Stafford County, Virginia is now and has always been the crossroads for many historic events. From John Smith to the Civil War and even today. Though most recently, Stafford has been looked upon as a bedroom community, its history has been unearthed and the tourism office has made strides to let the world aware of the important role that Stafford has played through time. “Since I moved here I have been looking for places I could go,” says Candice Berry, a military spouse recently transplanted to the area. “Get to know my community you know? I had no idea that there was so much black history here. I can’t wait to see the Trail to Freedom.”
Established in 1664, Stafford was home to many tobacco plantations, iron works, and flour mills. Its land was the supplier for the stones that built the many monuments and buildings in the capital city of Washington D.C. It was also the childhood home of George Washington, in which he may have chopped down that infamous cherry tree.
Stafford played a significant part during the Civil War. It was a perfect logistical transportation center and staging ground For the Union Army. It served as a Union headquarters and housed a Union Church and Hospital.
African Americans were brought to Virginia in 1619. They were indentured servants, not slaves. By the late 1600s, the slaves were brought to Rappahannock Valley as agricultural laborers. “Fredericksburg,” says Virginia Tech Professor emeritus of History Crandall Shifflett. “Was an important town, located midway between Washington D.C. and Richmond, that the Union forces hoped to capture in their overall mission to take Richmond.” As such, when Falmouth and Fredericksburg were founded on the Rappahannock River, they became a hub of activity and the gateway to the sea.
Stafford was not really a slave-owning community. It was all blue-collar workers like blacksmiths, cobblers, and fishermen. Most whites there, could not afford the luxury of slaves. “There is a town on the outskirts of Fredericksburg called Liberty Town,” says Park Ranger Becky Oakes. “That’s where a lot of African-Americans lived even before the Civil War.”
The Rappahannock Region is riddled with Civil War battleground sites. Stafford, however, survived no major battles. But it was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops. It was a hotbed for Slave spies, who provided detailed information on Confederate forces to the Union Generals. Stafford was also the site of a great slave Revolt, and at the end of the Civil War, 10000 slaves self-emancipated themselves by walking from Falmouth to Aquia Landing and boarding ships to their freedom in Washington D.C. “That was one of the biggest, mass freeing of slaves in history. That was before the emancipation proclamation, but it just shows that it takes the Union Army to be there for a lot of slaves to be able to escape,” says Living Historian and National Park Service Ranger Steward Henderson. “Now one of those slaves was John Washington.”
The Trail to Freedom came about from the need for Stafford county Historians to tell the story of John Washington and his journey to freedom. “John Washington was an urban slave,” says Henderson of our subject. “His father was white and his mother was a slave, and she was a mulatto so he was very, very pale skinned. But he was pretty unique because he was able to do a lot of things as a slave.”
Stafford is a cornerstone for much of American History, but Just as significant is the African American History. “I needed My niece and nephew to see that their history is not that far in the past,” says Michella Donfack, a visitor to the National Park Service’s Trail to Freedom. “Living close to a place like this where people were freeing themselves, I thought maybe they would feel a little bit more connected.” This is where the story of self-liberated slave John Washington takes place, starting with a walking tour in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and ending on the other side of the Rappahannock River in Stafford County.
“The Trail to Freedom is really a collaborative effort,” says Oakes. “It’s a way to connect sites related to slavery, the struggle for freedom, the struggle for emancipation, throughout this area. So, when people visit the sites they can really walk the footsteps and learn this all-encompassing story of freedom in this area and why it’s so important to focus on that when talking about the history of Stafford County.”
The Trail to Freedom is based on the accounts of John Washington through a memoir “John Washington’s Civil War: A Slave Narrative,” Edited by professor Shifflett published in 2008. His narrative detailed the places he lived, worked and how he crossed over on to freedom.
“John Washington blazed his own trail to freedom and emancipated himself from the manacles of slavery,” Says Shifflett of the former slave. “Washington’s recollections entitled Memories of the Past, penned in 1872 describing his life in Fredericksburg since 1838, allow for a rare intimate view of slavery and the more personal aspects of slave life: forced attendance at the slave owner’s church, gatherings of slaves at harvest feasts, even a brief episode of courtship.”
