The chasm

By John Hennessy. (This post originally published in 2012, but is worth revisiting.]

Not long ago I did a program in Spotsylvania County on the 1862 exodus to freedom in the Fredericksburg area, something we have written about a good deal. The event was at the new John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania County, a great exhibition dedicated to the history of African-Americans in Spotsylvania. We had a good crowd–60-70 people, about half Black, half white.

The program was fine enough, but what occurred afterwards dropped jaws all around. I can’t explain how it happened, but the Q&A turned into a public forum on the place of the Civil War in our culture, and specifically how African-Americans view the War and slavery. It was as open an exchange about history among people with different backgrounds as I have ever seen. If we could bottle it and repeat it a thousands times, we’d make a difference in the world…

There were harsh, honest words. One man in particular declared that he viewed everything associated with the Confederacy as “toxic.” Another suggested that the Civil War has been and is simply a popular vehicle for helping to maintain white supremacy in America. Others pitched in–politely and productively, though often intensely–and through the room swirled a current of feeling that everyone who was there will remember the rest of their lives.

It wasn’t that everyone agreed; it was that everyone understood from whence other opinions came.

In public history we deal with lots of contrasting ideas and interpretations, for the Civil War was clearly the most complex event in our nation’s history. But every once in a while, from the swirl emerges some clarity–and so it was for me on this day.

I have written fairly extensively about the distinction between personal motivation and national purpose, and how we as a nation have, when it comes to the Civil War, often merged the two.

As these people spoke that day in Spotsylvania (the majority of the speakers African Americans), the source of the chasm that exists between how African-Americans view the war (mostly as it relates to popular culture and politics) and how many white Southerners see it emerged. Virtually every person in that room who rose to speak saw the Confederacy purely in terms of its national purpose–most prominently, its avowed intent (embodied in its constitution) to perpetuate a white supremacist nation that sustained slavery.

Many white Americans–with their intensely personal connection to the war and the Confederacy–speak of the war in terms of the personal motivation of participants (sometimes imperfectly understood), often their ancestors. To those Americans the war is defined not by national purpose, but by personal motivation.

And therein lies the great American chasm as it relates to the Civil War.

To many people in attendance, efforts to deny or redefine the national purpose of the Confederacy in order to reflect more positively on an ancestor or the South is simply offensive, and so the war evokes no connection or inspiration, only hostility.

Continue reading

Bull Run Reconciliation? Not…

From John Hennessy [update: see the comment from Robert Moore for a couple of links to items that elaborate on this theme.]

In July 1891, Virginians took the 30th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas to memorialize Stonewall Jackson anew–by reinterring him beneath and dedicating a new statue in the cemetery in Lexington, Virginia. The event attracted tens of thousands, including a brigades-worth of veteran of Lee’s army. It was, and remains, one of the most vivid expressions of Lost Cause nostalgia.

The monument over Jackson's grave, dedicated July 21, 1891.

By 1891, such events were an accepted part of the American landscape, as the spirit of reconciliation was in full national bloom. By any measure, the reconciliation that America undertook is astonishing when compared to the common fate of rebels and rebellions in other parts of the world. Part of the ostensible deal: former Confederates could have their glory too. Indeed, Confederate glory would, over time, be amalgamated into American culture.

Across the nation, Americans joined the chorus that surrounded Stonewall Jackson’s reinterment, or at least witnessed it in silence. But, not everyone proclaimed the accepted theme of reconciliation. While we sometimes like to see our history in simple terms, there was in fact a strong undercurrent of unhappiness and bitterness that flowed both ways (North and South).

As evidence: this editorial from a Michigan newspaper, the Jackson Citizen Patriot, written in response to the ceremonies in Lexington on the 30th anniversary of Manassas. (Jackson, MI is claimed by some to be the birthplace of the Republican party, and  it was almost certainly the birthplace of the Ritz cracker, though that’s less relevant here.) In noting the ceremonies in Lexington, the Michigan editorialist foreshadowed his dark take by noting that the “remains of the heroic traitor” had been buried beneath the new statue. He conceded that Jackson was “scarcely second to Lee as their military hero” and that “no one need object to that,” except, he said, “that no public monument should ever be permitted in this nation in memory of a man who violated his oath of allegiance and sought to destroy the government he was educated and trained to defend.”

On that Bull Run anniversary in Lexington, the keynote was given by former Unionist turned Southern patriot Jubal Early. As the unhappy Michigan editor wrote, “Gen. Early closed his oration with the following words, which ought to be memorized by every union soldier for the purpose of denouncing them:

‘If I should ever apologize for any part or action taken by me in the war, may the lightning of a righteous heaven blast me from earth, and may I be considered as spawn of the earth by all honest men.'”

