Imagine troop concentrations in southern Stafford County and on the heights just west of Fredericksburg…and military movements from one towards the other. Easy to do? Yes, but I have in mind such scenes from the eighteen-teens, not the eighteen-sixties. Let’s consider another American war with a single- or multiple centennial this year. This post, part 1 of a short series, recounts the first sequence of operations that occurred in Fredericksburg and Stafford during the War of 1812, specifically events in the summer of 1813. (Limited space necessitates omitting the better-known operations that took place further afield that summer, along the Northern Neck.)
Besides surveying some of the local contours of the conflict during its bicentennial, my interest lies with an intriguing aspect of the history of the Fredericksburg area, an aspect that’s obscured by the drama and duration of the Civil War: the nature of military events here, whether limited or extensive, has shifted back and forth between those involving local or regional combatants, and those featuring overseas interests or forces.
The local-regional category of military history includes everything from a battle near Potomac Creek between resident Potowomekes and Indian outsiders in the 1610’s to the launching of a raid into Maryland by the Stafford Troop of Horse in 1675 to the numerous clashes of the Civil War in 1861-1865. Events in which overseas interests or forces played a key role include the Mannahoc-English skirmish at the Rappahannock falls in 1608—resulting from an effort by the Virginia Company of London to find gold, silver, and trade routes to the Pacific—to a brief but contested British amphibious landing on Stafford County’s Widewater Peninsula in 1775. This varied, shifting nature of “war” and “the enemy” is even more pronounced when we also consider the fears (however unfounded those proved) of overseas invaders operating in the Fredericksburg area, particularly Spanish landing-parties in 1898 and Axis saboteurs and aircraft during World War Two.
In the era of the French Revolution and through the rise of Napoleon, Europe’s wars roiled the people of the central Rappahannock valley despite the vast distances intervening. An early Fredericksburg historian, who doubtless had neighbors and acquaintances possessing memories of the Napoleonic period, wrote that “bitter feeling” over foreign policy and other political issues increased locally through the 1790’s, “even boiling over at times.” In 1796, Fredericksburgers learned that one of their fellow townsmen, William M’Coy, was among the American sailors impressed by the British Navy. In the Caribbean, the French seized in 1795 the Fredericksburg-based sloop Martha, and in 1797 the Tappahannock-based sloop Prudent, also voyaging from Fredericksburg and also carrying barrels of flour.
In the wake of the Alien and Sedition Acts and on the eve of the quasi-war with France, a set of contrasting letters illustrated the state of emotions in the Fredericksburg area. As they had done during the debate over Constitutional ratification in 1787-1788, former local residents George Washington and James Monroe took opposite sides in 1798 over the dispute with France, which effectively became a war in July of that year. In May 1798, Monroe had written Thomas Jefferson from Fredericksburg (Monroe attending to legal work there) to decry the “folly & madness” of John Adams’ Administration and its preparations “for a war wh[ich] does not exist, expending millions wh[ich] will have no other effect than to bring it on…..” Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton that same month, reporting himself “agitated” both by the “outrageous conduct of France towards the United States” and the “conduct of its partisans among ourselves, who aid & abet their [France’s] measures.”
On May 14, 1798, Federalists held a public meeting in the Fredericksburg Town Hall intending to send Adams resolutions of support for his “wise and prudent course” and pledging their “lives and fortunes” should war with France come. Local Democratic-Republicans turned up at the Town Hall in numbers sufficient for the passage, instead, of their own resolutions, which excoriated the Administration for bringing the nation to the “verge of destruction” and proclaimed that “domestic usurpation” was as much a threat to Americans’ rights as menace from overseas. George Washington scoffed at the Democratic-Republican coup in Fredericksburg, reporting to Alexander Hamilton that the “partial” sympathies of the interlopers made the meeting’s outcome no surprise. James Monroe, writing to Thomas Jefferson again from the town, praised the very same men as “a party in opposition of young respectability.” (The Quasi-War with France would be fought mainly at sea, and ended in September 1800.)
Europeans’ actions, real and imagined, continued to stir emotions along the Rappahannock. On June 5, 1812, the Town Hall echoed to a public meeting once more, this time producing resolutions that called for “a vigorous war to be waged against Great Britain.” In attendance were residents of Falmouth as well as those of Fredericksburg. They found their wishes granted in just under two weeks; President James Madison signed a declaration of war on June 18. The next month’s Fourth of July celebrations in Fredericksburg exhibited what a local journalist termed “more than the usual ardor.” Those concluded at the town wharves under a huge awning improvised from ships’ canvas.
