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Martha Stephens: Heroine or hoax?

ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

See previous stories.

Part 27 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.

AMONG THE MOST enduring, if least substantiated, legends surrounding the Battle of Fredericksburg is that of Martha Stephens, a woman who stubbornly refused to leave her home so that she could aid and comfort wounded soldiers. But is the story true? You decide.

Martha Stephens (or Stevens) is an elusive--not to say shadowy--figure. She appears to have been born west of Fredericksburg, possibly in Culpeper County, around 1824. Her maiden name was Farrow. When still a teen-ager, she took a man named Elijah Innis (or Ennis) as her common-law husband and had two children by him.

By 1850 she was living outside of Fredericksburg, on what is now Sunken Road. Innis had disappeared by then, and, by 1860, Martha was living with a 36-year-old local cabinetmaker named Edward N. Stephens. The unmarried couple had two children, Mary and Agnes.

Martha lived a hard life, particularly after the disappearance of her first husband. The 1850 census shows her occupy-ing a small house with eight others: her two oldest children, a sister, a mother (or mother-in-law), a 57-year-old man (possibly her mother's consort), and three young women who do not appear to have been related to the family.

The census-taker listed 25-year-old Martha as the head of this heterogeneous clan. She supported them by running a small grocery and speak-easy out of her house. That was hardly enough to feed so many mouths, however, and the presence of the three young women under her roof, taken with other evidence, suggests that Martha may have operated a house of prostitution.

Whatever her business, she did reasonably well for herself, for during her lifetime she would purchase seven plots of land in Fredericksburg, plus a 92-acre farm in Spotsylvania County.

Martha's activities made her a pariah in Fredericksburg. A Confederate officer who visited the town after the Civil War described her as "a woman of abandoned character and an outcast of society." In addition to running a bar and perhaps a brothel, she was outspoken, not at all religious, and had a coarse manner about her. Moreover, she smoked a pipe and there were suggestions, later in her life, that she took up residence with a former slave. Although much of this is hearsay and cannot be

Stephens would be forgotten were it not for the Civil War. In December 1862, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Fredericksburg in what was the largest battle up to that time in America. The Southern battle line ran down the Sunken Road, directly past Martha's front door. Gen. Thomas R.R. Cobb of Georgia commanded the troops in the road and established his headquarters in the Stephens house. Alarmed by the prospect of battle, Martha sent her children to safety, but chose to remain at the house.

The Union army focused its Dec. 13, 1862, attacks on Marye's Heights. For eight hours the Stephens house, at the base of the ridge, was in the center of a leaden storm. Hundreds of bullets crashed through the small wooden structure, and nearly 10,000 men were killed or wounded within sight of her porch. Among the casualties was Gen. Cobb, who was struck by a Union artillery shell just outside the house and died a few hours later.

Where was Martha at this trying time? According to local sources, she was at her home binding the wounds of Union and Confederate soldiers. Maj. W. Roy Mason, who lived at The Sentry Box on Caroline Street, wrote that Martha "attended the wounded and the dying fearless of consequencesIt is said that after using all the materials for bandages at her command, she tore from her person most of her garments, even on that bitter cold day, in her anxiety to administer to the necessities greater than her own."

Later historians embroidered the theme. In 1912, Judge John Goolrick wrote that Martha did what she could, "bandaging hurts until the bandages gave out. She tore into strips what cloth there was in the little meager house--her sheets, her towels, her tablecloths, her poor wardrobe. When all was gone, she tore her calico dressShe was a veritable heroine in that great drama of war," he concluded.

Historian Alvin Embrey, writing eight years after Goolrick, insisted that Martha not only bound the wounds of injured soldiers but brought them water from her well. She went about her merciful tasks unmindful of the bullets and shells that filled the air, "as if she alonewere immune to death"

Embrey, too, repeats the story of Martha tearing up her dress after she had exhausted her supply of other bandages, adding that after the battle the intrepid lady was ashamed "to find herself in the presence of General Lee with her dress cut off from her knees to the ground." A modest woman!

Martha Stephens' legend gained national currency in 1935 when Douglas Southall Freeman included it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert E. Lee. In his book Freeman, citing Embrey, quotes the general as saying at the height of the battle, "I wish those people would let Mrs. Stevens alone!" In his later work, "Lee's Lieutenants," Freeman repeated the tale, adding, on the basis of Goolrick's and Embrey's accounts, that Gen. Cobb was carried into Stephens' house after suffering his wound and expired there.

Unfortunately, none of this seems to have any solid basis in fact. Neither Mason, Embrey nor Goolrick witnessed Martha Stephens's heroics; indeed, Embrey had not yet been born. Each of them had gotten their information from Martha Stephens herself, years after the war ended.

Of the thousands of soldiers who were present in the Sunken Road on Dec. 13, not one mentions Martha Stephens being there, much less performing deeds of courage and compassion. That such heroism by a civilian could have gone unmentioned is unthinkable. Confederate newspapers would have vied with one another in trumpeting the good lady's fortitude and valor. Yet not one soldier--not even Gen. Joseph Kershaw who occupied the Stephens house as his headquarters during the battle--so much as mentioned her name.

One aspect of the legend is clearly false. Contemporary sources make it clear that Gen. Cobb was not taken into the Stephens house after his wounding, as later writers suggested, and he certainly was not treated by Martha Stephens. Instead, Cobb was carried down the Telegraph Road to a field hospital located near the site of the modern Virginians Movie Theater. He expired there a short time later.

Why would Martha Stephens fabricate such a story? Two motives come to mind. The first is money. Martha had an entrepreneurial spirit, and she realized that her riddled house might one day be a tourist attraction. She adamantly refused to have it repaired.

"Thousands visit it annually," reported veteran J.O. Kerbey, "and perhaps, she reaps a richer harvest from the tourists who usually contribute something by way of compensation for the damage, and for her trouble in explaining it all." In at least one instance, Martha sold a bullet-ridden clapboard to a tourist for a dollar. For her, the Civil War had become a cash cow.

Martha's second motive for inventing the story was respect. As noted earlier, she had been a social outcast in Fredericksburg prior to the Civil War. What better way to redeem her reputation than to transform herself into a model of bravery and compassion? Initially, most townspeople didn't buy it, but as the years wore on and those who knew the truth died out, Martha's story took hold. It more than took hold--it took off. With the publication of the story by Freeman, she became not only a local legend, but a national legend as well.

By then, Martha Stephens was long dead. She died in her house in 1888, a quarter century following the battle that had scarred her house and redeemed her reputation. The house itself succumbed to fire in 1913. Today, a small monument marks the site of her deeds--real or fictitious--and Martha herself lies buried in a small cemetery plot nearby. Although she is gone, she is certainly not forgotten.

NEXT: Ambrose Burnside goes for broke

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of "Abraham Lincoln at City Point" and "Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life."