The thousands in attendance cheered Early’s words, to the utter annoyance of our editor in Michigan. Continue reading

An apocalyptic disappointment in Spotsylvania–1889

From John Hennessy (we’ll be doing a real post tomorrow, but in the meantime, here’s something touching on a current theme):

Yesterday was not the first time the Apocalypse failed to arrive on time in the Fredericksburg region.  In October 1889, word went out over the national wires that an Adventist sect in near Screamersville, Spotsylvania County (a stop on the railroad linking Orange and Fredericksburg) had predicted that the world would come to an end on October 23, 1889, and if not “tonight, then certainly before the end of the month.” The Hartford Courant reported that the prediction had created “considerable excitement,” and that “a number of farmers have left their homes, turned their stock out on the commons and are living at the Adventist camp.  Others refuse to work and only go home at night.  Many farmers have not sowed their fall wheat on this account and say they will not put a single grain of seed in the ground, as the Lord will certainly come this year.”  The paper reported that about fifty Spotsylvanians were at the Adventist Camp, “waiting patiently and confidently for the end of the world.”

More lost buildings–the view from St. George’s #2

From John Hennessy (read the first post on the St. George’s steeple shots here; download the entire panorama, stitched together, here [patience, it’s a large file]. Pardon the imperfections in the Photoshop work–there are gaps in the images that I stitched together to create this panorama):

Last week we introduced the series of panoramic photographs taken from the steeple of St. George’s in 1888–as well as my attempt to stitch the images together into a single image. After looking into the heart of the town last time, let’s turn our attention westward, between George and William Street, for what I think is the most interesting part of the series, for here are two of Fredericksburg’s most important lost buildings.

To the left is George Street, off the camera to the right is William, and in the far distance is Marye’s Heights The roof immediately below the camera is what was during the war the Farmer’s Bank–the home of the slave John Washington and perhaps the most important Civil War building in Fredericksburg, which we have written about here. Beyond, easily seen, is the Masonic Cemetery, certainly the moodiest burial ground in town and an important landmark during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

There are two supremely important lost buildings in this view worth pointing out–indeed, for one of them, this is the only clear image of it I know about.  In the upper left edge is a church standing on the SW corner of George and Charles.

This is the Methodist Church South, during the war one of two Methodist churches in Fredericksburg. The building gains significance for two reasons. Continue reading

An umnatched visual record: the 1888 steeple shots reveal some of Fredericksburg’s lost buildings

From John Hennessy:

NOTE: I have assembled the steeple panoramas into a single image . It’s a 22mb file–that is to say, large–but I’ve loaded it here if you wish to explore it on your own. We’ll occasionally take a look at this image in the coming month or so, seeing what it can tell us about Fredericksburg’s 19th-century landscape.

In 1888 a photographer mounted the steeple of St. George’s Episcopal Church on Princess Anne Street and took a series of eleven panoramic images of Fredericksburg, spanning the compass. The panorama isn’t perfect–there are gaps–but it is as thorough a documentation of any Virginia town as exists from that period. Explored deeply, the panoramas are a gold mine, revealing a number of buildings since lost,  a town still recovering from war, and a utilitarian landscape that has largely disappeared.

Today we’ll look at the intersection of Caroline and William–the very heart of downtown Fredericksburg. This is one place where the panoramic images match nicely, and I haev put them together here.

Two things emerge from this image. Continue reading

The rawness of defeat and roots of the Lost Cause–an 1865 letter from a Spotsylvania Woman

From John Hennessy:

We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that the “Lost Cause” was the production of Jubal Early and a cabal of sympathetic historians who followed in his verbose wake. But the roots of the Lost Cause run deeper than that, and extend well into the war itself. I share with you today one of the best early examples–an immediate postwar letter written by Hannah Garlick Rawlings of Spotsylvania. Hannah Rawlings, born in 1837 of  prominent family, was a school marm. Indeed, she spent much of her adult life before her death in 1901 as the matron of the Female Charity School on Caroline Street–a post she assumed after the war. During the war, she served as a governess in Orange County, but kept close tabs on her former neighbors in Spotsylvania–the Holladays, Boggs, and Scotts (click here for a terrific memoir by Bradford Ripley Alden Scott, first of Pine Grove in Stafford and later of Bel Air in Spotsylvania.)  Four months to the day after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Hannah poured forth bitterness, lament, and even a hint of  nostalgia for the war just passed in a letter to her sister Clarissa, in Pennsylvania. Here is the most vivid excerpt.

O, Clarissa! We people of the South have drained the cup of bitterness to the very dregs! Hardships and privations of all kinds the loss of fortune and friends-all these could have been, and were, borne without a murmur for the sake of our country. But now, what is there to comfort us! We have no country, our very name is lost to us and we must be identified with the hated “Yankee.”

