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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Slavery and motherhood for the mistress

From John Hennessy:

Betty Herndon Maury

I have always been struck by this short passage from the diary of Betty Herndon Maury, Matthew Fontaine Maury’s daughter.  She wrote it on September 6, 1861, a few weeks after the departure (for what cause she does not say) of the family’s house slave, Rebecca, leaving Betty and other members of the household to tend things formerly taken care of by slaves, including parenting  

Made Nanny Belle a rag baby last night. She is more delighted with it than with the finest wax doll. It is the first time that I ever took the time or trouble to devote an hour solely to her amusement.

Nanny Belle was five years old.

Carolyn Carpenter has edited, expanded, and had published Betty Herndon Maury’s diary, as part of the most recent issue of the CVBT Journal. You can find it for sale here.  It is one of the best.

A slave reacts to Union defeat at Fredericksburg–strategizing for freedom

From John Hennessy:

This past week I came across a 1913 interview with a Fredericksburg-area slave. Her name was Fanny, and she was owned by Samuel Gordon and his wife Patsy Fitzhugh Gordon of Santee, just across the Spotsylvania line in Caroline County, about ten miles south of Fredericksburg. Gordon, the former owner of Kenmore, was a scion of Fredericksburg’s wealthiest families (he was worth nearly $200,000 in 1860). Fanny was one of at least 35 slaves he owned.  Despite a number of clues in her narrative–including her postwar residence in Fredericksburg–at this point I have been unable to follow Fanny into freedom. I will continue to work on identifying her.

[Update:  See the comments section for MUCH more on Fanny Lee.]

Santee in the 1930s. The house still stands.

Fanny’s passage on the nexus between the war, Union army, and freedom is interesting on several levels. Hers is the only explanation we have from an individual slave of why she chose not to run away when the Union army came–out of concern for her children and, more importantly, because of her ultimate confidence in Union victory and the end of slavery. It’s clear evidence of a clearly thought strategy, one based on optimism and some careful calculation. Her statement belies the image of the passive, unthinking, loyal slave, and it is an important addition to a small-but-growing chorus of slaves’ voices available to us. Continue reading

Joy and sorrow: the state of the war in Fredericksburg, 1863–a letter from Jennie Goolrick

From John Hennessy:

Here is a little item that constitutes one of the more useful and descriptive letters written from Fredericksburg by a civilian. It is a letter from Virginia (Jennie) Goolrick, the daughter of Peter Goolrick–an Irish-born entrepreneur who was in many respects the most active entrepreneur in Fredericksburg. The Goolricks lived at the corner of Hanover and Caroline Streets–the buildings that today house Irish Eyes and the Griffin bookshop.

By the time Jennie wrote this letter, Fredericksburg had been occupied twice by the Union army, subject to bombardment and looting, and quarters for occupying Confederate troops.  September 1863 was a period of calm and reflection. Jennie’s letter, though short, is the best testament of conditions and morale in the town in the second half of 1863.

September 4, 1863

Mr. Winn.  . . .

My life since the beginning of the war has been very much chequered – one day a heart overflowing with joy, the next full of sorrow. One day feeling quite secure in my old home, then perhaps the next all hurry, bustle & confusion in preparing for refugee life – so much so that I never feel settled anywhere for any length of time .

. . . We have many friends to see and as our acquaintance in the army is by no means limited owing to the presence of so many soldiers in & near the old burg since the very commencement of the war. Two regiments on picket only on the river just at Fredericksburg – as both have bands of music we are well supplied with that article – in the afternoon it is quite fashionable to visit headquarters where a crowd can be seen & sweet music enjoyed . . .

The town suffered a great deal from the bombardment, but more from the sacking & occupation as barracks. I am happy to say we fared better than most – only one bomb that passed through the roof of the back porch & although the house was robbed of many valuables we saved most of the furniture by moving. We find it impossible to keep servants this close to the border, so during the war we get along with as few as possible – some of the most useful having already bade the Confederacy adieu. I cannot possibly attempt a description of the Yankee occupation – the newspaper correspondents can’t do the subject justice and of course I ought not to think about it . . . .

Your sincere friend, Jennie G.

The original of this letter is in the Bidgood Family Papers, Virginia Historical Society.

The 1861 scarlet fever epidemic–the worst human disaster in Fredericksburg’s history (excepting battles, of course)

From John Hennessy:

The graves of Evy and George Doswell, ages 2 and 5, who died within five days of each other in November 1861. Th

The hysteria that attends epidemics is nothing new. Over the decades, Fredericksburgers regularly faced down incoming waves of illness, though not without drama and excitement. In 1790 and again in 1792, the town stopped incoming ships at Hazel Run and established a temporary hospital at Sligo (next to what is today Dixon Park–a later Victorian house stands on the site now) in a successful effort to prevent smallpox from entering Fredericksburg. In late 1832 and early 1833, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera ravaged the east coast, and for months Fredericksburg’s newspapers nervously monitored the approach of the disease, which got as close as Richmond. The Virginia Herald repeatedly tried to assured distant readers that the town had not been infected and was open to visitors. Still, one resident reportedly became so panicked at the approach of the disease that he “whether from fright or actually contracting the disease” died. The cause of death was attributed to “accidental” or “sporadic” cholera.

Betty Herndon Maury, whose daughter Nannie Belle got scarlet fever in November 1861. She survived.

