The unconventional (and mysterious) Martha Stevens–a woman on Fredericksburg’s fringes


From John Hennessy (For part 2 of this post, click here. For a prior post on the possibility of Martha Stevens appearing in a postwar image, click here):

The UDC monument to Martha Stephens, at her house site on Sunken Road.

Just down the Sunken Road from the magnificent memorial to Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights,” is a far simpler monument, put in place in 1917 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to mark the home of one of Fredericksburg’s most honored and memorable women. “HERE LIVED MARTHA STEVENS     FRIEND OF THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIER     1861-1865.”

 In 1860, few in Fredericksburg would ever have predicted that Martha Stevens (or Stephens–the spellings seemed to have been interchangeable) would, 57 years hence, be the ONLY woman of the town to be honored with a monument to her acts during the Civil War. Indeed, to most Fredericksburgers, she would have been near the bottom of the list of prospective heroines, for Martha Stevens lived an unconventional life on the edges of Fredericksburg society.
Born, apparently, as Martha Farrow, by 1860 the 36-year-old was on her third surname, though there is no record that she ever stepped before minister or Justice of the Peace to be married.  Her son was named John Innis (or Ennis), and she occasionally went by that surname. In the several court cases in which she was involved, she is variously identified as Farrow, Innis, or Stevens (or Stephens). By 1860 she was living along the Sunken Road with cabinetmaker Edward N. Stevens, along with two young girls, Mary (10) and Agnes (5) named Stevens.
This meander through the morass of names is not intended to confuse, but to highlight that Martha lived a life far different than those other Fredericksburg women who have come to us as part of the town’s Civil War history–Betty Maury, Jane Beale, Lizzie Alsop, and others. But her ever-changing identity is only part of her distinctiveness. There is no record that Martha ever married Edward Stevens–rather, their marriage was common-law. They lived together for probably 29 years, until his death in 1883. He was a cabinet-maker, and perhaps not a good one, since he was, at least in the 1850s, in serious debt. Virginia law at the time required that the property of women entering into marriage automatically pass to the man–in this case any such property would have been used to satisfy Stevens’s debts. It is likely for this reason that Martha never married Edward. Indeed, in 1854, she entered into a trust with Peter Goolrick that secured her rights to her property entirely separate from Edward or any other man.  Indeed, in all known legal documents relating to Martha, she used either Innis or Farrow as her name, with Stevens given only as an alias.

Martha Stevens's house along the Sunken Road--a postwar image.

Martha Stephens, despite her discolored reputation, was if nothing else an effective wheeler-dealer.  Her worth was considerable: two house on the Sunken Road (including today’s Innis house), a couple of lots on George Street and, most importantly, a 92-acre farm she acquired in 1869–all in her own name.

 Her independent ways in the legal and real estate realms surely marked her as different, but so did her personality and other entrepreneurial ventures. Continue reading