The tour attempts to follow to his path of his final days of slavery as approximately as possible, barring any progress that time may have brought.
The first stop on the Trail to Freedom is the Farmer’s Bank Building. This building had once been the National Bank of Fredericksburg. It was opened in 1820 and remained a bank until 2010. The side entrance to the building is the entrance that led to the large living quarters that belonged to the Bank managers. At the time that Washington lived in this home, it was managed by the Taliaferro Family. Then a slave, John Washington lived on the upper floors with Mrs. Taliaferro and her two sons. The bank also housed the freedmen’s bureau offices. It also accounts for the fact that John Washington was quite literate. After the bank closed its doors, the building has been transformed. Foode Restaurant and retains the old vault from the bank and other artifacts.
The second stop is the Slave Auction Block. This block is a stone embedded in the corner of Charles and William street in Downtown Fredericksburg, appropriately in front of a butcher shop. The butcher shop was once the Planter’s Hotel. It is a stone easy to overlook. Goods and services were sold here on the auction block that also served as a horse mount for lady patrons of the hotel. The auction block is highly disputed and may face removal in the future.
The third stop is The Old Town Hall. Currently, the site of the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, this historic Town Hall and Market was built with the help of slaves on a sloped hill. Now leveled out, it is an open space that now hosts a myriad of multicultural events. The Museum closed briefly in 2015, because of low funding. But reopened again in November of 2016 after auctioning off three buildings to ensure its future. They have pieces from the other buildings including those from the National Bank of Fredericksburg after the sale to Foode, such as a clock said to be wound by John Washington.
Stop number four is the Shakespeare House Hotel site. Destroyed by a fire in 1865, This hotel was known as a house of ill repute. During war time, it housed prostitutes who made their money with soldiers in both camps. “What freedom meant is captured in a pivotal moment when Union forces massed around Fredericksburg.” Says Shifflett about the period of time. “Washington, who was working in a hotel saloon at the time, is given the keys to the saloon and asked to close up because ‘the Yankees are coming.’ Instead, he opens the bar to slaves and free blacks to celebrate the dawn of freedom.” The site is believed to be on bustling Caroline Street surrounded by many craft and antique shops.
The fifth stop is the African Baptist Church site, now known as Shiloh Baptist Church. This was the first black church in Fredericksburg. Before 1855, both whites, slaves and free blacks attended together. Once racial tensions intensified, however, the whites of the church built Fredericksburg Baptist Church leaving Shiloh Baptist Church to the African Americans. This was the church in which John Washington was baptized and married.
The sixth stop on the walking tour is the corner of Hanover and Princess Anne Streets. This was the location of the Citizens Hall and many events that were segregated and excluded slaves. It is here that the Fredericksburg United Methodist Church sits, here the citizens stood divided on the question of slavery. John Washington was likely to have passed by some events as he walked home from the hotel to his home, which stops seven on the tour.
On Stop number seven is 409 Hanover Street. One of a pair of greek revival townhomes built in 1844 by Robert C. Bruce.This home is currently private property. It is the home in which Mrs. Taliaferro moved to, from the Farmers Bank Residence. John Washington had likely lived in slave quarters behind the row house.
This brings us to the final stop on the walking tour, and the first stop in the driving tour. Old Mill Park the location where John Washington explicitly detailed his crossing over the Rappahannock River on Union boats and becoming a freedman. Old Mill Park was home to the famous Bridgewater Mill owned by Joseph Ficklin. Its ruins are still visible at the site.
The second stop in the driving tour is just on the other side of the Rappahannock River at Falmouth Waterfront Park. Falmouth Beach was where John Washington arrived in Stafford County on April 18, 1862. This was the day Union troops had arrived at Falmouth. John Washington had been working at the hotel when he heard the Union Army had occupied Chatham and he and two friends had gone out to listen to the bands playing. When the soldiers saw them, they asked if any of them wanted to cross. When John Washington told them that he wanted to come over, they sent over boats and brought him and his friends across to Falmouth Beach.
