From Eric Mink:
Park staff has recently been engaged in looking at Fredericksburg area’s Unionist families and the role they played in the Civil War hereabouts. Staff Historian Don Pfanz recently authored an article on this subject in the locally published Fredericksburg History & Biography (Volume 10). A two-part post on this blog last year, which can be found here, looked at the activity of perhaps the most active Unionist in Spotsylvania County, Isaac Silver. Today’s post seeks to introduce our readers to another of the local Unionist community who made hard choices about his involvement in the war, resisted Confederate authority and ultimately survived within a hostile environment.
Abraham Primmer moved his family to Stafford County, Virginia in 1853, purchasing a 360-acre estate, known as “Bell-Air.” The property sat along the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad about 1.5 miles northeast of Falmouth. Abraham hailed from New York and spent his early adult life in Chemung County, serving as a Supervisor and Justice of the Peace for the town of Catlin, as well as an assemblyman for Chemung. The family included Abraham and his wife Elizabeth, along with their four daughters and three sons.
On the subject of secession, the Primmers stood solidly behind the Union. Abraham later claimed that he “never drew a disloyal breath from beginning to end.” On May 23, 1861, Virginians gathered at polling places throughout the state to cast their vote on whether or not to adopt the Ordinance of Secession. Abraham remembered that at his polling location, militiamen were on hand, intent on making sure the ordinance received overwhelming support.
“Every influence was employed to intimidate—–any who were suspected of the crime of being a union man. Up to this time I had determined to vote against secession and had spoken against it on several occasions, and was a marked man; where the vote was taken I was warned of my danger. I had two sons that I wanted to save if the state seceded and to save myself and family from the fury of these outlaws and the persecutions of the inflamed secesh.” – Testimony of Abraham Primmer, Southern Claims Commission
Fearing for his safety and that of his family, Abraham cast his vote with the majority, thus voting for secession. To have not, he felt, would have brought immediate harm and violence upon him. Abraham always regretted this move, feeling shame for compromising his beliefs.
“I never did anything in my life that I so regretted the necessity of doing, and do regret to this day. It was voting a lie; I did not desire secession nor believe in the right or necessity for it and every impulse of my heart was in favor of the preservation of the union, and opposed to the war, or rather of the rebellion. I regarded the union as the best government on earth, and do to this day. All my sympathies were for the cause of the union and its supporters, and all my affiliations were and are for loyal men.” – Testimony of Abraham Primmer, Southern Claims Commission
Abraham kept a low profile during the first year of the war. At 50-years old, he was well beyond military age, but his three sons were eligible for service. The boys yearned to escape Virginia and join the Union army. The eldest son, Abraham, Jr., attempted to slip through the lines early in 1861 and made it as far as Centerville before being turned back. Abraham’s other two sons were able to reach safety when the Union army pushed farther into Virginia’s interior. DeWitt joined the 141st New York Infantry in August 1862, but died three months later of typhoid fever, before ever seeing a battlefield. Twenty-year old Judson joined the 177th New York Infantry and survived his nine-month enlistment, which included fighting in the Siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana.
The Union army arrived in Stafford in the summer of 1862. For many Unionists like Abraham, the sense of security provided by the army permitted a more open show of support. General George A. McCall’s division of Pennsylvania Reserves commandeered the fields and pasture of Bell-Air for use by its cattle. Abraham offered support to the occupying army by serving as a guide and providing information about the area. When the army fell back toward Washington in the late summer, he feared that his open support would most certainly make him a target with his neighbors and returning Confederate forces. Abraham left his family behind and sought refuge in Washington when the army left the Fredericksburg area that summer.
Abraham returned to his family and farm when General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac reoccupied Stafford County in November 1862. Bell-Air became a headquarters for the 3rd Army Corps under General George Stoneman. Following the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, General David B. Birney occupied Bell-Air and his camps consumed the surrounding fields and woodlots. In honor of Major William L. Pitcher of the 4th Maine Infantry, who fell in the December battle, the encampment was named Camp Pitcher. When the Union army vacated Stafford in June 1863, Abraham once again vacated Bell-Air, taking his family with him this time, and relocated to their native state of New York. They did not return until the war was over.
A decade after the war, Abraham submitted a claim to the United States, requesting compensation for damage to his property during the war. The government acknowledged his loyalty during the war and agreed on $2752, a little under half of what Abraham sought. Until his death in 1896, Abraham continued to farm Bell-Air and support his family. Although his sons chose to stay in the north after the war, Abraham’s daughters married into Stafford County families and remained in the community. Throughout the war, Abraham felt he was constantly under the eyes of his watchful and vengeful neighbors. By the time of his death, however, his wartime activities supporting the Union appear to have either been forgotten or accepted. Abraham’s obituary announced:
“Since his residence in this community he has gained the confidence and esteem of all who enjoyed his acquaintance. His home has been noted for hospitality and many will be pained to learn of the demise of this good citizen, upright gentleman, kind friend and obliging neighbor.” Fredericksburg Daily Star, January 24, 1896
Abraham Primmer, Unionist and good citizen, rests in the Fredericksburg City Cemetery.
To learn about thesite of Bell-Air today and how it and Abraham Primmer are remembered in his neighborhood, click here.
Eric J. Mink