A public meeting in August, like that held in June, took place amid calls to protect menaced “rights” from the British. This hyper-patriotic atmosphere perhaps helped inspire landowner Seth Barton or his surveyor, John Goolrick, to choose the name “Liberty Street” for one of the thoroughfares in Barton’s new Fredericksburg suburb. They platted it in December 1812. By 1815, the entirety of the new suburb bore the name “Liberty Town.”
A new war brought events familiar to the older generation of Fredericksburg-area residents: recruitment, militia musters, troop movements, and economic fluctuations, along with fearful or frustrated, worst-case-scenario planning. Apprentice Robert Withers of Falmouth would later recall that the “stock of groceries, particularly of coffee, gradually shrank, and prices, of course, advanced.” He recounted how, on one occasion during the war, William Knox learned from a just-arrived mail delivery that coffee had undergone one such “great advance” in cost. Knox capitalized on the mail coach’s one-hour pause in Fredericksburg to rush to Falmouth and purchase Basil Gordon’s entire stock at a momentarily-cheaper price.
Fredericksburg’s George Ferneyhough received a contract for artillery carriages, while auctioneer Anthony Buck served as a United States commissary. Attorney John Williams Green, one of their neighbors, raised a volunteer cavalry company. He left for Norfolk with a Captaincy and 80 men in February 1813. When 16 of Fredericksburg’s free African-Americans petitioned Virginia’s legislature for a school for their children in 1838, they would proudly cite “aiding the efforts of their country in the late War with England.”
In March 1813, Fredericksburg residents held a public meeting to devise “means of defence,” especially now that Capt. Green’s company was absent. Fredericksburg Mayor George French notified Virginia Governor James Barbour of the gathering, and that the enemy could approach by the Potomac River to the nearest landing on Potomac Creek—Belle Plain on the creek’s lower reaches—then march a mere seven miles to Fredericksburg against “inadequate” opposition. French and his neighbors saw “the quantity of money deposited in the two banks” and “the general wealth of the town” as powerful lures for the British.
French asked Barbour for weapons and ammunition to equip a local-defense artillery company and an additional cavalry company, for which Fredericksburg citizens exempt from militia service had volunteered. French and the town council hoped to supplement a bronze six-pounder cannon they earmarked for the artillery unit by borrowing two iron four-pounders (although the pair of loaners would need carriages). They also began working with the militias of adjacent counties to plan the defense of the town and the nearest Potomac River shorelines. At system of four river patrols, at least one based in Fredericksburg, operated by late April.
The approaching expiration of the service-terms of Green’s men, and accounts of British forces pillaging and raping residents of Hampton, Virginia in late June 1813 lent urgency to the local preparations. Writing from his father-in-law’s home at Fall Hill in Spotsylvania County after learning of the Hampton stories, James Fitzgerald reported that a more hopeful, “contradictory report is in circulation here and propagated with zeal by the Fed[eralist]s.” Yet he finished his letter noting that subsequent confirmation of the worst-case scenario for Hampton—including news that “one of the Miss Armisteads was a victim of no less than thirteen monsters and some blacks”—had left him bereft of “language to express the horror and vengeance which every heart…must feel.”
Fitzgerald’s letter illustrates how fear of enslaved people armed or encouraged by the enemy was as great and—judging from an August 1812 call for Fredericksburg volunteers to guard against “internal causes of apprehension”—sometimes greater than fear of the enemy’s conventional forces. Doubtless glimpses of the prominently situated manor house at Chatham, overlooking Fredericksburg, offered powerful reminders of the potential for slave insurrection. One such revolt had claimed several lives at Chatham just seven years before.
On May 14, 1813, Governor Barbour had responded to Mayor French’s petition by ordering the dispatch of weapons and ammunition to Fredericksburg, and the return of Capt. Green and his cavalry, by now reduced to around 60 effectives. They arrived back home on June 2, 1813, enjoying a dinner at the Town Hall and then establishing camp atop Willis Hill. The governor also directed Spotsylvania County militiamen—at least those who resided in Fredericksburg (itself a jurisdiction of Spotsylvania)—to muster in that town twice weekly, and some Stafford militia to do likewise in Falmouth.
The newly returned Green, in a report to the governor, found himself unimpressed by the coordination for town- and river defense with the militias of King George, Caroline, and Stafford Counties. In particular, he felt that their rendezvous sites were too far from the Potomac River and from one another.
