The Spotsylvania Court wrestles with the reality of emancipation

From John Hennessy:

Few places more vividly demonstrate the impact of emancipation on a region’s ability to support the Confederate war effort than Spotsylvania. One suspects that the effect in Spotsylvania was precisely what Lincoln hoped it would be when he pondered the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

Slaves coming in.

Slaves coming in.

While  this day we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the freedom it conveyed, during the war local authorities saw things rather differently. The exodus of slaves from Spotsylvania County had a devastating effect on the local economy–a fact made clear by the records of he County Court.

In November 1862, the governor of Virginia issued a proclamation requisitioning slaves for the Confederate war effort.  By then–five weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation–freedom already seized had radically reduced the available labor force in Spotsylvania County. The County Court (the modern equivalent to the Board of Supervisors), sought exemption from the requisition.

Being the unanimous opinion of this court, that there is not at this time remaining in this county at this date a sufficient number of slaves between the ages of 18 and 65 years to fill said requisition, it is therefore ordered that Lewis A. Boggs, Esq, the presiding justice of this court be requisitioned and authorized to proceed at once to Richmond and confer with the governor upon that subject, and apprise him of the condition of this county in regard to slave labor and explain to him fully the grounds upon which the above opinion of the court is founded. *

The court later declared that “The public enemy have carried off two thirds of the available blacks labor of the county,” and that by 1864 half of the county’s lands were no longer in cultivation.

In 1864 the court reported that despite the efforts of  “an intelligent and energetic agent of this court to procure the necessary food for the soldiers’ families and in the indigent poor of this county, it has been found that it cannot be procured either in this our the adjoining counties, it is simply because the food does not exist in this region of country—as an illustration of the pressing need, it may be cited that the fact in one of the magisterial districts of this county there are forty families of soldiers now in the Confederate service dependent on the aid of the court for food, and that there is not food enough now under the control of the county agent to feed these families for one month and that in two other magisterial districts the supply is still scantier. Real destitution and distress exists in this county even among that part of its people who are not indigent but who have not the necessary supply of  [food] to feed them.**

Amidst the chaos that attended emancipation, some slaves remained. We know only a few of their stories. Hester Tuckson of Fall Hill clearly stayed because of her own precarious health and the presence of two small children. Eric Mink uncovered Hester’s story here.

Fanny Lee of Santee in Caroline County made a clear calculation to wait for freedom, rather than to go looking for it herself, with all the attendant risks. Her decision resided in her confidence in the Union army’s ability to gain ultimate victory. I wrote about Fanny’s decision over at Fredericksburg Remembered.  

*  Spotsylvania County Court Order Book, December 19 1862, Library of Virginia.

** Spotsylvania County Court Order Book, April 4, 1864, Library of Virginia.  Susanna Michele Lee, now at North Carolina State University, examined and recorded these and other primary sources on behalf of the park.

A Christmas Letter, December 25, 1862

From John Hennessy:

P.H. Powers of Jeb Stuart’s staff wrote to his wife on Christmas morning:

I hardly have the heart to wish you a Merry Christmas this beautiful Christmas morning because I well know merriment is not for you this day…..I thought of [the children] when I first awoke this morning…and wondered what you managed to put in their stockings.  Memory went back to the many happy Christmas days we have spent together with them.  Alas!  Will the good old times ever return again and you and I and our little ones dwell together in peace?  I hope so.  I believe so, but the heart sickens with the deferred hope.

Lt. Powers’ hope is our reality.   Revel in it, but do not forget that here in our land it was not always so….

From Robert Trout, With Pen and Sabre, p. 129-130–a very nice book.  .


From John Hennessy:

Local resident Matilda Hamilton, at Belvoir.

The parlor was filled with wounded men when I got there. Belvoir has been taken for a hospital. Forest Hill, is too near the battlefield. We saw General Gregg of South Carolina brought in mortally wounded.  Mr., Yerby, who knew him, said he was an elegant man. A soldier came up as we all sat in the porch at Belvoir and asked if he could get any nails. We asked what was the matter, and he told us his friend, young Barton was killed, and he wanted to make a coffin far him

Carrying the wounded to Falmouth Station.1399From George Parsons, 16th Maine. 

On the Battle Field.  December 12th or 13th 1862   Dear Father.  I write you wile lying on the battle field, wounded, perhaps fatally.  I am very weak I fell, wounded in the side. Good by, if I never see you again.  Tell mother I think of her while lying here, and I wish I had her to be with me in my past parting moments. Much love to all. I fell while doing my duty….Farewell. I may never see you again on earth, but I hope to meet you in heaven, where there will be no fighting…  Yours affectionately,  Geo. R.Parsons. 

