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The Journal of Jane Howison Beale, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1850-1862

Two Confederate cannon shots awakened Fredericksburg’s Jane Howison Beale on December 11, 1862. She did not rush out of bed and flee, even though the guns, unknown to her, signified the Union advance across the Rappahannock River. She remained calm while handling her morning chores until a slave rushed into the house exclaiming, “’Miss Jane the Yankees are coming, they have got two pontoons nearly across the river.’” Before Beale could dress her boys, gather their belongings and escape to the safe confines of the Confederate army, a Union artillery bombardment engulfed the town, sending shell fragments, splintered timber and shards of glass into the streets. The Beale family and slaves retreated to the cellar, where they joined a minister in repeating the 27th Psalm, “Tho an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.” Jane Beale’s poignant record of this trying moment is just one of many wonderfully descriptive passages in her journal.

Late in the afternoon, Beale and her family escaped in an ambulance to Confederate lines where, standing on Willis Hill, she was overwhelmed by gratitude to a God who had delivered them from the Union army. Beale’s appreciation receded with each refugee family that passed. Most were women and children, physically worn and emotionally exhausted, without wagon or shelter, trudging along muddy roads to dismal makeshift camps. A spirit of vengeance took hold of Jane, who thought to herself, “May God be with them, and strengthening their hearts and arms for the coming struggle, and Oh give them the victory.”

Lee gave Beale her victory on December 13, his most decisive of the war, but it did not reverse the slow demise of the slave society that started as soon as the first Union soldier set foot in Virginia. A casual reading of Beale’s diary might suggest that she saw the conflict as a simple morality play between the Christian South and the philistine North. Her view of the war was much more complicated, and her diary gets us beyond the one-dimensional characterizations of a demonic enemy and a virtuous Confederacy. Early in 1862, when the Federal army first approached Fredericksburg, Beale discovered that the war for the Union was becoming a war for black freedom, as many of the area slaves ran away to join Northern armies. Like many slaveholders, Beale could not imagine why slaves would leave voluntarily. Only the trickery of the Union army, she wrote, could explain it. “The enemy has interfered with our labor by inducing our servants to leave us,” she wrote on May 14, 1862, “and many are left without the help they have been accustomed to in their domestic arrangements.” Beale, unlike many of her peers, openly recognized that the North’s inducement of runaways “strikes at the root of those principles and rights for which our Southern people are contending and cannot be submitted to.”

Beale’s remarkable diary supports the traditional view of the fiery Southern belle who detested Yankees, trusted God and served her Southern nation with unquestioned obedience. Her devotion to the Confederate cause, so poignantly expressed in her diary, must be understood as a political act in support of an institution that gave her status and privilege as a slaveholding woman. Historians have demolished the ridiculous notion that white Southern women saw an ally in the slave because they were both victims of male dominance. In fact, it is clear that white women were some of the staunchest supporters of slavery, and Beale was no different than other women of her class. She believed that her slaves were socially inferior, childlike and dependent upon white care. But when Beale’s white family was threatened by the Union advance on December 11, she discarded her paternalism for pragmatism, leaving her slaves behind in Fredericksburg to fend for themselves in the face of a marauding Union army that many African Americans welcomed as their liberators.


Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here