Is this the most important Civil War-era building in the Fredericksburg region?


From Hennessy:  Update, February 10, 2015:  On November 21, 2014, PNC Bank ceased operations in the former Farmer’s Bank building, bringing its continuous use as a bank to a close after 194 years.  The building is now on the market.

From Hennessy: Update:  On July 31, 2014, PNC Bank announced that the former National Bank Building on Princess Anne Street was up for sale, bringing its continuous use as a bank since 1820 into question (certainly no building in town has been subject to the same commercial use for as long).  This post, done originally in 2011, seems pertinent anew, so we post it again.

I spent the day today with a National Geographic film crew and the great-great-grandaughter and g-g-great grandson of John Washington, retracing with them the Fredericksburg world of John Washington, a slave who came of age in the years before the Civil War, and who left behind an astonishingly good memoir. We spent a fair amount of time at the Farmer’s Bank Building at the corner of Princess Anne and George Streets. The experience–profound in many ways–got me wondering whether or not we were standing before the most important Civil War-era building in the Fredericksburg region. Some, like Chatham and Brompton, are surely more famous. But for association with important events, people, and themes of American history, is there anyplace hereabouts with greater association with famous people, events, and major themes of American history than this?

William Lewis Herndon, commander of the doomed steamer Central America, spent part of his childhood living in the Bank building. Herndon, VA, is named in his honor.

Built as a bank in 1820, it continues as a bank in 2010. But it’s always been more than a bank. The side entrance to the building leads to spacious and beautiful living quarters that were traditionally home of the bank’s cashier or head teller. The first to live here was Dabney Herndon, whose offspring were several and famous. Ann Hull Herndon married Matthew Fontaine Maury. Lt. William Lewis Herndon gained fame as an explorer of the Amazon, but died famously in 1857 when his steamship bearing both mail and gold went down in a storm off Hatteras. Herndon was hailed a hero for helping to save more than 150 souls. In appreciation, the people of New York purchased a home in New York City for his wife and daughter, Ellen Lewis Herndon. While in New York before the war, Ellen Herndon met young Chester Arthur, whom she would soon marry. Dr. Brodie S. Herndon, a prominent Fredericksburg physician and reportedly the first American doctor to perform a cesarean section, also spent part of his  youth in the Bank building. Later, the Ware family took over management of the Bank and its residential space. One of the family’s slaves was John Washington, who spent most of his first 24 years living in this building, tending to the needs and wants of his owner, Catherine Ware, later Taliaferro. Washington’s memories of slavery in Fredericksburg, and especially in this house, are a powerful testament to a life striving toward freedom. Standing outside the building today, we read Washington’s description of his separation from his mother and siblings, when they were hired out to a farm in Staunton. The room he describes is likely that directly over the side entrance–the third window from the left. The night before Mother left me (as I was to be kept in hand by the Old Mistress for especial use) She, Mother, came up to my little room I slept in the “white peoples house” and laid down on my bed by me and begged me for her own sake try and be a good boy, say my prayers every night, remember all she had tried to teach me and always think of her.  Her tears mingled with mine amid kisses and heart felt sorrow. She tucked the Bed Cloth around me and bade me good night. Bitter pangs filled my heart and thought I would rather die. On the morrow Mother and Sisters and Brother all would leave me alone in this wide world to battle with temptation trials and hardship…..Then and there My hatred was kindled secretly against my oppressors and I promised myself if ever I got an opportunity I would run away from the devilish Slave holders. If you have not read John Washington’s memoir, you must. Not only is it a vivid account of slavery, but it is also a mine of information on mid-19th Century Fredericksburg.

Montgomery Slaughter, the wartime mayor of Fredericksburg, was one of several hostages held in the Bank before being sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington. A fellow hostage wrote of him at the Bank, “Slaughter’s appearance was very laughable, he walked into the room with forced self-control, and an attempt to smile which seemed to be hysterical….I walked up and slapped him on the back, congratulating him that the ‘bell weather’ had not been separated from the flock.”

