The voices of soldier and family mingled: the Knox letters to be unveiled Sunday, and you’re invited

From John Hennessy:

Knox CoverOn Sunday October 27, 2013, the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation will debut a new and important book of letters relating to Civil War Fredericksburg:  The Circle Unbroken: The Civil War Letters of the Knox Family of Fredericksburg.  What makes this book launch even cooler is that it will take place in the Knoxes former home, now the Kenmore Inn. You can buy the book, of course (and Jane Beale’s diary too), but you can also stroll the house that for more than five decades served as the home for a family that sent six sons to serve in the Confederate army. To those of you consumptively inclined, the launch includes a FREE, well-victualized reception, with wine.  It runs from 3-5 p.m.  The Kenmore Inn is at 1200 Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg, 22401. And did I say it’s free? For more on the launch, click on the Knox launch flyer.

The publication of the Knox letters is something of a community effort.  The letters were donated by the family to the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center several years ago, whose incredibly dedicated group of volunteers spent about two years transcribing and researching their contents.  (If you haven’t used the Heritage Center, you should (its collections are fabulous). And if you don’t support them, you should do that too, whether you use them or not. It’s a first-class organization that by all appearances puts every dime it gets to good use.) The publication committee of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation arranged for their publication. The two groups have collaborated with the Kenmore Inn (which is providing immense support) on the Sunday launch of the book. Members of the Knox family will be there. We hope you will come.

This is likely the best, most complete collection of family papers related to Fredericksburg I have seen.  I wrote the following for  the introduction to the book–it gives you a good sense of the letters:

knox and beale

The Knox house in the late 19th century. That’s diarist Jane Beale’s house to the left. Between Knox, Beale, and the Alsops across the street (all of them kept extensive papers or diaries), this has to be the best-documented Civil War neighborhood in Virginia. Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation and its executive director, Sean Maroney.

The Knox family would be unremarkable except for one thing: they left behind a trove of letters between them that chronicles a family and a community in dire crisis.  These are more than just the letters of a Southern family in Fredericksburg during the Civil War; they are also the letters of a nascent, hopeful, ultimately defeated nation.  They reflect much that’s important about the war: the immense risk secession represented for communities and towns across the South (risks willingly taken and fully realized for most), the tremendous effort involved in forging a new nation, the astonishing and thorough conversion of the Knoxes and thousands of other families from American to Confederate, and the immense efforts families undertook to maintain a structure and identity in the midst of chaos.

The Civil War produced thousands of letter collections, many of them published, many of them excellent.  Some of them include letters incoming and outgoing, from soldier to home and from the folks at home back to the field. But few include the range of letters produced by the Knox family of Fredericksburg. All six of the Knox boys served the Confederacy, most of them in the local regiment, the 30th Virginia Infantry. The 30th was something of a nomadic unit, serving at times with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but also in the Virginia Tidewater, North Carolina, and even Tennessee. Lieutenant Robert Knox’s letters home constitute most of the correspondence from the field, often writing on behalf of his soldier-brothers.

The Knox home became the Kenmore Inn in 1932.

The Knox home became the Kenmore Inn in 1932. Courtesy HFFI.

For the Knox family and other residents of Fredericksburg—on the Rappahannock River midway between the warring capitals—the home front became the battlefront. The descent of armies on Fredericksburg in 1862, 1863, and 1864, inspired many local families to flee. Typically, families took to the roads to find safety in adjacent Spotsylvania County. But the Knoxes had uncommon means, and the family’s life as refugees took them as far away as Richmond, Danville, and Columbia, South Carolina.  Invariably, mother Virginia Soutter Knox managed the family in flight.  Father Thomas F. Knox held closer to Fredericksburg, trying vainly to watch over home and business.  All the while, the family wrote letters. For most of four years, these letters constituted the connective tissue for a family dispersed by war. They reflect the often immense efforts families undertook to maintain a family structure and identity amidst chaos.

The war weighed heavily on Fredericksburg and the Knoxes. All the boys-turned-soldiers survived the war (an unlikely, happy outcome), but the family suffered huge economic loss. In 1860, Thomas Knox owned $50,000 worth of real estate and $22,000 of personal property (much of that surely slaves). But by the time the census taker came around in 1870, that $72,000 fortune had shrunk to just $8,000, including just $500 of personal property. The family, however, continued to thrive as a pillar of the Fredericksburg community for decades. They lived in their Princess Anne Street house until 1911.

