The canal boat bridge


By this date 150 years ago, the canal boat bridge at Fredericksburg was in full operation.  On May 23, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln would cross it during his tour of Fredericksburg.  We wrote extensively about the bridge a couple years ago, and you can find our posts here and here.

Photo courtesy Marc Storch.

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A town atwitter, bridges abuilding: the Yankees move in, 1862


From John Hennessy (the links herein are generally to posts we have done about whatever topic is in hypertext.  Explore):

One hundred and fifty years ago, Fredericksburg was in the midst of a painful, annoying (at least to white residents) tumult, as the Union army took firm possession of the town.  The army spent the three weeks between the Battle of Arby’s and May 9 restoring the railroad line between Aquia Landing and Fredericksburg and preparing for McDowell’s advance south on Richmond.  The biggest task was the reconstruction of the massive Potomac Creek Bridge, which like everything else had been destroyed by the retreating Confederates.

The ruins of the bridge over Potomac Creek. The bridge would be reconstructed by May 15. Lincoln would christen it the “beanpole and cornstalks” bridge. For photos of the site today, click here.

Elsewhere, the army was busy building bridges into town, establishing camps on Stafford Heights (and farther back from the river), and cautiously feeling for hovering Confederates west and south of Fredericksburg. The first of the bridges to be completed was the canal boat bridge spanning Ferry Farm to the town docks in Fredericksburg.  On May 5, Union engineers completed a more traditional pontoon bridge from the Stafford shore to the base of Hawke Street–just above Chatham.  The army would reuse this site in December 1862, labeling it the Upper Crossing.

The pontoon bridge into Fredericksburg, May 1862.

By mid-May, as many as 400 soldiers had been assigned to help re-build the burned bridge of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad into Fredericksburg–75 feet high and 600 feet long. Continue reading

“All my sympathies were for the cause of the union and its supporters…” – Abraham Primmer of Stafford County


From Eric Mink:

Park staff has recently been engaged in looking at Fredericksburg area’s Unionist families and the role they played in the Civil War hereabouts. Staff Historian Don Pfanz recently authored an article on this subject in the locally published Fredericksburg History & Biography (Volume 10). A two-part post on this blog last year, which can be found here, looked at the activity of perhaps the most active Unionist in Spotsylvania County, Isaac Silver. Today’s post seeks to introduce our readers to another of the local Unionist community who made hard choices about his involvement in the war, resisted Confederate authority and ultimately survived within a hostile environment.

Abraham Primmer moved his family to Stafford County, Virginia in 1853, purchasing a 360-acre estate, known as “Bell-Air.” The property sat along the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad about 1.5 miles northeast of Falmouth. Abraham hailed from New York and spent his early adult life in Chemung County, serving as a Supervisor and Justice of the Peace for the town of Catlin, as well as an assemblyman for Chemung. The family included Abraham and his wife Elizabeth, along with their four daughters and three sons.

An 1867 map showing Abraham Primmer’s “Bell-Air” in relation to other landmark residences in southern Stafford County.

On the subject of secession, the Primmers stood solidly behind the Union. Abraham later claimed that he “never drew a disloyal breath from beginning to end.” On May 23, 1861, Virginians gathered at polling places throughout the state to cast their vote on whether or not to adopt the Ordinance of Secession. Abraham remembered that at his polling location, militiamen were on hand, intent on making sure the ordinance received overwhelming support.

“Every influence was employed to intimidate—–any who were suspected of the crime of being a union man. Up to this time I had determined to vote against secession and had spoken against it on several occasions, and was a marked man; where the vote was taken I was warned of my danger. I had two sons that I wanted to save if the state seceded and to save myself and family from the fury of these outlaws and the persecutions of the inflamed secesh.” – Testimony of Abraham Primmer, Southern Claims Commission

Continue reading

The exodus begins: John Washington’s greatest journey


From John Hennessy:

[First, a prelude:  In light of the topic of this post, a couple of reminders about this weekend’s To Freedom event.  Join us on Saturday night at 6:30 for “Bearing the Stones,” a community procession down

Bearing of Stones, 6:30 Saturday.

Sophia Street from Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) to the middle crossing site below city dock, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of slaves crossed in 1862. Then, at 7:30, we will present “10,000 Lights to Freedom,” an interpretive program of music, the words of those who were there, readings, and of course, the illumination of 10,000 lights on the Stafford shore.  For more information on the weekend, click here.

