Friday, September 28, 2007

In an Old Virginia Town [Part 3 - Mason Weems]

Originally published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine
March 1885, pages 601-612.
Author: Frederick Daniel

(continued from Part 2)

The account of the early life of Washington written by Mason L. Weems was in a great measure a fanciful performance; his budget of anecdotes with a moral tendency was palmed off on the world simply because he was the first to take the field with a life of the great man.

Though most of Weems's anecdotes must be taken as fabrications - the medium of a species of moralizing chaff addressed to the young - it is undeniable that his work was instrumental in preserving certain items in regard to his "divinity" that otherwise would never have been published. Zealous to serve his own advancement through an enthusiastic adoration of the hero, it became for him an easy task to portray the latter as a demigod. The following bit of grandiloquence might serve as a model for many a rural paper even of this advanced age: "We do not look for a whale in a mill-pond, but in the main ocean. On the same rule must we not look for Washington in America, that greatest continent, which, rising from beneath the frozen pole, stretches far and wide to the south, running almost the whole length of this vast terrene, and sustaining on her ample sides the roaring shock of half the watery globe? And equal to its size is the furniture of this vast continent, where the Almighty has reared His cloud-capped mountains, and spread His sea-like lakes, and poured His mighty rivers, and hurled down His thundering cataracts, in a style of the sublime so far superior to anything of the kind in the other continent that we may fairly conclude that great men and great deeds are designed for America."

The Life of Washington was Weems's main work, based on the fact of his having been "Rector of Mount Vernon Parish." It was written in 1809, and was during many years afterward peddled by him in person throughout Virginia, meeting, however, with a very scanty sale. He was the first book canvasser that ever traversed the State. In his way he was quite a character, according to the picture drawn by a gentleman now living in Fredericksburg, who in his youth knew him. "I have often seen him," said this gentleman, "endeavoring to sell his books about town and on court greens. He was a Prince William [County] man, and a minister of the Episcopal Church, though all his children became Methodists. It was his custom to travel about in a small vehicle selling, in addition to his Life of Washington, his Life of Marion, and two pamphlets entitled The Drunkard's Looking-Glass and The Swearer's Prayer. Now and then he would scatter short moral pieces in doggerel, and printed on slips of paper. He was extremely fond of playing the violin, and used it also as a means to draw attention to his wares. Being a parson, and hence indisposed to exhibiting himself as a fiddler in public, he was accustomed to conceal himself, while handling the instrument, in a species of booth made by means of blankets stretched on poles. On one occasion, while thus engaged, the wind blew down the side of his booth against which his back was turned, exposing him to the full view of a gaping crowd. Unconscious of the accident, he kept fiddling away, till the crowd, no longer able to restrain its tittering, burst forth in a roar of laughter which instantly forced him to see himself as others had been seeing him. His annoyance was tremendous, and he forthwith decamped from the ground, amidst a hurricane of derisive remarks showered upon him by the rough multitude."

(to be continued)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

In an Old Virginia Town [Part 2]

Originally published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March 1885, pages 601-612.Author: Frederick Daniel

(continued from Part 1)

Yet at the date of this declaration the town's council had not been organized. The first court was incorporated only one year before the close of the Revolutionary war, and some of the first acts of this court furnish a commentary on the epoch. Five persons were authorized to keep taverns - the name "hotel" being then unknown in Virginia - and a regular tariff of prices was fixed, "the same not to be exceeded by the tavern-keepers" under severe penalties. It is noteworthy that the limits were not given for a wine-glassful or even for a tumblerful of fermented beverages, but for a gallon. The prices established were: "West India rum, $3.34; apple brandy, $1.67; whiskey, $1; strong beer, 67 cents; rum toddy, $1.67; brandy toddy, $1.25; rum punch, $2.50; brandy punch, $2; rum grog, $1; brandy grog, 84 cents; Madeira wine, per bottle, $1.25; port wine, per bottle, 67 cents. This port could hardly have been the genuine article of Oporto, but must have been some domestic precursor of the present port-wine of California. Having thus limited the prices on drinking, the authorities next proceeded to take upon their shoulders to limit the prices for eating, and they fixed the cost of a single "diet" at 25 cents - certainly quite a moderate figure, according to our modern standards. These dietary laws remained in force till the end of the century, and some of the taverns for which they were drawn up lapped over far into the present century, and the keepers told many an anecdote in regard to the distinguished personages who had lodged in them during the Revolution. In addition to regulating the diet of their guests, the court undertook to appraise property held in legal subjection for debt. The inventory and appraisement of the personalty of a citizen who died during the Revolution stand as follows on the court record: one silver watch, $26.67; one cow and yearling, $16.67; one suit broadcloth clothes, $13.34; one other suit broadcloth, $6.67; three blue coats, $10; seven pair of white breeches, $11.67; five white vests, $11.67; one shirt, 67 cents; six pair of stockings, $1.67; two pair of shoes, $3; three hats, $3; one stock buckle, 50 cents; three brushes, 50 cents.

By the modern visitor the principal attraction of the place is found in the cherished relics relating to the residence of the youthful Washington and of his mother. They consist of the house within the corporate limits in which both dwelt and in which she died; the tomb over her grave; the site opposite the town, across the river, upon which stood the house in which he first lived after his removal from Westmoreland, and the grounds adjoining, which were the theatre of his renowned boyish exploits. Thirty years ago the town contained dozens of "old citizens" who personally had known Washington and his mother, many of them as kin; they have all passed away, but their recollections and impressions, received at first hand, were of course stamped on the minds of their children who are still living. The information so handed down by persons of noted veracity and accuracy is none the less authentic because it has never sought the publicity given by type.

