Monday, August 24, 2015

A Confederate Hospital in Fredericksburg, and The Women Mobilize–1861

From: 12-26-11

A tobacco factory would seem an unlikely place for a military hospital, but during the exceedingly polite Confederate presence in Fredericksburg during the first year of the war there were few other options. (The Union army used churches, stores, hotels, homes, and the courthouse–none of which were accessible to those bent on politeness in 1861). We don’t know the circumstances that led the Confederate army to take over the tobacco factory of Alexander Gibbs and his partner John F. Alexander (there is no record, for example, of the Confederates leasing the building or of their commandeering it), but by late June of 1861, as the landscape around Fredericksburg filled with spanking new Confederate troops (including some from Tennessee and Arkansas), Gibbs’s and Alexander’s tobacco factory on Prussia street held upwards of 150 sick Confederate soldiers.  Betty Herndon Maury recorded on June 26:

"The sick suffer a great deal for want of proper medical attendance and good nursing.  Many of the soldiers are laid on the floor when brought in, and are not touched, or their cases looked into, for twenty-four hours.  One or two died when no one was near them; they were found cold and stiff several hours afterwards.  The other night at ten o’clock, when one of the ladies left, there was not a soul in the house besides the sick men.  Every one in town has been interested in them."

The wretched conditions at the hospital soon spurred the community to action.  Two days after Maury’s gloomy assessment, the Fredericksburg News reported:

“The Ladies of Fredericksburg have organized a regular system for attending to the sick soldiers of our Hospital. Six ladies are in attendance constantly,whose office it is to superintend in various departments, and it is earnestly recommended to all who are desirous of aiding in this good work to act in connection with the committee of six ladies who will always be found in attendance.”

The rotations through the hospital did not last long, apparently, for soon local residents opted for the more expedient solution of simply taking the sick soldiers into their homes (though at least one local doctor protested the solution).  “I never saw anything like the spirit here!”, exclaimed Mrs. Maury. ” The women give up the greater part of their time to nursing the sick or sewing for the soldiers.  And it is the same case throughout the South.”

Despite the efforts of local women, dozens of Confederate soldiers died in the early months of the war. Town Council eventually set aside an area in the Potter’s Field (where the former Maury School stands today) for their burial.  Over the last several years, there has been a wrangle over the location of a memorial to these Confederate dead, which you can read about here.

The Alexander and Gibbs tobacco factory was the product of perhaps Fredericksburg’s youngest rising business combination.  John B. Alexander was just 25 years old at the outset of the war, and was one of Fredericksburg’s earliest enlistees-eventually becoming an officer in the 55th Virginia. Alexander Gibbs was just 30. They opened their business just before the war. Fredericksburg slave John Washington was among seven slaves hired by Alexander and Gibbs in 1860, and he left a vivid account of his time here–a time he remembered fondly.

"January 1st 1860 I went to live with Mr Alexander & Gibbs tobbacco manifacturers where I, in a month or two, learned the art of preparing tobacco for the mill. We were all “tasked” twist from 66 1/8 to 100 lbs per day. All the work we could do over the task we got paid for which was our own money not our masters. In this way some of us could make $3.00 or 4 extra in a week.

 "The factory weeks began on Saturday and ended on Friday when the Books were posted and all the men that had over work were paid promply on Saturday. But if any one failed to have completed his task the lash would be generally resorted to. In a Tobbacco Factory the “Twisters” generally have one or two boys, sometimes women for stemming the tobacco to be “twisted”. The Factory is kept very clean and warmed in winter from early morning till late at night could be heard  the noise of the machinery and singing of the hands in one incessant hum. In a Tobacco Factory some of the finest singing known to the colored race could frequently be heard — I was only permmitted to live one year in consequence of the threatening positions of the Southern States the firm of Alexander & Gibbs suspended operation. This year in the Factory was to me more like “Freedom” than any I had known since I was a very small boy. We began work at 7 oclock in the morning, stoped from 1 to 2 oclock for dinner, stoped work at 6 p.m. If we chose to make extra work we began at any hour before 7 and worked some times till 9 p.m. The se[ce]ssion of South South Carolina, and the threatened close of business between the North and South caused the suspension of work in this factory early in December 1860."

No vestige of the original building survives.  Sometime late in the 19th Century, Alexander and Gibbs’s place was torn down, replaced by another industrial building that is today fashioned Lafayette Square.  

Image 1: Alexander & Gibbs Tobacco Factory Confederate Hospital, 1861

Image 2: Betty Herndon Maury


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