Some tidbits on Alum Springs

Veterans at Alum Springs

Today it is a park–“Alum Springs,” along Hazel Run just west of the Blue-Gray Parkway. I daresay not many people give much thought to how it came to be or what it was, but in fact Alum Springs has a fairly complex history. Beyond the springs themselves–in the upper end of the park and once productive of waters believed to be curative–Alum Springs was the site of one of Fredericksburg’s few upland mills, the scene of at least two duels, and by legend a refuge for refugees during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

By far the best source on historic Alum Springs is Robert Reid Howison, who became a notable historian of both Fredericksburg and Virginia in the 19th Century. Howison was a lawyer, the brother of Jane Howison Beale, and after the Civil War the owner of Braehead along what is today North Lee Drive. His article “Dueling in Virginia,” [William and Mary Quarterly, October 1924.(Vol. IV, No. 4), pp. 217-218] includes a good deal of background about Alum Springs.  After this excerpt I have posted a number of images of the area today.

…It became a common source of enjoyment to the ladies and more refined men of the town to make up walking parties, and, in the temperate and delicious afternoons of the autumn season to walk out of the town, generally to the spot known as “Alum Springs Rock,” about two miles from the Court House in Fredericksburg. A mill site and dam for the old “Drummond’s Mill” then existed and a lake of pure water of the “Hazel Run” was just in front of “Alum Springs Rock.” In the freezes during he winter seasons this lake was frequented by many skaters. It furnished also the very hardest and best ice, which was eagerly gathered into ice-houses, private and public, in Fredericksburg, and was advertised as “Alum Spring ice,” and highly appreciated. Continue reading

Schooling antebellum style

From John Hennessy:

One of the most common questions I get is about school and education and Fredericksburg before the Civil War–indeed, Hannah offered up that very question earlier today over at Mysteries and Conundrums. My work on the topic is limited, but here’s what I know–with the request that if anyone knows more, we’d be happy to have you pitch in.

Smithsonia was the Female Orphan Asylum, and it still stands on Amelia Street. It housed and educated as many as 15 girls at a time.

For decades before the Civil War, Virginia’s elites railed against the concept of universal education (and the likely taxes attached thereto) so loudly trumpeted by Jefferson and Madison. That meant Virginians were largely on their own, which in turn meant that education was the domain of the very rich or, ironically, very poor. (Susan Dunn has some excellent passages on the retarded state of Virginia’s education in her book Dominion of Memories, which you should read if you have not.)  The value of education for the masses was hardly recognized by those masses in the years before the Civil War.  The Virginia Herald of November 28, 1830, includes this lament that most students would likely have agreed with (many surely still do).

“What are the beatitudes of a scholastic paradise? To be fagged, flogged, thumped, and coerced to mental labor and constrained in personal liberty. This may be all very proper and salutary (so is physic) but it is not happiness, and there is very, very rarely an instance of a boy, while he is in one of these prisons of the body, and treadmills of the mind, who is – not always wishing to get out of school and to get home.

Fredericksburg had schools for both rich and poor children, boys and girls, plus of course the common run of private tutors working with individual families. There were probably more than a dozen purely private, tuition-based schools in Fredericksburg. Continue reading

Fredericksburg and the new Confederacy

From John Hennessy:

We have passed the 150th Anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as President of the new Confederate states, which at the time did NOT include Virginia. The people of Fredericksburg watched the tragic contortions of a nation in crisis with great interest. But they did not react to notably to Davis’s inauguration. Instead, Fredericksburgers and Virginians in general navigated a careful course–still uncertain whether their interests could best be protected within or outside the Union.

On December 17, 1860, the people of Fredericksburg (at least the white residents) adopted a document that would be by far the town’s most important collective expression on Union and disunion–indeed it would be their blueprint for the secession crisis. They mapped out precisely how the community–and by extension presumably the state–would respond in the face of the acts of the Federal government. The document clearly states the cause of white Fredericksburgers’ grievances, their self-image as Southerners, and precisely what acts would bring them to conclude that Virginia must leave the Union. The Fredericksburg News said of the meeting that produced this collective resolution, “We have only time to say that we have never seen more unanimity than was expressed last night in the Citizens’ Meeting….The sentiment of all present was to preserve the Union if it be possible on terms alike honorable to both parties.  If this be impossible, then placing ourselves upon our rights, under the guidance of providence, to stand by them come weal or woe.”

Here is the text of the resolutions adopted; they would, in fact, be the road map for the town’s descent into secession. Continue reading

Nautical connections: Fredericksburg’s three legit naval heroes

A guest post from Russ Smith, Superintendent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP.

[ We are pleased to welcome Russ Smith to Fredericksburg Remembered. Russ has done extensive work on the Herndon Family over the last several years, and has thus encountered many things Naval in nature. He shares with us some of his observations about some of Fredericksburg’s nautical connections.]

