshelm blistering the women of Fredericksburg for their apparent ambivalence (or worse) toward the flood of Union wounded in 1864. The bitterness cut both ways, and Swisshelm’s anger was in fact the product of some calculated decisions on the part of Confederate women in the region–calculations intended not to impose suffering, but intended to preserve both homeplace and what these women saw as their honor as Confederate citizens. Many women in and around Fredericksburg came to despise Yankees fiercely and eloquently. When confronted with suffering Union wounded, they grappled with am immense moral dilemma: could they aid those they had long damned? The reticence of Confederate women was the spark to Jane Swisshelm’s fire.  She saw in their ambivalence pure inhumanity and selfishness.  In fact, of course, the calculations of local women were far more complex than all that.

Evidence of that is clear in the two letters presented here.  The first is a missive written by Sallie Todd in Spotsylvania County, who lived just west of Todd’s Tavern, about 13 miles west of Fredericksburg. Sallie’s place was overrun by battle on May 7 and 8. She wrote her letter just a week later and clearly expressed her conflicted emotions upon having to deal with Union wounded.

Sallie Todd's house in the 1930s

Mother was awfully frightened, but I did not feel at all frightened; I did not think we would be killed. I was afraid the house would take fire, but thank God, our lives were spared, though everything else was destroyed. We have nothing in the world but what little we managed to conceal in the house. Our house was only searched once, and by the meanest kind of wretches, one came and tried to get into the milk closet, but I stood before him arid would not let him go in. Continue reading

Fredericksburg to get some TV time

From John Hennessy:

On Monday night, April 11, from 8-11 the National Geographic Channel will run a three-part series called “Civil Warriors.” The show follows descendants of participants in the war as they unpeel the experience of their ancestor. The 9 p.m. episode will include a segment on John Washington and his descendants Maureen and Roberto Ramos, who visited Fredericksburg last fall. And Abby Hopper Gibbons, whom we have written about here, is also profiled. I’m not certain of what else in store, but the promotional video they have done seems promising.  You’ll note the unmissable presence of our friend Rob Hodge. Here’s the NG website.

The nexus between history and politics–the tradition of a singular, shared culture and heritage

From John Hennessy:

To give you a sense of how intertwined culture, tradition, and politics have become, let me tell you a story.

About a year ago I gave a program to a group about slavery and the Civil War in Fredericksburg. It was strictly history—a pretty serious and wide-ranging conversation about slavery, secession, and war. Everyone seemed open to what I was saying; no one fled the room in a fit.

At the end I decided to ask the group a question, insisting that everyone there (about 55 people I’d guess) give an answer by show of hands.

“Who to you think I voted for 2008?”

The vast majority of the people guessed that I voted for Barack Obama.

Think about that. Because of the nature of a discussion about events 150 years ago, people presumed a political bent–that a particular perspective on history is somehow related to a political inclination or philosophy today.  Can there be more vivid evidence of the degree to which Civil War History and our own culture are bound together?  But why?

I have often heard, and reflected on, the dismissal of solidly documented, just history as “politically correct”–the implication that by conveying history in accordance with scholarship rather than tradition that we are somehow party to a political agenda.  Pure devotion to the traditional role of sites as memorials  and nothing more necessarily commands us to narrow the scope of our historical inquiry–to limit ourselves only to those things that support that narrowed, commemorative mission. Jerry Russell, the late, heroic battlefield preservationist and perhaps the greatest of all advocates of the continued and singular view of battlefields as memorials, felt strongly that that’s exactly what we should do.  His rationale rested on his belief (shared by many) that the nation needs a single heritage, a single national memory:  “This nation’s future and survival rests upon all Americans having a shared experience, a shared understanding of American history, a shared language, and a shared culture–a culture that unites us, not one which divides us.” One version. A common understanding.  A single memory.

But the obvious question: whose memory becomes The One? White Southerners? Northern abolitionists? Slaves? The women North and South who jumped into industrial jobs?

As it relates to the Civil War, Jerry Russell’s wish for a singular, uncontested memory was an American reality for probably a century.  I would suggest that it is this tradition (and for some, aspiration) of a single, common heritage that is at the rub of our profession: to some eyes, the Civil War is the last bastion of the American tradition of a single, uncontested heritage.  Which explains why, when that singular tradition is threatened by more expansive, challenging scholarship, people argue so passionately in defense of tradition, and why what we do is assumes in some eyes a hue of politics.