A Glimpse Into the Past: Jane Howison Beale

In a town as historic as Fredericksburg, we have preserved many historic sites as testaments to our past. But perhaps even more valuable as historical gems are the accounts of those people who were eyewitnesses to history in the making. The Journal of Jane Howison Beale is one of these. Beale paints a fascinating but realistic picture of the life and times in Fredericksburg leading up to and during the Civil War.

In August of 1850, Jane Howison Beale's mother also passed away, a few months following the death of Beale's husband. If suffering these two tragic losses wasn't enough, throughout this period she lay ill, recovering from the birth of her tenth child. With tragedy in her home and loss in her heart, Beale began to keep a journal as a way to cope. This journal, however, is not a glimpse into the dark world of grief that you might expect from a newly widowed woman.

On the contrary, Beale deals with her grief, but then knows she has to move on and begins to fill the role of matriarch of her family. It is her house to which people now come to catch up on family news, and she soon loses herself in family and household occupations. Throughout the journal, when she feels depressed, Beale comforts herself in the everyday activities. In one entry she notes, "I have been busy all day with preparations for the school which is soon to commence, and I found that constant occupation the best means of getting through this trying time..."

Throughout the journal, when Beale talks of people visiting each other, we are reminded how different life is now. There were no phones or e-mail to catch up quickly with one another or to pass news along. "Calling on" someone and letters that didn't reach their destination for weeks were the only forms of communication. And letters were vital to staying in touch with out-of-town relatives.

It was the only way to know what was happening in their lives. They could also give you the inside perspective on the news in their region. This was critical during wartime, when City residents were only allowed to see the northern papers. Letters from their relations to the South, which the Union army tried to blockade, were the only way to know what was really happening in the war.

She also didn't let the loss of her husband completely disrupt her family's life. She sold his mill to pay off their debts, and then opened a school and took in boarders as a way to make an income for her family.

Though she embraces her new role of matriarch less than enthusiastically (and who could find much enthusiasm in such a trying time), she remains steadfast in her devotion to her family and is content in doing what must be done. Throughout the journal, Beale maintains a steady faith in God, even after the loss of loved ones or when the war causes her world to slowly crumble in around her (including the death of one of her sons) -- she comforts herself in that faith.

However, the humility she shows when thinking of God is sharply contrasted by the superiority she feels towards slaves, who, she believes, "were ordained of high Heaven to serve the white man and it is only in that capacity they can be happy useful and respected."

Though the beginning of the journal is mostly concerned with Beale family news and casual visits from friends, we begin to see the stirrings of civil unrest. Beale writes of the signing of numerous bills, including the Fugitive Slave Bill, "...we may now hope that peace will be restored to our agitated Country tho' there are probably many both North and South who are not satisfied with the Passage of the Bills, I hope their altruism will not affect the general quiet."

But Beale's hope for peace was destroyed in 1860, with the firing upon Fort Sumter. Then in 1862, the "general quiet" in Fredericksburg was ruined when the Union army took control of the City, which was the mid-point between the Union capital in Washington, D.C., and the Confederate capital in Richmond. Due to this unfortunate location, the City shifted between Union occupation and Confederate control ten times throughout the course of the war.

While under the control of the Union army, life in quiet little Fredericksburg was disrupted in no small manner. The Union army blocked southern supplies and even took the firewood of the local Fredericksburg citizens. Food and supplies could only be obtained from the Union army, and they often raised the prices on necessary items like firewood. They also blocked all letters going to and coming from the South, and citizens had to find people who were traveling south to sneak the letters out of town for them. Fredericksburg was effectively cut off from the South that it felt it was a part of.

Beale also notes that, "The enemy has interfered with our labour by inducing our servants to... demand wages. This policy may suit them very well as it will prevent the north from feeling the great evil of a useless, expensive and degraded population among them, but it strikes at the root of those principles and rights for which our Southern people are contending and cannot be submitted to..." Some slaves did demand to be paid, others remained loyal to the families they worked for, but many just left, and headed North for a free, and presumably better life.

Most of Beale's slaves stayed with the family, presumably choosing the safety provided by their normal routines, rather than risking embarking upon a completely new life. Beale herself notes that in general, she "...escaped so much better that any one else." Though her house was not burned or looted in the shelling of the town, and her life remained mostly intact, it is clear that the quiet life she had at the beginning of the journal has been interrupted forever.

Beale's reflective passages remind us that no matter how different their daily lives were, due to their lack of the modern conveniences we enjoy, those who suffered through the calamities of the Civil War were people before they were historic figures, and reacted to life's difficulties in the same ways that we do. Beale's journal has been cited in many Fredericksburg historical texts and remains a popular primary source for anyone doing any historical research of that time period. Through her journal, Beale has given us an insider's perspective on history in the making.