(to be continued)

Monday, September 24, 2007

In an Old Virginia Town [Part 1]

Originally published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March 1885, pages 601-612.
Author: Frederick Daniel

Fredericksburg, now of historic fame from the battle fought in its midst December 13, 1862, was named by solemn act of Council, in 1727, after Frederick, son of George I. English royal names and personages were held in high repute in the colony of Virginia, and it is scarcely surprising that so many counties and streets in the present State bear the names and titles of the three Georges and other princes, one of said counties passing under the compound appellation of "King and Queen."

We are told - be this myth or not - that Captain John Smith, the ubiquitous hero of the Pocahontas legend, ascended the Rappahannock River in a small boat as far as the falls, opposite the site upon which to-day stands the town of Fredericksburg, discovering there merely a wigwam village of the Indian tribe known as the "Rappahannocs." About a century later the site was surveyed and settled by a few hardy adventurers who were not afraid to have for neighbors the Rappahannocs, "most formidable savages," according to Smith. The new town decreed by law in 1727 was, following the usual incipiency of colonial towns, a straggling collection of houses built entirely of wood, even to the chimneys, a custom which was afterward condemned by law as threatening the life of the settlement. From the date of that prohibition sprung brick chimneys, and the easy, modest existence continued through a century and a half, down to our own day.

Rich in landmarks and traditions connected with the colonial and Revolutionary era of Virginia, Fredericksburg was a distinguished contributor to the founding of the republic. It proudly lays claim to the honor of having been the scene of Washington's early life, the home of his mother until her death, and finally the place of her burial. To the charm and prestige arising from its early history may be largely attributed to the moderate amount of prosperity which kept the town alive in spite of manifold disadvantages. Its more brilliant phase ended with the stirring times of Washington's career; during this century its name has occasionally sounded at the front, though for the most part its life has been passed in retirement. Dickens, in his American Notes, dubbed it a "finished town," but it is notorious that the novelist was in the habit of writing from a Pickwickian stand-point. At no time "finished," the old town is today very much improved, and looks forward to a bright future, especially in manufactures, despite its abandonment by many of the young men, who went South and West "to grow up," in consequence of the immediate losses inflicted by war.

The stand which the little town took at an early date in behalf of independence is the chief glory of its citizens to-day. Its leading men were the very first in Virginia to adopt the principle that the colonies ought not only to be exempt from mother-country taxation, but ought to be free and independent states. At a time when many of the ablest Virginia statesmen, such as Richard Bland, Robert Carter Nicholas, Edmond Pendleton, George Mason, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Carter Braxton, and Benjamin Harrison, were shrinking back from the thought of attempting to achieve independence, the sturdy burghers were far in advance in accurately forecasting the future. The evidence on this point is conclusive. When, in April, 1775, one day after the battle of Lexington, the news of Lord Dunmore's removal of twenty barrels of gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg reached Fredericksburg, measures were speedily devised for collecting and arming the people, and six hundred men, well armed and disciplined, assembled at once. Delegates were dispatched to ascertain precisely the condition of affairs at Williamsburg, and a public meeting, held on April 29, 1775, adopted a series of resolutions which were in form and substance tantamount to a declaration of American independence. Though deprecating civil war, yet, considering the liberties of America to be in danger, the delegates to the meeting pledged themselves to re-assemble at a moment's warning, and by force of arms to defend the rights of "this or any sister colony," and concluded with the sentence, "God save the liberties of America!" These resolutions were passed twenty-one days before the celebrated Mecklenburg declaration in North Carolina, and one year and sixty-five days before the Declaration of Independence of the American Congress.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

January 1863 - Reading in Richmond

In January 1863, according to Reminiscences in Peace and War, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables had been reprinted by a Charleston firm "on the best paper they could get" which was apparently not very good. Mrs. Pryor's friend Agnes in Richmond relates that everyone is reading it, even soldiers. "You'll go wild over over that book -- I did -- and everybody does." (page 226)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Fleeing Fredericksburg

The following quote from Mrs. Roger Pryor's book, Reminiscences of Peace and War, probably refers to the first Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862:

Not long after the battle of Fredericksburg a participator described the panic, the horror, the fleeing of the women and children from their homes.

"And then," he said, "there arose from that homeless, stricken crowd of women a cry of mortal agony, My things. Oh, my things."

This is a wonderful book. I have had some trouble accustoming myself to reading a book in this way, sitting at my desktop, "turning" the pages by hitting the page down button. I have been reading e-books on my PDA for years with no trouble, but for some reason this seemed different, perhaps because the books available for download at Google books are not quite as portable as txt or html e-books, i.e., they cannot be read on my PDA. I have made the adjustment to desk-top computer reading, though, because I am so very interested in this book. To see the Civil War through the eyes of a woman is a new perspective to me. I have read parts of Civil War diaries of other women, but Mrs. Pryor's resonates with me in a way none of the others have.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Two Richmond Hotels

Mrs. Pryor mentions two hotels she stayed at in Richmond during Civil War days, neither of which still exists. One was the Exchange Hotel (see photo at and the other was the Spotswood Hotel -

Mrs. Pryor's descriptions of the effects of the battles around Richmond during the first year of the war are moving. The reader meets women following their husbands as they move from battle to battle, the agony of suspense waiting for news of the fate of their beloved. She relates stories of how soldiers amused themselves, stories they told, stories told by slaves who had accompanied soldiers to the battlefields.

Surprisingly, at least surprising to me, Mrs. Pryor wrote kindly and sympathetically of General McClellan.