Something must be said for the resilience of the women who endured the Civil War. Not just the wives of the soldiers in battle, or the nurses who bound up the wounds. Not even for those who donned a uniform and marched alongside the men. I mean the women who had little to no stake in the war, but suffered its consequences. One such woman is Jane Howison Beale, a widow of Fredericksburg.
Jane Howison was born in 1815, one of twelve children to Samuel and Helen Moore Howison. The Howisons were prominent members of the Fredericksburg Presbyterian Church on Hanover Street. She married William Churchill Beale when she was just nineteen and he was forty-three. This wasn’t uncommon, so don’t cringe just yet. Together, they had nine children and raised them in a brick home just a block or so away from the place Jane was born.
Life was good for both Jane and William. Their families, both numerous by themselves, were never far out of reach, creating something of their own small community. In her diary, she describes her brothers and sisters who are all unique and a blessing to Jane in their own way. One brother even moved out to California during the gold rush. A few still lived in Fredericksburg, while many other had ventured outside of their hometown.
Disaster struck in 1850. While Jane was getting over a sickness of her own, William died suddenly of a heart attack one evening. Jane recounts in her diary the event on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death and all the feelings attached with it. Becoming a widow with nine children, one practically a newborn, was bad enough. Four months later, her mother passed away. Jane was left to handle the grief with the support of her friends and family, but there were moments when the weight of her depression was too much.
Jane turned to writing a diary. Many of the entries within the first year of becoming a diarist contained literary sketches of her close friends, as well as accounts of her daily chores as a single mother. “Spent part of the day greening pickles, cutting out work, cleaning lamps, learning lessons to the children, superintending the cleaning of the yards and whitewashing part of the house, pareing peaches, mending clothes, cleaning bedsteads of insects, seeing the cow milked and fed, nursing the baby, and after putting the children to bed sat down to knit and talk to Sam (her brother) about my own and his plans for the winter.” Writing letters also becomes a chief priority for Jane, as family and friends become more and more distant in the coming months and years. Sometimes, she writes that composing letters takes up the majority of her day when she sets her mind to it.
She penned the musings of her heart, pouring her frustrations and her despair onto the page so it wouldn’t fester in her soul. Her faith played a huge part in her life and it shows up in her writing in every entry. “I have contracted and did not go out at night in consequence, was much depressed in spirits all day, thoughts of by-gone days and by-gone happiness filled my mind and when my children had retired and I was left alone, gave myself up to excessive grief and grew so feeble in consequence that it became a task to undress and prepare for the night but I found some consolation in spreading my sorrows before a throne of grace and reminding our Compassionate Redeemer that he had wept over the grave of Lazarus when upon earth.”
This and more passages like it fill the first year or so of her diary, at times becoming so depressed and morbid that she says she would prefer death above living. Jane kept herself busy with chores and company so as to keep her mind off of the grief of losing her husband and mother. The one thing that is never doubted, however, is her devotion and reliance upon her faith in God to see her through every trial from the occasional sickness of her children, or drama within her family circle. That faith would help her through the next ten years until an even greater trial came.
Jane sold properties to pay off the debt of her estate, therefore securing her living. To fill her lonely hours and supplement her income, she took in boarders and taught school to younger children near her home. Her diary entries become more sporadic after the first year, sometimes only writing a paragraph or two every year leading up to the start of the Civil War that would tear the country apart.
The Beale family invested the services of Jane’s two sons in the First Virginia Infantry, John and Charles. Jane was a patriotic Southerner and every diary entry is flavored by her belief in the cause for Southern independence. “We have great confidence in the wisdom and sagacity of our leaders and in the bravery and determined resolution of our army as well as in the justice of our cause, and we do not fear the final result of this war, but many a loved one must fall and many a heart throb with anguish before we can breathe the exhilarating atmosphere of freedom or feel the sweet assurance of safety and peace once more.”
She didn’t know how right she would be. The first year of the war went by smoothly for Jane and her family. She wrote a few entries at the start of the war and talks of how she learned about the first battle at Manassas through gossip and newspapers. The tone is hopeful, the spirits light. All that changed in her first entry for April 27th, 1862. Fredericksburg officially fell into Union hands. Jane, as well as her neighbors and citizens of the town, could watch the Union engineers and soldiers construct their bridges across the Rappahannock River. Southern troops had destroyed the preexisting bridges prior to April, but that didn’t keep the Yankees out for long.