When I look back upon the events of the last five months, I sometimes feel as if it could not be reality, and that I have been the victim of some hideous nightmare. Continue reading

The wound inflicted: Memorial Day, reconciliation, and a rebuke

From John Hennessy:

For fifteen years after the creation of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, local Memorial Day observances for the Union dead were commonly organized and led by Fredericksburg’s African-American community. Indeed, as Donald Pfanz has pointed out in his soon-to-be published history of the creation of the National Cemetery, in 1871 the Memorial Day ceremony included both black and white participants–a rare phenomenon that provoked rage in the local community. Years later, the Free Lance published a bitter remembrance of that day (the editorial in fact reveals more about white attitudes in 19th century Virginia than it does about the Memorial Day in question):

Some twenty years ago on the 30th of May, Decoration Day, a few colored people, a scattering crowd of men, women, and children, headed by a forlorn white man in the person of a postmaster or deputy collector of internal revenue, and preceded by a wheezy band of dilapidated instruments blown by unskilled players, use to straggle out to the National Cemetery and scatter a few faded flowers over the graves. The white people looked on in disgust and contempt, and many refused to give the small darkey flowers for the ceremony. It was a pitiful sight, an honor sought to be paid by those who scarcely knew what honor meant, to the dead, in a land that regarded them as occupying dishonorable graves.

Still, the efforts by the local Black community to commemorate continued unabated until 1884. That year, the quest for national reconciliation overawed local African-Americans’ determination to honor and remember the Union dead. The episode is Blight’s Race and Reunion in microcosm–a vivid example of how the desire for reconciliation apparently helped separate African-Americans (indeed all Americans) from the emancipationist legacy of the war. Continue reading

An 1865 Visit to Fredericksburg–Mary Washington, a school, and an orphan


Laura Smith Haviland


In September 1865, suffragist, reformer, and advocate for education for newly freed slaves Laura Smith Haviland visited Fredericksburg.  Her especial focus was on schools–especially schools for former slaves–and she spent time at a school for 181 white children operated by a Miss Strausburg (about whom I can learn nothing, and cannot pinpoint the location of her school). Her account provides a fairly vivid look at Fredericksburg just months after the end of the war. It was published in 1881, part of A Woman’s Life Work: Labors and Experiences of Laura S. Haviland.

On September 15, I took a steamer for Richmond, Virginia, and arrived on the 16th at Fredericksburg. Here were standing many chimneys, showing us the waste places and burned houses in this small but quaint old city. I called at the teachers’ boarding-house, kept by a good Union family, Wm. J. Jeffries [a Maryland-born shoemaker who lived at what is today 1104 Prince Edward Street–the house still stands]. Mrs. King accompanied me to the soldiers’ hospital. Here, as elsewhere, the poor suffering soldier seemed rejoiced to see and hear the representative of their mothers. After reading the Scripture and prayer I left a number in tears.

Here was the home of General Washington’s mother. I visited the house, and a feeling of solemnity came over me as we passed through her sitting room into the large bed-room, where report said she died. Nearby is her tomb. The pedestal only stands erect, but badly marred by the chisel in chipping off pieces, by hundreds of visitors. Our teachers inquired if I would not like a chip from the tomb. I told them that no chisel or hammer should be applied for me; but I picked up a little piece at its base. We had gone but few rods before a carriage drove to the tomb, and the chisel and hammer were flaking off keepsakes for four men. The long block of marble designed to have been placed on the pedestal lay near it half buried in the ground where it had lain nearly or quite a century.

After inspecting the rebel earth-works and rifle-pits, I visited Miss Strausburg’s school of 181 poor white children, quite unlike any colored school I had visited any where, as to order. They commenced to sneer at me the moment I entered, but their teacher invited me to speak to the school, and they became at once quiet and respectful. Little James Stone asked permission to sing for me, and he sang a religious hymn in which nearly all the school joined. To my surprise they sang the “Red, White and Blue” and “The Soldier’s Farewell to his Mother,” for which I thanked them. In passing along the street after the school was dismissed, many of the children came out with their mothers, pointing toward me. At two places I halted to speak to them and their mothers, which pleased them very much.


The Mary Washington Monument, which Haviland refused to vandalize, but availed herself of a piece anyway.



The next day I visited a few Union families, who gave some interesting facts concerning their trials. I left two dollars with one sick woman, who wept as I left her. I called at Major Johnson’s headquarters. He was very anxious to send on an orphan baby one year old to Camp Lee orphanage, in Richmond. He gave me a paper that would secure its admission. On arriving at Richmond I left my charge at the orphanage. As no name was on the paper, or was given to me with the child, the matron, Mrs. Gibbons, named him Haviland Gibbons.