To go or not to go: Fredericksburg’s refugees and those who stayed behind


From John Hennessy:

Among the many queries we get, it is one of the most common: how many civilians remained in Fredericksburg during the war’s darkest months?  It’s a complicated question, for we know that there was no single exodus that can be easily measured. Lizzie Alsop’s diary records many comings and goings by her family, as do both Betty Maury’s and Jane Beale’s. Some families, like the Lacys of Chatham, left when the Union army arrived in the spring of 1862. By far the largest exodus took place in November 1862, when the Union army arrived for the second time–this time destined to fight.  But we also know that many of those (like Jane Beale) who left in November returned to their homes in early December, when the threat of battle seemed to lessen (thank the Union pontoon trains for that red herring). Many of those souls suffered violent correction on December 11 when the Union army did indeed stir.

Innumerable accounts of that day note the presence of civilians, and indeed several of them wrote vivid accounts of their experiences during bombardment. For our purposes, perhaps the best description comes from confectioner Edward Heinichen, who took a walk through town during an afternoon lull (Heinichen’s memoir was published in the 2007 edition of Fredericksburg History and Biography, which you can purchase here).

I soon left my friend’s house to take a walk through the town, meeting many people, few in the streets, but many more or less sheltered by their houses, eagerly watching the havoc from doors and windows, and I must say that few, women and men showed any fear but plenty of excitement. I saw one darkey crouching behind a thick plank fence where he imagined himself perfectly safe from shot and shell, cordially inviting me to join him there. Meeting Judge M. Herndon, he remarked in his most pleasant manner: [“]This looks as if we had had a most extraordinary hailstorm.[“]

We know that the crossing of the Union troops following the bombardment inspired more than a few civilians, including Heinichen and Beale, to leave, and that evening witnessed a fairly frantic exodus to points in Spotsylvania County.  Still, some residents remained behind (as evidenced by the memoir of Mamie Wells, who left the only account of a resident who remained throughout the battle that followed).  The town was certainly never “empty,” as some observers claimed.

But how many bore through those dark months after the battle?  Some strong evidence comes in the form of election data from Fredericksburg during the four years of war, as revealed in the minutes of the town council (recently transcribed for the NPS by Jake Struhelka).

A family in their shattered Fredericksburg home.

In 1860, the population of Fredericksburg was 5,026–including 3,031 white residents, 1,295 slaves and 420 free blacks.  Of course, only a fraction of those residents (white men only) were eligible to vote, and it appears from the results of a referendum in 1861 and the council elections in 1860 that about 460 voters went to the polls in those momentous years. For elections to the 12-member town council, each voter selected a slate of candidates (likely as many as 12). In 1860, the town’s 460 voters cast a total of 4,130 votes for council.

Council minutes record votes in the wartime years, showing a steady drop in the number cast (elections were held in March of each year).  I think it’s fairly safe to use these numbers to estimate the population that remained in March of each year of the war.  (Remember, the Union army didn’t arrive in Fredericksburg for the first time until April 1862–after that spring’s elections.)

1860: 4,130       1861: 4,079      1862: 3,537      1863: 1,157     1864: 1,669     1865: 1,857

In March of 1863–just four months after the battle and truly the darkest period for Fredericksburg’s white citizenry–28% of those who voted in 1860 remained in town to vote in the 1863 council election.  If we assume that voter-qualified males constitute a valid statistical sample of those who stayed and those who left town, then we can estimate that in March 1863, about 28%, or 928 white residents remained in town.  The number likely, is a bit high, given that evidence suggests that as the war progressed men were more inclined to remain in town than women. So perhaps a safer estimate is 850-900.

This 1863 image shows evidence of a neglected, battered town.

What of slaves and free blacks?  We have no worthwhile mechanism to calculate their numbers.  We have ample evidence to suggest that most slaves (though certainly not all) had at least left their masters by 1863, if not the region entirely (how many returned after the war is a question begging an answer, but no one has tackled that one yet). It’s hard to imagine that more than 100 or so slaves remained in town, if even that.

As for free blacks, the numbers are likewise elusive. We know that in March 1863, the Confederate army impressed all free black men remaining in town to help clean up the streets, suggesting that enough remained to attract the Confederates’ attention.  Beyond that, we have only scattered anecdotal evidence that confirms that some free blacks departed and some remained.  Certainly, free blacks and whites shared the imperative to leave for purposes of safety, though free blacks surely had fewer options when seeking a place of refuge in the county. But free blacks and slaves did not share the imperative to leave in search of freedom.  Given those two factors, it seems likely that a significant percentage of free blacks remained in town.  A conservative (i.e. high) estimate might put the number of slaves and free blacks remaining in town in March 1863 at about 500.

It’s reasonable to conclude, then, that the dislocation of civilians after the Union arrival, and especially during and after the Battle of Fredericksburg, was truly significant, leaving a skeleton crew of no more than 1,400 of the original 5,000 residents to oversee the town. What is perhaps more interesting and important is this:  the numbers confirm that the flight from Fredericksburg was no short junket, as is often presumed.  As the slow recovery of the population in 1864 and 1865 suggests, once families left, they often left for extended periods, returning only slowly.  By March of 1865, more than half the white population was still gone.

There is much work to be done on this topic and the repopulation of the town in 1866 and beyond. Indeed, the Reconstruction period is the one we know least about. We can only hope that someone will take on the formidable challenge of documenting and understanding the rebirth of a town ravaged beyond most others.

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3 thoughts on “To go or not to go: Fredericksburg’s refugees and those who stayed behind

  1. Great story, worthy of your expertise. The December 2011 Front Porch Magazine ran a similar piece in its Our Heritage column, in cooperation with the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

  2. It most certainly is noteworthy, that few ‘articles’ are written or are documented about this particular subject. Uncovering such ‘evidence’ could be a very long and tedious venture, but a very worthwhile project. This indeed, could be a very interesting work.

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