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

The other side of Swisshelm’s rage–Confederate women, the hated Yankees, and calculations to preserve home

From John Hennessy:

In a recent post I shared the 1866 testimony of Jane Swisshelm blistering the women of Fredericksburg for their apparent ambivalence (or worse) toward the flood of Union wounded in 1864. The bitterness cut both ways, and Swisshelm’s anger was in fact the product of some calculated decisions on the part of Confederate women in the region–calculations intended not to impose suffering, but intended to preserve both homeplace and what these women saw as their honor as Confederate citizens. Many women in and around Fredericksburg came to despise Yankees fiercely and eloquently. When confronted with suffering Union wounded, they grappled with am immense moral dilemma: could they aid those they had long damned? The reticence of Confederate women was the spark to Jane Swisshelm’s fire.  She saw in their ambivalence pure inhumanity and selfishness.  In fact, of course, the calculations of local women were far more complex than all that.

Evidence of that is clear in the two letters presented here.  The first is a missive written by Sallie Todd in Spotsylvania County, who lived just west of Todd’s Tavern, about 13 miles west of Fredericksburg. Sallie’s place was overrun by battle on May 7 and 8. She wrote her letter just a week later and clearly expressed her conflicted emotions upon having to deal with Union wounded.

Sallie Todd's house in the 1930s

Mother was awfully frightened, but I did not feel at all frightened; I did not think we would be killed. I was afraid the house would take fire, but thank God, our lives were spared, though everything else was destroyed. We have nothing in the world but what little we managed to conceal in the house. Our house was only searched once, and by the meanest kind of wretches, one came and tried to get into the milk closet, but I stood before him arid would not let him go in. Continue reading

Bitterness unchecked: Jane Swisshelm reflects on the women of Fredericksburg in 1866

The image of fraternity is firmly fixed in the American imagination as it relates to the Civil War. Men could kill each other, but in quieter moments still be inclined toward kindness, even brotherhood. To some wishful modern eyes, the war was absent of bitterness.

In fact, the war and its aftermath was tinged with intense rancor. No place do we see that more vividly than at Fredericksburg. Usually that rancor is the domain of Southerners, outraged at the fate of Fredericksburg and its civilians. But bitterness cut both ways, as evidenced by the words of Union caregiver Jane Swisshelm. Though largely unknown today, Swisshelm was one of America’s remarkable women of the mid-19th Century—a reformer, newspaper publisher, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate.

In May 1864, she was among probably 500 civilian relief workers (perhaps 30-40 of them women) who came to Fredericksburg to care for the flood of Union wounded from Wilderness and Spotsylvania—something close to a humanitarian catastrophe. Her experience in Fredericksburg, vividly described (though almost completely overlooked by historians) in an 1866 letter and postwar memoir, left her with perhaps the harshest vision of Fredericksburg women in existence. Swisshelm’s bitterness was fueled by the reluctance of Fredericksburg women to help. I present this not to suggest that her observations are in any way objective or valid—there is another side to this story, which we will explore in our next post.  I share it solely to demonstrate the powerful sense of anger that war engendered (we will share more of Swisshelm’s writings, along with a look at where she did her work, in a future post).

Swisshelm wrote this letter in September 1866—just over two years after her time in Fredericksburg, before notions of reconciliation compelled writers to leave out the “unseemly” aspects of the war. It was published in the Central Press, September 29, 1866. She did her work in the town’s theater, Citizens Hall, in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and in the courthouse—all on Princess Anne Street.

Princess Anne Street, taken almost directly in front of Citizens Hall and St. Mary's Catholic Church (Swisshelm's primary workplaces). Both are off the image to the left. The engine house mentioned by Swisshelm was on the side of the Circuit Courthouse--the building with the cupola.


Continue reading

Uproar in Fredericksburg 150 years later, Part 2: the end of Union, March 11, 1861

From John Hennessy (for Part 1 of this post, click here)

The Fredericksburg Courthouse, scene of the tumultuous March 11, 1861 meeting that marked the end of Fredericksburg’s dance with Unionism.

Lincoln’s inaugural, with its pledge to “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government,” transformed Fredericksburg’s collective view on secession. Local observers saw those words as the dreaded threat of “coercion” against the South, something Fredericksburgers and Virginians had long declared intolerable.  The  tumult of Fredericksburg’s debate over Union or secession came to a crescendo on March 11, 1861, when the town’s dwindling population of Unionists called a meeting at the courthouse on Princess Anne Street–an attempt to counter the turnout of secessionists in the same building just three days before. The spiritual leader of the town’s Unionists was newspaper editor James W. Hunnicutt, whose Christian Banner was Frederickburg’s best-selling paper in the years before the war. But Hunnicutt was not alone in his Unionist sympathies. Grocer Hugh Scott (the father of “shell baby” in 1862), clothier James McGuire, and Northern-born dentist M.A. Blankman were among a fair list of Fredericksburg luminaries in the courthouse that night. But, Hunnicutt soon divined, there were far more than just Unionists in attendance.

