Democracy’s dark day–the May 1861 secession vote in Fredericksburg, part 2

From John Hennessy (for Part 1 of this post, click here; for other posts about Fredericksburg’s march toward secession, click here and here. Robert Moore has done  a post on the May 23 vote in his part of the world–the Valley–that describes much of the same strong-arming that took place in Fredericksburg.  )

Dowdall's Tavern in Spotsylvania County, one of the polling places on May 23, 1861

The number is breathtaking: 1,323 – 0.
That oft-quoted score constitutes the results of Spotsylvania County’s vote on secession on May 23, 1861. Indeed, in Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania only a half-dozen souls voted against secession, while more than 2,000 voted in favor of the ordinance. These figures are often quoted to demonstrate the unanimous and purposeful spirit of local residents when it came to the nascent Confederacy. Indeed, given that Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania had months before elected a decided moderate on the question of secession (John L. Marye of Brompton), and that just three months before he had voted AGAINST secession, and was applauded locally for doing so, that the community would come together in seeming unanimity in favor of secession and war (there could be no mistaking by May that one would beget the other), the turn in the sentiments of the electorate seems nothing short of astonishing.

There is no doubt that the majority of local residents favored secession and war in May 1861. But the big fat ZERO in the calculus hints that something else was at work. In this community was a significant core of Unionists–many of them transplants from the North–whose sentiments were clearly not reflected in the May 23 vote.  Why?  A single reason:  intimidation–a widespread, systematic effort on the part of secessionists to silence or influence the votes of would-be dissenters.

Bear in mind the circumstances: Virginia formally joined the Confederacy on May 6, two weeks BEFORE its citizens voted to take the state out of the Union. Clearly, after the vote of the secession convention on April 17, everything else was mere formality.  Given that, secessionists sought virtual perfection at the polls, and they resorted to some un-democratic means to get it.

Much of the testimony regarding voter intimidation comes from the post-war  damage claims made to the Federal government by local residents. Two conditions governed the granting of those claims: first, whatever damages being claimed had to have been inflicted by the Union army, and, second, the person making the claim had to prove that he had been loyal to the Union throughout the war. An obvious problem for those claiming loyalty was an affirmative vote for secession. And so the records include extensive explanations of why so many Unionists voted FOR secession–and thus comes to us a fairly stunning record of intimidation.  (Obviously, given the self-interest of those trying to explain away a “yes” vote on secession, these records need to be used carefully. Still, the testimony is in its collective mass compelling and consistent–so much so that it seems the postwar review boards generally disregarded the secession vote as an indicator–or not–of loyalty.)

Hunnicutt, Fredericksburg's unabashed Unionist, and ultimately perhaps the most hated resident in Fredericksburg's history.

James Hunnicutt, the editor of the Unionist newspaper, the Christian Banner, received explicit threats that if he did not stop publishing his newspaper, “my paper would be stopped for me.” (Hunnicutt suspended publication on May 9.) When it came to the vote itself, Hunnicutt succumbed to pressure on that too.  “I had a wife, and my daughter was in North Carolina.  My two sons were here, and all my churches, all my friends every interest I had upon earth save my common country, was south of the Potomac river.  What should I do?  Should I act the part of a madman, of a natural fool, and stay away and either be hung or driven out of my State never to see my wife and children and friends again?” (Hunnicutt’s vote for secession did nothing to gain him goodwill in Fredericksburg. He probably still holds the mantle of being the most reviled resident in Fredericksburg’s history.)

