Home to sprawling plantations, the even more sprawling Fort A.P. Hill, and historic sites such as assassin John Wilkes Booth’s death place and explorer William Clark’s birthplace, Caroline County is an archetypal rural Virginia county, far closer in spirit to the somnolent Clayton County from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind than the avant-garde art and literature communities of cities like New York and Madrid. But for several months back in 1940 and 1941, Bowling Green, Caroline County’s seat, was the unlikely home to artist Salvador Dalí and authors Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin.
When Glory came out in 1989, movie audiences were excited to see a relatively unknown side of the Civil War that highlighted the sacrifices of the Massachusetts 54th, a “colored” volunteer regiment. Gripping as the story that unfolded on the screen was, there was much more to it, of course. In real life, other people’s stories became part of the regiment’s history as the Civil War gripped the nation.
John Mercer Langston, along with Frederick Douglass, acted as a recruiter for the 54th. As an abolitionist and orator, he was an excellent choice, and this task was just one of Langston’s civic accomplishments. Although he had spent most of his life in a free state, John was familiar with plantation life. His father had been a white plantation owner in Louisa County, Virginia—not far from Spotsylvania. His mother had been his father’s slave. But his parents’ story was not a common one for the era. His father freed his mother, and, although they were not allowed to marry for legal reasons, they lived together as man and wife for the rest of their days, their children considered to be freeborn.
There have been newspapers published in
Two armies faced each other in winter camps across the Rappahannock River. The fighting in December had gone very badly for the Union as they tried to take the Confederate position at Marye’s Heights. Friends and sometimes family had been killed, and the Southern town of Fredericksburg was largely left in ruins.
For months, these two enemy armies went about their business on opposite sides of the river. During those long days and nights, they weren’t firing cannons anymore, but they were sending out volleys of music to lift their soldiers’ spirits. Each side had its patriotic songs. Often they had the same tune but different words, and each side would sing and cheer their own bands.
On those winter nights, they might close with a special tune. One that everyone sang the same words to: “Home, Sweet Home.”
A longtime area resident, Noel Harrison is Manager of Easements for the Fredericksburg office of the National Park Service.
To the almost-forgotten past belongs the story of Fredericksburg’s “Battlefield granite” quarries, once touted as being among “the most valuable granite properties in the United States.”
The Virginiana Room, also known as VR, is located on the lower level of the Fredericksburg Branch on Caroline Street. It is a bright and comfortable space where researchers, local and regional history buffs, genealogists, and plain old curious browsers can access books, maps, local government documents & publications, family records, and a few hundred years of newspapers on microfilm. The people who use the collection are often compiling a family history, writing a book, or completing an assignment for school. But the VR has proven useful in many other ways for people who find creative uses for the collection.
The charred remains of Shedrick Thompson had not yet been cut from the tree from which he had been hanged before the controversy over his fate began. Thompson’s 1932 death was ruled a suicide by white authorities in rural Fauquier County, where Thompson lived and died. However, the local Fauquier population, white and black, knew that he had been lynched and his body torched. Thompson was the prime suspect in the severe beating of Henry and Mamie Baxley, a prominent local couple and Thompson’s landlords, who were viciously attacked in their home while their young son slept in the next room. Henry was knocked out cold by his attacker, and Mamie was dragged from the home and marched in the dead of night across several fields and into the woods where the assault continued. After the attack, Thompson vanished, most likely into the nearby foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where he had grown up. Despite numerous manhunts, his whereabouts would remain a mystery until two months later, when he died at the end of a rope on Rattlesnake Mountain.
In traditional biographies of the Washingtons, the subject of slavery rarely comes up, or, if it does, it is given a paragraph or perhaps a chapter to explain the “peculiar institution” as it related to the first First Family. There is nothing like a personal story—a slave’s personal and true story—to get a deeper perspective. In Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge, that is exactly what we have.
Most Fredericksburg cinephiles have to content themselves with a life far removed from the gaudy glamour of the flashy film world that is now at its yearly peak as “award season” takes over Hollywood. However, if not for the ingenuity and tenacity of Fredericksburg-born entrepreneur and movie projector inventor Thomas Armat (1866-1948), the movie magic viewers take for granted today may have had a very different history.
Poems by Cynthia Grady with illustrations by Michele Wood
Cynthia Grady and illustrator Michele Wood have crafted a book to share with children where each poem, together with its picture, is a thoughtful illumination of some aspect of slaves’ experiences.