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.