Emancipation, Freedom, Life

From John Hennessy:

Washington, John.2493As we ponder and recognize the profound statement that was the Emancipation Proclamation–changing irretrievably the government’s relationship with slavery–it might be helpful to look at emancipation from the ground up.  And so, John Washington, a Fredericksburg slave.  We have written of John Washington before.

Washington wrote of the arrival of the Union army in April 1862. At the time he was working as a barkeeper in a busy hotel on Caroline Street.

April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quite, the Hotel was crowed with boarders who was Seated at breakfast A rumor had been circulated amoung them that the yankees was advancing. but nobody Seemed to beleive it, until every body Was Startled by Several reports of cannon. Then in an instant all Was Wild confusion as a calvaryman dashed into the Dining Room and said “the yankees is in Falmouth.” Every body Was on their feet at once, No-body finished but Some ran to their rooms to get a few things officers and soilders hurried to their Quarters every where was hurried words and hasty foot Steps.

 Mr Mazene Who had hurried to his room now came running back called me out in the Hall and thrust a roll of Bank notes in My hand and hurriedly told me to pay off all the Servants, and Shut up the house and take charge of every thing. (p.76) “If the yankees catch me they will kill me So I can’t Stay here,” “said he,” and was off at full spead like the wind. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. Every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt already like I Was certain of My freedom now.

After crossing into Union lines, he reflected on his new-found freedom.

A Most MEMORABLE night that was to me the Soilders assured me that I was now a free man ….They told me I could Soon get a Situation Waiting on Some of the officers. I had alread been offered one or two, and had determined to take one or the other as Soon as I could go over and get my cloths and Some $30.00 of My own. Before Morning I had began to fee(1) like I had truly escaped from the hands of the Slaves Master and with the help of God, I never would be a Slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim every cent that I Should work for  as My own. I began now to feel that life had a new Joy awaiting me. I might now go and come when I pleased So I wood remain With the army Until I got Enough Money to travel farther North. This was the FIRST NIGHT of My FREEDOM. It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I had ever seen. Thank God — 

Enough said.

A different sort of aftermath at the Sunken Road

From John Hennessy:

At the conclusion of Sunday’s culminating ceremony at the Sunken Road, we asked those who had carried flowers from the riverfront to the road place them on  “that small but immense barrier between men Union and Confederate,” the stone wall.  Doing this didn’t come into the program until relative late in our planning, but it turned out to be one of the most compelling aspects of the day for many people.

Laying flowers on the stone wall The flowers represented those who fell at Fredericksburg; one out of ten was red, to represent those who died. We were all awed by the sense of responsbility people took in placing the flowers. Clearly, having the chance to physically express themselves in this way meant a great deal.

Yesterday I recieved a note from one of our former law enforcement rangers, now retired, Lyne Shackelford. With his permission (and our thanks), I share with you what he wrote about the program, the wall, and the flowers.

Everything was great: the participants, Rangers, reenactors, crowd, speeches, cannonade, Sunken Road wall program, but for an ex law dog like me, you really got my attention.  Here’s the nub of what I’ll carry:  The idea of placing carnations on the wall was truly transformational…a gesture symbolic of all who suffered and died during the battle for Fredericksburg, or the war for that matter.  Until the anniversary yesterday, and ever since I came to Fredericksburg over 20-years ago, I’ve always viewed it as an inanimate objective, as some ancient artifact where so many men died as part of a fruitless, dirty, and bloody campaign.  The carnations we placed there yesterday seemed to sanctify the wall as a living body and memorial to those soldiers, whether they died there or not, embodying their spirit and those terrible times when they lived.   Steven Foster knew what he was talking about when he wrote “Hard Times Come Again No More” and you’ve helped me realize that this wall still represents that part of our condition today.  It’s not just a wall any more.  We take these memorials for granted sometimes…I grew up with them, but I think after this anniversary, I’ll begin to look at them just a little bit differently.

Letting history be complicated

From John Hennessy:

Chancellor house ruins smaller fileLast night I spoke on the experience of Fredericksburg’s civilians at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a historic and beautiful setting largely filled.  I ended  with a bit of a commentary on public history and the war.

At Fredericksburg, sacrifice, sadness, hurt, destruction, and death came in a fashion and in forms not seen before, affecting soldier and civilian alike, challenging the will of all. 

Many of you, perhaps, see the Civil War in a singular way.  A war for Union.  Or a War for Freedom.  A war for independence.  Resistance against aggression.  An effort to end oppression.  An effort to sustain oppression. 

Take your pick.  You are all right. 

Some of you see historical Yankees as vandals…invaders…   

You’d all be right again…. They sometimes were. 

But they were also ultimately agents of freedom….saviors of the Union of the United States. 

Southern soldiers and civilians were noble defenders of homes—courageous, devoted, beset by hardships. 

Many also owned slaves, and they waged war for a government committed to sustaining slavery.  They waged war in an attempt to dismantle the American Union. 

Some of you–with good reason–see the arrival of the Union army opposite Fredericksburg in 1862 as the darkest day in Fredericksburg’s history. 

The slave John Washington saw it as the greatest day of his life. 

Fact is, our history, our story tonight is all these things.  And that’s okay.  We needn’t succumb to our mania for defining people and events in a singular way, as good, bad, evil, or noble.  To do that requires us to assert the primacy of one story, one perspective over another.  To do that requires us to pretend history isn’t complicated. 

History is seen and understood differently by different people.

That fact doesn’t diminish our history—it enriches it.

Instead, I ask you to step back and look at these events, this place, as part of a great tide of history—a tide of many swirls and eddies, crosscurrents, and a good deal of flotsam—broken, discarded, ugly things we might wish were not there. 

But ultimately it is a tide that leads to our very doors. 

It teaches us and inspires us—the price paid, errors made, devotion demonstrated, and triumphs gained on our path to this place at this time as we continue to strive to shape this great nation. 

The Clock on St. George’s

From John Hennessy, on the eve of the 150th of Fredericksburg.

St George Epis Ch5 crooped someWhen next you are in town, look at the clock on the steeple of St. George’s Episcopal Church.  That’s the town clock, overlooking Market Square, keeping time for everyone to see for more than 160 years–laborers and lawyers, slaves and soldiers, mothers and middlemen.

That clock measured Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Fredericksburg in May 1862.  It signaled time for the church’s bells to ring on the hour and half hour—even in the darkest days of war–which in turn begged passersby to look up (we still do).  It marked the appointed time for auctions of slaves at the corner of Charles and William and for school in Jane Beale’s schoolhouse on Lewis.  It counted away the last minutes of thousands of lives.

On December 11, 1862, several Union cannoneers, their view of town obscured by smoke, chose to fire at the one thing they could see above the chaos below—the steeple with the clock on it.   At least one of them claimed to have hit it.

The clock may have stopped. We don’t know. If  so, it, like the war-torn rhythm of Fredericksburg’s days, soon started again.

Nothing more tangible than the turns of that clock, accumulated one-by-one over days and years and decades, separates us from Fredericksburg’s most tumultuous days.