St. Clair Mulholland, in St. George’s Episcopal Church

In the lecture room of the Episcopal church eight operating tables were in full blast, the floor was densely packed with men whose limbs were crushed, fractured and torn.  Lying there in deep pools of blood, they waited very patiently; there was no grumbling, no screaming, hardly a moan, many of the badly hurt were smiling, and chatting, and one-who had both legs shot off-was cracking jokes with an officer who could not laugh at the humorous sallies, for his lower jaw was shot away.  The cases here were nearly all capital, and amputation was almost always resorted to.  Hands and feet, arms and legs were thrown under each table, and the sickening piles grew larger as the night progressed.  The delicate limbs of the drummer boy fell along with the rough hand of the veteran in years, but all, every one, was brave and cheerful.

Embalming building.2413Death at the hospitals. Dr. Franklin Hough, 97th New York.

Hough, at Rumford.  “…All hands were busy—decisions involving loss of limbs or of life were quickly made and executed, cooks, attendants, and slightly wounded soldiers were actively employed, and the pioneer corps began its sad labor of opening a long trench to receive the bodies of those that die.  The burial service is simple.  A dozen bodies are laid side by side in the trench, they are covered with blankets and the clothing stripped from wounded parts—a piece of board bearing in pencil an inscription of the name, rank and company is placed at the head of each, and the earth is again thrown over them, leaving the further end of the trench open, to receive the next comers….As an exceptional usage, a chaplain will at times pronounce a few words of exhortation and prayer, among the few who gather around, but the greater part are interred without any religious services whatever.” 

Abraham Welch of the  4th New York established his hospital in a “large room which had been used for the purpose of keeping carriages in.” 

There was room enough to accommodate 50 or 75 of the wounded, and I do not think it was an hour, or in fact, half an hour before this number was brought in….. The roads and streets were very muddy and wet from recent rains, and the floor on which I was obliged to lay the wounded, soon became equally so. But, notwithstanding, I was obliged to lay the wounded down upon this muddy, wet, cold floor with only their blankest underneath them—and these in many instances, saturaged with their own blood…..I had only time to perform such operations and dress such of the wounded as was required by the most urgent necessity, and this in most cases, in a temporary and superficial manner….

Chaplain J.W. Stuckenberg, 145th Pennsylvania.

To our right I saw a large brick house immediately back of one of our batteries. I pointed it out to the surgeons and we immediately took possession of it as a hospital.  Some of the wounded of our regiment were brought into the parlor ….-which was elegantly furnished. The first few were but slightly wounded. Then was brought in one who was still a boy-his name was W[illia]m Wicks,” Co D-who was wounded in the groin. He at once recognized me. His groaning was loud and heartrending. “Chaplain” he said, “why don’t you kill me? It is cruel to let me suffer so-it is a mercy to kill me.” I could hardly stand this-I tried to compose him. Medicine was given to deaden the pain-but it was of little avail. He knew he must die-then came thoughts and fears of eternity-and he spoke to me about his soul. I knelt by his side offered a short prayer and did all to make his suffering less excruciating.

Letter of J.C. Allen re death of Richard W. Milner, 13th GA, December 18, 1862, to his cousin Sallie.

Dear Cousin Sallie,  It is with feelings of sadness that I attempt to write you this evening for I suppose ere this reaches you you will have heard that Dick is no more.  He died on the night of the 16th inst., having been wounded, severely, Sunday last the 14th, he lived about two days and a half, after receiving the wound, died about eleven oclock.  At the same time and by the same ball Clem Maddux was killed they with two others having been detailed to go after water were struck by a solid cannon ball.  Dick’s left arm was badly shattered near the shoulder, and the arm amputated there…..He was buried on the farm of Capt John Alsop, five miles from Fredericksburg, in two hundred yards of the Richmond and Fredericksburg rail road, under a small persimmon tree, near two other graves, under a larger Persimmon    His overcoat was left in charge of a Negro boy on the same farm, with instructions to deliver it to any one who should come after the body.  I have been this precise, thinking you might probably some time wish the body send for. …Cousin Sallie, you will please except of our heartfelt sympathies in your sad bereavement.  No one feels the loss more keenly than I do myself.  My heart saddens at the pain and anguish this wicked war has caused. 

 PS  Those who attended the burial say the corpse was interred decently, in a coffin, much better than soldiers usually are.


