From John Hennessy:
One Hundred and Fifty years ago today, the Union army arrived opposite Fredericksburg for the first time. It was Good Friday.
Of the many narratives of that day, two stand out for both their quality and their contrast. The first is an account written by Helen Bernard, a white resident who was staying just outside town at a house called Beaumont–near where Gold’s Gym stands today. (The following is from Rebecca Campbell Light’s excellent War at Our Doors. For a great history of Helen’s primary home at Gay Mont in Port Royal, click here.)
Beaumont, Spotsylvania County. Good Friday, 1862. I write while the smoke of the burning bridges, depot, & boats, is resting like a heavy cloud all around the horizons towards Fredcksbg. The enemy are in possession of Falmouth, our force on this side too weak to resist them…. We are not at all frightened but stunned & bewildered waiting for the end. Will they shell Fbg., will our homes on the river be all destroyed? …. It is heartsickening to think of having our beautiful valley that we have so loved and admired all overrun & desolated by our bitter enemies, whose sole object is to subjugate & plunder the South…..
This is a powerful description of what the arrival of the Union army meant to most white residents in Fredericksburg. It also reflects what has over the decades been our traditional understanding of the event hereabouts.
But here’s another description of precisely the same moment in time, written by another Fredericksburger, the slave John Washington.
April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quiet…until every body Was Startled by Several reports of [Yankee] cannon…. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. [But] every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees, for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen. I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt…like I Was certain of My freedom now.
Same event, powerfully described, but with a totally different meaning to each writer.