Martha Stevens redeemed: pariah to heroine–a matter of faith or history?


From John Hennessy (for part 1 of this post, click here):

The case of Martha Stephens presents many of the challenges that surround the story of Richard Kirkland, though perhaps in even starker form. Conventional wisdom holds that she, to use David Gregg McIntosh’s 1910 reminiscence of a visit to the battlefield (where he heard about Martha),

…remained at her house during the battle, and after it was over rendered great service to the troops of both sides, and when bandages were wanted at the Field Hospital she supplied every piece of cloth which she had, and finally tore her skirts into strips and gave them for that purpose.

The Stevens house in 1911, two years before it was destroyed by fire.

But beyond conventional wisdom what do we really know?

In fact, very little. As with Kirkland, there are no wartime accounts that reference Martha Stevens by name or make any suggestion that she was present as McIntosh describes.  Like Kirkland, her person does not emerge in connection with the battle until many years later. The first known reference to Martha Stevens by name (or even intimation) in connection with the battle appeared in the mid-1880s, when former Confederate staff officer (and Fredericksburg resident) W. Roy Mason wrote a short article that would eventually appear in Vol. 3 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. While it is clear that Mason did not witness what he described, he passed along what by then (at least in Fredericksburg) was the standard rendition of Martha Stevens’s deeds, gotten, he says, from her own lips.

I went out with a party of gentlemen friends who were visitors in Fredericksburg to inquire of her….This woman, the Molly Pitcher of the war, attended the wounded and the dying fearless of consequences, and refused to leave her house, although…the position was one of great danger. It is said that after using all the materials for bandages at her command, she tore from her person most of her garments, even on that bitter cold day, in her anxiety to administer to necessities greater than her own.

The Sunken Road in front of the Stevens House. Cobb monument at left.

Mason’s account helps highlight a major difference between the origins of the Kirkland and Stevens stories. Kirkland died at Chickamauga in 1863, and so the subsequent telling of his story was left to others who claimed  to have witnessed it. For Martha Stevens, the only accounts of her activities that day derive not from witnesses to the event, but from witnesses to her telling of the events or of those people who got the story from those who had spent time listening to her tell her story (got it?). Martha’s December 22, 1888 obituary is interesting:

“Mrs. Stephens was a genial spirit, and hundreds of ex-Confederate and ex-Union soldiers have called upon her since the war to hear her relate many of the incidents with which she was familiar as an eye-witness…” 

The paper helped enshrine the legend:

“She was a very kind hearted and generous soul, and will be greatly missed by many. She was particularly kind to the wounded soldiers here of both armies, whose ministrations to these will never be forgotten by those who survive, and companies of those who died will ever cherish her memory.”

The Stevens family cemetery today, next to the Stevens house site. Martha's is one of about eight graves in the cemetery. None are marked individually.

In 1911, local judge John T. Goolrick–the same man who 13 years later would question the authenticity of the slave auction block and lead an unsuccessful effort to have it removed from Fredericksburg’s streets–begot an effort to put a monument over Martha Stevens’s unmarked grave (he failed in this endeavor as well, and the grave remains unmarked to this day). Continue reading

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The unconventional (and mysterious) Martha Stevens–a woman on Fredericksburg’s fringes


From John Hennessy (For part 2 of this post, click here. For a prior post on the possibility of Martha Stevens appearing in a postwar image, click here):

The UDC monument to Martha Stephens, at her house site on Sunken Road.

Just down the Sunken Road from the magnificent memorial to Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights,” is a far simpler monument, put in place in 1917 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to mark the home of one of Fredericksburg’s most honored and memorable women. “HERE LIVED MARTHA STEVENS     FRIEND OF THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIER     1861-1865.”

 In 1860, few in Fredericksburg would ever have predicted that Martha Stevens (or Stephens–the spellings seemed to have been interchangeable) would, 57 years hence, be the ONLY woman of the town to be honored with a monument to her acts during the Civil War. Indeed, to most Fredericksburgers, she would have been near the bottom of the list of prospective heroines, for Martha Stevens lived an unconventional life on the edges of Fredericksburg society.
Born, apparently, as Martha Farrow, by 1860 the 36-year-old was on her third surname, though there is no record that she ever stepped before minister or Justice of the Peace to be married.  Her son was named John Innis (or Ennis), and she occasionally went by that surname. In the several court cases in which she was involved, she is variously identified as Farrow, Innis, or Stevens (or Stephens). By 1860 she was living along the Sunken Road with cabinetmaker Edward N. Stevens, along with two young girls, Mary (10) and Agnes (5) named Stevens.
This meander through the morass of names is not intended to confuse, but to highlight that Martha lived a life far different than those other Fredericksburg women who have come to us as part of the town’s Civil War history–Betty Maury, Jane Beale, Lizzie Alsop, and others. But her ever-changing identity is only part of her distinctiveness. There is no record that Martha ever married Edward Stevens–rather, their marriage was common-law. They lived together for probably 29 years, until his death in 1883. He was a cabinet-maker, and perhaps not a good one, since he was, at least in the 1850s, in serious debt. Virginia law at the time required that the property of women entering into marriage automatically pass to the man–in this case any such property would have been used to satisfy Stevens’s debts. It is likely for this reason that Martha never married Edward. Indeed, in 1854, she entered into a trust with Peter Goolrick that secured her rights to her property entirely separate from Edward or any other man.  Indeed, in all known legal documents relating to Martha, she used either Innis or Farrow as her name, with Stevens given only as an alias.

