In the wake of the last week’s white supremacist march in Charlottesville, which purportedly was organized to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, Fredericksburg residents may well be wondering what the monuments, historical markers and other elements in our commemorative landscape say about slavery, the Civil War and Emancipation.
Fredericksburg residents never erected a major monument to a Confederate military or civilian leader on courthouse grounds or along a major thoroughfare. The Ladies Memorial Association did raise funds to create the Confederate Cemetery in 1870, and erected one of the city’s two large statues commemorating Confederate soldiers on its grounds.
The other, of course, stands along Sunken Road and memorializes Richard Kirkland’s efforts to aid wounded Union soldiers. In addition, in the 1910s and 1920s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy marked important sites of the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg with relatively small plaques and markers.
More recently, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have followed in their footsteps, erecting markers noting where Matthew Fontaine Maury’s house once stood and honoring Confederate soldiers who died in Fredericksburg during the Chancellorsville campaign. In all, for a city of the South, the monuments designed and placed specifically to celebrate the Confederacy are comparatively modest.
So what have Fredericksburg’s residents, government, and other institutions and organizations thought worthy of commemorating in public places? In 2014, University of Mary Washington student Fariss Hodder and I mapped, photographed and transcribed 277 monuments, plaques and other historical markers in the city. Just over half of these interpret key moments of the Battle of Fredericksburg or memorialize Civil War soldiers.
Within these, references to Union troops slightly outnumbered references to Confederates. Given the central importance of the Civil War to Fredericksburg’s history, it is not surprising that such markers dominate our commemorative landscape. The war visited immense destruction on antebellum Fredericksburg, requiring its residents to build anew during the later decades of the 1800s.
Yet slavery, the central cause of the Civil War, and emancipation, the war’s most transformational result, remain relatively absent from Fredericksburg’s commemorative landscape. As of 2014, only 16 of our city’s 277 markers mentioned slavery or named any of the enslaved individuals who comprised a sizable percentage of the city’s population in 1860 and were vital to both the city’s and region’s economy.
Of these, only two helped residents and tourists learn that more than 10,000 enslaved women and men in the area took a leap of faith and escaped through the Union-controlled town in the spring and summer of 1862—before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This remains a sad absence. Fredericksburg residents of all races and backgrounds should proudly remember that these brave acts of self-emancipation helped ensure that the Civil War became a war to end slavery.
I am currently working with Eli McCleary, another UMW student, to update our database of historical markers. Last spring, we catalogued nearly 20 new historical markers and found that the content of 24 existing markers had changed. At least four of the new or reworked markers reference slavery or emancipation.
Two new markers at City Dock remind us all that slavery worked to reduce human beings into cargo and commodities to be sold on auction blocks, such as the one that still stands (but desperately needs better interpretive text) at the corner of William and Charles Streets. I believe city officials and residents involved in placing these new markers should be commended.
Despite these recent efforts, the overall impact of now nearly 300 monuments and historic markers still marginalizes slavery and emancipation from at least the most visible and concrete interpretations of our city’s past.
This relative absence matters. Those who created the myth of the “Lost Cause” to support the implementation of Jim Crow and resist the civil rights movement tried to erase enslaved women and men and their struggle for emancipation from our collective memory.
Our ability to understand and address racial inequality and injustice continues to suffer as a result. So, there’s more work to be done. We need to make this difficult history—as well as other moments and people in the struggle to make America a more diverse and inclusive nation—more visible for both residents and visitors who walk Fredericksburg’s historic streets.
Stephen P. Hanna is a professor of geography at the University of Mary Washington.