Also, on Sunday at 1:30, I will be tracing a tour along the Trail to Freedom, from the Rappahannock to Aquia Landing–including the site of John Washington’s crossing, described below. This program is being sponsored by Eastern National. There is a fee ($20, to help with the bus), and the tour will last three hours.  You can reserve a seat by calling 540 654-5543.

On Saturday on the hour from 11 till 3, we will be doing walking tours, “A Slave’s World and Beyond,” which includes many sites associated with John Washington.  Meet at Market Square.  These are free, presented by myself, Steward Henderson, and Donald Pfanz of the park staff.]

* * * * * * * *

Chances are, if you have spent much time here or on Fredericksburg Remembered, you have heard a bit about John Washington (see here). Washington was a slave who spent most of his life in bondage in Fredericksburg, and seven years after the war wrote a truly compelling memoir of his experience.  His is an important voice–one of two complete memoirs from a Fredericksburg slave, and by far the best.

Of all the moments narrated in Washington’s remembrance, by far the most vivid–for him and for us his readers–is his passage across the Rappahannock to freedom in April 1862. Washington crossed just hours after the arrival of the Union army at Falmouth; indeed, he may have been the first to do so, the first of more than 10,000 to follow. Because his is one of just two accounts from a slave’s hand that narrates this passage (see the other here), his assumes immense historical significance. He conveys to us what must have been the sentiments of thousands of others.

Washington began his day that Good Friday tending bar at the Shakespeare House hotel on Caroline Street, where today’s Soup and Taco stands (with the best tortilla soup in town).  With the arrival of the Union army (we wrote of Washington’s perception of that here), and while white residents rushed to flee or hide, Washington took to the streets.

The Farmer's Bank building--home of John Washington's owner.He stopped first at his owner’s residence in the Farmer’s Bank building on Princess Anne Street.  Washington is the classic example of a slave who humored those in authority, always taking care that they thought him willing and compliant. In his final act as a slave, he did so again. When he walked in the front door of the bank, his owner, Catherine Taliaffero, was busy packing to head to the country.   “Child,” she said to this 24-year-old man, “you better come and go out in the country With me So as to keep away from the yankees.” Washington replied, “Yes madam,” but asserted that he needed to return the keys to the hotel to the hotelier’s wife. “I will come right back directly,” he said, and then walked out the door never to return as a slave.

From the National Bank building Washington proceeded to the river, likely up to what we know today as the upper crossing site, at the base of Hawke Street.   Continue reading

Looming Yankees: The Union Army Hovers Opposite Fredericksburg–Some Images and Incidents.


From John Hennessy:

After their rebuke at the Battle of Arby’s, the Union army recoiled long enough along the Warrenton Road for the Confederates in Falmouth to both prepare to leave and to burn the bridges in their wake. Soon after dawn, as the Union columns swept down the hill into Falmouth, the Confederates put their plan into action. The Falmouth Bridge went up in flames, as did the Chatham Bridge and the R,F&P bridge farther down. Fredericksburg had never seen such a day.  Some white residents scattered, fearful of the looming Yankees. Some slaves rejoiced at the Yankees’ coming. And a few people ventured out to watch, including diarist Betty Herndon Maury, who left a vivid description of the destruction that day.

I went down to the river, and shall never forget the scene there.  Above were our three bridges, all in a bright blaze from one end to the other, and every few minutes the beams and timbers would splash into the water with a great noise.  Below were two large steamboats, the Virginia and the St. Nicholas, and ten or twelve vessels, all wrapt in flames.  There were two or three rafts dodging in between the burning vessels, containing families coming over to this side with their negroes and horses.

Here are a couple of images that show some of the damage described by Mrs. Maury. The first shows the destroyed ships opposite city dock–drawn in May 1862.

The burned hulks of ships burned by the Confederates on April 1862. The distinctive barn in the background appears in sketches of Washington’s Ferry Farm, which in turn locates this scene as just a few yards downstream from Fredericksburg’s city dock.

