When U. S. Grant Designated Fredericksburg a Tobacco-Free Zone; or, To What Degree Should We Interpret the Little-Known Stuff?

(Part 1:  A Late-War Role for the Fredericksburg Area)

From:  Harrison

In March 1865, one month before Appomattox, General U. S. Grant dispatched a gunboat and several regiments in transports up the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg.  They intercepted there an enormous shipment of tobacco bound for a Maryland speculator and his Northern partners.

The “Tobacco Raid,” as one participant dubbed the event, played-out at two key sites already made famous by 1865 and destined to feature prominently in historical interpretation:  the town wharves, where the City of Fredericksburg would one day install a circular plaza of historical signs:

Interpretive Signs in Middleground Center; Rappahannock River at Right

…and the site of the RF&P Railroad station at Hamilton’s Crossing, beside which the Park Service would install an interpretive trail (replacing an earlier tour-road) and wayside:

Looking North from End of Hamilton's Crossing Interpretive Trail; Site of Wartime Railroad Depot Behind Foilage at Right

Quite understandably, the future historical signage at both places would focus on the December 1862 battle, not the March 1865 Tobacco Raid.  The raid, after all, generated no significant combat, in contrast to the dramatic, cross-river assault occurring at the town wharves at the outset of the December 1862 fighting, and the thundering cannonades inflicted and endured by Confederate artillery positioned beside Hamilton’s Crossing later during the same battle.  Nor did the Tobacco Raid involve the physical presence of anyone whose fame would approach that of the key players of December 1862.

Yet the raid nonetheless offers the most elaborate illustration of a vital aspect of the histories of the wharves and Hamilton’s Crossing, and of the Fredericksburg-area overall.  Between mid-1864 and early 1865, the principal armies in Virginia confronted one another not at Fredericksburg but at Petersburg and Richmond.  Neither Petersburg nor Richmond, though, was fully encircled.  This left the RF&P more often than not open and operational between Richmond and the Fredericksburg area.  For ten months—June 1864-March 1865—residents of the latter found themselves free from the attentions of generals and the presence of armies and at the same time in possession of a key transportation corridor accessing a capitol city and myriad, war-enhanced economic opportunities.   

The mid-war destruction of a short stretch of RF&P track leading into Fredericksburg proper had left Hamilton’s Crossing station (bottom right of map), in eastern Spotsylvania County and at the southern fringe of the battlefield of December 1862, the town’s principal railroad depot.  After off-loading at Hamilton’s, northbound freight and passengers travelled several miles by road (red arrows on map) to Fredericksburg (top of map).  Traffic bound from Fredericksburg to Richmond moved southward over generally the same route to Hamilton’s, as shown on this detail from a Jedediah Hotchkiss map at the Library of Congress:

Late-war travelers and the commodities they carried who were headed further north and east—into Maryland from Fredericksburg, Hamilton’s Crossing, or a Caroline County railroad station like Milford–could cross the upper Rappahannock at fords such as the one between Fredericksburg and Falmouth, or the middle Rappahannock at ferries such as the one soon made famous by John Wilkes Booth and his pursuers at Port Royal.  Travelers then used various clandestine or impromptu Potomac River ferries connecting Virginia with Maryland.     

In October 1864, six months before Appomattox, a correspondent for the Mobile Register visited Fredericksburg and reported that enough refugees had returned to give the town a population of “some six or eight hundred souls.”  Although he wrote that “their hatred of the Yankee is quenchless,” he also noted that Yankee detritus, scavenged from old campsites on the opposite side of the Rappahannock, and interregional commodities-trading had become essential components of an economy that linked Fredericksburg and portions of the adjoining counties of Stafford and Spotsylvania directly to Richmond, and indirectly even to Northern buyers and markets:

Strange to tell, Stafford County…is now richer and more thickly settled than it has been since the colonial days.  It has a debatable land, in which neither Confederate nor Yankee rule is acknowledged, and it is filled with deserters who have grown rich by gathering and selling the immense debris of Hooker’s camps to Washington or to Richmond purchasers, as happened to be the most convenient—for those lawless people care little for either side.  Hooker’s incredible relics have not yet been all gathered in, for I saw in Fredericksburg and at Hamilton’s crossing great piles of old iron and fragments of tents, blankets and overcoats which were ready to be sent to Richmond.

For the late-war period, other accounts confirm a semi-Wild West atmosphere and role as a key economic portal for embattled Richmond.  Silvanus Jackson Quinn, a veteran of the Fredericksburg Artillery and author of the town’s first book-length history, wrote in 1908 that its population on the eve of Appomattox “had been increased by the presence of strangers and adventurers,” and that trade was by then “conducted, to a considerable extent, by those who were not permanent residents.”               

The situation arose from military planning at the highest levels, as well as from opportunism at the lowest.  In March 1864, Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon had informed General Robert E. Lee of certain suspensions in the enforcement of a new embargo upon “the exportation of cotton, tobacco, sugar, rice, molasses, and military and naval stores from the Confederacy:”

It is necessesary that this department shall authorize a trade in these articles with the border counties and even Maryland for ordnance supplies, and to obtain subsistence… and the department has placed the subject…under the charge of Major B. P. Noland.        

At the time of Seddon’s note, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on the eve of the Overland Campaign but still arrayed along the line of the Rapidan and Rapphannock Rivers, with a sizeable force at Fredericksburg to mark the far-right flank of the principal deployment, and cavalry pickets extending further downstream along the Rappahannock through Port Royal.

After the war Noland would recall that his role was one of overseeing, from a headquarters in Richmond, the transportation of such goods through “the district in which is situated Fredericksburg, the ‘Northern Neck,’ etc., and…all contracts for supplies furnished the Confederate army through the Federal lines.”  In February 1865, as the armies confronted one another outside Richmond and Petersburg, a spy for Army of the Potomac military-intelligence chief Colonel George H. Sharpe reported from the Confederate capitol that “meal from Fredericksburg and Port Royal” was “feeding” its garrison and population, while “Mosby’s five companies on the ‘Northern Neck’ have sent…bacon and beef by the way of Port Royal and the Fredericksburg Railroad.”     

Noel G. Harrison

(Next:  Joseph H. Maddox:  A Man in Search of a Spaghetti Western)

3 thoughts on “When U. S. Grant Designated Fredericksburg a Tobacco-Free Zone; or, To What Degree Should We Interpret the Little-Known Stuff?

  1. Such “under the radar” trading seems to have been going on all the time. The trade in cotton help keep the Northern industries going.

  2. The little known stuff shall be little known no more! Great details and VERY interesting, Noel. This is the direction local history needs to go. Leave no stone unturned.

  3. Great job, Noel. This may be little known stuff, but logistics (even the lawless kind) is enormously important to military operations and generally gets overlooked in the banners and bugles school of history. Excellent work.

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