In the event of an enemy incursion, all or part of the Stafford militia, for example, planned to concentrate at Potomac Church, situated on upper Potomac Creek more than three miles from Belle Plain on lower Potomac Creek, and some five miles from Fredericksburg and Falmouth each as the crow flies—a position that did not interpose directly between Fredericksburg and the landing. In fairness to the Stafford commanders, however, Green might have considered that they needed to plan for an enemy approach not only from Belle Plain but from landing places elsewhere, especially around the mouth of Aquia Creek, and for protecting the Stafford County court house. The church was probably selected for its location on a road network accessing the various key points more equally.
Mayor French, for all the planning and patrolling and volunteering, joined Capt. Green in concluding there was little hope of withstanding unassisted a substantial British threat to Fredericksburg. That came on July 15, 1813, with a report of enemy vessels ascending the Potomac River to within “a few miles” of the mouth of Potomac Creek. In Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania militiamen who resided in the town were placed under arms, Green’s cavalry departed to observe the Potomac, and French sent an express rider pounding off to Richmond for reinforcements. (French later complained that the commander of the Spotsylvania militia had refused to call up men not residing in Fredericksburg, on the grounds that the enemy were not physically present in the county.)
On July 17, 1813, some 260 cavalry and mounted infantry arrived in Fredericksburg from the capital “covered with dust,” as a relieved Mayor French described them in his note of thanks to the governor. On July 19, this force headed “to Potomac Creek,” presumably to a point on its lower stretches and near the reported British approach to its mouth. The reinforcements doubtless moved from Fredericksburg to the creek via Dunbar’s Bridge at Falmouth, the most convenient Rappahannock crossing for a large number of horsemen. At Potomac Creek, they were joined by 180 militiamen from the Shenandoah Valley. Lt. Col. James McDowell took command of the entire force, some 500 men altogether and including Green’s cavalry. The place arranged for their bivouac was perhaps “Camp Selden,” a site formally given that designation by the next summer and situated on or adjacent to the Selden family’s Stafford County “Salvington” estate. It overlooked the flats adjoining Belle Plain landing on the creek’s lower reaches.
McDowell’s subsequent reports made no mention of local militias or volunteers (other than Green’s) operating under his command. The Fredericksburg militia under arms probably remained in their town. All or part of the Stafford County militia, meanwhile, rendezvoused at Potomac Church on upper Potomac Creek.
This encampment of Stafford’s citizen soldiers seems to have accelerated the physical decline of the venerable Potomac Church, dating to the mid seventeenth-century and in colonial times one of Virginia’s largest houses of worship. In 1837, a visitor would examine its “noble walls” and “decaying” roof, and lament that it had been “occupied by the soldiers during the last war, and has since been used as the habitation of silkworms…and in all human probability…destined to be left to itself and to follow the example of many others whose site can scarcely be recognized”—an endgame set in motion by the post-Revolutionary disestablishment of the Church England. (A Confederate soldier visiting Potomac Church in 1861 reported learning that the site had been used as a bivouac during the Revolution as well as during the War of 1812, and found the walls still intact but covered with graffiti numbering in the “thousands” of names.)
Lt. Col. McDowell soon departed Potomac Creek on a personal reconnaissance, probably having ascertained from Capt. Green and through personal observation that the report of British vessels nearing its mouth had been mistaken. Green and a party of 75 riders accompanied McDowell. They headed down into King George and Westmoreland Counties, where Northern Neck militias were skirmishing with British landing parties and barge-crews. In a day or two, McDowell ordered his main force of infantry and horsemen at Potomac Creek to move to those counties as well.
The threat to Stafford’s Potomac River shoreline and Fredericksburg dissipated after the British squadron—more than 20 vessels all told—found itself unable to pass the shoals off lower King George (vicinity of the future US 301 bridge). McDowell reported the squadron’s withdrawal downriver on July 25, 1813. His campaign to protect Fredericksburg had shifted southeastward, transformed into a reinforcement of the Northern Neck’s local defenders, although the enemy left too soon for his men to do more than serve as a mobile reserve. McDowell returned to Richmond, leaving more than half of them behind to help monitor the Neck. His report to the governor noted gloomily that control of the water had given the British distinct advantages in mobility and surprise. Attempting to counter this—finding “some position to check them”—seemed at best “conjecture” amid local “reports and fears,” McDowell wrote, and at worst “fruitless.”
Noel G. Harrison
Next: further conjecture, a new summer, and a new campaign to and beyond the banks of Potomac Creek.
