The fate of Fredericksburg determined: President Davis’s March 1862 visit


From Hennessy:

The Doswell House. Davis spoke briefly from the front steps on March 22, 1862.

I think it’s safe to say (surely someone will correct me if I am wrong) that other than Richmond, Fredericksburg is the only town or city visited during the war by both Presidents Davis and Lincoln (they both went to Manassas Junction too, but Manassas was not much of a place, and certainly not incorporated). We have explored Lincoln’s highly interesting May 23, 1862 visit in a previous post--chronicling his ride to Marye’s Heights and in the Sunken Road. But what of Davis’s visit, which is scantily mentioned in the historical record but, in one way, far more significant than Lincoln’s?

Jefferson Davis came to Fredericksburg on March 22, 1862. Just two weeks earlier, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had abandoned his army’s position in northern Virginia, anticipating a Union move to the Peninsula. This move, for the first time, rendered Fredericksburg an important place. The question to be answered that day: could Fredericksburg be successfully defended against a Union advance on the Rappahannnock, or would the town have to be left to the Yankees?

Davis arrived from Gordonsville at midnight on the 21st and proceeded to the home of J. Temple Doswell, at the corner of Princess Anne and Lewis Streets. There he met with Generals Theophilis Holmes, the nominal Confederate commander in Fredericksburg, and Joseph Johnston. The next morning they were joined by the homeowner, Temple Doswell. Doswell (who lost two children to he scarlet fever epidemic just mmonths before, as we chronicled a while back over at Fredericksburg Remembered) was a newcomer to Fredericksburg, but well known in southern business circles as a cotton dealer, first in Galveston and then in New Orleans. He’d acquired the house on Princess Anne Street barely two years before, after maintaining a “summer home” here for several years before the war. Doswell was then serving as a volunteer aide on General Holmes’s staff, but it was likely his business influence (he would later go overseas in the name of the Confederacy) rather than any military acumen that qualified Doswell to host such a luminous crowd that day.

Davis almost certainly rode through Falmouth on what is today Washington Street, shown here a month after Davis’s visit.

Davis did not linger long at Doswell’s house. He, Doswell, and the generals soon crossed the Rappahannock River and “were absent some hours examining the country.” There are few details on their ride–we know only that they returned through Falmouth, and likely across the Falmouth bridge. As they trotted through the village, President Davis commented to Doswell, “Your town of Fredericksburg is right in the wrong place.” Indeed, the result of the day’s junket was mementous for the town: Fredericksburg could not be defended on the north bank of the river; erego, if the Union armies advanced toward the town, Confederate forces would yield the place. And so it would be.

Falmouth, from near Chatham. Davis likely crossed the Falmouth Bridge, the ruins of which are visible in this sketch.

Davis and his entourage returned to Doswell’s and the President was greeted by a band and a “large number” of ladies and prominent men. Looking “tall, thin, beardless, slightly bald, dressed in black broad cloth that was slightly worn looking,” the crowd summoned Davis to speak, and he offered a few words from Doswell’s front steps. Few in the audience could have imagined that the day’s visit had doomed Fredericksburg to Union occupation a month later.

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2 thoughts on “The fate of Fredericksburg determined: President Davis’s March 1862 visit

  1. The ornate iron-work at the front entry of this dwelling is unique in Fredericksburg. It appears that it could have been Doswell’s nod to his New Orleans connections.

    • Erik: I’ve often commented on that iron work too, but never made the possible connection to Doswell’s Texas and Louisiana origins. You just might be right in explaining the only New Orleans-type ironwork in Fredericksburg. Good catch. Thanks. John H.

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