Escape to Spotsylvania and beyond: the geography of Fredericksburg’s refugees

From John Hennessy:

On December 12, 1862, the roads leading into Spotsylvania were crowded with civilians seeking escape from looming battle. There was no system to this exodus. People headed to friends’ homes, to churches, and to the homes of strangers, seeking shelter. There are many affecting descriptions of civilians finding their way across the early winter landscape of Spotsylvania (read one of the best in this post over at Fredericksburg Remembered), but our purpose today is to look at least at a few of the sites that help define the geography of the exodus so far as we know it.

By far the most famous of Fredericksburg’s refugees on December 11 and 12, 1862, was Jane Beale and her family. They lived on Lewis Street and endured most of December 11 in their basement, under fire. As the Union army battled its way across the river and into Fredericksburg’s streets, Beale, assisted by Rev. Beverley Tucker Lacy, fled in a wagon brought by Confederate soldiers.

The family’s path out of town is clear: over to Hanover Street, westward to what is today Kirkland Street, left on the Sunken Road, and then to a temporary camp established by refugees on the back side of Willis Hill–today’s National Cemetery. She wrote vividly about the place.

As we passed beyond the line of the town and the turn of the road put the ‘Willis Hill’ Promontory of land, between us and the firing, a sense of security came into my mind and deep and heartfelt thankfulness for our deliverance from this great evil, carried my spirit to the throne of Heaven in humble grateful prayer. but new objects attracted my attention and claimed my sympathy here, crowds of women and children had sought refuge in this sheltered spot and as night drew on they were in great distress, they could not return to the town which was already in possession of the enemy, and they had fled too hastily to bring with them the comforts even the necessaries of life. Some few had stretched blue yarn counterpanes or pieces of old carpet over sticks, stuck in the ground—and the little ones were huddled together under these tents, the women were weeping the children crying loudly, I saw one walking along with a baby in her arms and another little one not three years old clinging to her dress and crying “I want to go home” My heart ached for them and if I could I would have stopped the Ambulance and taken them in, but I did not know then that I might not have to spend the night out in the open air myself….

Based on Beale’s description, this camp can be located with some precision–about where Lafayette Boulevard (in 1862 the Telegraph Road) crosses today’s Blue-Gray Parkway.

Beale’s wagons continued onward that night, out the Telegraph Road to what is today Harrison Road. Then she turned right and passed westward about a mile to the home of her friends Benjamin Temple and his wife Lucy. Unlike most refugees, the Beales found a warm hearth and soft beds waiting for them:

The Temple home, Beauclair Plantation, today. The core of the home dates to 1803; it has clearly undergone major changes.

.…when we drove up to the door the family rushed out and my dear friend Mrs. Temple carried me into the house almost in her arms, weeping as she went, at the idea of the dreadful peril to which we had been exposed all day. She gave up her most comfortable room for our accommodation and in a nice old-fashioned easy chair, before a blazing wood fire with my children around me….

While Jane Beale headed west out of town, many residents headed south–toward the railroad at Hamilton’s Crossing. Among those were the dozen or so girls of the Female Charity School on Caroline Street. They turned up at Lansdowne, the home of Dr. Robert Rennolds, his wife Caroline, and daughters Eliza and Emily and son Robert. Years later, Eliza remembered the arrival of the girls with glee:  “We children experienced great delight when the Female Charity School arrived, twelve girls to play with us, but this was only a two days treat.” It may not have been even that, for Rennolds’s house was within the Confederate lines. No civilians would have lingered there as long as December 13.

By far the most popular destination on the sound end of the field was Hamilton’s Crossing–the functioning railhead for the Confederate army.

Forest Hill's nearness to the railroad made it one of the most popular destinations for Fredericksburg's refugees.

The Hamilton family lived just up the hill at from the crossing at Forest Hill and received a small avalanche of refugees between November 22 and December 13–most of them hoping to hop a train to safer environs in Richmond. The Knox family of 1201 Princess Anne Street fled town on November 21 and headed straight for Forest Hill. Mary Campbell Knox remembered:

After a long, rough ride over bad roads, we arrived at our destination and found our friend’s house, packed to nearly overflowing with refugees from Fredericksburg.  Some had come out in carriages, carts and wagons, and some had even walked.  Mrs. Marye [Jane Hamilton Marye, the wife of John L. Marye Sr., of Brompton] was very kind and let us have a mattress which was put on her parlor floor and we three slept there that night.

By late November Prospect Hill was awash with people.  Matilda Hamilton (whose wonderful diary is being prepared for publication by Rebecca Campbell Light) wrote on November 26:

Today we have had Mr. Collins, Tucker Baxter, Mr. Mason and Mr. Doswell, who has furniture deposited here to be removed to Richmond, besides our family which consists of eight grown people, nine children and Sister Charlotte’s white maid, Betty. We are surrounded with soldiers, camps and all the paraphernalia of war. It is so exciting, and our feelings are, so above the ordinary ones that we can’t tell whether it is pleasant or the contrary. To the young, it is pleasant.

And on December 1:

The house is as full as it can be, and all our outhouses full. Respectable white people, with their own provisions, are refugeeing in our servants houses, and all about in the neighborhood it is the same way. We have ten children, and nine grown people for our family proper.

By December 12, as the Confederates swarmed around Forest Hill, the Hamiltons and their refugee guests would themselves have to flee, and so began a journey to Belvoir and other nearby farms out of harms way.

There are many more places that became temporary homes for Fredericksburg refugees–including Salem Church (clearly the biggest destination), Massaponax Church (so says legend), Spotsylvania’s Hilton, and even sites in Caroline County. We’ll take an occasional look at these sites–part of a landscape central to one of Fredericksburg’s distinctive ordeals, and one that enraged the South and brought a bitterness to the war that would flourish over the next two years.

4 thoughts on “Escape to Spotsylvania and beyond: the geography of Fredericksburg’s refugees

  1. I went to a small private (boarding) school in Beauclair Plantation (it was “Farms” then) in 1940-41. At that time it was a farm accessed from what is now Harrison Rd by a long lane. The house pictured looks now like I remember it. I also remember a very large formal English and American boxwood garden and a double row of pecan trees leading to the barn area. I think the property was owned by a Harrison family then, one of whose daughters, Sheila, was also at the school. It was a happy time.

  2. My family and I lived at Beauclair Plantation for 25 years. In fact, I was born there. It used to be 365 acres until I95 came through and cut it in half. It was formerly the home of Charles Washington. The small house you see to the right of the picture was the Tutor house. The lane on the way in off of Harrison was about one half mile long. About three quarters of the way up the lane off in the field was the basement structure of the old slave quarters. There were 1,100 box woods of different types includiong American and French varieties. Numerous rose bushes and at least 8 acres of manicured lawns.
    There was a resident Ghost. Known as the Temple Ghost, he was a soldier in the Civil War wounded in the battle of Frederickburg who managed to make it back to the plantation only to die next to that huge tree you can see in front of the Manor House. I remember being spanked after my Father discovered the huge hole I dug looking for the bones when i was a child.

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