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War takes city brothers out of ‘Sweetest Place’

From her window, Virginia Soutter Knox saw horsemen race down Princess Anne Street past her home on Sunday morning, Nov. 9, 1862.

The next day, she wrote a long letter to her brother, Robert Taylor Knox of the 30th Virginia Infantry:

“You will have heard doubtless, ere this reaches you, an account of the Yankee raid into our town yesterday morning—as I dare say some of the 30th escaped from here—We arose as we thought to a tranquil ‘day of rest’ but when I got downstairs Douglas told me that there were Yankees in town, & immediately afterwards five or six of their Cavalry flew by—I never saw such riding . . . There were 75 cavalry in the party & they were commanded by a Capt. Dalghren [sic] we hear—quite a dashing officer & it certainly was a right brilliant & daring thing.”

The young Miss Knox had just seen Union cavalry under Capt. Ulric Dahlgren slip into Fredericksburg in what became a mêlée through the streets, engaging the city’s small Confederate garrison and local residents.

(Dahlgren, son of Adm. John Adolphus Dahlgren [a friend of President Lincoln’s], would be killed March 2, 1864, in a notorious—and much-debated—Union cavalry raid on Richmond.)

In the Fredericksburg raid, Virginia Knox describes how a Lt. Thompson of Norfolk was killed on their street and laid to rest in a neighbor’s home, “covered with most beautiful wreaths of flowers.”

Such are the eyewitness gems in the book of Knox family letters published this week by the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. The nonprofits launched the volume Sunday at a Kenmore Inn reception attended by hundreds. The inn was the Knoxes’ home for many decades.

The war unfolds in “The Circle Unbroken: Civil War Letters of the Knox Family of Fredericksburg.”

Virginia Ann Soutter Knox (Virginia’s mom) and her husband, businessman Thomas Fitzhugh Knox Jr., sent all six of their boys to fight for the Confederacy.

Together, the family has left a legacy for scholars and others to comb. Historian John Hennessy calls it the “the best, most complete collection of family papers related to Fredericksburg I have seen.”

The family members’ back-and-forth dialogue make the Civil War real—especially to those living today in Central Virginia.

Here are a few highlights.

OLD CAPITOL PRISON

A few months before Dahlgren’s raid, Thomas F. Knox Jr. had been arrested—with 18 other prominent men from Fredericksburg—and taken north to Old Capitol Prison (site of today’s U.S. Supreme Court) in Washington. Their nearly two-month imprisonment came in retaliation for Confederate authorities’ arrest of four Unionist citizens in the area.

Knox and the others were freed in mid-September (though he was taken prisoner again in 1864). By mid-October, the Knoxes had gathered at home.

September brought one big fright: the Battle of Sharpsburg (aka Antietam), in which the 30th Virginia was hotly engaged, with 39 soldiers killed. Robert Knox and his brother James, though, were unscathed.

RANSACKED

Three months later, Fredericksburg felt the heavy hand of war as Union soldiers sacked it before the battle of Dec. 13, 1862.

Union Gen. Oliver Otis Howard—later head of the Freedmen’s Bureau—made his quarters in the Knox house and stayed long enough to write home.

Lt. Robert Knox arrived later to find that the home, riddled by artillery shells, had largely been emptied of prized possessions.

“For the Knox family and other residents of Fredericksburg—on the Rappahannock River midway between the warring capitals—the home front became the battlefront,” Hennessy writes in his introduction to “Circle Unbroken.”

RANSACKED, AGAIN

Five months later, Thomas Knox and two of his younger sons watched the Union army’s Chancellorsville campaign from afar, sometimes getting too close for safety.

On June 19, Robert Knox tells his mother—who was safely away from town—how her husband and youngest sons had been reduced by battle damage to living in the home’s parlor.

To add to the indignity, a Unionist—also named Knox—tore the nameplate off their house. “A Yankee Sutler in the 15th Mass Regt took the door plate off fathers house & as fathers likeness is missing & a daguerreotype of him I had,” Robert writes. “I suppose he has also taken them & will exhibit them in Mass maybe as some of his relations.”

That July, Virginia asked her sons their thoughts about selling their home, now worth three or four times what it had been in pre-war, pre-inflation times. But that idea was soon set aside. The Knoxes would “do what is right and honorable and that is a better heritage than wealth,” she wrote.

CENTER OF THE WORLD

Time and again, the family’s letters ring with affection for their house and community.

“The Sweetest Place that ever made in the Known World—I mean Fredericksburg or Falmouth,” James writes his mother on Feb. 7, 1864, from camp near Goldsboro, N.C. “I can tell Miss Hannah one thing if they ever let me get back with the privilege of staying there[.] I will be very apt to [be] found there when the cows come home.”

