Scandal in Fredericksburg!

From Russ Smith:

I first encountered the following story while transcribing the diary of Mary Gray Caldwell of Fredericksburg.  On September 17, 1864, she recorded, “Day before yesterday, our city was astonished by the news that the son of one of our most respected citizens (Mr. Knox) had stolen $1,500 and, in company with another man who had stolen $800,000, had gone to the Yankees.”  Further information was found in the Richmond Daily Dispatch and the Richmond Enquirer. Thanks to Beth Daly of the Central Rappahannock Regional Heritage Center who is a font of information on the Knoxes through her work with the Knox Family Papers. The Knox Papers will be published this spring by the Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

The Knox House at Princess Anne & Lewis Streets.

The Knox House at Princess Anne & Lewis Streets.

Thomas Stuart Knox was the second-oldest of six sons of Thomas and Virginia Soutter Knox. Earlier in the war he had enlisted in the 30th Virginia Infantry, but later found work in Richmond.

On Saturday, September 10, 1864, Captain Thomas Stuart Knox traveled north from Richmond. On his arm, wearing dark goggles, was a supposedly blind brother who Knox was escorting home to Fredericksburg. Knox had obtained the necessary passes from the Provost Marshal in Richmond, so their travel was uninterrupted. However, the pair didn’t stop at Fredericksburg, but pressed on hurriedly to Union lines!

Captain Knox and his perfectly sighted partner, George W. Butler, were absconding with a large sum of money stolen from the Confederate treasury.  Knox, in his role as Commissary at Camp Jackson hospital, and Butler, who had been a Treasury Department pay clerk, had colluded to draw some $700,000 from the Treasury.*  They had then exchanged the Confederate currency in Richmond for gold, Federal greenbacks, jewelry and just about anything else that would hold its value. (At this time, twenty-three Confederate dollars equaled one dollar in gold, so their total take was about $30,000.)

Butler had good reasons to abscond.  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.

The Chancellors of Chancellorsville

From: Harrison

Over at Spotsylvania Memory: The Row Family of Virginia, our friend Pat Sullivan has started a nice series of posts on the Chancellors of battlefield fame. We also encourage you to browse his blog’s earlier posts, always related in a friendly and accessible style, for little-known, detailed accounts of various families whose homes were in the Fredericksburg-area combat zones and whose lives intersected those of his well-archived ancestors.

To go or not to go: Fredericksburg’s refugees and those who stayed behind

From John Hennessy:

Among the many queries we get, it is one of the most common: how many civilians remained in Fredericksburg during the war’s darkest months?  It’s a complicated question, for we know that there was no single exodus that can be easily measured. Lizzie Alsop’s diary records many comings and goings by her family, as do both Betty Maury’s and Jane Beale’s. Some families, like the Lacys of Chatham, left when the Union army arrived in the spring of 1862. By far the largest exodus took place in November 1862, when the Union army arrived for the second time–this time destined to fight.  But we also know that many of those (like Jane Beale) who left in November returned to their homes in early December, when the threat of battle seemed to lessen (thank the Union pontoon trains for that red herring). Many of those souls suffered violent correction on December 11 when the Union army did indeed stir.

Innumerable accounts of that day note the presence of civilians, and indeed several of them wrote vivid accounts of their experiences during bombardment. For our purposes, perhaps the best description comes from confectioner Edward Heinichen, who took a walk through town during an afternoon lull (Heinichen’s memoir was published in the 2007 edition of Fredericksburg History and Biography, which you can purchase here).

I soon left my friend’s house to take a walk through the town, meeting many people, few in the streets, but many more or less sheltered by their houses, eagerly watching the havoc from doors and windows, and I must say that few, women and men showed any fear but plenty of excitement. I saw one darkey crouching behind a thick plank fence where he imagined himself perfectly safe from shot and shell, cordially inviting me to join him there. Meeting Judge M. Herndon, he remarked in his most pleasant manner: [“]This looks as if we had had a most extraordinary hailstorm.[“]

We know that the crossing of the Union troops following the bombardment inspired more than a few civilians, including Heinichen and Beale, to leave, and that evening witnessed a fairly frantic exodus to points in Spotsylvania County.  Still, some residents remained behind (as evidenced by the memoir of Mamie Wells, who left the only account of a resident who remained throughout the battle that followed).  The town was certainly never “empty,” as some observers claimed. Continue reading

The final journey of Captain Edward P. Lawton (part 2)

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

Col. William W. Teall, who escorted Evelina Lawton across the Rappahannock

Evelina Lawton’s southbound journey from Alexandria with her husband’s corpse had a stunningly empty conclusion. After the train from Aquia Landing  pulled into Falmouth Station (where the Eagles Lodge now stands on Cool Spring Road), the train emptied, leaving her alone in the car with the coffin. Union colonel Teall, the fatherly looking son-in-law of General Sumner, arrived at the station expecting to find two other women bound for Confederate lines. Instead, he found Mrs. Lawton, alone, “attired in deep mourning.” He took her hand, which “she extended with such an air of sadness, even despair.” Teall called for the officer of the day, and soon Mrs. Lawton and the coffin were on the platform, with an honor guard over them. They shortly departed for the Phillips House, Sumner’s headquarters. “She seems so thankful and submissive,” Teall wrote that night. Captain Lawton’s coffin sat in an ambulance on the slope in front of Phillips house.