Fredericksburg is fortunate that a wise and farsighted city government has strengthened the city’s ties to the Rappahannock River.  Like many river towns, 20th century Fredericksburg virtually turned its back on the river that once provided access to the world.  City Council has reversed that trend by embarking on projects to physically reconnect the community to the river.  As these changes take place, it is fitting to reconnect with Fredericksburg’s maritime heritage as well. 

Matthew Fontaine Maury

A particularly interesting epoch of that heritage took place in the mid-19th century with three Fredericksburg officers who gained national fame within years of each other.  Ironically, these naval heroes, Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873), William Lewis Herndon (1813-1857), and Neil McCoul Howison (1805-1848) are most recognized for the contributions they made on dry land, rather than the sea.   

It’s not surprising that young men in 19th century Fredericksburg should dream of going to sea.  Ocean-going ships may have given up on the painful slog up the Rappahannock River, but ships still made regular runs from the town to the major seaports of Baltimore and Norfolk.  Maritime activities still employed Fredericksburg residents.  The 1850 U.S. Census for Fredericksburg still listed 29 sailors, 1 Navy captain, 3 Navy lieutenants, plus 1 seaman and 1 boatman. Continue reading

Down the Potomac to Aquia and Stafford County: Unique Glimpses of Antebellum Life on the River

from: Harrison

The ship-to-shore fighting at Aquia Landing in late May and early June 1861 noisily raised the curtain on a new genre of literature featuring that place and other locales in the Fredericksubrg area: accounts of life within and between two contending militaries.

These wartime diaries, letters, and reports, and the postwar reminiscences that followed, overshadowed a subtler but still intriguing genre focusing on prewar life, which itself had not lacked for contention and conflict.

At one place in particular, antebellum life acquired a scenic, contemplative backdrop as it flowed along one of the the busiest corridors in Virginia:  the railroad that opened from Richmond to Fredericksburg in 1837, and in 1842 from Fredericksburg to Aquia Landing. When northbound passengers reached the railroad terminus at Aquia and transferred to steamboats for the next stage of their journey, to Washington and railroad connections to points beyond, they made a sudden transition from confining, monotonous views of scrubby woodlands bordering the tracks to broad vistas of the Potomac River. Since the eighteen-teens, Potomac steamboats had been carrying passengers to and from Alexandria, Washington, and various landings in the Fredericksburg area.

While my knowledge of the literature on antebellum Potomac life is not sufficient for me to nominate its ideal eyewitness writer, I am able to recommend, highly, at least one eyewitness illustrator. On a June day in 1853, a British artist and curator named George Wallis voyaged from Washington down the Potomac to Aquia Landing, where he would board a train that carried him through Fredericksburg to Richmond. Wallis was in the midst of what ultimately became a 5,000-mile tour, tasked by his government with evaluating American art and manufactures.

Thanks to the generosity of a descendant, part of Wallis’ portfolio today resides at the Library of Congress.

In the course his journey down the Potomac, on June 26, 1853, Wallis sketched a steamboat:

blog Wallis a 2 final
Continue reading

Slavery and secession in Fredericksburg–Marye’s views

From John Hennessy [Please note:  We’ll be going quiet for a few days over the holiday, but will pick up again in its aftermath. A good holiday to all–poke around in the old stuff while we are away.]:

In Fredericksburg, the question of Union or secession was clearly entangled with the issue of slavery.  While editorialists did indeed rail about a state’s rights and the “vexing power of the national government,” when they particularized their grievances, they usually pointed toward slavery as the lynchpin upon which the relationship between the government and the South turned.  Jesse White of the Weekly Advertiser–the most radical of the local newspapers–was typical:

The institution of slavery in Virginia, is indeed, a most important feature of her progess… [Such] is the parallelism between her prosperity and its utility, that there is no section of the country where political and social relations would be more sadly changed than Virginia by a change in present relations.

Even the rabidly Unionist editor James Hunnicutt, who fought secession long after it had taken place, embraced the justice and necessity of slavery.

Most telling is the fact that when Fredericksburgers selected a delegate to the secession convention, John L. Marye Sr., they selected a man who owned significant property, including fourteen slaves.  Nearly two months prior to the election, Marye wrote a letter, published in the local newspaper, that clearly laid out his views on secession and slavery (on the former he was moderate; on the issue of slavery, he was typical).

There is in the North a party of fanatics who are wrought up to phrenzy on the subject of slavery….They do not see that our earliest records refer to slavery as existing and no where treated it as a novelty. They do not see that Christ came upon earth to instruct us in our duty, and finding slavery established, not only did not condemn it, but, on the contrary, explained the relative duties of master and servant…. In all arable countries there were slaves, and slavery continued to exist while it was profitable. The gain of the slave is in doing as little as he can; the gain of the freeman is in doing as much as he can…. It would be well for all parties concerned if they would bear in mind that this question of slavery is a vital one in the South, and there is nothing in the history of the Southern States which would lead to the opinion that they would submit to interference on that subject…..If these good people are really disposed to befriend the slave, they will gain that end much more surely by not making it absolutely necessary for the master to draw tighter the chords of bondage.

