Martha Stevens redeemed: pariah to heroine–a matter of faith or history?


From John Hennessy (for part 1 of this post, click here):

The case of Martha Stephens presents many of the challenges that surround the story of Richard Kirkland, though perhaps in even starker form. Conventional wisdom holds that she, to use David Gregg McIntosh’s 1910 reminiscence of a visit to the battlefield (where he heard about Martha),

…remained at her house during the battle, and after it was over rendered great service to the troops of both sides, and when bandages were wanted at the Field Hospital she supplied every piece of cloth which she had, and finally tore her skirts into strips and gave them for that purpose.

The Stevens house in 1911, two years before it was destroyed by fire.

But beyond conventional wisdom what do we really know?

In fact, very little. As with Kirkland, there are no wartime accounts that reference Martha Stevens by name or make any suggestion that she was present as McIntosh describes.  Like Kirkland, her person does not emerge in connection with the battle until many years later. The first known reference to Martha Stevens by name (or even intimation) in connection with the battle appeared in the mid-1880s, when former Confederate staff officer (and Fredericksburg resident) W. Roy Mason wrote a short article that would eventually appear in Vol. 3 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. While it is clear that Mason did not witness what he described, he passed along what by then (at least in Fredericksburg) was the standard rendition of Martha Stevens’s deeds, gotten, he says, from her own lips.

I went out with a party of gentlemen friends who were visitors in Fredericksburg to inquire of her….This woman, the Molly Pitcher of the war, attended the wounded and the dying fearless of consequences, and refused to leave her house, although…the position was one of great danger. It is said that after using all the materials for bandages at her command, she tore from her person most of her garments, even on that bitter cold day, in her anxiety to administer to necessities greater than her own.

The Sunken Road in front of the Stevens House. Cobb monument at left.

Mason’s account helps highlight a major difference between the origins of the Kirkland and Stevens stories. Kirkland died at Chickamauga in 1863, and so the subsequent telling of his story was left to others who claimed  to have witnessed it. For Martha Stevens, the only accounts of her activities that day derive not from witnesses to the event, but from witnesses to her telling of the events or of those people who got the story from those who had spent time listening to her tell her story (got it?). Martha’s December 22, 1888 obituary is interesting:

“Mrs. Stephens was a genial spirit, and hundreds of ex-Confederate and ex-Union soldiers have called upon her since the war to hear her relate many of the incidents with which she was familiar as an eye-witness…” 

The paper helped enshrine the legend:

“She was a very kind hearted and generous soul, and will be greatly missed by many. She was particularly kind to the wounded soldiers here of both armies, whose ministrations to these will never be forgotten by those who survive, and companies of those who died will ever cherish her memory.”

The Stevens family cemetery today, next to the Stevens house site. Martha's is one of about eight graves in the cemetery. None are marked individually.

In 1911, local judge John T. Goolrick–the same man who 13 years later would question the authenticity of the slave auction block and lead an unsuccessful effort to have it removed from Fredericksburg’s streets–begot an effort to put a monument over Martha Stevens’s unmarked grave (he failed in this endeavor as well, and the grave remains unmarked to this day). Goolrick’s attempt prompted the publication of much of what we know about Martha Stevens. Former Confederate artilleryman and resident at Brompton Lawrence Marye wrote to the local paper to lend his support. Marye claimed “I had personal knowledge of her devoted service to ou wounded soldiers” at Frederickburg. That, however, seems unlikely, because Marye was serving with Early’s division on the south end of the field that and the following day. It’s likely that that “personal knowledge” was like that of most others: he had heard the story of Mrs. Stevens, either from her directly or from others.

Another letter came into the paper that fall of 1911, this one from an unnamed woman who in fact provided more details than anyone about Martha’s acts during the war. These too, however, were related to her by Stevens herself.

I knew her quite well, often passing her house on my way to Fredericksburg to school [after the war]. She told me on one occasion standing by General Cobb’s monument…that she saw the general fall wounded and rushed out and bound his bleeding wounds with her garments which she tore from her clothing. He was taken into her house till help could be secured….

Teh Cobb monument today.

One of the most thoroughly documented moments of the Battle of Fredericksburg is the instant when Cobb fell mortally wounded. Of the half-dozen contemporary accounts of his wounding, none of them mention Martha Stevens. It seems impossible that she could have played a role in his care without anyone else noticing–she would have been an instant heroine.

