Civil War Diarist and EducatorIn a town as historic as Fredericksburg, Virginia many historic sites have been preserved. Perhaps even more valuable are the accounts of people who were eyewitnesses to history in the making, such as The Journal of Jane Howison Beale, published in 1979. In her diary Beale paints a fascinating but realistic picture of life in Fredericksburg leading up to and during the Civil War.
Jane Howison was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1815, one of twelve children. Her parents, Samuel and Helen Moore Howison, were prominent members of the community. Jane married William Churchill Beale in 1834, at the age of nineteen.
In 1846, William bought a large brick home in Fredericksburg. After William died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1850, Jane sold the mill William had owned to pay off their debts. In order to earn a living, she established a girl's school in her home and took in boarders.
After the Battle of Manassas in 1861 Jane began keeping a diary, in which she recorded daily events and the difficulties of life on the home front in a Southern town during the Civil War. Four of Jane's sons enlisted in the 1st Virginia Infantry and the Fredericksburg Light Artillery.
Fredericksburg was halfway between the Union capital in Washington, DC, and the Confederate capital in Richmond, making the town a strategic location. The Union Army occupied the town on three separate occasions, the first being in the spring of 1862.
Diary Entry April 27, 1862:
Fredericksburg is a captured town, the enemy took possession of the Stafford hills [across the Rappahannock River] on Friday the 18th, and their guns have frowned down upon us ever since. It is painfully humiliating to feel one's self a captive, but all sorrow for self is now lost in the deeper feeling of anxiety for our army, for our cause, we have lost every thing, regained nothing, our army has fallen back before the superior forces of the enemy until but a small strip of our dear Old Dominion is left to us, our sons are all in the field and we who are now in the hands of the enemy cannot even hear from them.Diary Entry May 13, 1862:
Since my last entry my heart has been crushed with sorrow, for I have seen the death of my Son Charley mentioned in the Richmond paper. He fell in the battle near Williamsburg on Monday the 5th some time between the hours of 7 o'clock and 11 a.m. He was the best, the most affectionate and dutiful of sons to his Mother, and she will ever cherish his memory with a fondness which none other can know.The Union army blocked the flow of supplies into the town. Food and other necessities could only be obtained from the military authorities, and they often raised the prices. They also blocked the mail to and from the South. Townspeople had to find someone who was traveling south to sneak their letters out to friends and relatives.
Diary Entry May 14, 1862:
We can hear nothing from our army or our friends, nothing which might tend in some measure to alleviate the affliction under which we are sorrowing. We are shut in by the enemy on all sides and even the comforts of life are many of them cut off, no one is allowed even to bring wood to town, and we know not how we are to be supplied with the means of cooking the small amount of food we can procure.Beale also noted:
The enemy has interfered with our labor by inducing our servants to demand wages. I love my servants, they are part of my family and their happiness has been my care as well as that of my own children. I can but hope that no evil influences will be brought to bear upon their minds inducing them to place themselves and me in a more unhappy position than that which we now occupy.Some slaves did demand to be paid, others remained loyal to the families they worked for, but many headed North for a free, and hopefully, a better life. Most of Jane's slaves stayed with the family, presumably choosing the safety of their current situation to a complete unknown.
The residents suffered months of anxiety and fear leading up to the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. They learned of the impending battle from the explosion of artillery shells from the Union troops, once again occupying the Stafford hills across the Rappahannock.
Citizens left town by the thousands. Some went willingly before the battle began. Others resisted Confederate soldiers' commands to leave until the soldiers were ready to drag them away. A long procession of fleeing civilians gathered in the streets, some of them with wagons, some with hand carts, some carrying only what they could hold in their arms. Along the way, they gathered in groups and huddled together in the cold wind.
Jane Beale encountered "crowds of women and children" gathered around fires, trying to shelter themselves under blankets and quilts.
The women were weeping, the children crying loudly. I saw one [woman] walking along with a baby in her arms and another little one not three years old clinging to her dress and crying 'I want to go home.'A large portion of Fredericksburg's population were soon scattered across Spotsylvania County. The refugees were taken in by their rural neighbors. Plantation owners took in virtual strangers, filling up their outbuildings with entire families. Massaponax Church and Salem Church opened their doors to the homeless.
Hundreds of civilians remained in Fredericksburg during the battle, and endured four terrifying days of musketry and artillery fire, street fighting and looting by Union soldiers. Remarkably, only two civilians were killed during the battle. When the battle was over, nothing had been accomplished militarily by either side.
During the following days and weeks, the displaced residents returned to find their town a mass of rubble. Almost every building had suffered damage of some sort. Eighty-four buildings were entirely destroyed. Clothing, beds and other household furnishings littered the streets.
Beale noted in her diary that in general, she "escaped so much better than any one else." Her home had not been burned or looted during the Union occupation, nor during the battle.
Jane Howison Beale lived in the house at Lewis and Charles Streets until her death in 1882.