This wonderfully concise, articulation of Marye’s views on slavery is, in its sentiments, unremarkable. There was little public dispute about the place of slavery in Southern or Fredericksburg society. The surviving editorials, letters, newspaper accounts, and testimony make clear that the debate in Fredericksburg as it related to secession hinged not on the existence or justice of slavery, but on its protection–and what its loss or limit at the hands of an intrusive Federal government implied for the future of the South. Would slavery be better protected inside or outside the Union?

Marye’s status as a slave owner and his views on slavery were base requirements for his election, and were in themselves not decisive in his lopsided victory (his opponent, William S. Barton, also owned slaves). Rather it was Marye’s conservative views on secession–his argument that the South’s rights and institutions would best be served by remaining in the Union–that garnered him his 2-1 margin in votes. Given the rhetoric of the time, it’s hard to imagine the town selecting someone to make that argument who was not invested in the institution most at risk.

A future king visits Fredericksburg–and the slaves hope

From John Hennessy:

Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales, in a photo taken just a month after his visit to Fredericksburg.

Tomorrow night we give a reprise of “Footfalls of the Presidents” at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. We’ll reference most of the 25 presidents (sitting, past, or future) who have visited Fredericksburg, but will not reference the lone king–and so I offer that up here.

In the fall of 1860, the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward–the future King Edward VII (1901-1910) of the United Kingdom–undertook a high-profile tour of the United States on behalf of his mother, Queen Victoria. To New York and Washington the 19-year-old went, and along the way he made a brief stop in Fredericksburg just after noon on Saturday October 6.  “A great crowd of people were assembled at the depot, cheering and shouting,” reported the New York Herald. As the  prince emerged from his car, someone in the audience threw a bouquet of flowers that struck him in the chest. The impact “frightened him for a moment, as he did not expect to be ‘pelted with roses,'” reported the Fredericksburg News. “He picked it up and bowed his thanks.”  The Prince was, the News concluded, “a Very Pretty Boy.”

Someone accompanying the prince told him that Fredericksburg was the home of Washington and “the only finished city in the United States.” This latter point irked the locals, for it implied stagnancy, and indeed the smirking remark would be remembered bitterly in the local press for years. The interloping tour guide spoke of Washington’s boyhood here, his membership in the Masons, and the home of his mother marry.  The prince was “deeply interested.”

The railroad depot that greeted the Prince of Wales is the cantilevered building with the white gable at upper right.

Mayor Montgomery Slaughter was at the depot to greet the Prince. A band played “God Save the Queen.” The News recorded that local African-Americans seemed especially excited, “bowing and courtseying to the ground, praying ‘God Bless Massa.'” The Herald noted, “The Prince came out and bowed, curiously inspecting the slaves, as if he expected to see some badge upon them.”

The News explained the appearance of slaves at the depot thus: “It is said the negroes believed the Prince of Wales was coming here to set them free. We think the negroes have more sense. They are freer now than most Northern poor people” (a popular refrain in 1860 Virginia).

Fighting for Fredericksburg’s streets: marbles and cents and shooting hogs

From John Hennessy:

We have this idea that children are newly annoying–that in the good days, children behaved, watched their manners, and never engaged in untoward–God forbid even illegal–behavior.  Here’s some evidence that adults have always complained about the tendency of children not to follow the grown-ups’ rules. It appears in the Weekly Advertiser for January 29, 1859, under the title “Pitching Cents.”

There is an ordinance of the corporation forbidding this game in the streets, and yet it is done on Main street, almost daily, and actually in sight of the officers. The writer of this has several times stopped it in front of his door, not a long walk from the post office.

By far the best image of Fredericksburg's 19th century streets is this 1864 view of William Street between Charles and Princess Anne. By most accounts, the trash and debris seen here was typical even in peacetime. Town council fought a constant battle to keep the streets neat and clear.


The gambling that is still suffered to be carried on in our streets, is on the increase. On Hanover street, between Main [Caroline] and the African Church (on Sophia), crowds of boys, black and white, may be frequently seen though the week, especially on Sunday, to the annoyance of the quiet of this section of town.  We do earnestly hope that he officers will put a stop to this disgusting practice of pitching cents, and playing marbles, which is truly demoralizing.

Council also waged a persistent battle to keep Fredericksburg’s streets clear of hogs. In 1806 council indicated it would have all hogs wandering the streets shot. But the next year, perhaps sensing opportunity, council declared all hogs in the streets would be caught and resold. In 1814, councilmen reverted back to the shooting policy…until finally in 1832 council simply banned hogs in town altogether, though that did little to solve the problem. Several more times over the years council alternately threatened to shoot or sell stray hogs. But still the porkers wandered (though one hasn’t been seen on the streets in a while).