Life in Fredericksburg would never be the same as cavalrymen and officers openly patrolled the streets. “Ladies cannot go out in these perilous times after dark without an escort” Jane writes. Federal officers search homes for any concealed rebel soldiers. Jane recounts, “I hear they [the soldiers] are taking possession of every vacated house in the neighbourhood and I am glad I have not left my own sweet home to be desecrated.” This implies that some citizens have left town when the Yankees came in.
The economy of the town takes a nosedive, as Jane says, “We have to submit to a discount of 40 percent upon our Southern Notes” and “I bought 2 small cart loads of wood at $3.00 each, certainly not half a cord in both together.” Jane resorts to cutting down old trees in her yard and relies on the generosity of neighbors who have any wood to spare. Not only firewood, but basic necessities become nearly impossible to come by. “We are shut in by the enemy on all sides and even the comforts of life are many of them cut off… We know not how we are to be supplied with the means of cooking the small amount of food we can procure.”
Soldiers greet Jane and her friends at every turn. They walk the streets, coming and going across the bridges as they can. They sit in the pews during Sunday Service. “Not the least painful of our trials is that we are compelled to listen to the enemy’s exultant cheers, firing of guns and loud strains of martial music in celebration of some triumph.”
Newspapers came less frequently, along with any letters from further south. For Jane, this was a tragedy, as much of her family now resided outside of her town or her state. Getting a letter from her two sons in the army became even more of an anxiety-inducing dilemma. After a while, Jane and her friends could only get their hands on Northern Newspapers, which give a slanted view of the engagements and battles. After a while, communication with the outside world becomes near impossible, as Fredericksburg is put into exile. “We can neither see or hear from any one even a few miles from us, our railroads are destroyed, bridges burned and we can have no communication outside of the town except by the reluctant permission of the enemy.” Getting a letter out became increasingly more difficult for Jane. The soldiers even took some action, “arresting everyone whom they have any reason to suspect of conveying letters or papers, and even women have been taken up.” Townspeople like Horace Lacy and named others are arrested and sent north to Union prisons.
Equally distressing is the effect of the soldiers’ presence on her household. Not her family, but her servants… okay, I won’t sugar coat it. Her slaves. According to census records in the 1860s, Jane had four slaves in her household, but she rarely talks about them. Though this is before the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers try to plant the idea in the heads of the slave population in town that they are now free and should demand wages of their owners and masters. Jane has strong views toward slavery, as most Southerners during this era. She believes that slaves are meant to be subservient to the white race and that truth is ordained by God Himself. While in hindsight, we see this as horribly flawed thinking, Jane is completely convinced that the only way for blacks to be happy is to fulfill their purpose and be slaves. However, we do know that there are many freed blacks within Fredericksburg. In 1860, out of the total population of 5,026, there were 3,311 whites, 1,295 slaves, and 420 freed blacks.
Through all of these trials and inconveniences that the Union army offers, Jane never wavers in her beliefs and certainty that the Confederacy was in the right. She backed up many of these convictions with her faith, as the reader would already come to expect out of Jane by this point in her memoirs. She, as well as many of her contemporaries continued to look across the sea for intercession. “I am longing for the European powers to interfere, nothing else will stop the war.”
However, Jane’s suffering doesn’t stop with what is going on just next door. Her twenty-year-old son, Charley, was shot and killed at the battle of Williamsburg at the start of the Peninsula Campaign. Jane, receiving the news in mid-May of 1862, is devastated and the community rallies to support her during this time of grief. Much of her sadness is combated by the continual news of Southern victories, both around the capitol and in the western theatre. This, coupled with the Union army moving their sick in preparation for some major move that summer, had Jane hopeful that a breaking point will come.
In August, however, things had only gotten worse. The blockade around the town had become tighter, the once lenient Provost Marshall exchanged for a stricter one, fields were ravaged by the soldiers, and a cord of firewood was up to $10. With winter just around the corner, Jane feared for the health and survival of her family. It all came to a head when a great commotion came into town. Word that Southern cavalry were just on the outskirts created a stir in the Union army. On August 31st, the occupying army evacuated the town as they were feeling the pressure from the encroaching Confederacy. Though the affair of moving infantry and cavalry were quickly and neatly done, Jane writes that the excitement of the Southern women could hardly be contained. “I felt glad to be relieved of the presence of the enemy, and to be freed from restraints of their power, glad to be once more within Southern lines and to be brought into communication with our own dear people.” The Yankees blew up their own bridges that evening.