The Phillips House

It was too late to arrange for a crossing that day, so Teall made arrangements for the following morning–determined, he told his wife, to “place this sorrowing woman on her homeward journey with all the kindness and attention  I should hope you would received were you in her place.”

He summoned 20 men from the 10th New York Infantry, the National Zouaves, as an escort, and summoned an ambulance pulled by four white horses.

“After giving the order to proceed I took my seat beside her & this little procession moved slowly towards the river. Continue reading

An astounding contrast of rancor and humanity: the rage of Arabella Pettit and the final Journey of Captain Edward P. Lawton (Part 1)

Union troops enjoying the spoils of their looting on lower Caroline Street.

By John Hennessy:

The plight of Fredericksburg civilians in the fall of 1862 inspired Arabella Pettit of Fluvanna County, Virginia, to outrage toward the Yankee perpetrators. She wrote to her artilleryman husband,“Shoot them, dear husband, every chance you get.”  Foreseeing that she and her family might be next, Arabella urged her husband, “It is God’s will and wish for you to destroy them.  You are his instrument and it is your Christian duty.  Would that I may be allowed to take up arms, I would fight them, until I died.”

Perhaps more so than any battle in the East, Fredericksburg inspired a new wave of rancor among Southerners. The damage to the town by bombardment, the pointed destruction by looting Yankees, and the image of civilian refugees fleeing to the countryside combined to fire Southerners like Arabella Pettit with a deep mixture of fear and anger. It was this fury, rather than the fraternal sentiments so common in postwar recollections, that characterized the Civil War at its core. There is no other imaginable accompaniment to the slaughter of more than 200,000 men on America’s battlefield.

But, as we have often pointed out, the Civil War was a complicated mix of emotion, fact, imagination, policy, motivation, and acts innumerable. We are all tempted to shop the historical landscape for a story or passage that validates our notion of what the war was and what it was about. Such things help us to see things in simpler, often more comfortable terms. America has made a sport of this exercise over the decades, as we struggle to understand a political and human disaster whose intensity and nature seems to many to be entirely un-American in its nature.

But the war defies simplicities. It was, for example, simultaneously a war for independence, a war for the Union, a war for emancipation, a war to sustain slavery and white supremacy, and a war that would define the extent and reach of the federal government. It was also a war of intense cruelty and expressions of great humanity.  Contradictions and odd admixtures like these render the war both defiant of easy understanding and the object of intense interest. Thoughtful people struggle to reconcile and understand. The less thoughtful among us simply seize one and assert it over all others.

Just a few days after Arabaella Pettit penned her memorable, rancorous mandate to her husband, the same Union army that she and millions of other Southerners pilloried undertook an unprecedented (at least for Virginia) gesture that gave even the most bitter Southerners pause.

Captain Edward P. Lawton, mortally wounded at the Slaughter Pen on December 13, 1862.

In the fighting that raged on the south end of the battlefield on December 13, 1862, Captain Edward P. Lawton, a staff officer in the brigade once commanded by his brother Alexander, fell wounded in the fighting in what we know today as the Slaughter Pen Farm. Lawton fell at the farthest advance of his brigade, virtually among the Union batteries west of the Bowling Green Road. His brigade of Georgians soon were driven back, and the Brown-educated Lawton fell into Union hands. They apparently cared for him well, though his case was hopeless, with a wound somewhere near the spine, paralyzed on one side. He was taken across the river and, at some point in the next several days, transferred by rail and boat to a hospital in Alexandria. Unbeknownst to the Confederates, he died there on December 26, 1862. Continue reading

Bedsteads and bones: a walk at the Bloody Angle with E. L. Landram, 1895

From John Hennessy:

In 1895, journalist J.H. Beadle paid a visit to the battlefield at Spotsylvania Court House. He spent part of his time with Edward L. Landram, who was 13 at the time of the battle and still lived on the field. Beadle recorded his conversation with Landram carefully, and so has left us by far the best record of that family’s experience during and after the battle.

No good period image of the house survives. Using the best information available--interviews, archeology, and distant view, the park staff worked with artist Keith Rocco to created this view.