The unnamed schoolgirl continued:

She also related to me an incident of the bombardment of Fredericksburg. The morning after, she was on her usual mercy bent, when she came across a Norther soldier boy wounded, bleeding and left to die in an old smokehouse in town. She washed of the blood, gave him nourishment, and putting some flowers in his hand promised to return the next day. When she came again he was not there and soldiers told her he was dead. Nearly thirty years afterwards a party of visitors were viewing the Cobb monument.  Mrs. Stevens, standing in her yard, was surprised when one of the gentlemen crossed the road and threw his arms around her and called her “Mother,” asking her if she remembered once caring for a wounded Northern soldier boy after the bombardment of Fredericksburg. He told her he was that boy.”

The only demonstrable piece of evidence that would support or refute this story is the date of the reunion.  Martha Stevens died in December 1888.  The Cobb monument was erected in the spring of that year, meaning that window was fairly narrow.  The story of this gleeful reuninion is therefore not implausible, but it does rest on a narrow ledge.

The evidence surrounding the story of Richard Kirkland leaves us a good deal to debate, no matter which side of the legend you fall upon (I tend to believe there is something to it). The historiographical evidence regarding the story of Martha Stevens leaves us little to work with.  There is no evidence from those who might have witnessed her deeds. Everything we know is from her own telling, related to us by others. While that cannot disprove her claim to have done what others say she said she did, the absence of any direct evidence of her presence on December 13 has to inspire caution.

The Stevens house site today, looking south

In the weeks before and after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Confederate soldiers wrote constantly of the trials and fortitude of local civilians in the face of Union outrages–the Confederacy at large craved such stories. It’s difficult to imagine that the everpresence (as later claimed) of a woman amidst battle, in a house that would have as many as 2,000 bullet holes in it by battle’s end, and the assistance of a woman to the most prominent general officer to die at Fredericksburg would have received no mention (then or later) from men who surely must have seen her. Even after her legend emerged, no one stepped forward to say, “I saw Martha Stevens at Fredericksburg.” (After Kirkland’s story became known, several self-proclaimed witnesses stepped forward to corroborate or, in one case, expand upon the story).

Still, her story became popularized in Mary Johnston’s 1911 novel The Long Roll (a book vigorously panned by Stonewall Jackson’s widow Anna, by the way). Later, Douglas Southall Freeman give Martha his blessing and place in Confederate lore by retelling her story in his biography of Lee, adding a purported comment by Lee, “I wish those people would let Mrs. Stevens alone.” (The quote came from local historian Alvin Embrey in 1937.)  Today, few people question the story.

Despite the wispy nature of evidence surrounding Martha Stevens, we do know this:  the story of her acts at Fredericksburg helped transform her place in post-war society. After her death, this woman–once a saloonkeeper and pariah–would be praised as a midwife and caregiver whose “home was a private, free hospital” after the war and whose “charities and kindness were measured only by her ability.”  Wrote the minister who tended to her in her last days, “Beneath a rough exterior of manner and expression was concealed a heart as warm, sympathetic and charitable, and loyal to the ‘Lost Cause’ as ever beat in the breast of a man, or a woman. She considered no sacrifice too great to be made for a Confederate soldier….”

It is a dramatic story of redemption, and it may be true. But two things must inspire thinking people to caution:

– The total lack of evidence beyond Martha’s own telling of her story, relayed second hand.

– The undeniable post-war urgency to identify and promote heroes and heroines that sustained the larger aims of reconciliation and the virtue of a cause lost. Martha Stephens would not have been the first–and will not be the last–to be artificially elevated to the status of cultural icon in the name of national unity and regional identity.

I tend to be very cautious about dismantling legends. I think positive proof is required to declare something ingrained in a society’s narrative untrue–and that certainly does not exist in the case of Martha Stevens. But, we can untangle  things, and recognize the difference between tradition and history. And that distinction compels us, I think, to place Martha’s story squarely in the realm of tradition, rendering one’s belief in such a story more a matter of faith rather than knowledge.

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2 thoughts on “Martha Stevens redeemed: pariah to heroine–a matter of faith or history?

  1. Thanks for this great article. I’ve always wondered about her and what the house may have looked like. Great work

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