One week’s haul: Clara Barton, escaping slaves, and the Union occupation


From Hennessy:

In 1989, Congress expanded the park’s mandate by stipulating that in addition to interpreting the military aspects of the four battles, we will also interpret the war’s impact on civilians.  Fulfilling this mandate has made my job especially interesting–allowing us to look at sites through different thematic lenses and in the process generating a huge body of new source material that at least until Noel Harrison came along, no one paid much mind to.

Though I have been in my job for a very long time, I am constantly amazed at the rate we learn new things–the rate at which new material tumbles into our hands. Some of that material brings new light to well-known stories or places; sometimes something entirely new turns up. The historical record grows, and so does our understanding of the resources we manage and interpret.  Along the way, the scope of our interpretive programs has broadened (without, by the way, diminishing what we do in the realm of military history); the incoming source material has added immensely to the richness and variety of our programs.

This week is a perfect example of the flow of new stuff. This picture came from the files of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation

It demonstrates vividly that I have been wrong in my presumed location of the Maria Wolfe house on Princess Anne Street–one of four buildings in Fredericksburg definitively associated with Clara Barton. I had presumed the house still stood next to the Baptist Church–that it was was and is the place now occupied by Micah Ministries. Instead, this image clearly shows that Wolfe’s house once stood where the church offices are, and is gone. Here’s one of those awkward cases where not only does something add to your knowledge, but it shows you were WRONG.  But, we will be right henceforth. Here is a better picture of the now-vanished house, provided to us by Dennis Sacrey of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.

The Maria Wolfe house on Princess Anne Street. Courtesy Dennis Sacrey and the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.

Poking around on footnote.com, Eric Mink turned up the claim filed by grocer John B. Alexander of Fredericksburg for four slaves who were “abducted, harbored, and carried off” by the Union army in July and December of 1862. We know, of course, that these slaves (Frances, Betty, George, and Horace) were probably not “abducted,” but rather opted for freedom within Union lines themselves–part of one of the park’s most powerful emerging stories. I wish I had found this before my Slavery and Slave Places tour a few weeks ago.

An item like this helps us illustrate several things: the exodus of slaves that attended the arrival of the Union army, the obvious struggle and challenges the end of slavery posed for local slaveowners, and–most vividly–the idea that slavery was far more than just the relationship between owner, overseer, and slave. As Alexander’s claim shows, slavery was (even before the founding of the Confederacy) sustained by the power of government. Alexander’s claim (click here to see a transcript) seeks reimbursement from the Confederate government for the value of these people (a total of $3,500, as attested by local slave trader George Aler).

(Eric also turned up a document reflecting on the Confederate field hospital where Jackson was treated at Chancellorsville, but that’s worth a separate post of its own.)

click to enlarge

And finally, I received yesterday from Breck O’Donnell, a high school student who is plowing through issues of the Richmond Examiner for Fredericksburg material, a copy of what is likely the best single Fredericksburg-written account of the Union occupation of 1862. It was originally published in the Virginia Herald of Fredericksburg in September 1862.  No copies of that paper survive from the war period, and so this find is especially useful. It is full of both new details and editorial commentary, much of it wonderful. Among the review of perceived Union atrocities: “The living were prohibited from visiting the dying, and that too when the houses were almost in sight’ the dead were not allowed the privilege of Christian sepulture, inasmuch as at least one coffin was refused the privilege of passing out from town for the corpse awaiting it in the country.”

We’ll be publishing it in the upcoming CVBT journal, Fredericksburg History and Biography.  It’s a wonderful piece.

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5 thoughts on “One week’s haul: Clara Barton, escaping slaves, and the Union occupation

  1. In the proclamation entitled “Notice to Judicial Officers,” published by acting Secretary of State William Browne on October 25, 1861, Confederate citizens were encouraged to file affidavits describing losses incurred due to the actions of Federal forces. Many, like, John Alexander, filed such claims in the hope of one day being compensated for their loss. Was this compensation to come from the Confederate government, or would it have come as part of a negotiated settlement with the North after the South achieved independence?

    • Patrick: Virginia had a long tradition of compensating slaveowners for the loss of slaves. I confess I have not looked closely at the laws that shaped Alexander’s claim and others like it, but I have presumed the claims were intended to stimulate the government to pay, and were not filed in hopes of payment from some reparations fund set up by a defeated Union government. John Hennessy

  2. Thanks for the clarification, John. My great great grandmother, Nancy Row of Spotsylvania, filed a similar affidavit with the Corporation Court in January 1863, seeking compensation for the loss of 15 slaves due to the action of “Federal troops, the enemy of the Confederate states, then occupying the county of Spotsylvania.”

    • Patrick. We’d love to know what you know about Nancy Rowe, who lived out in the Brock Road area, near the Wilderness Battlefield–her claim, and anything else you might have. She was a fairly wealthy widow in 1860. I don’t have ready access to the 1850, do don’t know readily who her husband was…But whatever you know we’d love to add to our store of information. Thanks. John

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