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. It remained in limbo for just under a year–until the Union army arrived in Fredericksburg the following spring. (Hunnicutt would become perhaps the most reviled town resident in its history, but we’ll get into that a bit more in future posts.)
Hunnicutt had few like-minded neighbors in town, so in the days following Sumter the town would tumble toward war with apparent (though not complete) unanimity and enthusiasm. The News opined that Lincoln’s call for troops amounted to a declaration of war. “Virginia will not submit to a military dictator,” Editor Archibald Little declared. “Henceforth his subjects and we are two people.” On April 16, a correspondent of the News writing from Washington D.C. reflected the sentiments of a community bent on secession and, it knew, war.
“I have been an earnest and active advocate of every measure tending to preserve the bonds of our once glorious Union. I have preferred to bear and forbear, rather than forsake the hope of saving it. But I now weep to see that its very soul and spirit is dead. The President of a great and now dominant party has, in utter disregard of the fundamental principles which underlie the constitution, and with a wicked unconcern for the frightful miseries which may ensue, invoked a huge army to settle by the sword the grave political differences which divide the country. What should Virginia do? Can any one of her true sons doubt? Let her not lose a day in abandoning the polluting tie which connects her with such a Government. Let the voice of her people be heard from the Mountains to the Sea-shore, proclaiming resistance to this odious tyranny. Let her teach the Defiler of the seat consecrated by her Washington and Madison, that their teachings command her to resist and defy the Tyrant. Let her throw herself at once in the very van of the contest, and prove once more to a witnessing world that he will not submit to the ignominy of tyrannical domination, whatever may be the hazards of the conflict.”
Fredericksburg’s descent into war was now unstoppable. Little could any in the town imagine how fiercely that war would come back upon them in the coming years.