The Knox house today, 1200 Princess Anne Street.

The Knox house today, 1200 Princess Anne Street. Photo by Russ Smith, 2012.

Mrs. Henry hailed a Southern martyr? Apparently not

From John Hennessy:

It’s one of the standard tales of First Manassas:  that the widow Judith Carter Henry’s death during the fighting on her farm on July 21, 1861, helped outrage the South, embitter the war. The presumption has always been that in the post-battle hunt for atrocities both sides undertook (avidly), the death of Mrs. Henry at the hands of Ricketts’s guns that afternoon ranks near the top.

Union artilleryman Captain James Ricketts later admitted that he “thoroughly riddled” Mrs. Henry’s house. This is how it appeared soon after the battle.

I can find no evidence of that. Mrs. Henry’s name rarely appears in newspapers North or South in the weeks and months following the battle. Rather, her death seems simply to have been accepted as an inevitable outcome of battle (no one then could know how uncommon civilian deaths in battle would really be during the Civil War). So far as I can see, no one trotted out her sad fate as evidence of Yankee perfidy, even though the press worked feverishly to document supposed Union barbarities.

The status of Mrs. Henry as lamented public martyr seems to me to be another one of those misplaced presumptions that morph into myth.

The ruins of the Henry House, after being dismantled by the Confederates for souvenirs and building material the winter following the battle.

Fredericksburg April 12, 1861

From John Hennessy:

Fredericksburg, taken from below Chatham. The date is 1863, but the Chatham bridge likely looked much the same after the storm of April 10, 1861.

While the people of Charleston S.C. awoke on April 12 to the boom of cannon surrounding Fort Sumter, the people of Fredericksburg awoke to a torrent of another sort. Thanks to three days’ rain, the Rappahannock was flowing at a rate note seen since 1814. Two of the area’s bridges were doomed (not for the last time in coming years).

On Wednesday morning [April 10] the swollen, turbid mass of water, increasing rapidly in height and volume, raged onward with such force as to sweep away panel after panel of the Falmouth Bridge, which with similar velocity, struck the Chatham Bridge amidships, and carried off about one-third of that structure in its destructive course.  In a few hours the whole of Falmouth Bridge had disappeared, and from bank to bank surged the resistless tide of waters….From the Island under the Chatham Bridge, which had been engulfed some time previously, a wide and yawning chasm separated the broken wood-work, and the exulting waters rushed through, bearing along the ‘dismembered fragments of a once glorious union.’  Staffird had seceded by the force of circumstances….Lower down the river the shipping was in much danger.  One schooner, the D.K. Hopkins, was carried off, and a small river steamer was floated on shore and landed in the bushes.  The Gas Works were overflowed, and the town has been in darkness ever since.  Mr. Marye’s new Corn-Mill was endangered by the fierce current, and 150 barrels of Corn, we understand, were ‘cast upon the waters’ without hope of return, however.  Numerous houses, kitchens, &c on Water Street suffered severely—the water ten feet deep in some, and one family had to be taken out in a boat, from an upper window.  No loss of life reported, but one man, Captain Stevens we believe, was accidentally carried down the river on a portion of Falmouth Bridge, but rescued near French John’s after an exciting involuntary voyage….

While the Fredericksburg News was full of portentous news about coming war–“War seems inevitable,” editor Archibald Little declared–Fredericksburg’s life rhythms went on little affected. The paper advertised a particularly relevant speech at Citizens Hall:  “The Old Dominion! As She Was, Is, and Will Be.”

Elsewhere local citizens ruminated on more prosaic things, like a petition to the new President in Washington asking him to keep the town’s long-time postmaster Reuben Thom in place. Thom was 79 years old (one of the few people in town who likely remembered the flood of 1814) and an institution–“emphatically a good man,” said the News. But Thom was a secessionist, and the newspaper saw in his prospective appointment the chance for the new president (Lincoln) to reach across sectional divides, place party politics aside and rise “superior to these little, petty political prejudices…and show himself superior to party distinctions.”