From John Hennessy:

It was with a deep sense of relief that I saw the sun go down, and felt that in a little while darkness would put an end to the unequal combat. But for a time the fury of the fire on both sides redoubled as the discovery was made by the combatants that their day’s work was about done. For half an hour, the din was awful, and the smoke drifted through the streets, as sometimes in a city, when there is a high wind and a great dust. There was severe fighting even after dark, and the sparkle of musketry made a fine display. Then the big rebel rifled cannon ceased to mark time, the sputter and crackle of small arms ceased on the centre, Franklin and Jackson’s guns throbbed heavily a few times on the left; and all was still .... (A reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial, quoted in Moore, Rebellion Record, Vol. 6, p. 100)

night bivouacOn the picket line, William McLendon, 15th Alabama, There I sat beside my dead enemy in the dark…. While there, meditating over our condition, the thought entered my mind that neither our parents, kindred or friends at home, could draw the picture in their imaginations of our condition and situation at that time. Nothing but the “All Seeing Eye” could do it. I was near enough to the Yankees to hear them cough and clear up their throats. We had no orders to shoot unless they advanced. There was wounded Yankees lying between our lines sending up the most pitiful cries for help I ever heard. Some were calling for water, some calling the names of his friends, but none answered or went to their relief. Neither side could help. The night was cold and there is no telling how some of them suffered. Some of them may have died during the night by freezing.

Those who say they would like to Visit a battle field seldom know what they are talking about.  After darkness Has put an end to the struggle a hush settles over the field    Such a contrast    Such a contrast to the roar of the fight  Never is silence more oppressive more [?]    You hear the cries of the wounded Which is never distinguished in the Roar of battle    A stray shot hurles Through the darkness overhead    you hear the ambulance wheels chur[n] heavily along grinding through the soil with a sullen muffled sound like Some monster craunching [sic] the bones of his victims   you see the outlines of forms gliding through the gloom Carrying on litters pale bloody men    you stumble over perhaps your friend with his hair matted with blood over his White face and his dead eyes starring [sic] blindly up to the sky.  Erskine Church, 27th CT, March 15, 1863

AuroraOn the night of the second day of the battle there was a singular appearance in the elements, the most singular I ever saw in my life.  Some said it was an Aurora Borealis, or Northern Light, but if it was it was a little different from any I ever saw before.  It rose on the side of the enemy [east] and came up very near parallel with our line of battle, and right over us.  It turned as red as blood, but when it commenced rising it looked more like the appearance of the moon rising than anything else I know to compare it to.  I looked the next day for the bloodiest fight that had ever been, but there  was no fighting other than cannonading….Though there were at the time hundreds and thousands of the slain on the field of battle I could not help but think at the time of this strange appearace that it was a sign of battle, or a sign of the one that had just been fought.  But it might not have been a sign of either.  God only knows best; I am sure I do not.  David Ballenger, 26th Alabama, to Nancy, December 23, 1862

Night of December 14:  Sunday night came with stirring breezes and cold.–The sky became gradually tinged with red; it extended in long pointed streaks of dazzling brightness over half the firmament; and a glorious aurora borealis, like a red shield of honor, hovered over the two armies so lately engaged in deadly strife.  Macon Telegraph, January 2, 1863.

It was very cold and very clear, and the aurora borealis of the night of December [14], 1862, surpassed in splendor any like exhibition I ever saw.  Of course we enthusiastic young fellows felt that the heavens were hanging out banners and streamers and setting off fireworks in honor of our victory.  Robert Stiles, Four Years with Marse Robert, p. 137.

Eve of Battle, December 12, 1862

From John Hennessy:

Few battles inspired as much abject, freely expressed fear as did Fredericksburg.

Marye's Heights panorama.430

At night I crossed into the town ….The streets were full of soldiers lounging and smoking about their fires, or wrapped in their blankets and sleeping, their muskets stacked, in numbers that indicated the immense mass of troops that occupied the place. …. Behind the dark and gloomy hills compassing the town on the enemy’s side there was a wide glare of many fires, like an aurora borealis, marking the presence of the rebel army of Virginia. 

– Correspondent of the Cincinnati Commercial

Tomorrow we anticipate a dreadful engagement; of the result we are not too hopeful, for we are aware of the almost impregnability of the enemy’s position, his great force and desperate condition.  We have confidence in Burnside, faith in the justice of our cause, and believe, with the slightest shadow of doubt, that victory will crown our arms.  With this hope we will rest.

