From the Virginiana Family Files: Nannie Brown Doherty

From the Virginiana Family Files: Nannie Brown Doherty

King George County was not the site of any full-scale battles between the Union and Confederate armies, but Union General Ambrose Burnside made his headquarters in King George. To local residents, the presence of the Northerners was nothing short of an invasion. The local homes were regularly searched—and often burglarized—by Federal troops.

Our first sight of them was one day when three, mounted on fine horses and with swords and many things that made a big noise, dashed through the front lawn, across the backyard to the woodpile where Father was. We children were terrified, for we thought they had come to carry Father and perhaps all of us away…Presently we heard that they were going to search the house for soldiers and ammunition…Father…was so perfectly willing that they should do so, that they began talking instead, and finally said there was no necessity for searching.

The Brown family had good reason to be frightened by the prospect of their home being searched. Nannie’s father, William S. Brown, was clerk of the King George County Court. As the Yankees advanced on the county, Mr. Brown stashed boxes of important deeds and legal documents under the eaves of Waverly, the family home. The Browns were certain that the documents would be destroyed if they were discovered, as the files that had been left in Mr. Brown’s county office were.

Father was afraid to take out all the deed books lest the Yankees should
suspect he had done so and search here for them—then all would have
been lost. Those left in the office were torn to pieces. Many parts burnedWaverly, the Brown family's home in King George County
and some strewed to the wind. The walls of the Clerk’s Office were mutilated
in many ways with horrid pictures and writing all over them.

The uneasy feelings the occupiers engendered in the local populace did not preclude them from doing business with them when it proved beneficial.

After that first visit of the Yanks they came almost daily, but did not search
the house every time. They stole at night and in the day came to buy cakes
or pies. Times had become very hard with all the people about here, so the
ladies were glad to make pies and cakes to sell them. This brought a good
deal of money into circulation, and the soldiers were glad to sell our people
sugar, coffee and such things.

But the sobering reality of the war was always near at hand, especially when some of the bloodiest campaigns of the war were fought in Fredericksburg and the surrounding counties.

When the great battles around Fredericksburg were fought the roar of
the cannon was terrible. This house shook and smoke filled the air all
around us. We could even hear the shots fired by the small guns…O, the
horror of it all! Hearts were broken and homes desolated all over the land.
The bravest and the best seemed to be taken - but, O, all were brave; all
were the dearest to some hearts!

The most harrowing moment Mrs. Doherty recounts happened right on the doorstep of the family home. Her mother had taken to keeping a pistol in her pocket

and she wore it whenever the Yankees came. One day a Yankee came to
the front door and demanded a very fine turkey that was in the yard.
Mother told him that he could not have it. Just then he spied the pistol in
mother’s pocket. Drawing his own pistol he pointed it at mother’s heart
and grabbed her pistol. Mother sprang aside and shut and locked the door.
Then he pointed his pistol at the window where the children were, but did
not shoot. I was beside mother at the front door and screamed at the top
of my voice, then rushed out back to find father. He came running in a few
minutes. The Yankee who had mounted his horse came to the back door
and told father that mother had drawn her pistol on him, which was utterly
false. After a while he went away without the turkey.

As with most any first-person account from the Civil War era, Mrs. Doherty’s includes descriptions of slavery; but her account does not delve into the ethics of slavery and only provides some passing references to daily slave life and some of the ways the Dohertys were served by their slaves. The bulk of the memoir is concerned with preserving family memories for future generations. For modern readers, those memories provide a singular insight into rural Southern life and the ways it was altered during wartime. Mrs. Doherty’s narrative places the war in a very human-centric context that is refreshing and leaves the reader feeling sympathetic to her and her family despite their ties to slavery.The Hunter family at Waverly in the 1920s

Mrs. Doherty’s chronicle continues into the postwar years and her happy marriage, then ends as it began, with reminiscences of music. Sadly, the memoir was never completed, but in its unfinished form it is a wonderfully readable and compelling story that provides a unique insight into one of the most written-about eras of American history.

My Willie thought I was perfection. Those were blissful days, with
nothing to mar the perfect happiness of our lives. We were both musical
and we had many delightful evenings of music. Musical friends would
come in, when we had

(And here my mother stopped in the middle of a sentence and was never well enough to finish her History M.D.H.)

[M.D.H., Marie Doherty Hunter, was Nannie's daughter and the wife of Thomas Lomax Hunter, III.]

Images from The Virginia Cavalcade ("Virginia's Latter-Day Cavalier: Thomas Lomax Hunter of King George County," by Paul M. Pruitt, Jr., Spring 1995) appear courtesy of the Library of Virginia.
1. Waverly, the Brown family's home in King George County. It has since burned down.
2. The Hunter family at Waverly in the 1920s. Back, left to right, Marie, Thomas (readers both, pince-nez around their necks on ribbons), and Thomas IV; front, left to right, Anna, Rose-Marie, and William. Marie edited her mother's memoirs. These are the grandchildren for whom they were written.