Martha Stevens's house along the Sunken Road--a postwar image.

Martha Stephens, despite her discolored reputation, was if nothing else an effective wheeler-dealer.  Her worth was considerable: two house on the Sunken Road (including today’s Innis house), a couple of lots on George Street and, most importantly, a 92-acre farm she acquired in 1869–all in her own name.

 Her independent ways in the legal and real estate realms surely marked her as different, but so did her personality and other entrepreneurial ventures. Continue reading

Visual evidence of learning–the Fairgrounds by O’Reilly


From John Hennessy:

Last May, we did a two-part series on the Fredericksburg Fairgrounds (often called Mercer Square), which consumed much of what we now know as the Bloody Plain.  Take a look at those posts here and here. Included in the second is a conjectural sketch done by Frank O’Reilly that included his best estimate, then, of the Fairgrounds.  Here is the image as published back in May (click to enlarge).

You will recall that this image was created as a reference for an original piece of art that is still in development. Since then, we have learned more about the Fairgrounds, most notably in the form of a sketch done by a visitor during the Confederate encampment there in 1861, published in the Library of Virginia’s magazine, Broadside. Here is that image (the original is at the Huntington Library). 

The Fairgrounds in April 1861, by a member of the 21st Virginia. The view looks south, from above the Stratton House.

This by far is the best image we have of the Fairgrounds, and it has further refined our understanding of the Fairgrounds complex as it existed in 1861. Frank, a skilled sketch artist, has gone ahead and embodied all that we now know in a new sketch, which we share here.

Looking southeast from above Brompton. Click to enlarge.

Such is the progression of our learning and understanding, in this instance fortuitously embodied in art for all to see.

A Key Landmark Vanishes from the Fredericksburg Battlefield…Too Soon for Photographing but Not for Sketching


from:  Harrison

I always savor the irony of a Civil War-era “outsider,” whether a soldier or a civilian, a writer, sketch-artist, or photographer, creating what turns out to be the most detailed of all the known portrayals of a building destined to vanish from the landscape.

The war was extraordinary in part for bringing national and enduring fame—even international renown—to countless, ordinary sites and structures that would otherwise have received little if any notice, even on the local level.  In peacetime such places gained, at most, only fragmentary documentation in census- and legal records, insurance policies, or the occasional notice in a diary or newspaper.  The events of 1861-1865, however, brought scrutiny by strangers with fresh eyes, sharpened still more by the awareness that a particular building could mark the boundary between life and death, or even success and failure of national import.

And a further irony presents itself:  the very Civil War events that brought the attentions of strangers and their heightened sensitivity often destroyed the places they documented vividly…soon after that documenting was achieved.

Working from John Keyser’s eyewitness, black-and-white sketch, a Philadelphia lithographer produced a vivid, color depiction of Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop complex—its principal building shown with dark roof at upper center in this detail from “Charge of Kimball’s Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg.”  Yet a comparison with the sketch and other contemporary pictures, below, reveals artistic license and distortions in the color version.  (Note Brompton at upper right and the millrace at bottom for orientation.)  Courtesy Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

Working from John Keyser’s eyewitness, black-and-white sketch, a Philadelphia lithographer produced a vivid, color depiction of Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop complex—the large building with dark roof at upper center in this detail from “Charge of Kimball’s Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg.” Yet a comparison with the sketch and other contemporary pictures discussed below reveals major distortions in the color version. (Note Brompton at upper right and the millrace at bottom for orientation.) Courtesy Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

Such was the case with Allen Stratton’s wheelwright shop, situated on what in December 1862 became the Bloody Plain at the outskirts of Fredericksburg.  Stratton’s enterprise consisted of two principal, wooden structures likely housing a blacksmith’s forge, a carpentry shop, and a stable/storage area, and perhaps linked together by a smaller connector-structure.  (I will refer to the shop in the singular for the purposes of this discussion.)  Of these two principal components, one fronted Fair Street, and one fronted both Fair and a stretch of Telegraph Road also known as the “Court House Road” (modern-day Kirkland Street in that vicinity) opposite Sisson’s Grocery Store.

On the eve of the Civil War, Fair Street extended a short distance beyond and south of the wheelwright shop, and past Allen Stratton’s brick dwelling, to or near the Fredericksburg fairgrounds’ north gate.  (Fair Street, modern Littlepage Street, now extends south entirely through the densely-subdivided site of the former fairgrounds to an intersection with modern Lafayette Boulevard.)  I’ve annotated a survey map, dating from 1856, to show the street- and building locations on the eve of the war (with north pointing right):
 
Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop was definitely standing by 1856.  It appears as a hazy, two-component building on the Sachse chromolithographed panorama of Fredericksburg (below), which also dates to that year.  The shop is largely interchangeable with dozens of other white structures appearing elsewhere on the chromolithograph.  (Note that Stratton’s brick dwelling, built around 1858, has not yet appeared on the landscape.)