While the town dodged death in the 1790s and 1830s, it did not in late 1861 and early 1862, when an epidemic of scarlet fever ravaged Fredericksburg. Because by then the war was on, and newspapers from the period are scarce, the documentation of this epidemic is sketchy, but everything suggests that the plague was extensive and deadly, preying exclusively on children–taking, Jane Beale tells us, “at least one hundred in its dreadful course.” Proportionately, it may well have been the greatest human disaster to ever befall the residents of Fredericksburg [setting aside, of course, the battles].

[The epidemic was not confined to Fredericksburg. In Richmond, James Longstreet and his wife Maria Louisa lost three children to scarlet fever in January 1862, at the same time the sickness was raging in Fredericksburg.]

The sickness arrived in Fredericksburg in September, 1861, and the first known to die was Wilmer Hudson, 8, the son of schoolteacher John and Pamelia Hudson. The Hudsons would be the first to suffer, and they would suffer more than any household in Fredericksburg. In November Emma, 5, and son Auburn, 3, died 13 days apart, leaving the family with just one of their four children.  Through October and into November the sickness quickened its pace, spreading its deadly tendrils across town. Betty Herndon Maury’s daughter, Nannie Belle, took ill.  Betty wrote in her diary on November 18, at the peak of the epidemic, “Nannie Belle is still too sick for me to think of writing regularly in my diary.  The scarlet fever is an epidemic here now, and many children are dying every day from it.  I shall be so thankful if my little wee lamb is spared.”

She would be, but many others succumbed.  J. Temple Doswell and his wife Evelina lost five-year-old George on November 10. Just nine days later disaster again visited their house at the corner of Princess Anne and Lewis Streets when two-year-old Evy Doswell succumbed. 

Fredericksburg’s register of deaths records at least 39 deaths related to the epidemic–all but one of them children (the records are clearly incomplete, but certainly supportive of the idea that this was a disaster on a  huge scale for such a small town). The record of funerals at St. George’s gives us an additional two names.  The plague roared to its climax in December, claiming 38% of known victims. 

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The Women of Fredericksburg Mobilize

From John Hennessy:

 Just a week after the Virginia convention declared Virginia’s secession, the women of Fredericksburg started mobilizing in anticipation of impending war. Women of the town’s most powerful families convened a meeting to form the “Mutual Aid and Soldier’s Relief Society.” The Society was ready, they declared to “cut and make any garment they may require, and to furnish many articles requisite for the sick and wounded.  Orders may be left with any one of the Directresses, and shall be promptly executed.  The Society also request of all friendly to the cause they represent, Donations of Yarn, Woollen Socks, Flannel, Calico, old Linen, &c. which may be sent to any one of the directresses.”

This was not an unusual step on Southern towns, but the resolutions passed by the leading women of Fredericksburg in forming the new society are worth reading. They are a vivid look at both the spirit of an aroused community and the social status of women at the time.  The resolutions were published in the Fredericksburg News, April 24, 1861.

We, the ladies of Fredericksburg, Falmouth, and their vicinities, tho’ hitherto silent observers, have not been uninterested spectators of the condition of our State and Nation, we firmly believe the course pursued by Virginia has been ever true and just, alike honorable to herself and others–and whereas whilst acting as mediator, the Olive Branch has been forcibly wrenched from her hand, and War made inevitable.

We here resolve.  1st, Whilst we deeply deplore the sad necessity of war, we will…cheerfully submit to any privations our men or rulers may direct


Juliet Neale, a founding member of the Relief Society in Fredericksburg. She would later gain some fame for her work at the Confederate hospital at Belvoir, in Spotsylvania County. Image courtesy Fredericksburg Area Museum

2nd. We will deny ourselves as far as possible all the luxeries [sic] of dress and table that our men may expend more for the defence of our homes and liberties, and for the comfort of those who may be called to peril their lives for the same; and that we will labor with our hands for this end.

3rd.  That our ornaments of house and person shall not be withheld, if needed, to promote the interests of our State and Nation, but shall be freely given up, as we prefer like the matron of old, when asked for our jewels, to point to our sons.

4th.  We will from this day forth, purchase no article that is not grown, manufactured, or imported into some Southern State, or that is not now in the possession of our merchants, milliners, &c.

5th.  Should our aid as nurses be needed at the Camp or Hospitals of our gallant defenders, we will glory in showing that it is not in England alone a “Florence Nightingale” may be found.

6th.  A the interruption of all business in our Town may be productive of suffering to many, we request the Benevolent Society to organize immediately and report to us the wants and conditions of the poor and sick who may be sufferers from this cause.

7th.  On every Thursday afternoon at five o’clock prayer meetings will be held through out the Town at places appointed to invoke for our State and cause the aid of Him without whose blessing nothing can succeed or prosper, and for the preservation of our Husbands, Brother, and Sons.

8th.  We invite all the Ladies of our State to correspond and co-operate with us in all our labors of love for the promotion of the safety and comfort of those around us, and of those who may be called to fight the battles of our State.

9th.  That for the furtherance or our efforts and labors we organize a society.

While we know much about the society’s founding, we know little of its work as the war progressed–or even if it continued to meet.

The women who constituted the Society were generally the the partners of some of the most powerful men in town. All were among the approximately one-third of Fredericksburg households that owned slaves. Continue reading