No, this is not John Brown, but James Hunnicutt, Fredericksburg’s unabashed Unionist, and ultimately perhaps the most hated resident in Fredericksburg’s history.

When Hugh Scott, the chair, called for a speech, George Henry Clay Rowe, a former elector for Stephen Douglas, a Unionist, a former agent of calm, rushed to the podium to speak. Rowe was 33-year-old lawyer who had carved out a successful practice in town, and while he eschewed elected office, he was everywhere involved in the town’s politics. In every public gathering prior to this night, he had espoused unwaveringly for Union. And as he approached the podium, Hunnicutt expected him to do so again.

But Hunnicutt was wrong.  Continue reading

Uproar in Fredericksburg 150 years later: the rise of secession and the end of Union, Part 1

From John Hennessy (for Part 2 of this post, click here):

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, Fredericksburg was undergoing a painful, tumultuous transformation in its consideration of Virginia’s place (or not) in the Union.  A look through this local lens tells us a great deal about how the secession crisis played out in Virginia.  Fredericksburg, like every community in the South,  approached the issue of Union or disunion in its own way, guided by its own principles (often in common with many of their Southern brethren)–each buffeted by economic, social, and political forces most clearly displayed at the local level. Fredericksburg is a vivid case study in a nation’s and a state’s march toward secession and war.

Princess Anne Street, Fredericksburg. The courthouse, with the round cupola, was the site of two of Fredericksburg's most important public meetings.

Prior to the election of 1860, the discourse here among white residents focused on the nature of the Union, the reach of the federal government, the protection (and indeed extension of) slavery, and which of the candidates offered the best prospect for addressing the community’s concerns.  Fredericksburg was in no way monolithic in 1860. About 45% of local voters cast ballots for Bell’s Constitutional Union party–which embraced a solution to the ongoing debates about slavery and the nature of government within the existing Union.  Just over 36% cast their votes for the secessionist candidate, Breckinridge.  Lincoln was not part of the discussion. His name did not even appear on the ballot here.

After Lincoln’s election, the debate here shifted. Fredericksburgers spent far less time considering the fate and nature of the Union and nation, and instead shifted their focus, and debate, to the fate of Virginia and its place within that Union. In December 1860, the white residents of town established a clear road-map for the journey forward, setting conditions they deemed necessary for Virginia to remain in the Union.  You can find our post on that here. Put simply, the debate in Fredericksburg between the election and March 1861 focused on two things.

–  Were Virginia’s interests so allied to those of the Deep South that it should join them? The debate revolved not around the virtues of slavery (which were presumed), but of the Union—and whether the Union as it was would threaten slavery and a “southern way of life” built upon a foundation of slavery.

–  What steps would the Federal government take to counter secession. Would the federal government try to coerce seceded states back into the Union with force? And, worse, would Virginia, as part of the Union, be called upon to help vanquish the wayward secessionists?  This was the great question.

Reflective of the town’s conservative approach, in February voters elected relative conservative John L. Marye of Brompton to represent Spotsylvania County at the secession convention in Richmond (click here for a post about Marye’s views on slavery and secession).

But something changed dramatically on March 4. It was not simply that Lincoln was inaugurated–everyone knew that was coming. Rather it was what he said. Continue reading


From John Hennessy:

As we look back on the history of our community and nation, we are fond of saying that people are a “product of their times,” and of course they are. But in the realm of public history that statement is often used to imply a simplicity that wasn’t real.  It implies that the pressures of society and peers left no choice but to conform, or indeed that there was no choice to be had at all. The result is a public history that is reduced to simplicities, that’s monolithic, with little room for discussion of the motivations or decisions of participants –as if everyone was simply swept forward by an unseen force that rendered individuals powerless to resist.

Union troops loot lower Caroline Street

We see this idea applied most rigorously to those subjects that make us most uncomfortable. In the Fredericksburg region, the looting of the town by Union soldiers is often seen in such simplistic terms. The existence and sustenance of slavery is another. But in fact, these topics (and many others we’ll discuss over the months) were a complex tangle of individual choices, knowingly made within a community (or army) that was acutely aware of the moral dilemmas that faced them. In making individual decisions on how to respond in such circumstances, some rationalized their way to what we would today label an immoral course. Most, though, were apathetic, and were indeed swept along by that unseen hand of history and collective morality or immorality.  And a few recognized the choices that faced them and had the will to see the issues clearly and to decide accordingly.

Recognizing the range of personal choices in turn recognizes the richness, complexity, and dimension in our history. More than that, the rhythms of history demonstrate clearly from whence human progress emerges: from those who recognized and confronted the moral and practical dilemmas at hand.

Mary Berkeley Minor Blackford, resident of lower Caroline

Fredericksburg includes its fair share from all three categories (we’ll call them the rationalizers, the apathetic, and the confronters). We’re going to undertake an occasional series on here that looks at some of the dilemmas that faced this community (or in the case of the Union army, the community’s occupiers), with an emphasis on how people reacted to some of the great issues of the times–and what those decisions tell us about some of the broader themes of history.  Which brings us to the subject of the day. Continue reading