At other times, council passed laws preventing residents from building houses or fences in the streets (1809) and preventing residents from leaving dead animals on public thoroughfares.  But war changed their attitude. In 1862, council gave permission for the streets to be blocked in the construction of Confederate gunboats (none were ever completed here).

Sophia Street–historic change and a look back

From John Hennessy:

The 700 block of Sophia Street today--the site of the new Riverside Park. Shiloh Old Site is in the distance.

Every town has such a street or neighborhood—the place where all else that doesn’t seem quite to fit resides, the place where constant change is the rule, and constancy seems elusive. Fredericksburg’s Sophia Street—especially below the Chatham Bridge—is such a place.  Known for decades as Water Street, its status as Fredericksburg’s “utility room” is rooted in its nearness to the river, which every few years rises to submerge sections of the street, rendering all in its path dubious, if not ruined.  The regular ebb and flow of water—along with every town’s need for utility space—rendered Sophia/Water Street what it was: a slightly awkward, sporadic mix of open space, modest houses and (below the bridge) tenements, with a sprinkling of warehouses, outhouses, an icehouse, and even a jail thrown in.  At its southern terminus sat the town docks.

Today the 500-900 blocks of Sophia Street are undergoing a historic change, as the city seeks to reconnect to the Rappahananock River waterfront. Below Chatham Bridge over the last six seven decades, buildings have come down periodically–some to make way for more parking, and more recently for a riverside park.  Parking areas now back up to the businesses on Caroline Street, rendering the west side of Sophia slightly disarranged. The changes going on now have the feel of permanence about them, which inspires a look backward. (Bear in mind that the most recent improvements on Sophia–the construction of Riverside Park–have not claimed buildings of historic import. The lost buildings discussed below were taken down more than a half-century ago).

The former sites of buildings on the east (river) side of Sophia Street.

By far the most prominent building on mid-Sophia Street was the original Fredericksburg Baptist Church.  When the white Baptists moved to the bigger, present present site on Princess Anne Street, they sold the original church to its African-American members.  The African Baptist Church became, after emancipation, Shiloh Baptist Church, and the congregation still exists on that site.

Sitting somewhat awkwardly next to the church was the community ice house, clearly visible in wartime images.

The African Baptist Church, and next to it the ground-level roof of the community ice house, owned in 1862 by A.P. Rowe.

Below the icehouse was a mix of tenements and single-family homes, steadily demolished over the years, mostly to make way for new parking in the 20th century. These sorts of working class houses have become increasingly rare in Fredericksburg (we’ll point out a few survivors in future posts).

719 Sophia Street, just below the African Baptist Church

The site of 719 today. Continue reading

The Exchange Hotel: temporary home for escaped slaves

From John Hennessy:

The conventional wisdom in Fredericksburg is that the Exchange Hotel, at the corner of Caroline and Hanover Streets, was not built until after the Civil War.  Not so.  More than that, we have just discovered a piece of the building’s history that surely elevates this already notable place to the upper echelons of Fredericksburg’s wartime structures.

The Exchange Hotel, corner of Caroline and Hanover

Before the Civil War, the Exchange Hotel was owned by the irrepressible Peter Goolrick, who lived across the street (where Irish Eyes now is) and owned more properties in Fredericksburg than anyone else. The hotel burned in late 1857, apparently completely, and spectacularly so–the falling rubble actually did minor damage to Goolrick’s house across the way. Goolrick was, however, covered by insurance, and by 1859 or so, reconstruction began.  According to newspaper accounts, the re-built building was largely completed before the Civil War.  But, because of the war, the hotel did not open until 1868–hence the belief in its postwar construction date. The Exchange is perhaps the largest ante-bellum privately owned building in Fredericksburg .  When it reopened it was valued at $13,000, making it one of the most valuable buildings in town.

We have known nothing of the history of hotel during the war, until now.  The presence of the Union army stimulated the exodus of as many as 10,000 slaves from surrounding counties. Their destination: Fredericksburg, the Rappahannock, and eventually Aquia Landing and Washington DC. This exodus presented a major challenge to Union authorities. We have known that they used the Circuit Courthouse on Princess Anne Street. But here is something new. The Richmond Examiner of September 19, 1862, includes a fabulous account of the Union occupation of town that summer and this reference to the Exchange Hotel.

“The new Exchange hotel and the Court House were turned into negro quarters, and from five to fifteen hundred negroes were generally loitering around.  When they got too thick they were sent off, but continued accessions kept up the supply to the full capacity of the respective buildings.”

Next time you settle in for pesto nachos and a beer at J. Brian’s, ponder that previous use of the place.