Posted by: The staff | August 1, 2010

Is that Martha Stephens?


From Hennessy:

Some of what we have done on this blog is fairly important–new research, new conclusions. Some is purely interesting. This little tidbit falls more into the category of curious and fun.

The Innis House, owned by Martha Stephens, along the Sunken Road in 1865 or 1866.

Few people associated with the Battle of Fredericksburg are more interesting and enigmatic than Martha Stephens. She lived along the Sunken Road, and her house was engulfed by battle, leaving it by one account with 1,000 bullet holes in it–holes she reportedly refused to repair in the years after the war. In front of her house–in the Sunken Road–General Thomas R.R. Cobb was mortally wounded. The house outlived Martha, who died in 1888, but as long as both were around, both were prime attractions for veterans and visitors alike.

Martha Stephens’s story has many of the characteristics of Richard Kirkland’s, the South Carolinian who aided Union wounded in the battle’s horrid aftermath. At the time of the battle, nobody documented either person’s deeds, and each only became known years later, as their narratives emerged in various memoirs (for a lively discussion of the Kirkland story, see Kevin Levin’s post and follow-up comments over at Civil War Memory). Martha’s differs in one respect: unlike Kirkland, who died at Chickamauga, she herself helped build the postwar narrative that put her in the midst of the action on December 13, 1862, tending to Confederate wounded, providing water to Confederate soldiers, and even caring for the stricken General Cobb. Her role in the battle became an accepted fact, and so it remains.

But Martha Stephens was, in fact, more interesting as a person than as a legend. She was fiercely independent–twice a common-law wife. She owned at least eight properties in her own name, smoked a pipe, was at least once cited for running an illegal saloon out of her house, and by some accounts kept company with African-American men. She never legally married likely so she could keep creditors keen on her husband (Edward, a cabinet-maker) from getting at her assets. After the battle, she took up residence in Brompton so long as the Marye’s were away; when they returned, she apparently moved down the hill to the Stratton House. Her singular independence is likely responsible for her untoward reputation in the community. One man described her as “a woman of abandoned character and an outcast of society.” Historian John Goolrick, who apparently knew her well, called her “uneducated, too free and too outspoken in what she said and how she said it; but she was sincere….”

All of that is background to this query: might this photograph taken of the Sunken Road just after the war offer us an image, albeit indistinct, of Martha Stephens? Eric Mink, the pre-eminent expert in the park on postwar photography in Fredericksburg, indicates the image was taken in 1866. At that time, Martha still owned her home (just barely visible adjacent to the tree on the right of the image) and very likely the Innis House too. Look closely in the fence corner. There are two women leaning on the fence, apparently aware of, and perhaps posing for, the photographer.

Though indistinct, it appears the woman on the right is a bit older–at least judging from her aspect.  It begs the question:  could it be Martha?

Like almost everything else about Martha Stephens, the answer is likely to remain elusive….but the possibility is interesting to ponder.

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Responses

  1. In researching the series of photographs from which this is the final image (negative # 121), I was able to determine that it was taken on Sunday, April 15, 1866. The previous evening had produced a severe storm that included hail and heavy rain, the evidence of which can be seen in the lower right corner here, and more so in an uncropped version. The Fredericksburg papers describe the storm as does the journal of Theodore Lyman.
    Another item to ponder with this picture was pointed out by Eric Mink some years ago. It appears that the women are leaning on a gate that closes off the entrance to Mercer Street, also partially blocked by mounded dirt on a line with the Stone Wall. Is it possible that Mercer was not open to traffic on a regular basis during that period?
    Any bets Martha and “her girls” are on their way to church that gray Sunday morning?

  2. John,

    My kind of woman. As far as I am concerned Martha’s story is much more interesting than that of Richard Kirkland’s. I can only wonder what a monument to her good deeds would look like given your description of her. :D

    Thanks for the post.

  3. [...] soldier who mentions seeing her at the time (she of course appears in many memoirs–just like Martha Stephens and Richard Kirkland). Still, we know enough about her movements to identify with certainty five [...]


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