– JMC, 15th CT, December 12, 1862.

Tomorrow we commence the crossing of the Rappahannock & will be sure to have a fearful fight-In fact I expect we will be licked, for we have allowed the rebs nearly four weeks to erect batteries, &c. to slaughter us by thousands in consequence of the infernal efficiency of the Quarter Master Genl & his subordinates.  If we had had the pontoons promised when we arrived here we could have the hills on the other side of the river without cost[ing] over 50 men-Now it will cost at least ten thousand if not more.  I expect to be sacrificed tomorrow….If tomorrow night finds me dead remember me kindly as a soldier who meant to do his whole duty

– Colonel Samuel K. Zook, Hancock’s division (written on December 10)

The heights, in the rear of the town, are bristling with guns and rifle pits, and entrenchments cover the entire face of the whole range.  Why we should be compelled to charge at the very strongest point of the enemy’s position is an enigma that n one can solve; one thing alone is certain, that by tomorrow at this time many of our old comrades will have fought their last fight, whatever may be the result.

– Josiah Favill, December 13, 1862

During the day the surgeons of the different regiments and brigades have visited the town, and selected such buildings as from their locations or other considerations seemed recommended as proper for hospital purposes.  These are designated by the usual red flags;  and every member of the ambulance and stretcher corps is notified the house to which is to be carried the wounded of his regiment.  

– JMC, 15th CT, December 12, 1862

A momentous decision on December 11, 1862–the fate of Fredericksburg and the changing nature of war

From John Hennessy:

Bombardment of Fredericksburg.1211It’s often overlooked, especially in Southern climes: the man most responsible for the town of Fredericksburg itself becoming a battlefield was Robert E. Lee. He fully understood that when he directed his men to contest the Union crossing at the river’s edge, the Union army would respond in a way that would be unhealthy for Fredericksburg’s neat urban landscape.

But that’s not the decision I’m talking about today.

134 Caroline

134 Caroline

Let’s speed ahead a few hours.   Continue reading

The specter of black troops opens a door for Maine relief workers–literally

From Hennessy:

Our apologies for quietude of late, but as you might guess, preparations for the Fredericksburg 150th haven’t left a lot of time for Mysteries and Conundrums.  We have lots in the pipeline, just no time to put the posts together. We will.

Backyard of U.S. Sanitary Commission depot.439.cropped 3 womenHere’s a quickie, something I came across this morning.

I have been collecting a huge amount of material on the use of Fredericksburg as an evacuation hospital in May 1864, and the related effort by Northern civilians to come to Fredericksburg to help. We have written about this before.  Among those who came were an energetic group of four from the Maine State Relief Agency, including a woman named Sarah Smith Sampson. As the wounded from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania poured into town from the west, hundreds of volunteers from relief agencies, the Sanitary Commission, and the Christian Commission, poured into town from the landing at Belle Plain. Mrs. Sampson and her cohort Ruth S. Mayhew faced a common problem in town for relief workers: finding lodging. The locals, as might be imagined, were disinclined to give up their homes to anything remotely Yankee.  As this passage from Sampson’s report makes clear, the Maine delegation used the looming specter of the arrival of wounded from the Union army’s new division of USCTs to convince them to open their house willingly now rather than unwillingly later.

Sarah Smith Sampson.  Used by permission from

Sarah Smith Sampson. Used by permission from

Mrs. Mayhew and myself tried to obtain lodging of the family who were in the other part of the house we occupied, but were peremptorily refused; but after a time they were glad to cook our rations that we drew from the commissary that they might have something for themselves to eat. The Provost Marshal afterwards gave us permission to take two of the largest houses in Fredericksburg for hospital purposes. At first the ladies of the premises seriously objected, (the men, at this time, were in the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, having been arrested and sent there, for driving the wounded of our army, who were making their escape through the city, back into the enemy’s lines,) but on being told that Burnside’s wounded were yet to come in, and their houses might then be taken without regard to their wishes for the colored troops of his command, they yielded: and both houses were filled with our patients, that we took from floors of other buildings, or from army wagons as they were coming in. The Provost Marshal also detailed four men to make bunks for these buildings; the ladies supplied us with bedding so far as they were able, and two surgeons of Maine were placed in charge of the patients, much to the gratification of all parties. 

[A copy of Sarah Sampson’s report is in the bound volumes at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP–the original is likely in the Maine State Archives (our copy does not indicate the original source].  Her description of her time in Fredericksburg in 1864 is powerful, and we’ll share it at a future date.]  Photo of Sampson used by permission from