Park Service tours highlight civilian experience in Fredericksburg during the Civil War.

BY CLINT SCHEMMER ; The Freelance-Star

Park Service historian John Hennessy shares diary entries written by Fredericksburg residents during the Civil War. CLINT SCHEMMER/THE FREE LANCE-STAR

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – Most diaries are mundane. Not so those that historian John Hennessy shared with area residents and visitors this weekend on two walking tours of downtown Fredericksburg, as seen through the eyes of local people who experienced and chronicled the Civil War. Read the words of Mamie Wells, of a Unionist family here, describing how people scurried to take shelter from the Union army’s 13-hour bombardment of the town on Dec. 11, 1862:

“In the streets the confusion was dreadful. Here, a child was left, its frantic mother having fled; and there a husband, who, in the excitement of the moment, had become separated from his wife, ran madly about Here, families were crouching in their dark cellars for protection from the ruthless shells; while there, the more reckless ascended to the house-top to view the impossible grandeur of the scene.”

Or listen to Fredericksburg’s Betty Herndon Maury write of Confederate troops flowing through the town in June 1861:

“GREAT suffering and neglect at the hospital. Some of the soldiers are being removed to private houses. Some of the ladies here devote almost their whole time to the sick. Uncle Brodie Herndon is attending some of those who are at private houses. I never saw anything like the spirit here! The women give up the greater part of their time to nursing the sick or sewing for the soldiers. And it is the same case throughout the South.”

Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, enthralled some 150 people Saturday with a taste of the riveting accounts penned by six diarists and memoirists.

Beginning in Market Square behind Old Town Hall, he led them on fast-paced, 90-minute jaunts up Caroline Street, then up to the corner of Princess Anne and Lewis streets, stopping at each chronicler’s home.

His tours, in the morning and the afternoon, ended at the home of diarist Jane Howison Beale–which was opened to the public in mid-afternoon for Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc.’s launch of a new edition of Beale’s 1850-62 journal.

Most Civil War tours in the city focus on the military side of the Battle of Fredericksburg. These were the first National Park Service tours focused on civilian families’ experiences.

Participants admired the exteriors of the homes of Mamie Wells, Dr. Brodie S. Herndon, Betty Herndon Maury, John Washington, Lizzie Alsop and Jane Beale.

Dr. Herndon owned what we know today as The Chimneys, a massive brick house at Caroline and Charlotte streets. He is credited with being the first doctor in the U.S. to perform a Caesarean section. His niece, Ellen Herndon, married future President Chester A. Arthur.

Just up Charlotte Street, at Princess Anne Street, is Haydon Hall, the wartime home of Betty Herndon Maury.

Hennessy called her diary “a great combination of newsy and personal” that is Fredericksburg’s most complete account for 1861-62. Betty’s diary is full of high-level insight into the machinations of Jefferson Davis’ government because her uncle, famed oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, was the Confederacy’s chief of naval defenses. But as a woman in the mid-19th century, she wasn’t credited for her intelligence.

On July 4, 1861, she wrote: “My husband returned from Richmond yesterday. Whether he got the appointment I have not the most remote idea. I asked him to tell me where he went and what he did. He answered, ‘Oh, I went everywhere,’ then told me he had had tomatoes for dinner. The rest he thought above my comprehension, and reserved for some more fortunate male friend. Everybody gives me credit for more brains than my husband does.”

The next stop was PNC Bank, originally the Farmers Bank. Sharing an intersection with two churches and the courthouse designed by architect James Renwick, the bank was where John Washington lived.

Washington, an urban slave whose mother gave him the gift of literacy (at a time when that was illegal), left what Hennessy called a “priceless” account of his journey from bondage to freedom. When his mother was hired out for work elsewhere by their owners, he wrote:

“The night before Mother left me (as I was to be kept in hand by the Old Mistress for especial use) She, came up to my little room I slept in the ‘white peoples house’ and laid down on my bed by me and begged me for her own sake try and be a good boy, say my prayers every night, remember all she had tried to teach me and always think of her. Her tears mingled with mine amid kisses and heart felt sorrow. She tucked the Bed Cloth around me and bade me good night.

“Bitter pangs filled my heart and thought I would rather die Then and there My hatred was kindled secretly against my oppressors and I promised myself if ever I got an opportunity I would run away from the devilish Slave holders.”

From the bank, the tour groups headed up Princess Anne to the stately home of a world-class flirt, 16-year-old Lizzie Alsop, daughter of Joseph Alsop, the largest slaveowner in Fredericksburg.

Alsop delights readers by recalling how she was courted by nearly a dozen men, but spurned every one. She also charts the emotional ups and downs of the Confederacy and records her disdain for the town’s Union occupiers. Hennessy called her “the most eloquent hater of Yankees.”

On May 23, 1862, she wrote: “We Confederates are, generally speaking, the most cheerful people imaginable, and treat the Yankees with silent contempt Ah! They little know the hatred in our hearts towards them–the GREAT scorn we entertain for Yankees. I never hear or see a Federal riding down the street that I don’t wish his neck may be broken before he crosses the bridge.”

The tours ended at the Lewis Street home where Jane Beale and her family took refuge from the Union shelling that began the battle.

“Hers is the best source we have for the practical impact of and the emotional reaction to the end of slavery,” Hennessy said. “Nobody reads her diary for that purpose, though.”

As the bombardment started, Beale wrote, “before we were half dressed, the heavy guns of the enemy began to pour their shot and shell upon our ill-fated town, and we hastily gathered our remaining garments, and rushed into our Basement.”

When a shell struck the house, a brick struck her youngest son, bruising him. Many hours later they escaped through the cellar door and fled town in an ambulance.

“We were shoved into the vehicle without much ceremony, and the horses dashed off at a speed that at another time would have alarmed me, but now seemed all too slow for our feverish impatience to be beyond the reach of those terrible shots,” Beale wrote. “One struck a building just as we passed it, another tore up the ground a short distance from us.”

Beale, who mothered 10 children, survived the war and lived at 307 Lewis St. until her death in 1882.,

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029