Whether working hard behind the scenes or running their own businesses, women have always played an important role in Fredericksburg’s history. Unfortunately, these women’s stories often go unsung. Today, we’re changing all that and giving a few of these brave, entrepreneurial women the spotlight they deserve.
If you’re interested in celebrating and learning more about Fredericksburg’s amazing women, be sure to take part in the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s Women's History Month Programs, visit Mary Washington’s House and George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument, spend time at the Mary Washington Monument, and of course support local women owned businesses!
Legendary Women Of Fredericksburg
During the Civil War, a Stafford County slave named Dabney provided intelligence on Confederate forces to Union soldiers. He was definitely not working alone, however. From across the Rappahannock River, his wife in Fredericksburg masterminded a communications system using her hanging laundry to signal Confederate unit dispositions and strengths to him. Unfortunately, this brave woman’s name is unknown, but her legend lives on.
Like Mrs. Dabney, many women in Fredericksburg found ways to get involved in the Civil War. Many of them did so in a nursing capacity. It’s estimated that around 30 female civilian relief workers came to Fredericksburg to care for wounded soldiers.
One of those women named Sarah Hopper Gibbons Emerson, wrote:
You can form no idea of the work we had to do in Fredericksburg. I had a hundred and sixty men, all on the floor and not a bed to be seen; four storehouses and one third story, packed so close that the men nearly touched each other; in one room with twenty-three men, fourteen amputations ; not a breath of air until Mr. Thaxter knocked out the windowpanes and afterwards the sashes. We stole straw to fill ticks, stole boards to make bunks, stole bedsteads, took nails from packing boxes, and yesterday every man was comparatively comfortable. The filth exceeded anything you ever dreamed of - stench terrific. The Sanitary Commission has been the only decent feature of the place. Some of the Christian Commission have worked splendidly too. The Sanitary agents washed men, dressed wounds, and did everything. They have saved hundreds of lives, for provisions were terribly scarce and nothing was to be had in the city. I think it was Sunday morning, the report was that 23,000 wounded had been sent on, 7,166 remained, besides 1000 sick.
Perhaps the most notorious woman working for The Sanitary Commission was Dr. Mary Walker. She is the only female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor (1865), and was the second woman in the United States to finish medical school (1835).
Dr. Walker often dressed more masculine than was expected. She felt it made it easier to treat patients.
Dr. Walker left Rome, New York and came to Fredericksburg around 1861, to work as a member of the Sanitation Commission. Before her time in Fredericksburg, she had petitioned the government to grant her a commission as a Union Army surgeon. Unfortunately, that petition was denied. Years later, in 1864, she wrote a second petition. This time, she sent it directly to President Lincoln. He granted her petition, under the condition that the men of the Medical Department of the Army consented to her presence. You can imagine the reaction. Nevertheless, she persisted.
“Miss Mary Walker created a sensation…she calls herself Dr. Mary Walker and wears a Bloomer and rode her fiery steed with grace and dignity." -unknown
Dr. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor on November 11th, 1865 for her "valuable service" and for her "hardships as a prisoner of war.”
Mary Ball Washington, Mother of George Washington, was an 18th- century single mother of five children, who also carried the burden of a 600-acre farm. One of her children, whom she raised alone, became the first president of the United States Of America. Historians have said that she was an independent spirit who was active and sprightly. Others claim she was simple and had no great social polish. Regardless, I think we can all agree that it would have taken a truly exceptional women to raise a thriving family under her conditions.
In 1889, Mary Washington's grave and the 12 acres surrounding it were set be sold at public auction, which sparked local and national outrage. The Fredericksburg and National Mary Washington Monument Associations were quickly formed, and her grave preserved.
The Mary Washington Monument which is praised as "the first monument ever erected by women to a woman,” is over 50 feet high, and made of Vermont granite. Inscribed are the words, Mary, Mother of Washington.
Did you know that women have owned businesses in the region since the 1700s? That tradition continues today with hundreds of women-run businesses thriving in the area. One of the first, if not the very first, woman to own her own shop in Fredericksburg was “The Coffee Woman” Susannah (Sukey) Livingston. Her prosperous coffee shop and stables, on downtown’s Sophia Street near the Rappahannock River wharf, opened it’s doors in 1728! That’s roughly 50 years before our country was born. This store also served as a meeting place and store house. Records show the “doctress” Susanna Livingston renting space frequently for for goods coming across the ferry. Colonel William Byrd, an aristocratic Virginian, observed:
"Though this be a commodious and beautiful location for a town, with the advantage of a navigable river and wholesome air, yet the inhabitants are very few. Besides Colonel Willis, who is the top man of the place, there are only one merchant, a tailor, a smith, an ordinary-keeper and a lady, Mrs. Livingston, who acts here in the double capacity of a doctress and a coffee-woman.”"
Another early Fredericksburg businesswomen was Ellen Caskie London Ficklen. Mrs. Ficklen managed the Rappahannock Electric Light and Power Company from 1901 to 1923. She is said to have been the first woman in the United States to head a utility company!
In 1907, this plant powered 2,000 incandescent lights and had more than ten miles of wiring.
Written by Brenda Sapanghila