Context matters: the contrasting narratives of John Washington and Noah Davis, Fredericksburg slaves (with a Patton connection)


In advance of tomorrow night’s History at Sunset–“Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg–here are some musings on two slave narratives produced by Fredericksburgers.

Fredericksburg Remembered

From John Hennessy:

Both begin with the identical words:  “I was born a slave.” Both narrate a life within slavery and a lifelong quest for freedom.  Both were urban slaves, working in homes or small businesses or industry.  But in most other respects, the narratives of John Washington and Noah Davis could not be more different. The differences command of those who read them special care. They demonstrate vividly why context matters.

Only a couple hundred slave narratives have ever been published, and so Fredericksburg is fortunate to have two produced by men who spent a most of their lives as slaves in the town.  You are likely most familiar with John Washington’s narrative, published in 2007 by David Blight as A Slave no More (read more about Washington’s memoir here). Washington wrote in 1873, seven years after the war, and in his retrospective recounts his life in slavery…

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“The Little Regiment”: Stephen Crane’s Little-Known Story of the Battle of Fredericksburg, pt. 1


from:  Harrison

The secondary anniversaries of a battle —the anniversaries of its portrayals and interpretations as well as of its delayed impacts upon people—follow its principal anniversary. This summer finds us in the aftermath of not only the 154th anniversary of the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg but also the 120th anniversary of the publication in 1896 of “The Little Regiment,” Stephen Crane’s short story inspired by that battle. The story garnered wide circulation initially but later fell under the broadening shadow of The Red Badge of Courage, his classic tale published in 1894-1895.

For the park’s History at Sunset series, my colleague Becky Oakes recently presented a program on Red Badge and the April-May 1863 battle of Chancellorsville, partial inspiration for Crane’s novel. My consideration of “The Little Regiment,” below, draws encouragement from Becky’s program and from an earlier History at Sunset presentation on Red Badge by John Hennessy and Andrea Dekoter (video here). We hope you can attend History at Sunset events, marvelous opportunities to engage with a variety of Civil War subjects in the actual settings of the events discussed. I write this post on a Fourth of July weekend at my home, itself located mile or two from the sites of the Army of the Potomac’s camps prior to the December 1862 battle.

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A woodcut from Stephen Crane’s fictionalized Fredericksburg, captioned with his text describing skirmishing prior to the main Union attack. “The Little Regiment,” McClure’s Magazine, June 1896: 13.

“The Little Regiment” first appeared in the United States in the June 1896 issue of McClure’s Magazine.  (Chapman’s Magazine of Fiction ran “The Little Regiment” at the same time in Great Britain.) Stephen Crane had visited Fredericksburg sometime between January 12 and January 26, 1896, after McClure’s co-editor John S. Phillips requested a series on Civil War battlefields. Crane’s ensuing work produced several short stories about the war. McClure’s illustrated “The Little Regiment” with three woodcuts captioned with or positioned near the corresponding passages in Crane’s text. Another overlooked aspect thus emerges when our perspective widens beyond The Red Badge of Courage: many early readers encountered Crane’s visions of the Civil War—of Fredericksburg, at least—in art as well as in words.

1896 railroad stations final

Stephen Crane walked or rode past these Fredericksburg buildings during his January 1896 visit, four years after veterans of the Second Corps’ 14th Connecticut Infantry sponsored this informal photo. Center background, behind railroad car: wartime freight station of broad-gauge railroad (RF&P) connecting Fredericksburg with Washington and points north, upon which Crane arrived and departed. Right foreground: postwar passenger/freight station of narrow-gauge railroad to Orange (PF&P in the 1890’s, “Unfinished Railroad” in 1862). Left foreground: possible railing of Prussia Street bridge at or near site of millrace/canal-ditch bridge crossed by attacking Second Corps regiments—possible counterpart to one of the “little bridges” referenced in Crane’s story. Henry S. Stevens, Souvenir of Excursion to Battlefields (Washington, D.C., 1893), p. 82. Modern site of railroad-stations area from similar viewpoint and angle at Kenmore Avenue and Lafayette Boulevard: Google StreetView. 

