Va. city's Civil War days revealed—to the letter
The (Fredericksburg, Va.) Free Lance-Star
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — A big book on Fredericksburg during the Civil War is about to hit the scene, with a coming-out party on Sunday.
This new work, fruit of a community-driven archival project that has taken years of painstaking volunteer effort, is like no other.
“The Circle Unbroken: Civil War Letters of the Knox Family of Fredericksburg” paints a more vivid picture of the town’s wartime experiences than any other primary-source publication to date, its researchers say.
That’s because the letters’ authors, family members who lived at the house known today as the Kenmore Inn, were articulate, well-educated and wonderfully gossipy writers. And it’s also because their two-way, back-and-forth stream of correspondence—the rarest of historical survivors—has been preserved at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.
The family’s wartime jottings alone number more than 100 letters, all of which the center’s volunteers have transcribed.
“The Knox letters are the best collection of family papers of the Civil War period from Fredericksburg that I have ever seen,” said John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. “They reflect the struggle to maintain normalcy, but they also reflect the immense effort and risk Southerners took in going to war.
“If you ever want to know the degree to which the Civil War challenged families and communities to endure, these letters will show you.”
Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m., at the Kenmore Inn (1200 Princess Anne St.), Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. will unveil the 288-page illustrated book, which it is co-publishing with the Heritage Center, in whose collection the Knox letters now reside. (Attendees are asked to RSVP so HFFI can gauge the needed accommodations.)
Rob Alling, the businessman who owns the inn and the adjacent home of Civil War diarist Jane Howison Beale—a friend of the Knoxes depicted in the movie “Gods and Generals”—will provide refreshments and open the Knoxes’ handsome antebellum home to the book launch’s attendees.
Enlarged quotes from the Knoxes’ letters will adorn the Kenmore Inn’s rooms—as HFFI did inside the Beale house in 2011 when launching two illustrated editions of her journal. The house will be open for tours, and the new book will on sale.
Lucy Brockenbrough Gray, the descendant who donated the Knox family’s trove of documents and photos to the regional archive, plans to take part in Sunday’s event.
Renowned Civil War historian Gary Gallagher speaks highly of the record that Gray and her ancestors have left to posterity.
“The Knox family letters are a splendid addition to the body of published firsthand accounts from the Civil War,” said Gallagher, author of “The Confederate War” and “The Union War,” among many works, and the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War at The University of Virginia.
“Unusually rich in content, they combine testimony from the home front and the battlefield. Through the eyes of these men and women, readers can gauge the profound ways in which the conflict affected those who lived through it.”
The tug of war
After the fall of Fort Sumter, the Knoxes became fierce Confederate nationalists, especially the women.
“Brighter days are in store for our beloved Southern Confederacy,” Virginia Ann Soutter Knox wrote her son Robert on Oct. 18, 1861. “We shall be a free and Independent Nation before long & then we shall be a happy and prosperous people.”
Virginia and her husband, entrepreneur Thomas Fitzhugh Knox Jr., had 14 children; only eight reached adulthood. They sent all six of their boys to fight for the Confederacy.
The center of family life
The Knox house, whose site was part of Revolutionary War patriot Fielding Lewis’ plantation (aka Kenmore), was built in 1824 by Rebecca Lomax. Upon her death in 1856, Thomas and Virginia Knox moved in with their eight children and 10 slaves.
Some of the slaves likely worked in the Knox flour mill on the Rappahannock River less than a half-mile north, said Hennessy and Kerri Barile, the Fredericksburg archaeologist who chairs the HFFI publications committee that produced the Knox book.
The Knoxes’ home on today’s Princess Anne Street was built on what had been the city’s outer edge. By their era, the section was considered one of the most prominent in Fredericksburg. Hennessy calls it “the power corner” of the prewar town.
Joseph Allsop, one of the wealthiest men in the area, lived across the street. His flirtatious teenage daughter Lizzie left a saucy diary.
Across Lewis Street lived J. Temple Doswell, an ex-New Orleans cotton trader with powerful links to the Confederate government in Richmond.
Nearby lived a newspaper editor, a Baptist pastor, a future lieutenant governor and the new mayor of Fredericksburg, Montgomery Slaughter, according to Hennessy.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis visited Fredericksburg to confer with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston about whether it could be defended against a Union advance. Davis lodged with Doswell, and the Knoxes couldn’t resist saying hello.
“I had a few minutes chat with him & liked him very much,” Virginia told her sons.
Little did she know that Davis and Johnston had sealed the town’s fate. After riding over the hills of southern Stafford County, they decided the town could not be defended that spring, opening the way for Union occupation.