Events of the following weeks would render the citizens’ petition for Thom moot, but he would indeed be appointed postmaster of Confederate mails. Like Fredericksburg, Thom and his family suffered severely amidst the war that loomed in the newspapers that April 12, 1861.  His house at what is today about 919 Caroline Street burned in the bombardment of December 11, 1862–indeed, he and his family huddled in the basement until flames forced them into their garden. His neighbor John Wallace saw him soon after the battle, “I met in the street Mr. Thom who told me he was utterly ruined, I can assure you I felt deep sympathy for him. He is not alone, many are in the same situation.”

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.


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The mystery of Mary Caldwell’s “Aspen Cottage”

Some evidence suggests that Mary Caldwell lived on Princess Anne Street.

From John Hennessy:

So far as we know, there are four surviving diaries of civilians that record some span of daily life in Fredericksburg during the Civil War. The best known is Jane Beale’s, which will be published anew in improved form by Historic Fredericksurg Foundation this spring. Beale was a teacher whose diary is rightly famous because of her oft-quoted account of being under fire on December 11, 1862 (though there is much more to it than that). Betty Herndon Maury’s diary has just been re-published in the latest issue of Fredericksburg History and Biography–the journal of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust. Maury was the daughter of Matthew Fontaine Maury, an astute observer, and an eloquent Yankee-hater. Like Beale’s chronicle, Maury’s diary substantially covers only through late 1862.

Perhaps the best of all local diaries has yet to be published: the journal of Lizzie Alsop. Lizzie was the teenage daughter of Sarah and Joseph Alsop, who lived at what is today 1201 Princess Anne Street. Though she spent part of the war away at boarding school in Richmond, Lizzie’s is the most wide-ranging chronicle, offering vivid details about life under Union occupation, gossip about local residents, and even a primer in 19th century courting mores–Lizzie was the object of affection of many a Confederate officer, and left each of them wanting. She hated Yankees as passionately as she loved her nascent nation.

But there is fourth diary, little known and never published. Continue reading

The Interpretive Value of Different Perspectives

From John Hennessy. This is a reposting of the most popular post ever on Fredericksburg Remembered–it originally appeared on July 9, 2010 and received more than 2,000 reads in a matter of days. There’s no figuring what catches on……

Beaumont, Helen Bernard's occasional residence on the site of what is today the Burlington Coat Factory on Route 3 near I-95.

Let me share with you two narratives reflecting on the same moment in history: the arrival of the Union army opposite Fredericksburg on April 18, 1862.  The first is an account written by Helen Bernard, a white resident who lived just outside town (from Rebecca Campbell Light’s excellent War at Our Doors.).

Beaumont, Spotsylvania County.  Good Friday, 1862. I write while the smoke of the burning bridges, depot, & boats, is resting like a heavy cloud all around the horizons towards Fredcksbg. The enemy are in possession of Falmouth, our force on this side too weak to resist them…. We are not at all frightened but stunned & bewildered waiting for the end. Will they shell Fbg., will our homes on the river be all destroyed? …. It is heartsickening to think of having our beautiful valley that we have so loved and admired all overrun & desolated by our bitter enemies, whose sole object is to subjugate & plunder the South…..

Every word in that account is vivid and valid.  It is a powerful description of what the arrival of the Union army meant to most white residents in Fredericksburg.  It also reflects what has over the decades been our traditional understanding of the event hereabouts.

But here’s another description of precisely the same moment in time, written by another Fredericksburger, the slave John Washington.

April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quiet…until every body Was Startled by Several reports of [Yankee] cannon…. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. [But] 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…like I Was certain of My freedom now.

Same event, powerfully described, but totally different in meaning to each writer.

I offer these up not as matters of history, but as matters of interpretation–the value and richness of differing perspectives.

Next:  Are we historians or memorialists?

At Mysteries and Conundrums: Precursor to Brooklyn–The Mystery of Washington Roebling’s Wire Bridge in Fredericksburg.

A mystery: the letters of Jane Beale

From John Hennessy:

The entrance to Jane Beale's house on Lewis Street in Fredericksburg.

The Historic Fredericksburg Foundation is about to republish Jane Beale’s outstanding diary–one of the best contemporary chronicles of life in Fredericksburg during the first two years of the Civil War. Beale’s diary is most frequently quoted for its intense, dramatic description of her experience in December 1862, when she and her family fled town under fire to find refuge at Beauclaire Plantation. But maybe its most useful passages deal with the Union occupation of 1862 and, especially, Fredericksburg’s painful (for white residents) transition into a life without slavery.