Earlier, some while after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia Ann Soutter Knox had written sons James and Robert: “I just wish you could both walk all over the house now; it is perfectly clean in every part and looks as sweet & attractive as ever & I think with God’s blessing it will continue to be ‘our sweet home’ where you can all find your own nook & fill it too when ‘the war is over.’”

FAITH IN THE CAUSE

Also clear in the letters of Knox, her daughter Virginia and her son Robert, is their unshakeable faith in the Confederate cause. Virginia Ann Knox was a founding member of the town’s Mutual Aid and Soldier’s Relief Society. And in May 1861’s local debates, her husband had publicly declared—when two men voted against secession—that “the man who next so voted should be hung.” That hushed Unionist sentiments.

AN UNBREAKABLE BOND

The whole war long, the family was stubborn and steadfast. Again and again, they write of their love for one another and express wonder at weathering the conflict’s reversals and bloodshed.

On Aug. 3, 1963, from her refuge in Columbia, S.C., sister Virginia writes Robert and James: “Truly we have cause for rejoicing & thanksgiving that after nearly 2 years & a half of war, our home circle is still an unbroken one, our most precious ones still spared.”

Hennessy, in his introduction and chapter prefaces, marvels at the Knoxes’ resolve and constant stream of correspondence.

“For most of four years, these letters constituted the connective tissue for a family dispersed by war,” he said. “They reflect the often immense efforts families undertook to maintain a family structure and identity amidst chaos.”

THE BLACK SHEEP

The war brought one disgrace for the Knoxes, in autumn of 1864. Second-oldest son Thomas Stuart Knox, by then a major in the army’s commissary department, and an accomplice—Treasury Department pay clerk George W. Butler—siphoned off about $540,000 (in Federal dollars). Converting Confederate funds into gold, jewelry and U.S. greenbacks, they fled Virginia. Thomas left behind his wife and young child, never to return.

That August, Thomas had told his father he’d been ill, losing 25 or 30 pounds and suffering memory loss. “I am thinking very seriously of resigning my commission in the Army & trying something else for a living,” he wrote. “I expect to have an offer in a few days of a situation, to leave the Confederacy for Nassau.”

Thomas spent the rest of his life in New York, remarried and became a bookkeeper, dying in Brooklyn in 1904. The Richmond press noted the daring theft, but the Knoxes’ letters make minor mention of it. (Russ Smith, former superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, tells the whole tale on “Mysteries and Conundrums,” the park’s blog.)

LIFE IN THE TRENCHES

The family didn’t lose hope, wishing only for a speedy end to the fighting.

In the war’s final year, Robert Taylor Knox writes of President Lincoln’s re-election and what it means: “War to the knife.”

In 10 months serving on the Howlett Line, the trenches and earthworks spanning the Bermuda Hundred peninsula between the James and Appomattox rivers, the Knox sons endured hunger and misery with the enemy but a few hundred yards distant. Thomas wrote of rising desertions, rats in the trenches—and how some soldiers cooked and ate the vermin.

THE END COMES

In fighting near Dinwiddie Court House 10 days before the war ended in Virginia, Alexander Bell Knox was shot in the leg. (“Aleck” lived until 1868, but family lore says his wound ultimately claimed him.)

On April 1, the 30th was swept up in the disaster at Five Forks. On April 6 at Sayler’s Creek—three days before Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—the Confederates were crushed. Robert Taylor Knox and James Soutter Knox were captured and later sent to the Northern prison near Sandusky, Ohio. (En route, in Old Capitol Prison in Washington when Lincoln was assassinated, they feared lynching by angry mobs.)

Released in June, Robert and James took the oath of loyalty to the U.S. government and set their sights on Fredericksburg—despite a New York cousin’s advice that there was no livelihood to be made in the war-ravaged town. Wired $50 by their cousin, they made it home. By midsummer, Robert, James, Alexander, Douglas and Samuel were all back in the ’Burg.

EPILOGUE

After the war, Robert and James repaired damage to Knox holdings and set up as Robert T. Knox and Brother, becoming successful businessmen and vestrymen in St. George’s Episcopal Church.

Samuel moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ran a water-treatment plant, married and raised a family. Douglas joined him for a while before returning to Fredericksburg, where he also married and became a father.

Sister Virginia, who’d written during the war of her affection for a wounded Arkansas soldier who died in 1862 and that she expected to be a “bewitching” spinster, never married. She helped found the Ladies Memorial Association of Fredericksburg to memorialize Southern soldiers and create the city’s Confederate Cemetery, which the association still tends.

Heritage Center: crhcarchives.org

Foundation: hffi.org

Park blog: npsfrsp.wordpress.com

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

cschemmer@freelancestar.com

 

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