From John Hennessy:
After their rebuke at the Battle of Arby’s, the Union army recoiled long enough along the Warrenton Road for the Confederates in Falmouth to both prepare to leave and to burn the bridges in their wake. Soon after dawn, as the Union columns swept down the hill into Falmouth, the Confederates put their plan into action. The Falmouth Bridge went up in flames, as did the Chatham Bridge and the R,F&P bridge farther down. Fredericksburg had never seen such a day. Some white residents scattered, fearful of the looming Yankees. Some slaves rejoiced at the Yankees’ coming. And a few people ventured out to watch, including diarist Betty Herndon Maury, who left a vivid description of the destruction that day.
I went down to the river, and shall never forget the scene there. Above were our three bridges, all in a bright blaze from one end to the other, and every few minutes the beams and timbers would splash into the water with a great noise. Below were two large steamboats, the Virginia and the St. Nicholas, and ten or twelve vessels, all wrapt in flames. There were two or three rafts dodging in between the burning vessels, containing families coming over to this side with their negroes and horses.
Here are a couple of images that show some of the damage described by Mrs. Maury. The first shows the destroyed ships opposite city dock–drawn in May 1862.
This is the only known image that shows the destroyed Falmouth Bridge, burned by the Confederates on April 18. Lumber from the bridge was taken by Union engineer Washington Roebling, who in June built a wire suspension bridge on the abutments of the Chatham Bridge (we wrote about Roebling’s bridge here).
The Falmouth Bridge was a private toll bridge, owned by Joseph B. Ficklen, who lived in the house on the high ground above, at Belmont. Ficklen was an aggressive, boisterous man when it came to business, and his methods offended many in the community. The disfavor of his neighbors took on more intensity on April 18, when Ficklen decided that the breakfast his slaves had prepared that morning for the Confederate occupiers should instead be happily offered to the Union invaders as they entered town. From this point forward, many in Falmouth looked upon Ficklen with a mix of suspicion and disdain. But it would get worse. When the Confederates burned Ficklen’s bridge, they robbed him of a major source of income. Many in the community paid tolls in advance for an entire year, and when the bridge vanished in flame, they sought a pro-rated refund for the pre-paid toll. Ficklen refused. Duff Green, who ran some of the most important shops in Falmouth, found Ficklen’s rebuff intolerable, and for years harbored a grudge that culminated when after the war Green emerged to oppose Ficklen’s claims of loyalty to the Union (and hence is claim for reimbursement for wartime losses at Union hands). In addition to all its other effects, war laid bare the fissures within a community. (A side-note: Falmouth is a vivid example of how the stresses of war fractured a community, a topic we’ll take on when we do our History at Sunset program in Falmouth on June 15 this year–you heard it here first.)
Here is a photograph, taken in 1864, that shows the ruins of the R,F&P bridge. That’s Ferry Farm in the background, and indeed you can see a Union wagon train descending the slope to the pontoon bridge.
This later-war image shows the ruins of the Chatham Bridge.
The Yankees did not cross that day, and indeed would not go into Fredericksburg in any numbers for more than a week. But their presence was unmistakable. By Good Friday’s end, smoke hung heavily over town and the valley, casting a pall of gloom that in many ways would persist for three years. Hard as April 18 was for white residents, harder days were to come.
In our next we’ll look at a few other sites associated with the onset of the Union occupation 150 years ago.