The rub of the matter for voters was this: votes were given by voice, in the presence of other citizens, placing prospective “no” voters in a difficult place. When in Fredericksburg two men voted against secession, local miller Thomas F. Knox (who would send six sons into the Confederate army), arose and declared that “the man who next so voted should be hung.” Those indeed were the last “no” votes of the day. Continue reading

The secession vote, part 1: the lament of Judge Lomax, May 23, 1861

From John Hennessy:

Judge John Tayloe Lomax

Exactly 150 years ago today, the people of Fredericksburg went to the polls to ratify (or–theoretically–not) the ordinance of secession. In Fredericksburg, the vote took place at the courthouse on Princess Anne Street. While some greeted the day with joy or simply saw the vote as confirmation of a foregone conclusion, for many the vote represented profound moment. In Fredericksburg, perhaps the most dramatic moment came when one of the town’s pre-eminent citizens, Judge John Tayloe Lomax, arrived at the Circuit Courthouse, over which he had presided for 27 years (he retired in 1857). Lomax was born in Caroline County, but became a mainstay of Fredericksburg society as the judge of Virginia’s 5th Circuit Court in Fredericksburg. He was for many years on the faculty of the law school at the University of Virginia, where he schooled at least three men who would become central to secession and the aspiring Confederacy–R.M.T. Hunter, Robert Toombs of Georgia, and Alexander H.H. Stuart. When not sitting on the bench or traveling to Charlottesville, Lomax operated a small law school in town. His prodigies included men who became some of the town’s most visible secessionists:  William S. Barton, John L. Marye, Jr., William A. Little, and Dabney Maury.

The Lomax house still stands at the corner of Hanover and Prince Edward Streets. It was heavily Victorianized after the Civil War. 1930s photo by the WPA.

By May 1861, the 80-year-old Lomax was “enfeebled by recent sickness,” and his appearance at the polls seemed to embody the determination and moral force of the Confederate cause as Virginians saw it. “With tottering steps, supported by friends,” the judge made his way up the courthouse steps. Sensing the expectations of others and inclined to a “rhetorical style and the cultivation of the graces of oratory,” Lomax paused to speak.  The assemblage (which otherwise had been quite raucous, as we shall see in part 2 of this post) went silent. “It was a scene calculated to produce a deep impression,” reported the Fredericksburg News. Lomax,  his voice feeble from both “weakness and emotion,” brought many to tears, and captured clearly the profound dilemma that faced thoughtful people across the South. Continue reading

An apocalyptic disappointment in Spotsylvania–1889

From John Hennessy (we’ll be doing a real post tomorrow, but in the meantime, here’s something touching on a current theme):

Yesterday was not the first time the Apocalypse failed to arrive on time in the Fredericksburg region.  In October 1889, word went out over the national wires that an Adventist sect in near Screamersville, Spotsylvania County (a stop on the railroad linking Orange and Fredericksburg) had predicted that the world would come to an end on October 23, 1889, and if not “tonight, then certainly before the end of the month.” The Hartford Courant reported that the prediction had created “considerable excitement,” and that “a number of farmers have left their homes, turned their stock out on the commons and are living at the Adventist camp.  Others refuse to work and only go home at night.  Many farmers have not sowed their fall wheat on this account and say they will not put a single grain of seed in the ground, as the Lord will certainly come this year.”  The paper reported that about fifty Spotsylvanians were at the Adventist Camp, “waiting patiently and confidently for the end of the world.”

The phenomenon of the “Moonwalk,” May 2, 1996

From John Hennessy:

The trace of the Mountain Road at Chancellorsville, where Jackson was wounded.

It was perhaps the most amazing, curious interpretive event I have ever been involved with–made so not by its content, but rather by its literal atmospherics. This now-legendary program (at least within the park staff) proved two things:  Stonewall Jackson can still draw a crowd even 134 years after his death, and people will jump at the chance to get close to history, even in its most ethereal form.

The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996.  We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.

Frank O’Reilly was to lead the tour. At the time, I was the park’s Assistant Superintendent (a REAL bureaucrat, even in title), and offered to help with logistics and to be available if anything came up. We planned the program to start at 7:30, and to be done by 8:30 (before full darkness fell). We agreed beforehand that if some folks wanted to hang around until the anniversary minute (put by most accounts at 9 p.m.), we would hang too. We even calculated the likely moment. Adjusting an hour for daylight savings time and the 1883 adjustment for the imposition of Railway Time in Virginia (by most accounts about 11 minutes in this part of Virginia), we put the time of Jackson’s wounding at 10:11. Given that that was nearly two hours after the original program ended, we figured few if any would want to linger that long.