Within the following days, soldiers clad in gray would come into the streets of Fredericksburg to the cheers of its people. Jane wasn’t cheering for long, as her son Robert decided to join the army around the same time that Lee was taking his troops up into Maryland. He would march with the 25th Virginia Infantry Battalion, also known as the “City Battalion”. Jane, however, wasn’t allowed time to fret too much. With her school resuming in September and the arrival of her family from beyond Richmond, she had her hands and hours full.
Nothing much of significance is recorded in her diary until November 9th. The Yankees were back. A cavalry skirmish broke out in town and with the help of civilians pelting rocks upon the Federals, the Confederates were able to push them back across the river. It would be the heralding trumpet of what was to come. Something worse than the two-month occupation they suffered in the summer. The situation only escalated in the following weeks, as artillery frightened the townspeople into leaving their homes and fleeing to safe parts of the city for the night. Jane and her neighbors could see both armies massing on either side of the river, and as she said, “here a battle must take place ere long.”
That “ere long” came on December 11th, and Jane’s family was still in Fredericksburg. By now, many families had left and took refuge in the wilderness beyond the two warring armies. Lee’s signal guns awoke the family and as the bombardment of the town commenced, Jane took her servants and children into the basement. Pastor B.T Lacy, the brother to the wealthy Horace Lacy, had joined the family the night before since Chatham had been taken by the Union for their personal headquarters. Lacy led them in prayer as the shells exploded through town and wreaked havoc upon Fredericksburg.
With one sick son, and two startled daughters, Jane had this to say after a lull in the firing around 1pm: “Bombardment commenced again and the sound of 173 guns echoed in our ears, the shrieking of those shells, like a shot of angry fiends rushing through the air, the crashing of the balls through the roof and upper stories of the house, I shall never forget to the day of my death, the agony and terror of the next four hours, is burnt in on my memory as with a hot iron, I could not pray but only cry for mercy.”
About 6pm, Jane’s brother John came to the rescue with an army ambulance wagon. She and her children were loaded up, the servants left behind to keep the house, and they were on their way out of town. The shelling, however, wouldn’t stop for the widow and her family. “One struck a building just as we passed it, another tore up the ground a short distance from us.” They made it out of immediate danger, but her journey wasn’t over. The ambulance passed by the families who had fled the town in such a hurry that they didn’t bring any kind of shelter or provision against the winter cold. Old carpets and other makeshift materials constructed little tents, but this wouldn’t do much against the December snow. Jane had turned back in her flight and saw the town she loved in flames. The place she had been born, raised, married, gave birth to her children, rejoiced with friends, mourned with her family, and attended her church services. All of it burning or ruined by the Yankees.
The Beale family sought refuge with their friends, the Temples, far away from the fighting. Still, news of the carnage filtered back to Jane. Her two daughters went to a nearby house where the wounded were being cared for. It might have been their first look at how gruesome war could be. Throughout the night and evening, Jane would hear reports from her family, friends, messengers and other officers about the battle that took place. The news was all the same. The Southerners had defended Maryes Heights with great loss of life to the Federal army, and the battle would likely be taken up the following day.
But it wasn’t. Within a couple of days, Fredericksburg was Yankee-free again. Mr. Bent, a friend who had stayed close with Jane through this trial, went into town to assess the damage. She had been told prior to the major engagement that her house was completely burned. Now, she eagerly awaited for Mr. Bent’s news. “He told me that the town was in ruins and the streets filled with all sorts of articles which had been dragged from the houses, that he saw handsome mirrors, marble topped tables crashed to pieces and tumbled amidst kitchen utensils, feather beds, piles of books all in the mud together, but it was with strange and glad surprise that I heard that my house was apparently untouched.”
The home Jane had built with her late husband was just fine, apart from a few holes in the roofs and sides. The furniture which held countless memories, the family heirlooms, the priceless keepsakes of her children and family, were all saved from the ravages of war. Her two sons who had been part of the batteries defending Maryes Heights had also been spared. Many of her neighbors wouldn’t be so lucky. Many didn’t have a home to go back to, or would mourn the loss of a brother, husband, or father. And even if they did have a home still standing, it was unlikely they would stay. Jane did stay and spent her final years in the brick house on Lewis Street. Until her dying day in 1882, Jane would tell and retell how her faith and resilience kept her steady during the attack on Fredericksburg.
Jane Howison Beale’s story is also featured in the movie “Gods and Generals” during the Fredericksburg battle. Her thrilling escape from town in the ambulance wagon is just one of the many harrowing scenes in the film.
Barile, Kerri S., and Barbara P. Willis. A Woman in a War-Torn Town the Journal of Jane Howison Beale, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1850-1862. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Co. Publ., 2011.