Murder in Fredericksburg: A Darkness on Commerce St.


From Beth Parnicza:

It was a dark night. By all accounts, the darkness that fell in Fredericksburg on May 25, 1865 was remarkable, obscuring the events and identities associated with a fateful occurrence. In the streets of “Liberty Town” just west of downtown Fredericksburg, one man said he could only see six steps in front of him.

As the church bells tolled 9:00 p.m., 25-year-old August Ebert sat in the darkness beside a “colored boy” on the pavement outside Charles Miller’s store at the corner of Commerce Street (modern William Street) and Liberty Street and watched four Union soldiers enter his sometime employer’s shop. First one pushed open the door and walked inside, then three more arrived soon afterward.

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The Commerce Street/William Street front of Charles Miller’s shop postwar. Situated on the acutely angled corner of Liberty Street and Commerce Street, Miller’s shop featured two entrance doors–one that opened to each street–here at its front left corner. The building still stands today at 600 William Street.

Inside the shop, a typical Thursday night scene played out. Charles Miller’s older brother George had walked in earlier, remarking that if the weather was good, he would plant Charles’ lot the next morning. Mr. Louis Kruger, a Baltimore resident who helped Charles mind the shop, walked into the store proper from a next door room just after the soldiers entered.

Charles attended the soldiers who quietly gathered in the store. The first man asked for a quart of cherries; the three who joined sat at the counter and ate with him. Another soldier called for a round of cigars, which Charles distributed. When they finished the cherries, a soldier asked for an orange apiece, and Mr. Kruger obliged.

The first soldier stated the price for the fare: 50 cents. Charles objected; the price for all the goods was 70 cents. The soldier disagreed. He was only prepared to pay for the cherries and oranges, which totaled to 50 cents, leaving the cigars to his friends’ responsibility. When Charles agreed, it seemed the matter was settled as the soldier reached to pay for the goods.

Drawing his hand back from his pocket, the soldier changed his mind, declaring, “Oh well, charge it to Uncle Sam!”

“Uncle Sam had nothing to do with that. That thing was played out, whoever calls for an article must pay for it himself!” the shopkeeper rejoined.

Two of the soldiers had made an exit during the conversation. The others started for the door. George Miller asked his brother in German if they should hold the men until they paid for the articles, but Charles responded in German, “Never mind. Let them alone. I do not want to interfere with them.” Charles later said that he did not want any trouble.

Charles went for his coat and walked out saying in German, “I will see about it, whether Uncle Sam pays for them articles or not.” George said that he would go along on his way home as Charles sought a guard. Mr. Kruger stood in the shop’s doorway as he, Mr. Ebert, and the young, unknown boy watched the brothers disappear into the darkness.

Street map

The Liberty Town area of Fredericksburg, west of downtown. Charles Miller’s shop occupied the building colored red on the map at the corner of modern-day William Street (referred to as Commerce Street in the court martial documentation) and Liberty Street, with doors that opened onto either street. (Excerpt from Virtual Fredericksburg base map.)

A relative calm ensued for several minutes until August Ebert heard a cry in the night. He described it as a groaning “hallo,” and with his young companion and Mr. Kruger, August struck out down Commerce Street to find its source.

About 25 steps down Commerce Street, George Miller supported himself with his hands on the brick Masonic Cemetery wall, crying out to the darkness. When he saw a friendly face, he called out, “Mr. Kruger, oh help me in the house!”

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The wall which divided the Corporation Burying Grounds (the Old City Burial Grounds and later, Hurkamp Park) and the Masonic Lodge #63 Cemetery still stands today, bordering the fire station parking lot near Hurkamp Park. George Miller likely used the brick wall of the Masonic Cemetery that probably intersected this one along William Street to support himself after being injured.

The two men brought him into the house portion of the store, laid him on the floor face down, put a bag under his head, washed the blood off the back of his head and cut his hair away from his wound. He had a cut on the back of his head but was so hurt that he believed himself shot. George declared that he was willing to die because he thought that he was hurt too badly to live and keep his senses.