The stone place in the 1880s to mark (erroneously) the site of Jackson's wounding.

We expected a good crowd–maybe 60 or 80 people, given the quirky uniqueness of the evening. I drove into the parking lot just short of 7 and was astonished at what I saw. Not dozens, but hundreds of people, the lot overflowing, visitors swarming around the visitor center. By 7:15 we had probably 400 people on hand. Frank and I did some emergency recalculations, split them into two groups as best we could (Frank’s far larger than mine–people who come to see Frank O’Reilly want to see Frank O’Reilly, and not the second string), and came up with a plan to move the groups through what by any measure is a small space.

That done, as we waited for 7:30, I started talking to people. Continue reading

CWPT Unveils Fredericksburg App.–and wireless digital media rattles the cage of traditional onsite interpretation

From John Hennessy:

With yesterday’s release of a new I-phone app for Fredericksburg Battlefield by the Civil War Trust, it seems like a good time to revisit a post we did way back when on the emergence wireless digital media.

We are rapidly moving toward a world where fixed, structural onsite interpretation (like the wayside exhibit at Jackson Shrine, above) will be obsolete. Someday not far off, visitors will come armed with wireless devices–think not cellphones and Blackberries, but I-Pad and its successors–that will deliver film, maps, audio, animation, and other nifty things that will make current wayside exhibits seem like 1950s TV (quaint and nostalgic, but clearly out of date).  This is not a bad thing. In fact, we ought to look forward to the possibilities of more dynamic presentation of media.  Our visitors deserve it.

(Apropos to this, and contrary to popular perceptions, between 80% and 85% of our visitors are completely reliant on media for their interpretive experience onsite.  Put another way, only 15%-20% of our visitors attend live programs by one of the park’s historians–this due to a combination of timing and inclination on the part of visitors. Media, obviously, shapes the quality of experience for most of our visitors.)

But the transition to digital media raises some very interesting issues.  As it has been, the NPS largely owns both the sites and whatever interpretation visitors receive on that site. The marketplace offers visitors a few choices in the form of guidebooks and CD-based tours, but these reflect a tiny slice of the market. Visitors generally get what the NPS gives them.

The release of the new app yesterday puts us on the threshold of a new era.  Five or ten or twenty years from now, visitors will be a able to stand in the Sunken Road (by then likely devoid of traditional wayside exhibits) and shop a marketplace of products for onsite interpretation–choosing a source of interpretive media from any number of suppliers for delivery to whatever portable device they have.  While no doubt many visitors may reflexively look to the NPS for their product, the fact remains that interpretation will be buffeted by market forces that simply do not exist today.  Visitors will inevitably (and should) gravitate toward products that offer the best experience for the best price, or the one that suits their particular interest or inclination (it’s easy to imagine, for example, that non-profits like the SCV or Civil War Preservation Trust could develop their own interpretive universes, or an aspiring tech firm might develop products strong on glitz).

Continue reading

Wanted: cool stuff from your attic

From John Hennessy:

This Saturday, May 7, the Fredericksburg Area Museum will host a visit from the Library of Virginia’s popular and successful Civil War 150th Legacy Project.  This project hopes to inspire everyday people who have family papers, letters, diaries, or images to come forth and have them digitally preserved through scanning and incorporated into the permanent digital collections at the Library of Virginia. The project thus far has produced some impressive results across the state.

So if you have something in the family trove that can be scanned, bring it in. (The focus is on those things not preserved elsewhere.)  The event runs all day at the Fredericksburg Area Museum.  Appointments are a must, since it can often take some time to assess and scan everything. For more information, click here.  To make an appointment, call the museum at 540 371-3037 x 140 or send an email to