While working on the introduction to the Jane Beale volume (along with Barbara Willis), I came across a passage in Dora Chinn Jett’s In Tidewater Virginia (page 41) that spoke of Fredericksburg’s refugees.

To those of us who have left peaceful firesides, with love, and family and friends around, the voice of this great-throated chimney spells cheer and peace and abounding good will. But to a mother brought face to face with this cheerful scene, after the horrors of that deluge of shot and shell, in the battle of Fredericksburg, it meant all that, and much more.

She wrote thus to her son: “When Mrs. Temple met us in the yard with her warm cordial welcome and led us into the right, cheerful-looking room, where a good fire was blazing, and kind, sympathizing friends were all around…and when we lay down in comfortable beds, far away from the sight and sound of battle, we felt indeed that, after all, we were dealt with by a kind Father. Continue reading

The ordeal of Fredericksburg’s refugees–a powerful account

From John Hennessy:

I write this at 1:34 p.m. on December 11.  One hundred and forty-eight years ago this moment, the town of Fredericksburg was under furious bombardment by the Union army. While many civilians had left in the previous weeks, some of them had returned prior to December 11, thinking that the feared battle would not in fact come off.  Jane Beale and her family were among these.  When the bombardment started that day, Mrs. Beale took her children and slaves to the basement of her house on Lewis Street.  After a brief lull at 1 p.m., the firing intensified again. Beale wrote in her diary:

…The sound of 173 guns echoed in our ears, the shrieking of those shells, like a host of angry fiends rushing through the air, the crashing of the balls through the floor and upper stories of the house, I shall never forget to the day of my death, the agony and terror of the next four hours, is burnt into my memory with a hot iron. I could not pray, but only cry for mercy. 

When the firing subsided hours later, Beale and many other trapped residents made their escape. Throughout the night and into the next morning hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, refugees streamed out the roads leading south and west from Fredericksburg.  A Confederate soldier from Georgia, writing the next day (December 12), left one of the very best descriptions.  Continue reading

Fredericksburg’s Battle Anniversary: An Invitation…and Some Rare Pictures

from: Harrison

This weekend marks the 148th anniversary of the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, specifically of its first two days. The commemoration includes an opportunity to tour the battlefield in an evocative, candlelit atmosphere and, the next day, understand the 1862 fighting and its later remembering, through the words of historian Frank A. O’Reilly, its foremost scholar. These events are free to the public:

December 11 (Saturday): Join National Park Service historians for a “Candlelit tour of the Sunken Road” on the Fredericksburg battlefield. The program will focus on how the people who lived along and fought in the Sunken Road confronted life-changing decisions, from secession to the life-and-death struggle on December 13, 1862. Three identical tours will begin at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, 6:00 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 7:00 p.m.

December 12 (Sunday): Join National Park Service historian Frank O’Reilly for a tour of “Clear the Way! In the Footsteps of the Irish Brigade.” Frank, accompanied by reenactors of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, will lead a tour-tour walking tour that follows the route of attack of the Federal Irish Brigade through the streets of Fredericksburg and across the Bloody Plain below Marye’s Heights.

Frank’s tour begins at 12:00 p.m. at the Fredericksburg City Dock, located at the end of Sophia Street, and concludes at 2:00 p.m. at the Kirkland Memorial.

Immediately following the Irish Brigade tour on Sunday December 12th, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will hold its annual commemoration ceremony at the Kirkland Memorial, located on Sunken Road a block north of the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. Frank O’Reilly, who is also author of The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, will then present the keynote address, “Remembering the Battle of Fredericksburg after 148 Years,” for this year’s ceremony. In addition to his remarks, the event will include color guards, living history soldiers, the laying of wreaths at the monument by various, history related organizations, and the playing of taps.

(For further information or in the event of inclement weather, call 373-6122.)

Speaking of evocative, the vast Civil War output of special artist Alfred R. Waud (pronounced “Wood”) includes this sketch of Fredericksburg during the December battle. The appearance of the sketch on this blog may represent its first-ever publication despite its status, at least in my opinion, as one of the most powerful artworks in Waud’s entire portfolio:

Continue reading