Charles returned with a guard to find his brother suffering from his wound. As he went back out into the streets, a lieutenant approached him and asked if he wanted a doctor. Charles pled for him to find a doctor to see to his brother. A short time later, Dr. E. F. Dodge, assistant surgeon to the 19th Wisconsin Volunteers, arrived to examine George and dressed and sutured his wound. The doctor left when he finished, intending to check in again the next morning.

Between one and two o’clock in the morning as Charles sat up with his brother, he found George unresponsive. Touching his brother’s hands, he noticed they were cold. His feet and face were, as well. Though his body was a bit warm, they sent for the doctor, who confirmed their fears. George had died.

Louis Kruger found George’s cap on Commerce Street in the next morning’s light, a silent witness to the evening’s tragedy.

The investigation began immediately the next morning as the provost guard sought to identify the four soldiers who had entered Charles Miller’s store the night before. The resulting court martial would shed some light on the incident and the individuals involved, but countless questions lingered in its wake. What act had the darkness of May 25 concealed?

Follow up posts will use court martial proceedings and other evidence to pull together the events and repercussions from the night of May 25, 1865.

Beth Parnicza

 

Sources: Court Martial for William Irvin, John Wilson, and Amos Fielding, May 28, 1865, NARA File #mm-3131; Court Martial for James Lynch and John Wilson, NARA File: oo-926

Special thanks to Sean Maroney and Lori Syner at Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc., Noel Harrison, and Eric Mink for research assistance.

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4 thoughts on “Murder in Fredericksburg: A Darkness on Commerce St.

  1. I had a confederate relative Silas Massey murdered in Spotsylvania by an ex-slave in 1870. No sure what happened to the man other than he was being held in the Spotsylvania jail according to an article my father found that featured an account of the murder.

  2. Excellent post, Beth. I am already looking forward to the next installment. It is not well remembered that outrages like this against local citizens by occupation troops were not a rare occurrence. On June 5, 1865, 63-year-old Charles Carter Wellford, owner of Catherine Furnace, was attacked and beaten by a group of Federal soldiers in front of his home on Main (Caroline) Street. His son, Thomas, was also severely beaten after coming to his aid.

  3. Please correct the photo caption of the old wall from the former site of the CITY CEMETERY (now Hurkamp Park) is shown. The Masonic Cemetery is a block away. Graves were reinterred to the ‘new’ City Cemetery when it was formed in 1844.

    • Excellent catch, Jeanette! Interestingly, in this case I was not referring to the existing Masonic Cemetery that is a block away at the corner of George and Charles, but to the second Masonic Cemetery, which was constructed at the corner of Liberty and William. In 1799, Fredericksburg’s Masonic Lodge split over political differences, leading the new lodge–American Lodge #63–to purchase its own plot for a burying ground in 1804, there at Liberty and William. When Sears & Roebuck purchased the land to construct their store, those remains were re-interred at the remaining Masonic Cemetery.
      With regard to the wall, however, your point is a very good one. Our files show both the Corporation Burying Ground–now Hurkamp Park–and the Lodge #63 Masonic Cemetery as having brick walls, and the wall that remains is likely the one that divided the two.
      On closer examination, while this wall may have been shared between the two burying grounds, it is more likely that it belonged to the Corporation Burying Grounds based on two factors: its length, stretching from William St. to George St. when the Lodge #63 Masonic Cemetery stretched only half that length (with a lot belonging to the Methodist Church occupying the other half); and its continued existence, thinking that Sears & Roebuck would have likely torn down a wall that was on its property and associated with the cemetery, but if the wall stood on the Corporation Burying Ground’s side, they would not have been able to do so.
      I will certainly clarify this (in a less hefty way) in my caption. Thanks for adding a little more mystery to the post!
      –Beth

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