The Red Badge of Courage had appeared prior to Crane’s 1896 visit–in print as a newspaper serial in December 1894 and as a book in October 1895. Obviously hoping to capitalize on the success of Red Badge, McClure’s Magazine added “By the Author of The Red Badge of Courage” to Crane’s byline for “The Little Regiment” in June 1896. In November 1896, other publishers in America and Britain reprinted “The Little Regiment” in book-length compilations of six of his Civil War short stories, three penned for McClure’s and three for the Irving Bacheller syndicate.

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Left: Stephen Crane in 1896, the year he visited Fredericksburg and published “The Little Regiment.” Right: Adolphe Menjou, who hosted a telecast of Crane’s story in 1954. Both: Wikimedia Commons.

Artists in media besides woodcuts would illustrate Crane’s fictionalized Fredericksburg. Although “The Little Regiment” has yet to rate a movie-length treatment, as Red Badge of Courage did in 1951, it did inspire a television program.

The series Favorite Story broadcast The Little Regiment as a half-hour teleplay in October 1954. Host Adolphe Menjou provided the introduction. A Star is Born, A Farewell to Arms, and Paths of Glory were among his past or future acting credits. Ellis Marcus, a prolific, future contributor to episodes of everything from Mission Impossible to Knots Landing and Lassie (my first television-addiction) adapted the teleplay from Stephen Crane’s story. Leon Benson—The High Chapparrall and Bonanza—directed. The 1954 show featured actors Russ Conway—destined for fame via The Virginian, The Fugitive, and Bonanza among other shows; John Doucette—The Big Valley, Get Smart, Mannix, The Big Valley; and Duane Gray—Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Rawhide. The 1954 show was rebroadcast at least once, in September 1958.

Before offering further thoughts and spoilers, I encourage you to read the McClure’s June 1896 version of Crane’s “The Little Regiment,” beginning on page 2 of this public-domain pdf: The Little Regiment

(The entire, public-domain volume of McClure’s is here, including Crane’s June 1896 story. A public-domain version of “The Little Regiment” as collected in the November 1896 book is here.)

“The Little Regiment” in 1896 offered settings and general events nearly identical to those of the December 1862 battle, although Crane did not use the terms “Fredericksburg” or “Rappahannock,” or name the opposing commanders and armies. In 1967, Charles B. Ives noted abundant parallels to the historical battle, in one of the few scholarly articles devoted solely to “The Little Regiment”: Crane’s protagonists, brothers Dan and Billie Dempster, march and bivouac with their regiment on “the cold earth of December,” pause on the north side of a river listening to the bombardment of and preliminary fighting in a “little city”—called “town” and “village” elsewhere in the story—then cross to it over a pontoon bridge.

McClure's woodcut 1

A Union cannon among the “long row of guns” that bombard the town at the start of Crane’s story. (The shadowing and orientation suggest that the McClure’s artist adapted Alexander Gardner’s stereograph of a gun overlooking Belle Isle and Richmond.) “The Little Regiment”: 12.

In the town, Crane writes, “infantry and artillery were in a most precarious jumble in the streets.” Dan chats with a comrade “smoking his pipe of confiscated tobacco, seated comfortably upon a horse-hair trunk which he had dragged from the house.” Their conversation at one point references five of the six corps-numbers of the actual Army of the Potomac units engaged on the south side of the Rappahannock in December 1862. They go on to distinguish those from their own, unnamed corps—clearly the Second—which has also crossed to engage, as its real-life counterpart did in 1862. Nearby, another Federal “had chanced upon a hoop-skirt and arrayed in it was performing a dance amid the applause of his companions.” The men eventually move to “a dry old kitchen” despite its artillery damaged wall “strongly anxious to topple.”

The brothers then depart and return separately, as skirmishing occurs on the fringes of the town that night and the next day, prior to the main Union attack. (The story is unclear on whether Billie’s temporary absence represents his service on an actual picket-detail, or one imagined by his secretly worried brother.)