Special thanks to: Joe Wilson, owner and commissioner of Fredericksburg Landing by Tom W. Freeman, for permission for its one-time-use; Tom W. Freeman, SMS Naval Prints, for a copy photo of Fredericksburg Landing; Eric Wilson, Rockbridge Historical Society, for the helmet photo; Greg Chapman for photographic assistance; and Jerrilynn Eby, Kenny Newman, D. P. Newton, and Erik Nelson for research assistance. This article posted in memory of the late Paula S. Felder, my friend and historical mentor, whose unpublished manuscript, “The Old Stone Warehouse and the Early History of Fredericksburg’s Waterfront,” 1987 (author’s collection), references some of the sources below.
Sources in general order of appearance above–varied military history: Ralph Happel, Annals of the Patawomekes, pp. 12, 14; Jerrilynn Eby, They Called Stafford Home: The Development of Stafford County, Virginia, from 1600 until 1865, p. 7; Elle Weaver, “Amoroleck Encounters John Smith N-38”; Noel G. Harrison, “Shots Fired in Anger in Stafford County…”; Harrison, Reconciliation on the Rappahannock: Fredericksburg During the Spanish-American War; John Hennessy, “Fredericksburg Mobilizes for a New War–1941”; bitter feeling locally: Sylvanus J. Quinn, History of the City of Fredericksburg, Virginia, p. 230; William M’Coy’s impressment: James Thomson Callender, The History of the United States for 1796…, p. 163; French seize Martha and Prudent: U.S. House of Representatives, 52nd Congress, 1st sess., Misc. Doc. 195; U.S. Senate, 60th Congress, 1st sess., Doc. 419; Town Hall construction, demolition dates: Quinn, p. 143; J. M. Toner, “Excerpts from Account-Books of Washington,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 16: 78; Town Hall meeting on eve of Revolution: Paula S. Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family…, p. 177; Monroe/Washington/Quasi-War meeting: Founders Online, eds., James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, May 4, May 14, 1798, George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, May 27, 1798; June 1812 meeting: Virginia Herald (Fredericksburg), June 6, 1812; Fourth of July celebration: Stuart L. Butler, Defending the Old Dominion: Virginia and Its Militia in the War of 1812, p. 49; August 1812 meeting: Virginia Herald, August 4, 1812; Liberty Street/Liberty Town: M. B. Gatza, Liberty Town: The Past and Present of a Fredericksburg Suburb, pp. 5-6, 8, 31; groceries and coffee: Robert Enoch Withers, Autobiography of an Octogenarian, pp. 20-21; various types of local service: Butler, pp. 66; Virginia Herald, February 13, 1813; Legislative Petitions, Spotsylvania County, March 16, 1838, quoted in Greg D. Kimball, “African, American, and Virginian…” in William Fitzhugh Brundage, ed., Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity, p. 70; Calendar of Virginia State Papers…10: 203, 266; 1813 meeting, cannon, patrols: Calendar of Virginia State Papers…10: 213; Fredericksburg, Common Council, Minutes, March 22, 1813, typescript at Dept. of Planning and Community Development, City of Fredericksburg; Virginia Herald, May 1, 1813; service-expiration and Hampton news: Virginia Herald, August 11, 1813; James H. Fitzgerald to Dear Aunt, July 8, 1813, copy in “Chatham Papers: Jones-Gibson Papers” binder, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park; fear of slaves: Virginia Herald, August 4, 1812; Russ Smith, “Slave Revolt at Chatham”; Governor’s May 1813 response: Virginia Herald, May 15, June 5, 1813; Calendar of Virginia State Papers…10: 270; Green’s skepticism and Stafford militia plans: Butler, pp. 300-301; Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia…1816, p. 58; initial response to British approach: Calendar of Virginia State Papers…10: 257-58, 265; McDowell’s force at Fredericksburg and Potomac Creek: Calendar of Virginia State Papers…10: 265, 267, 270; Jerrilynn Eby, Land of Hogs and Wildcats…, p. 144; Report of the Committee appointed on the twenty-third of September last to inquire into the causes and particulars of the invasion of the city of Washington by the British forces…, p. 234; Stafford militia rendezvous and Potomac Church: William Meade, “American Ecclesiastical History. Colonial Churches in Virginia,” Church Review, 10 (July 1853): 282; Eby, Land of Hogs and Wildcats…, pp. 236-38; Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia…1816, p. 58; William T. Turner, Diary, June 16, 1861, Collection of Kenny Newman, Fredericksburg, Va.; troops shift to Northern Neck, British Withdraw, McDowell’s report: Butler, p. 303; Calendar of Virginia State Papers…10: 262, 267-70; preliminary research on helmet: Margaret Skovira, “VAM Top Ten Endangered Artifacts includes 1812 Rockbridge Cavalry Helmet.”