The Knoxes fled, going to Richmond and South Carolina, when the Union army returned that fall.
Battle comes to town
When the Yankees crossed the river on Dec. 11–12, 1862, Gen. Oliver Otis Howard—later head of the Freedmen’s Bureau—spent time in the abandoned Knox dwelling, using its shelter to write home by candlelight.
In April 1863, the Knoxes returned to a home with “thirteen or more immense shell holes in it” and all the windows broken. Virginia Knox “tacked bleached cotton over the windows for temporary use,” Mary Campbell Knox recalled. “The streets were full of all weeds, which made our town look like a deserted village, sure enough.”
As long as he could, Thomas Knox hung on, protecting the ravaged home and tending what business he could get from the Confederate army. Perhaps a third of the town’s white residents remained by the spring of 1863.
Sam and Alexander (called “Aleck”) joined their brothers Robert and James in the 30th Virginia Infantry Regiment, organized in Fredericksburg in June 1861 and bloodied in battle at Sharpsburg, Md., and Drewry’s Bluff near Richmond.
Alexander, 20, was wounded near Dinwiddie Court House just eight days before Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. All six men survived the war, though Aleck lived only a few years longer.
Beating the odds, all of the Knox boys—save one—came back to Fredericksburg. That exception became the black sheep of the family. Maj. Thomas Stuart Knox, a commissary officer, fled from Richmond in the fall of 1863 with riches stolen from the Confederate treasury.
After the war
Four generations of Knoxes lived in their home before the family sold it in 1911. James T. Horton bought it in 1931, added a rear wing and opened the Kenmore Inn in 1932. More than 2,000 people attended its open house.
For more than seven decades since, the former home of the Knoxes has served Fredericksburg visitors. And now, the story of the Knoxes can be more fully told. Their wartime correspondence forms an extraordinary set of documents, Hennessy said.
“It’s special because it includes letters flying in all directions—from soldiers home, from home to the soldiers, and from members of the family scattered by war,” he said.
“These letters reflect a family’s efforts to sustain itself during a time of chaos. As refugees, the family had many ‘home fronts’—the literal home here in Fredericksburg, but also places of refuge in Virginia and even in South Carolina. The letters connected them all.”
‘I LOVE YOU ALL SO VERY DEARLY THAT MY HEART IS VERY VERY SAD’
The whole air is filled with smoke from the burning bridges—but their troops can be plainly seen from the top of cousin D’s house. I can give you no idea of the confusion our town is in. There is no chance of getting even a dray or car to take trunks to the depot ... I believe the white flag is to be raised and the town surrendered at once by the civil authorities & it makes my blood fairly boil to think of it.
—Virginia Ann Soutter Knox to Robert Taylor Knox and James Soutter Knox, April 18, 1861
The most awful feature of all is that Va. will now be the battle ground and many of her noble sons must be slain.—God preserve those of your kindred who feel it there duty to take up arms—May heaven preserve them.
—William C. Soutter to Thomas Fitzhugh Knox Jr., from New York, April 20, 1861 (Virginia Knox’s oldest brother, he served in the 22nd New York Volunteer Infantry)
[R]est assured I shall do all I can to take care of our house & what is in it I hope we shall see better times yet & live to reunite our family & that none will be missing when these great struggles are done but I fear we shall all not see each other again on this poor earth.
—Thomas Fitzhugh Knox Jr. to Virginia Ann Soutter Knox, early May 1862
Remember, my boys, what I have endeavored to teach you by precept and by practice too though both but imperfectly, I love you all so very dearly that my heart is very very sad while writing these few lines to you; but I honestly believe that you are in the path of duty, and I would not recall you if I could; only bid you go forth wherever your Country calls, praying that God will shield you from danger and enable you each one to do your Country service.
—Virginia Ann Soutter Knox to Robert Taylor Knox, Thomas Stuart Knox and James Soutter Knox, July 20, 1861
A little bit of love for you too—write whenever you can, & tell us all about yourselves. There is nothing nearer our hearts you know.
—Virginia Knox, “your own sister,” to Sgt. Maj. Robert T. Knox of the 30th Virginia, Oct. 21, 1861
“A shell went over our heads … and fell at the back gate of my home … I was thoroughly alarmed and ran into the house. ... I was too young to entirely appreciate the situation as my parents and sister did, but I will never forget their faces … They were all so shocked, but they soon went to work … putting together all kinds of necessary articles needed for our departure.”
—Mary Campbell Knox, 10, remembering the day the Union army arrived opposite Fredericksburg in November 1862