When the Union army arrived on the banks of the Rappahannock River in April 1862, John Washington was among the first of the 10,000 slaves that flooded into Union lines. But unlike most of them, Washington returned to Fredericksburg–this time as a mess-servant to General Rufus King, whose headquarters were for a time in Washington’s old home at the Farmer’s Bank. It was John Washington who helped identify and locate some of the 19 prominent citizens of Fredericksburg arrested and imprisoned by the Federals in retaliation for the Confederate arrest of four Union sympathizers in and near Fredericksburg. Because of this, Washington was a marked man–with a price on his head–and so when the Union army left in early September 1862, he left with it, apparently never to return to Fredericksburg. A misfortune of history is that Washington, the great chronicler of new-found freedom, never crossed paths with another prominent visitor to the Bank building, Abraham Lincoln (for more on Lincoln’s highly interesting visit to Fredericksburg, click here). Indeed, it is the Bank’s association with Lincoln that has rendered it fame. But, I wonder, does his brief stop here on May 23, 1862, outshine Washington’s years of toil, and his subsequent narrative of slavery? For several months in the spring and summer of 1862, the Bank served as the headquarters for the military governor of Fredericksburg: Rufus King, Marsena Patrick (most prominently), Abner Doubleday, John Reynolds, and a few others. As Washington wrote, “Hundreds of colored people obtained paper and free transportation to Washington and the North…. Day after day the Slaves came into camp and every Where that the ‘Stars and Stripes,’ waved they Seemed to know freedom had dawned to the Slave.” It was to this building that the hostages fingered in part by John Washington were taken before being shipped off to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, where they would remain in captivity for more than six weeks (we’re working on a post dealing with these hostages). Slavery, Lincoln, hostages, Union military administration, freedom-seeking slaves, and pre-war associations with some of Fredericksburg’s most famous sons and daughters–do all these things render the Farmers Bank/National Bank/PNC Bank building in Fredericksburg the most important in the region?

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9 thoughts on “Is this the most important Civil War-era building in the Fredericksburg region?

  1. A couple of post-war tidbits, John. I recently found that Colonel Edwin Vose Sumner, Jr. of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles made the bank his headquarters for the few months after the war while he had command of Fredericksburg. His father was, of course, Major General Sumner who commanded the Union Right Wing at Fredericksburg in 1862.
    Interestingly enough, Dr. Brodie Herndon and his family attended a fireworks display in front of the headquarters/bank on July 4th, 1866. I wonder what the good doctor thought of the former Herndon home being used by the occupying army.

  2. This building also illustrates the challenges of historic preservation in an active urban center. In the 1950s, the kitchen dependency behind this bank building needed to be removed in order to accommodate new drive thru banking facilities. The Historic Fredericksburg Foundation was born, fighting this proposal (and eventually acquired and moved the dependancy). Modern banking relies very heavily on drive-thru lanes, though, and all of the active banks in downtown Fredericksburg have them. It is interesting to speculate that if the National Bank had not been allowed to remove the historic dependency and install its own drive-thu lanes whether it would have been able to survive as a banking institution. If not, they may well have constructed a new bank elsewhere and the building might have been adapted to office or retail uses. Not preserving the dependancy in place has allowed the bank to remain a bank, with tremendous benefits to the downtown community. Oh, and the drive-thru lanes, so controversial in their day, have acquired historic significance in their own right.

    • Erik: The churches in town have faced the same sort of challenge. They MUST survive and thrive, but doing so has required some pretty intensive development. The recent work at the Methodist Church turned out beautifully, without loss of significant historic fabric or space.

  3. I’m certain I’ve seen a photo of Abraham Lincoln standing on the steps of the bank but haven’t been able to locate a copy. Anybody familiar?

    • The image you reference is in fact a modern painting done by Sidney King, which shows Lincoln on the steps during his 1862 visit to the building. Now that the bank operations in the building have ceased, I am not certain of the fate of the painting.

  4. As it now sits abandoned, and has for some months, I’m surprised I haven’t yet heard/read of a movement to acquire the bank building. It would be so sad to see it converted into a restaurant or other commercial enterprise (as we’ve read in the FLS it’s in danger of becoming). I’m hoping some organization can save it.

  5. Pingback: Stafford's Trail to Freedom Impact on Black History

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