This is the only known image that shows the destroyed Falmouth Bridge, burned by the Confederates on April 18. Lumber from the bridge was taken by Union engineer Washington Roebling, who in June built a wire suspension bridge on the abutments of the Chatham Bridge (we wrote about Roebling’s bridge here). Continue reading

The Battle of Arby’s–A Bloody Barricade Saves the Bridge at Falmouth


From John Hennessy:

We try not to tend toward the minute in this space. Rather, we try to focus on revelation with meaning, especially things that have never quite been understood well.  But today we’ll combine minute and revelation a bit and look at an event most of you have likely never heard of, but which in April 1862 reverberated loudly across the American landscape.

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, as we have noted previously (here and here), the Union army arrived on the shores of the Rappahannock in Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg.  Their arrival was tumultuous, heralded by a chaotic, deadly skirmish in the middle of the night that I have taken to calling the Battle of Arby’s, in honor of the culinary presence very near the site of the clash.  As we wrote in a post the other day, the Union army clashed with the Confederate rearguard near Berea Church on the afternoon of April 17. That was not enough for Christopher Augur, commander of the Union troops in the area.  He wanted to get to the crossings of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg before the Confederates still lingering on the Stafford side of the river could destroy the bridges. To do that, he decided to do something a more experienced commander might not have dared–a nighttime raid into Falmouth.

As the soon as the Union army reached Stafford County, citizens inclined toward the Union stepped forth to help. On this evening of April 17, a Connecticut-born local named Horace B. Hewitt–a farmer who owned 152 acres near Hartwood Church–came into the Union camp near Berea Church.

Berea Church today.

Hewitt had just come from Fredericksburg and had seen that the Confederates had placed a barricade across the Warrenton Road about a mile northwest of Falmouth.  Hewitt promised Augur that he could lead the Union cavalry around the barricade, clearing the way for a dash to capture the Falmouth Bridge before the Confederates could burn it.  Augur accepted Hewitt’s word and his services, and just before midnight ordered parts of the 2d New York Cavalry (Lt. Col. Judson Kilpatrick at the reins) and 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry (Col. George Bayard) to horse. The happily bedizened 14th Brooklyn infantry–with their red pants and kepis–joined in as support, and illuminated by a half moon, the column of 1,500 men and horses started out from Berea.

The Union route from Berea to the Confederate barricade near Arby's.

Mr. Hewitt led them not directly down the Warrenton Road, but rather to the north–along what is today Berea Church Road to Truslow Road. Eastward along Truslow the Yankees rode. Just beyond where today Truslow crosses Interstate 95, Hewitt led the column onto a farm road to the right–a now-vanished path that led back to the Warrenton Road (Route 17). Continue reading

Good Friday 1862


From John Hennessy:

One Hundred and Fifty years ago today, the Union army arrived opposite Fredericksburg for the first time.  It was Good Friday.

Of the many narratives of that day, two stand out for both their quality and their contrast.  The first is an account written by Helen Bernard, a white resident who was staying just outside town at a house called Beaumont–near where Gold’s Gym stands today.  (The following is from Rebecca Campbell Light’s excellent War at Our Doors. For a great history of Helen’s primary home at Gay Mont in Port Royal, click here.)

Helen Struan Bernard, from Rebecca Campbell Light’s War at Our Doors.

Beaumont, Spotsylvania County.  Good Friday, 1862. I write while the smoke of the burning bridges, depot, & boats, is resting like a heavy cloud all around the horizons towards Fredcksbg. The enemy are in possession of Falmouth, our force on this side too weak to resist them…. We are not at all frightened but stunned & bewildered waiting for the end. Will they shell Fbg., will our homes on the river be all destroyed? …. It is heartsickening to think of having our beautiful valley that we have so loved and admired all overrun & desolated by our bitter enemies, whose sole object is to subjugate & plunder the South…..

This is a powerful description of what the arrival of the Union army meant to most white residents in Fredericksburg.  It also reflects what has over the decades been our traditional understanding of the event hereabouts.

But here’s another description of precisely the same moment in time, written by another Fredericksburger, the slave John Washington.

John WashingtonApril 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quiet…until every body Was Startled by Several reports of [Yankee] cannon…. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. [But] every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees, for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen.   I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt…like I Was certain of My freedom now.

Same event, powerfully described, but with a totally different meaning to each writer.

 We’ll have more about the onset of the Union occupation in the next couple days.  Don’t forget Years of Anguish:  Slavery and Emancipation this weekend, with David Blight and Thavolia Glymph.  The Fredericksburg Baptist Church on Princess Anne Street, from 1-5.