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Rare views of the Bloody Plain–Part I


From Hennessy:

How ironic is it that the most important battlefield landscape in Virginia that’s been virtually lost is also the one that’s the best documented photographically?  I suppose there’s some consolation in that.

These images are nearly 150 years old, but they’ve rarely been seen or published. At first glance they look to be fairly common images of Fredericksburg during the Civil War, offering little that hasn’t been noted before. But a closer look into the background in fact reveals an entirely new perspective on the fields beyond town–the Bloody Plain. These images, together with the Federal Hill panorama  surely make Fredericksburg’s Bloody Plain the best photographically documented battlefield landscape anywhere (at least in terms of wartime images). 

There are three images, two of which we share here today. Both by A.J. Russell; both 1863. The first shows a familiar foreground–John Marye’s Excelsior Mill, just below the ruined railroad bridge, and beyond it Alexander and Gibbs’s Tobacco Factory, where the slave John Washington worked in 1860.

Original at the Wes. Res. Hist. Soc.

The second image takes in ground a bit farther downstream and focuses on an industrial part of town that is today largely consumed with parking lots associated with the train station.

Original at the West. Res. Hist. Soc.

We will look at all these things eventually, but for today let’s look into the distant background of these images, for together they offer a view of the Bloody Plain and Marye’s Heights beyond Fredericksburg that is exceeded only by the famous Federal Hill panorama (which we have explored extensively here, here, and here). Continue reading

The other stone wall?


From Hennessy:

It may be the most overlooked of all the features on the Bloody Plain–a forgotten survivor that thousands pass daily without a thought. Union soldiers sought its cover; our own Frank O’Reilly identified and documented it: a low stone wall that offered fleeting shelter to desperate Union troops struggling to and across the Bloody Plain.

Looking SW, along Weedon Street--is this the remnant of the stone wall that sheltered Union troops and Hazard's Battery on December 13, 1862?

It’s “the other” stone wall, first identified by Frank O’Reilly in his extensive work on the attacks on Marye’s Heights. His work generated several references to the wall. A man in the 14th Connecticut remembered that his regiment went across the causeway they took position “near a stone wall, behind which a number of wounded lay.” A man in the 131st Pennsylvania of Humphreys’s division likewise declared that his regiment “formed behind a stone wall, just under the brow of a hill, occupied by a battery.”

That battery was Hazard’s Rhode Island Battery, which was one of just two Union batteries to cross the canal ditch that day, sent there, as O.O. Howard remembered, to “encourage the infantry.” Howard’s chief of artillery protested the order to Hazard: “General, a battery could not live out there.” Said Howard, “Then it must die out there.” Continue reading

Fredericksburg’s first suburb: survivors (some forgotten)


From Hennessy:

In our last post on the community along the Sunken Road and Hanover Street that constituted Fredericksburg’s lone suburb in 1860, we focused on what is by far the most famous survivor from the eleven homes and two businesses that made up neighborhood: the Stratton House.  Since the war, the area has filled almost completely–the only open space that remains is on the Sunken Road proper–but still a few other surviving homes dot the landscape.

Photo by David Ellrod

To me, the most interesting among them is the home at what is today 919 Hanover Street–largely because it’s almost completely forgotten.  It was built about 1840 for a free black man named James Wilkins, who was a well-known and well-regarded barber in town who had been emancipated from slavery in 1824. Wilkins operated a thriving shop on Caroline Street. The local newspapers advertised him as “a professor of shaving, adept at hair coloring, and  a Connoisseur of Perfuming” (I daresay modern Fredericksburg possesses no one who would warrant both the titles “professor of shaving” and a “Connoisseur of Perfuming”.) It is one of only a handful of surviving structures in Fredericksburg that was once owned by a free black.  Mr. Wilkins owned the house until 1845. At the time of the Civil War, the place was owned by drayman Monroe Stevens (no relation so Martha, so far as we know), who lived there with his wife Elizabeth and two children.  The core of 919 Hanover (quite small) is a rare surviving example of an intact interior of a lower-middle class house in Fredericksburg (another is the Innis House, along the Sunken Road, just a couple hundred yards away).

A vast step up the socio-economic ladder is just east of the Wilkins/Stevens house: the elegant brick home of George Rowe, the central structure on a 400-acre farming operation.  Rowe was without question one of the Fredericksburg region’s most interesting figures.  His 1868 obituary says of him, “He came to Fredericksburg, nearly a half century ago, comparatively unknown, and without educational advantages, and with no capital but a clear head, honest heart, and an ambitious spirit.  He immediately identified himself with the businessmen and business interests of the city.  Animation by a stern resolve for self elevation and conquest of adverse circumstances, by which he was surrounded, he devoted himself to work…and swiftly commanded public confidence.”

The George Rowe House and surrounding outbuildings on Hanover Street.

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