Crane’s account of Dan’s own, subsequent experience while detailed to the picket line includes illustration by the vivid woodcut I posted above. Even the limited but occasionally dramatic nature of skirmishing on December 12, 1862, the day before the main attack, thus finds a fictionalized counterpart in Crane’s narrative, in addition to the other historical parallels noted by Charles Ives. In 1886, William Kepler published a recollection of fighting on December 12 by men detailed from the Second Corps’ Fourth Ohio Infantry. Kepler described his and his comrades’ experiences along Hanover Street and around and west of the RF&P Railroad freight and passenger stations at Princess Anne and Prussia Streets:

[T]he details moved out on two different streets and were immediately fired upon on Hanover street, and Watson McCullough, of Company C, was wounded, causing a halt, and a sharp engagement until the squad on Princess Ann street…flanked the rebel pickets…advancing still further they noticed the depot and machine shops…under a shower of bullets coming from a new source, a railroad cut…the squad now crossed the bridge over a canal…moved to the right oblique to the house that was the furthest out of any…looking out the west window, they saw near at hand the pickets taking good aim, and firing on our men near Hanover street; the window was opened and a volley sent into the flank of a number of “graybacks” lying in a ditch, when there was a lively climbing and rushing to the rear by fifty or more Confederates, who did not stop until they were under the protection of their comrades, behind the stone wall….

Continue reading

The 1805 Slave Revolt at Chatham


From John Hennessy, (for more on the slave landscape at Chatham see Eric Mink’s posts on here and here):

The laundry at Chatham, once the domain of Chatham's slaves.

The laundry at Chatham, once the domain of Chatham’s slaves.

Chatham bubbled in the news the other day when Chance the Rapper won best new artist. One of Chance’s songs, “How Great,” briefly mentions the 1805 uprising of enslaved people at Chatham.  We have thus had a few questions.  So, I post here a piece I wrote a few years back that sheds light on the uprising.

Several years ago, the park’s former superintendent, Russ Smith, found this vivid letter and affidavit at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (which has become truly an important repository over the last many years). It, more than anything else we have ever seen, explains the origins and nature of the slave revolt at Chatham on January 2, 1805.  By way of context, Chatham was still owned at the time by its builder, William Fitzhugh, but he had removed his residence to Alexandria, leaving supervision of Chatham’s slaves to a new overseer named Starke. Starke had managed to antagonize at least a part of the resident slaves at Chatham, and after the holidays some rose in a spontaneous act of defiance that resulted in death and confusion. One slave died in the battle that followed, and a white man was mortally injured.

The affidavit included here was sent by a local Falmouth Resident, William Richards, to Governor John Page, seeking clemency for one of the slaves implicated (and sentenced to hang) in the rebellion–a man named Robin. Robin was likely well-known to his owner Fitzhugh as a determined soul; in a 1797 letter Fitzhugh recorded that he “had him whip’d and continue to do whenever he comes” to Chatham (Robin was then likely being employed at Eagle’s Nest, another of Fitzhugh’s plantations in King George County.  The request for clemency ultimately worked. Robin was spared, though he was likely deported to the Caribbean.

The Chatham slave revolt is one of the few uprisings recorded in the Fredericksburg area, and the only one I know of that resulted in death to either the slaves or their white controllers.

The document is ripe for extensive analysis. But here it is, unimproved.   Continue reading

Hard scenes from the courthouse cupola


From John Hennessy:

[Note:  Edited by Greg Acken and published as part of the University of Tennessee’s excellent Voices of the Civil War series, Fortescue’s Service with the Signal Corps ought to become a standard source on the Army of the Potomac through Gettysburg (he was captured on July 5).   For a post that looks at 1864 images taken of the courhouse, click here.]

Rarely do primary sources give us a completely different view of an event, but Louis Fortescue’s account of his time in the cupola of the Circuit Courthouse in Fredericksburg is an exception.  In our last post, Fortescue narrated his ascension to the fourth level of the cupola.  Arriving there, he described how the signalmen who had preceded him had knocked out the covers and (probably) the blinds that filled four circular openings in the cupola.

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A screen grab from Micheal Spencer’s video of a recent visit to the cupola, showing one of the large circular openings used by Union signalmen.  For the whole video, click here.  