Just beyond the beach is stop number three. The Moncure Conway House is a home built at around 1807. It was the house of author, minister, and abolitionist Moncure, Daniel Conway. He was born into a prominent Virginia slaveholding family, but he was the black sheep of the family. He went against all slaveholding traditions and began to help many slaves to freedom. Including the famous Anthony Burns. At once, Moncure Conway helped thirty of his family’s slaves escape to freedom, by accompanying them to southwestern Ohio.”Oh… I love how he stood up for the slaves,” says Berry of the stop. Many of the Moncure family still live in Stafford County today.
A short drive uphill is the site of Union Church of Falmouth, and our fourth stop in the driving tour. Unattached to any denomination, the Union Church was a classically segregated church where slaves were required to have sermons by white ministers. This church had a separate entrance for the slaves. It was here that John Washington came and witnessed the burial of seven Union soldiers who had been killed in the Battle of Falmouth. The funeral impressed John Washington, as the grave was a mass grave and all seven coffins were laid side by side in the ground. Today the church stands symbolically and is nothing but a solid brick façade with a graveyard and within it are the graves of those seven soldiers.
Driving stop number five is the most accessible feature of the tour, the Chatham Manor Plantation. Chatham has been a working farm since it was first built, until today. Its sprawling lawns and generous gardens were the perfect setting for a party house to its original owners. It was built over 200 years ago and stands on a high ridge above the Rappahannock River.
It housed over 100 slaves working on the property. Having hosted in its 200 years the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it played an important role during the Civil War, as it was a Union Hospital during the Battle of Fredericksburg. As the Union set camp on Chatham, Clara Barton and Walt Whitman nursed the wounded on the lawn. John Washington spent at least one night camping with Union soldiers on that hill.
This was also the site of a great slave revolt, where many of the slaves walked off the grounds and liberated themselves.
The Driving Tour Continues to a parking lot; one with huge significance. Nothing stops progress, but Stop number six is the site of the Falmouth Depot. This was a Union supply depot that served the Union troops during the Civil War. It was also here where many African Americans traveled through on their way to freedom, including John Washington. Here is where he ran after waking at Chatham without a single Union Soldier in sight. Fearing for his freedom he went toward Falmouth Depot but was not likely to board the train because of the busy nature of the day.
The next stop is another Station. Leeland Station is near Aquia Creek. John Washington could have possibly gotten to this rail station instead after the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. The Union Army had retreated there to their winter camp “Camp Pitcher” at Belle-Air. They stayed there until March 1863 and then moved on to Potomac Creek.
Potomac Creek is just a little way up the road. There you will find a bridge Abraham Lincoln described as “but beanpoles and cornstalks” It sits on a Civil War trails site on Leeland Road. The ruins still stand about 100 feet above the Potomac Creek. Stop number eight is the Potomac Creek Bridge. This Bridge served as a lifeline to the Confederate Army during the beginning of the Civil War. In the spring of 1862, however, the Confederates burned the bridge as they retreated back to Fredericksburg in the wake of Union Force’s advancement.
Stop number nine is another station, Brooke Station. This is the area largely occupied by Union troops during the Civil War. Only 100 yards from this station, a fort was built. More significantly, this was the last stop before John Washington, and over 10,000 slaves marched to their freedom.
The final stop in the driving tour is Aquia Landing Park. This is at the junction of Aquia Creek and Potomac River. It was once a vital hub in Union Transportation. John Washington almost didn’t make it across the Potomac that day. They stopped him at the gangplank. But he stowed away in the steamboat, and a few hours later he was alive and free at the 6th Street Wharf. Aquia Landing not only facilitated the slave trade but inversely was the site of 10,000 lives freed. This was also the site where a man called Henry “Box” Brown shipped his way to freedom in a wooden box with nothing but a bladder of water.
This is just a fraction of the rich history in this little corner of the world. Stafford has been an example of what Black lives have accomplished. Today Stafford’s African-American community is vibrant. They are represented in many aspects of the county, and along with the Stafford County branch of the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women, The Stafford County Historical Society and the National Park Service have banded together to bring John Washington’s story to the public.
They have many other stories in African American history. Like that of the colored troop regiment the 23rd UCT, prominent educators John J. Wright and H.H. Poole, and hero Anthony Burns. These are the pride of Stafford. Its rich history is inclusive of all people.