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

The Decline of Clover Hill


From John Hennessy:

Rare is the Virginia house that has its own Wikipedia entry. Clover Hill does. The house sits a three hundred yards north of Route 3 a few miles east of Culpeper, alone amongst the farm fields its owners once commanded. It’s distinctive–classically Gothic, though it was not at its origins, said to have been about 1775, long before Gothicism took root.

During the Civil War, Clover Hill gained fame for two things. In the aftermath of the Battle at Brandy Station, Lt. Col. Frank Hampton of the 2d South Carolina Cavalry died in the house–in the front-right first-floor room–after being wounded in fighting on nearby Hansborough’s Ridge (a fabulously evocative place).

Custer and his new bride Libbie.

Later, it was the scene of the wartime honeymoon for George A. Custer and his new wife Libbie, who would spend about a month there with her new husband in early 1864. He named the place “Camp Libbie” in her honor. Our friend Bud Hall has written about Custer and Clover Hill here.

After decades of relative prosperity, Clover Hill has in recent decades suffered a steady decline. Bud Hall (the only cover boy among Civil War historians, in 1991), who knows and watches over Culpeper’s Civil War landscape like no one else I know, has sent along a series of images that shows Clover Hill over the years. We’re grateful to Bud for sharing, though we lament the apparent fate of his photographic subject.

Here is Clover Hill as it appeared in March 1864.

Custer and his staff in front of Clover Hill, March 1864.

Clover Hill in 1986.

June 1986

In 1991.

And in 2012.

Clover Hill, 2012

Soldiers’ Huts to Luxury Homes – Bell-Air Today


From Eric Mink:

A previous post, found here, looked at Stafford County Unionist Abraham Primmer. With the compensation he received from the U.S. government after the war, Primmer successfully returned to farming and lived out his final years as a respected member of his Stafford County community.

“Bell-Air,” the house and property, remained a prominent landmark in the neighborhood that became known as Leeland after the war. The home and property remained in the hands of Primmer’s daughters until 1926. The house remained in good shape and was at its finest when a researcher from the Works Progress Administration visited the farm in 1937. By 1942, however, the county land assessment noted “building burned,” indicating that the house was gone.

Bell-Air – 1937

The farm, which became known locally as “Walnut Farm,” went through a number of owners in the last half of the 20th century. Most of them apparently purchased the property as an investment, as its location along the railroad made it an attractive piece of ground with much potential. The Virginia Railway Express stop at Leeland Station, just off the northern boundary of the property, made the land ripe for residential development.

Modern aerial view of the Bell-Air and Camp Pitcher sites

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

Spring Winds


From Hennessy:

Last week brought spring winds to the park. Among the casualties was a tree in the National Cemetery. I am always struck by how much effort we–an organization fundamentally committed to preserving nature’s work–spend battling Mother Nature’s efforts to either overgrow or destroy. Most of our budget is spent on keeping nature in its place. Sometimes nature wins.

A VERY close look at Davis and R.E. Lee–“It makes one feel better to look at him,” and the hair in his ears


From John Hennessy:

In answering a research request today, I came across this remarkable description of President Davis and Robert E. Lee, down to the hair growing out of Lee’s ears. The occasion was a service at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Orange on November 22, 1863–just a few days before the Union army crossed the Rapidan to commence the Mine Run Campaign. The soldier was a commissary officer in the 47th North Carolina (the original is privately owned; a typescript resides in the park’s collection).  The letter reflects a type of writing that has, in the age of photography and video, largely disappeared from our world: the art of physical and personal description.  It largely speaks for itself.

St. Thomas Church today, courtesy of their website.

This morning I went with a friend up to Orange to attend church, the Episcopal. The motive that induced me particularly was the hope of seeing no less a personage than Pres. Davis, having learned that he came up on the train from Richmond yesterday. We were at the church early to secure seats, entered by the left door and sat near the middle of the house and near the left hand wall, the church fronting west. The services were commenced, by a young clergyman, evidently the rector, but Gen. Pendleton was seated near, in his black robe. You may remember that I gave you an account of a fast day sermon he preached in the same house last summer. He is in command of all the artillery n Gen. Lee’s army….

Pres. Davis and Gen. Lee entered while the young clergyman was reading a prayer and the congregation had bowed their heads. On looking up, I discovered very near me the well known form and face of Gen. Lee, and on his left, the thin, bony face that reminds one so forcibly of a postage stamp as to excite a smile. He was dressed in a plain dark citizen’s dress, with a worn brown overcoat thrown loosely over his shoulders, of which he divested himself on rising to take part in the service. His hair is slightly grey and his hair cut short. His face tapers to a point at the chin. If he were a plain common man he would be called “Lantern-pawed.” His cheeks are prominent. A very thin beard hangs under his chin….He is evidently careworn and pale from the burden of responsibility and the mental anxiety consequent on his office. Continue reading