Through this opening, Fortescue had a panoramic view of the battlefield. His view matched the vantage point for this sketch by Alfred Waud, almost certainly done from the cupola on December 13.  Click the sketch to enlarge it.

Waud Fredericksburg sketch with labels.jpgFortescue wrote of watching the distant lines of battle virtually stuck in the bloody plain before the Sunken Road on the afternoon of December 14:

About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, two companies of infantry became tired of lying in the mud, and concluded to make a break for the town, regardless of the fact that retreat was more dangerous than to remain. At a signal they arose and started pell-mell for the city. Scarcely had they risen when a line of fire opened on them from along the stone wall. The running of this gauntlet of hundreds of mots would have been ludicrous but for the mortal suffering inflicted upon many of them. One after another could be seen pitching headlong from a shot, and until night closed down upon us we could see many of them writhing in agony with no possible chance to afford them relief. It was sad to witness their terrible plight….

Later, Fortescue watched a much more personal struggle to evacuate a wounded soldier from the bloody plain.

Just after this fusillade had died away my attention was called to two men on the left of the plain, who while lying down were endeavoring to place a wounded man on a stretcher near them. After much labor they succeeded in getting the helpless man comfortably placed, and summoning courage, they each rose, grasped a handle, and started for the rear, trustfully hoping that the nature of their errand would shield them from the deadly aim of the sharpshooters. But flushed with victory, and careless of the humanitarian boldness of the two men in an effort to succor a comrade, the shots from the wall rang out and soon brought down the leading carrier. The other dropped a moment afterward and we thought him mortally hurt but in a few minutes [we] observed him creeping slowly away until about fifty feet had been covered, when he started at full speed and reached the houses safely.

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Evacuating Union wounded to Fredericksburg.

In our next and last look at Fortescue’s memoir: chaos erupts in the courthouse cupola.

 

Inside the Courthouse cupola–a short video visit


From Hennessy:

As a followup to our last, Professor Michael Spencer of the University of Mary Washington sent along a video he recently took of the highest level of the cupola–the compartment where signalman Louis Fortescue spent his time on December 14 and December 15, 1862.  Click here to see or revisit that post, which describes his ascent of the cupola.

The video is short–just 29 seconds.  Our profound thanks to Michael Spencer for sharing this, which gives a vivid sense of the closeness (and height!) of the space.  You can see the round openings mentioned by Fortescue that the signalmen used to both observe the enemy and signal their observations back to the Phillips House.

 

fredericksburg-courthouse-cropped-on-cupola

The courthouse cupola, showing the circular openings used by signalmen in 1862.

Up the courthouse cupola with a Union signal officer, December 14, 1862


From John Hennessy:  It constantly amazes how, still, the source material flows.  Last year, Greg Acken, who has a great eye for important primary sources, edited and published the memoirs of Louis Fortescue, a signal officer with the Army of the Potomac. Fortescue’s memoir is outstanding throughout, but no section is better than his account of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

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The Circuit Courthouse in 1864.  The round openings in the upper level (Fortescue mistook them as openings for a clock never installed) are clearly visible, and remain today.

Late on December 13 and again on December 14, Fortescue ascended the cupola of the Circuit Courthouse on Princess Anne Street to, on the one hand, monitor developments to the west, on the battlefield itself and, on the other, signal anything significant back to another signal station at Burnside’s headquarters at the Phillips house.  Fortescue’s account is full of detail about the courthouse itself. Since the Civil War, the cupola has been refashioned some on the outside, but its interior remains largely unchanged.

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The passageway to the cupola’s second level, looking much as it did when Fortescue passed upward on December 14, 1862.  Image courtesy of Michael Spencer, University of Mary Washington.  

We found Fuller occupying a space octagonal in form and some sixty feet above the ground. The steeple stood to the left of the structure which was built with its side to the street, the entrance to it being immediately underneath us on a level with the pavement, the whole being enclosed by an iron spiked railing. Our space was on the top or fifth floor and about four feet in diameter. To reach the first floor above the street a long ladder was required.