The Landram home stood about 800 northeast of the Bloody Angle. Indeed, the 170-acre Landram farm comprised much of the area covered by the Union advance on May 12, 1864, and the house was Hancock’s headquarters for some hours that day. The house suffered severely–it was virtually uninhabitable afterwards.

At the outset of the war, Edward lived there with his parents, Willis (67) and Lucy (49), and his siblings Bettie, Cornelius, and Lucy. Theirs was a common farm operation, producing a bit for market, but more for their own sustenance–a place like thousands of others, redefined by the events of a single day.

I found Beadle’s account in the [Knoxville] Daily Journal and Tribune, July 21, 1895 (it was published elsewhere as well at about the same time). It includes a number of interesting details, including the collapse of the local tourism industry in the 1890s, coinciding with a (you guessed it) recession.

Union General Hancock made his headquarters at the Landram house during the fighting at the Bloody Angle on May 12, 1864. This wartime sketch was drawn just west of the house, looking across Willis Landram's farm fields toward the Bloody Angle.

Beadle recorded that the family sensed battle was imminent and “ran down to the Court House.” “I was only 12 years old then,” remembered Edward:
Continue reading

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

A walk with Fredericksburg’s diarists and the release of Jane Beale’s diary–May 7

From John Hennessy:

The home of diarist Lizzie Alsop on Princess Anne Street

We are working on a couple of posts looking at the story of Martha Stevens (up tomorrow night or Monday morning), but in the meantime I wanted to let you know that next Saturday, May 7, I’ll be doing a walking tour that will visit the homes of Fredericksburg’s notable Civil War diarists and memoirists.  We’ll walk by Lizzie Alsop’s house, Betty Maury’s, Jane Beale’s, and a few other writers you might not have heard of.

The tours leave from Market Square at 10 and 2 (pick one).  Hope to see some of you there.

The Jane Beale house

Also that day, from 3-6, the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation will be hosting the launch of the new publication of the Jane Beale Diary at Jane Beale’s House at 305 Lewis Street.  We’ll talk about Jane Beale’s house on the tour, but at the launch you’ll be able to go inside and see the basement made famous by her immensely important description of December 11, 1862.

Echoes from the Bloody Angle: a real-time description from Katherine Couse’s Laurel Hill

From John Hennessy:

It is both a source of confusion and obscure–Katherine Couse’s home, Laurel Hill. It is often confused with the Laurel Hill area of the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, where the Union Fifth Corps opened the battle on May 8, 1864. In fact, Couse’s “Laurel Hill” stood 1.75 miles northwest of the Bloody Angle, off what is today known as Gordon Road. That the house is obscure is perhaps rooted in its confused identity–it could not be because it is unknown, for in fact there are few homes on the Spotsylvania Battlefield better and more vividly documented than Laurel Hill.

The Fifth Corps hospital at Laurel Hill, by Edwin Forbes. Kate Couse recorded that Forbes ate dinner at her house on May 12, the date of this image.

Unionists lived at Laurel Hill–indeed, a cluster of Unionists surrounded Laurel Hill in this part of Spotsylvania County. William and Elizabeth Couse moved to Laurel Hill in 1840 from New Jersey, along with their family of seven children. With more than 1,400 acres of land and a robust saw mill, the family did well, until war came to the neighborhood. In March of 1862, son Peter Couse was arrested by Confederate authorities on suspicion of disloyalty, imprisoned in Richmond, and once released returned north. That left Laurel Hill in the hands of three Couse sisters: Cornelia, Sarah, and 28 year-old Katherine, or Kate. The three women and the farm suffered in the presence of armies.  Katherine remembered in May 1864,

Forbes's sketch is the only known image of Laurel Hill.


There is no encouragement here to try to do anything. Last spring & summer [1863] nearly all our fowls were stolen at different times. Meat very scarce and high we had to buy them at extravagant prices. We raised sweet potatoes and watermelons but enjoyed none of the benefits. They disappeared soon as fit for use. This winter some hungry rogues stole part of our small supply of meat out the cellar w[h]ich we were at much trouble and expense to get in the fall. Not long since our last horse was stolen from us. It is too bad. Horses like every thing else in Dix are so scarce and high we do not think of trying to get another. I have felt for a long time that we have had just as much of the disagreeables of this life as we well could.

After occasional annoyance and discouragement in 1862 and 1863, the war visited with destructive might in 1864. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the Union Fifth Corps established its primary field hospital at Laurel Hill, and soon the place was flooded with wounded, wagons,soldiers, and surgeons.  So it was on May 12, when fighting raged just over a mile to the south, along the Muleshoe Salient. It was the heaviest sustained fighting of the war, and in a letter to friends, Katherine Couse wrote of it in real time, surrounded by neighbors taking refuge.