In conjunction with other museum and public history professionals in the Fredericksburg area, and in part to make sure the tight focus of this blog doesn’t stray from a mix of material closely focused on interesting issues of landscape, we are starting up a new blog, Fredericksburg Remembered, with a different focus-this one on stories, ideas, memory, programs, media, and the challenges of bringing them all before the public. Our next post on the disputed history of the slave auction block will be put over there, while here at Mysteries and Conundrums we will continue our focus on exploring and unraveling the Civil War landscapes of the park and the Fredericksburg region. Check out the description of the new blog here. And, as always, let us know what you think.
The shaped block of stone sits unnoticed by most at the corner of Charles and William Street in Fredericksburg, directly in front of the building that was once the Planter’s Hotel. Over the years it has been backed into by trucks and hacked at by vandals. But to some people it is one of the most compelling urban artifacts in America. It is likely that more than a few women used the block to mount horses on the curb in front of the Planter’s Hotel. And it likely that many things–tools, furniture, and livestock–were sold at auction on this site. But today the stone is largely remembered for one thing: the sale of slaves. It is widely known as the slave auction block.
Since I came here in 1995, I have heard occasional rumblings from people that, no, the block on that corner is NOT an auction block where slaves were sold. I had assumed this was a modern manifestation of discomfort with an undeniably uncomfortable bit of history–history that seemed to me based on a solid documentary and oral history of the block as a site of slave auctions.
I have come to discover, though, that not only has the history of the block been disputed in Fredericksburg for nearly a century, but at times the wisdom of its continued existence has been questioned. In 1924, the local Chamber of Commerce petitioned City Council to remove the block. In reporting the request, the Fredericksburg Daily Star (July 9, 1924) recorded, “The communication stated that the rock was not a slave block but was used years ago as a base for ladies to mount horses.” Moreover, the Chamber argued, the portrayal of the stone “to tourists as a place of selling slaves… may serve somewhat to keep alive the sectional feeling which has long ago since disappeared.” Council referred the matter to the Public Interest Committee for further investigation.
A few days later, Confederate Veteran and local historian John Tackett Goolrick threw his support behind the Chamber’s request with an even more direct rebuttal of the traditional view of the auction block as place associated with slave sales. And Goolrick echoed the Chamber’s claim that the association of the block with slave sales reflected poorly on the community.
Goolrick wrote, “In those days many women and men came [to the Planter’s Hotel] on horseback; this block was utilized as a convenient place for them to mount their horses. It as never used and never intended to be used as a slave block, where colored people were put up, bought and sold.” Goolrick labeled claims to the otherwise as “flagrantly false.” “For many reasons,” he wrote (though he does not elaborate on those reasons), “it should be broken up and carried away.” He claimed the city was a “veritable show place for its cleanliness, for its good streets, and pavements,” and urged the block–“a standing lie”–be removed and “thereby correct the false impression which this block has made to the strangers who come within our gates.”
If the matter had dropped there, it seems likely that City Council would have acted to remove the block from the corner of Charles and William. But then, as in more recent times, local residents rushed in with a decidedly contrary view of the auction block, arguing urgently that indeed the block was what people claimed it was. In our next post we’ll look at the evidence presented then, and other documentation that speaks to the historic use of one of Fredericksburg’s most controversial landmarks. That post will appear at our new sister blog, Fredericksburg Remembered, which focuses on the challenges of interpreting history in the Fredericksburg region.
In addition to our intensely interesting landscapes, we also manage a fairly robust museum collection at the park. Today, a momentary departure from our usual focus to share with you our newest arrival at Chatham, received yesterday: the piano that belonged to the family of Charles Wellford, who lived at what is today 1501 Caroline Street. The piano comes to us from Ricmond’s Valentine Museum (which decided to de-accession it–we’re thankful for their generosity) and, indirectly, thanks to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, which decided the thing was too large to accommodate in their collections area and graciously put us in contact with Valentine.
The piano was purchased by Charles and Mary Wellford from White’s Bookstore on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg in 1848. By virtue of long involvement in the community, the Wellfords were among the most prominent of Fredericksburg families. Charles’s brother John Spotswood Wellford was the founder of Catharine Furnace–later famous in connection with the Battle of Chancellorsville–and owned extensive properties at the corner of Caroline and George Streets, a complex still known in town as Wellford’s Row. Charles himself (below left) ran a drygoods store in Fredericksburg, and in 1862 reopened the dormant furnace at Catharine. The family moved between their home in Fredericksburg and their place just west of the Furnace, a site marked today along Jackson Trail East. Continue reading
In a recent interview I likened my historical conclusions to new cars. Those begin depreciating in accuracy at the moment of publication, i.e., the moment of leaving the dealers’ lots. At best, I can hope that the quality of the underlying historical research and interpretation proves sufficiently high to keep the rate of deprecation low.
What follows considers one such historical conclusion ultimately “gone bad;” the consequent mystery regarding a feature of The Bloody Plain in front of Fredericksburg’s Stone Wall and Sunken Road; and a broader conundrum regarding the degree to which our interpretive publications, signs, and other programming should be designed to “sunset,” or to accommodate—or even anticipate—revisions reflecting newly discovered information or more plausible interpretations.
Over the course of many examinations of this photograph of the Bloody Plain, viewed from atop Marye’s Heights in May 1864, I became fascinated by what appeared to be a berm-like feature. For me this was defined by a white line bisecting two narrow zones of dark, freshly disturbed ground–darker strips that in turn bisected lighter patches of ground. Here’s a detail from a digital copy of the image, in the collection of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park: