From Noel Harrison:
Antebellum Virginia had few more attentive and charming chroniclers than George William Bagby, especially when it came to describing natural and historical attributes as mutually enhancing. A reprint of his reminiscences of canal travel beside the James River provided some of the most enjoyable reading of my college years.
On the eve of the Civil War, Bagby assumed the editorship of the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger. Its issue of April 1861 carried a brief but extraordinary article offering his diagnosis of, and therapy for, one of the ills afflicting Southerners along the eastern seaboard:
Everybody knows that people are like sheep. They follow their leader. Especially is this the case with travellers going North. Whether they go for business or for pleasure, they take the same beaten track, year after year, with the most persistent reverence for monotony. It is surprising that they are never tempted into any of the by-paths and out-of-the-way roads, for variety’s sake, or the “fun of the thing.” During the present year, and perhaps for many years to come, there will be little travelling northward, except by knapsack wearers. But, whenever peace is declared, tourists will be apt to take up their old line of march, and this will continue until the cities of the South present attractions equal to those of Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Sooner or later, Maryland will be in the Southern Republic, and thousands will go to Baltimore, if no further. To these, we respectfully recommend a slight change of programme.
Sure, Bagby acknowledged, war now loomed, and the only northbound tourists would be “knapsack wearers,” perhaps for years. Yet he saw military victory over the Yankees as certain, leaving as a deeper problem the myopic, Yankee-like haste and joylessness that the Richmond-Washington-Baltimore railroad corridor (including its northbound, Aquia-Washington steamboat connector along the Potomac River) imposed upon travelers.
Bagby’s article continued by highlighting Fredericksburg as a point of vital divergence for people headed north:
Don’t go on to Washington by way of Acquia Creek. Stop at Fredericksburg. It is a wonderfu[l] old town, filled with people of the good old Virginia stock…. The unfinished tomb of Mary, The Mother or Washington…and many other curious and ancient sights, are there.
Bagby then suggested,
After spending a few days…take the Rappahannock boats for Baltimore. Of these, there are two—” The Virginia” commanded by that patriarch of the Chesapeake flood, Capt. Noah Fairbanks…. The other boat is “The Logan,” an excellent and admirably arranged little steamer….
Even with Baltimore remaining the ultimate destination, the spell of the northward railroad-route should and could be broken, Bagby urged, first by imbibing the ancient and the whimsical in Fredericksburg, and then by shunning railroad travel in favor of a steamboat trip along the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay, following a route that for 95 miles meandered southeastward from Fredericksburg before eventually turning north and then extending 110 miles to Baltimore:
The river scenery, during three-fourths of the year, is beautiful in the extreme; and that part of the country around the lovely, sequestered English village of Port Royal, is pronounced by Mr. Geo. Fitzhugh [a social theorist and proslavery writer who lived there] the garden spot of the world. The wide lowlands and the broad sweep of the river, as it approaches the Bay, when seen for the first time, charm the tourist from upper Virginia. It seems a new and almost foreign country, so unlike is it to the bold hills and lofty mountains to which he is accustomed.
“[T]he ride up the Bay is well worth the trip,” Bagby concluded. “Once more we commend the Rappahannock route to all travellers going North.”
Immediately following Bagby’s rumination on tourism, that same issue of the Messenger featured an article in which he addressed the South’s more immediate challenges: a “great work is to be done,” he wrote of the split with the North. “A subject people are to be rescued from the dominion of fanatics….”
Some nine months after these words appeared in the Messenger, a Southerner who had lived for most of his life on the banks of the Rappahannock immediately downriver from Fredericksburg launched his own crusade to rescue a subject people. In June 1862, the New York-based National Anti-Slavery Standard published a biographical sketch of a former slave named Henry Tyler, who had made his way to Federal troops and was assisting them as a scout. According to the Standard, Tyler lived before the Civil War at “The Bend,” Alfred Bernard’s farm on the Spotsylvania County bank of the Rappahannock.
In 1863, Northern artist Alfred Waud visited Bernard’s property and started but did not finish this panoramic sketch of Fredericksburg, depicting the Rappahannock flowing towards the viewer and then angling sharp right before disappearing below the steep bank. (Waud had reached The Bend via one of the Franklin’s Crossing pontoon bridges anchored to the farm’s riverfront.)
Waud’s perspective and focus obscured the impacts of war upon the landscape—other than the emptiness of the town wharves. Unintentionally, then, his artwork captured the general, antebellum view shared by travelers arriving or departing Fredericksburg via Bagby’s beloved steamboats, and likely by Henry Tyler when he had an opportunity to watch their comings and goings.
Tyler, the Standard reported, had remained at The Bend until he was subjected to “inhuman treatment.” Around January 1862, when that farm and Fredericksburg were still well behind Confederate lines
he made harangues to the other slaves, and urged them all to strike for…freedom. After much urging and persuading, he at least prevailed upon fourteen to leave, and one dark, rainy night, $14,000 worth of Alfred Bernard’s property suddenly disappeared.
Thirteen of the fourteen escaped…. Henry, after seeing the other safely through, went back—travelled by night though the woods—with the intention of bringing off all the remaining slaves on Bernard’s plantation. In this attempt he was discovered. Of course, treatment of the most brutal and inhuman followed. …he was sent to Richmond, then confined…then sent to work at the bottom of a coal pit.
“The great work” that George Bagby predicted confidently in April 1861 proved elusive, thanks in part to he and other opinion-shapers perceiving convergent rather than divergent priorities…in a South that included Henry Tylers as well as George Fitzhughs. Yet Bagby was strikingly prescient, even amidst the distractions of secession, in his alarm over the spiritual and psychological effects of what later became known as the “rat race” along the East Coast’s principal transportation-corridor, as well as other busy places. This concern, together with his identification of tourism as a solution, would outlast the concern that the South could not coexist with the North under the same flag. Also fascinating and forward-thinking is Bagby’s understanding that a comprehensive approach to tourism incorporates both natural and historical attributes:
Public historians have updated the tourism-based therapy envisioned by Bagby by highlighting touchstones of the enslavement and freedom along the Rappahannock that he ignored, and the scars and relics of the battles there that he could not forsee:
Noel G. Harrison
Special thanks to Diane Elstein of the George Washington Foundation for answering an historical inquiry, and Jenn Allen of the Friends of the Rappahannock for photographic assistance. An online, multi-jurisdiction catalog of a broad array of tourist programming in the Fredericksburg area, including the trolley tours and the river cruises, is here.