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The passageway to the third level of the cupola, with the bell visible, in 2016. Fortescue mentions having to squeeze by the bell during his ascent. Photograph by the City of Fredericksburg.

This led to a trap door over which hung a large bell that, with its supports, filled nearly the entire space. Above the bell was a heavy upright [support] that extended to the top of the steeple, and was apparently the main support, the outer brick-work being but a mere shell.

On four sides of our apartment were round openings for clock dials, some two feet in diameter, but as the dials had never been placed there, in consequence of the poverty of the county, the spaces answered excellently for the purposes of observation, care being taken that the enemy did not observe us moving past the opening looking towards their works. The opposite one, toward our lines, was used for flagging.

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This sketch is from the summer of 1862, when the Union army used the Courthouse cupola in quieter times. Fortescue wrote that during the battle, he did not use the circular openings facing the Confederate lines, for fear of the Confederates intercepting his messages.  That was not a concern during the summertime occupation.

For this purpose a small flag was used, two feet only, with a short pole that prevented the flag being seen when waving it on either side of the steeple, and yet [it] permitted the messages being easily read at the Phillips House by the signal officer with Burnside across the river.

Here in this coop seven of us, three officers and four flagmen, watched carefully every movement visible within their lines and reported it promptly to Burnside, the rumor having reached us that he intended again assaulting the works during the day.

In our next: the view from the cupola during the battle, and Fortescue under fire.

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New evidence related to Richard Kirkland–a guest post from Mac Wyckoff


From Mac Wyckoff:

[Note:  Several years ago, we hosted a couple of guest posts from Mac Wyckoff about Richard Kirkland.  You can find the first of those posts here, with links to the others therein.  Mac is a former historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP, and is the author of several books related to the service of Kershaw’s brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Here, on the 154th anniversary of Kirkland’s deed, Mac shares some recently discovered evidence that bears on the Kirkland story.]DSC00481.JPGHistorians constantly face the issue of what is factual. Unable to question and cross examine participants and witnesses, we have to make decisions on the volume of specific information and whether that testimony is credible. In the case of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights,” several soldiers wrote about someone giving humanitarian aid to suffering Union soldiers in front of the stonewall at Fredericksburg. General Joseph Kershaw and others supplied the name of this hero, Richard Kirkland, 2nd South Carolina.

Interestingly, each of the stories left wiggle room for questioning details of the testimony. A recently discovered article in The Bamberg Herald, a South Carolina newspaper, includes the story of a soldier who assisted Kirkland in giving water. The story is told by Confederate veteran J.B. Hunter, a childhood friend of Isaac Washington Rentz, of the 2nd South Carolina.

Hunter summarizes the basic story and then adds additional details. After Kirkland received permission to carry water to wounded Union soldiers and went to administer the liquid, Hunter states, “Just then, Isaac Rentz, seeing it, filled several canteens and carried water to Kirkland and they gave water to every crying man and was not hurt.”

Hunter’s account contains two things that a lawyer in cross examination would question. Hunter admits that he does not recall which battle it was. He describes a big battle that “may have been Gettysburg.” However, the 2nd South Carolina retreated several hundred yards from the Union wounded at Gettysburg so it could not be that battle. Fredericksburg matches the details of his account.

A second point is that although Hunter and Rentz were close friends, they did not serve in the same unit. Hunter was in the 1st South Carolina (Hagood’s), Jenkins Brigade which during the fighting on the 13th held a position several hundred yards south of the stone wall, but after dawn on the 14th reinforced Kershaw’s South Carolinians behind the stone wall. Hunter, therefore, may have been an eyewitness to the Kirkland/Rentz incident and as life long friends, it is conceivable that Rentz and Hunter discussed the incident. Interestingly, Hunter’s brigade commander, James Hagood, is among the soldiers to tell the Kirkland story and his account closely matches Hunter’s except for the addition of Rentz’s role.

We will never know precisely all the details of what happened on that December day in Fredericksburg. Although the accounts each leave some details open to question, it is the number of accounts as well as the lack of any evidence to the contrary, that leads me to conclude that someone (most likely Kirkland and Rentz), gave humanitarian assistance to wounded Union soldiers at Fredericksburg.