Remembrance Walk, Stop 5: Civilians and War

From Hennessy:  [For stops 1-4, click here, here, here, and here.]

As we walked the Sunken Road last weekend, we stopped in front of the Innis house–a home that bears as many visible scars from battle as any house in America.  Becca Jameson shared the following.

* * * * * * * *

Here, in front of this battle-ravaged house, scarred inside and out, and near a house once famous, now gone, we remember….

….the civilians, their town, their world, and how war changed them all.

Home is our great refuge—a place of safety, of comfort.

Capricious, unpredictable war threatens both.

Refugees return to their shattered home.1253

A family in their shattered Fredericksburg home.

No town in American suffered longer or more variously than did Fredericksburg.  For two years, the town or surrounding landscape were successively occupied, bombarded, looted, marched through, and fought upon.

Few buildings were spared in the bombardment of December 11, 1862—155 years ago tomorrow and the battle that followed.  Some, like the Innis house, still bear the scars.

Many civilians fled, but perhaps 800 or so remained behind, huddled in basements, watching with a mixture of fear and curiosity.  Most of those who fled would stay away for years.  Even in the spring of 1865, fewer than half the white population of Fredericksburg was in their homes.

We know certainly that two civilians died during the bombardment on December 11. We know too that during the chaos of that day one baby was born, in a grocer’s house on Prince Edward Street. He would ever-after be known as “Shell-Baby.”

fighting-in-fredericksburg streets harpers weekly

Street fighting on Caroline Street

The bombardment and street fighting ushered the Union army into the town—eventually 30,000 men in the streets. They quickly found their way into empty houses and homes, and a quest for food and warmth soon turned to evil frolic, as Union soldiers looted.  Soldiers turned households inside out like old socks, filling streets and sidewalks with everything from pianos and featherbeds to dresses and children’s toys.

The victimized residents soon became famous as the “Fredericksburg sufferers.”  Outrage at the fate of Fredericksburg’s residents prompted probably the biggest relief effort in the nation’s history up to that time.  From across the South and from within Lee’s army came donations as recompense—eventually as much as $250,000 (the equivalent of about $4.5 million today).

* * * * * * *

Dramatic though the bombardment and looting were, they caused damage that could be repaired, losses that could be recovered.

By far the most dramatic effect of the Civil War on this community came in human form: the end of slavery.


A slave family within Union lines, likely in Stafford County

Fully half the population of the Fredericksburg region endured slavery.  While the approach of the Union army inspired fear and exodus in white residents, the approach of Union troops inspired rejoicing among many enslaved people hereabouts. Thousands left their farms and plantations and headed TOWARD the Yankees. In 1862 and 1863, likely about 15,000 enslaved people from surrounding counties crossed the Rappahannock into Union lines, seeking freedom.

Local slave John Washington recalled his first night with the Union army.

2.4 John Washington smaller

John Washington

After we had landed on the other Side, a large crowd of the Soilders…gathered around and asked all kinds of questions ….I told the soldiers I was most happy to see them all that I had been looking for them for a long time….

 “Do you want to be free?” inquired one. 

 “By all means.” I answered. 

 I did not know What to Say for I Was dumb With Joy and could only thank God and Laugh.  

 This was the first night of my freedom.

The experience of civilians reminds us that this war meant different things to different people.  For some, war meant pure anguish. For others, it meant a life transformed by newly found freedom.  These narratives stand side-by-side in our complicated past–we need not choose one over the other.

Rather, from one comes a cautionary tale about the risks and hardships of war. From the other comes a story of triumph and transformation, moderated by hard decades of resistance to change—a change that continues still.

And so here we remember the civilians, anguish, and freedom.


Next:  Concluding thoughts from the National Cemetery


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