By John Hennessy:
The plight of Fredericksburg civilians in the fall of 1862 inspired Arabella Pettit of Fluvanna County, Virginia, to outrage toward the Yankee perpetrators. She wrote to her artilleryman husband,“Shoot them, dear husband, every chance you get.” Foreseeing that she and her family might be next, Arabella urged her husband, “It is God’s will and wish for you to destroy them. You are his instrument and it is your Christian duty. Would that I may be allowed to take up arms, I would fight them, until I died.”
Perhaps more so than any battle in the East, Fredericksburg inspired a new wave of rancor among Southerners. The damage to the town by bombardment, the pointed destruction by looting Yankees, and the image of civilian refugees fleeing to the countryside combined to fire Southerners like Arabella Pettit with a deep mixture of fear and anger. It was this fury, rather than the fraternal sentiments so common in postwar recollections, that characterized the Civil War at its core. There is no other imaginable accompaniment to the slaughter of more than 200,000 men on America’s battlefield.
But, as we have often pointed out, the Civil War was a complicated mix of emotion, fact, imagination, policy, motivation, and acts innumerable. We are all tempted to shop the historical landscape for a story or passage that validates our notion of what the war was and what it was about. Such things help us to see things in simpler, often more comfortable terms. America has made a sport of this exercise over the decades, as we struggle to understand a political and human disaster whose intensity and nature seems to many to be entirely un-American in its nature.
But the war defies simplicities. It was, for example, simultaneously a war for independence, a war for the Union, a war for emancipation, a war to sustain slavery and white supremacy, and a war that would define the extent and reach of the federal government. It was also a war of intense cruelty and expressions of great humanity. Contradictions and odd admixtures like these render the war both defiant of easy understanding and the object of intense interest. Thoughtful people struggle to reconcile and understand. The less thoughtful among us simply seize one and assert it over all others.
Just a few days after Arabaella Pettit penned her memorable, rancorous mandate to her husband, the same Union army that she and millions of other Southerners pilloried undertook an unprecedented (at least for Virginia) gesture that gave even the most bitter Southerners pause.
In the fighting that raged on the south end of the battlefield on December 13, 1862, Captain Edward P. Lawton, a staff officer in the brigade once commanded by his brother Alexander, fell wounded in the fighting in what we know today as the Slaughter Pen Farm. Lawton fell at the farthest advance of his brigade, virtually among the Union batteries west of the Bowling Green Road. His brigade of Georgians soon were driven back, and the Brown-educated Lawton fell into Union hands. They apparently cared for him well, though his case was hopeless, with a wound somewhere near the spine, paralyzed on one side. He was taken across the river and, at some point in the next several days, transferred by rail and boat to a hospital in Alexandria. Unbeknownst to the Confederates, he died there on December 26, 1862.
For so many thousands of men, that would have been the end of the story–another body buried on distant ground. But soon after the battle news of Edward’s wounding at Fredericksburg reached his wife, Evelina Loyer Davant Lawton, in Savannah. Evelina travelled to Fredericksburg, determined to nurse her husband to health. She arrived on or about New Year’s eve, only to discover that her husband remained within Union lines. Undeterred, Mrs. Lawton secured a pass to cross the Rappahannock and travel to Alexandria to attend to him. On New Year’s Day, she presented herself at what had been the upper pontoon crossing site, where, as Noel Harrison described here, the armies had establish a crossing point for conducting business under flags of truce.
Word of Mrs. Lawton’s presence soon reached the man responsible for managing the civilian comings and goings from Fredericksburg, Colonel William W. Teall, staff officer to his father-in-law, Union Major General Edwin Vose Sumner (Teall was married to Sumner’s daughter Sarah). He dispatched an ambulance to the upper crossing to carry Mrs. Lawton to the Phillips House. It so happened that the Vice President and several congressmen were visiting the front that day, and Hamlin had arranged a special boat to carry them from Aquia Landing to Alexandria. Teall arranged for Mrs. Lawton–still full of hope that her husband lived–to join them. At 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day, Evelina Loyer Davant Lawton–“an interesting lady in appearance,” wrote Teall–joined the U.S. vice president for what must have been a somber, anxious journey (at least for her) to Alexandria. On the way, she was, reported an Alexandria newspaper, “the recipient of many kind attentions from Mr. Hamlin….Her deportment was of a highly cultivated and dignified lady, who keenly appreciated the horrors of the present war.”
Once at Alexandria, she learned that she was too late–her husband had died a week earlier. “The intelligence nearly deprived her, for a time, of reason,” the Alexandria reporter wrote. For the next several days, she would remain in Alexandria, hosted by merchant John D. Corse and his wife Lucy (John’s brother was Confederate Colonel Montgomery Corse)–all the while arranging for the return of her husband’s body to Savannah. By January 7, all was ready, and the final journey of Captain Edward P. Lawton began.
For Part 2 of this post, click here.