Remembering Green Mount
by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Urbanna, Va.— “Green Mount,” the diary of the Dr. Benjamin Fleet family history during the Civil War era from 1860-1865 in King and Queen County, is a vivid reminder of our past. Patricia Haile of Tappahannock recently gave me the book and I haven’t been able to put it down.
The book contains daily journals of a teenage boy, Benny Fleet, and his plantation adventures in the family home near Aylett. The book also includes letters written by his father and mother, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin Fleet, and an older brother, Fred, who leaves for college in 1860 to study at the University of Virginia. (The home is still standing today and is owned and has been restored by Larry and Tere Pistole.)
Benny rides his horse each day to an all-male academy where he studies Latin, the history of Rome, Greek, algebra, and the classics. His vocabulary is excellent and he spells extremely well. He works hard with the “hands” (slaves) in the hours before and after school and in summers feeding the livestock, hunting game, fishing, tending the fields, and helping to maintain farm buildings and equipment. The reader actually feels he is actually a part of the Fleet family.
His father, Dr. Fleet, a prominent leader in the county, not only runs “Green Mount,” is responsible for 50 people and numerous livestock and doctors a population in a 100-mile swath, but also serves as county magistrate. Benny describes the occasional feud, rural crimes and at least one murder his father has to deal with, plus his normal work attending births, illnesses, deaths and accidental injuries (the doctor has to amputate a young boy’s arm after a hunting accident) along with the constant frustration of relying on horses for transportation.
Tension rises for the reader as the Civil War looms. The Fleets are “Whigs.” Benny describes himself as a “Unionist,” and they don’t want to secede from the Union. But the passion and zeal from the large plantation owners of the Deep South slowly seep into the more moderate ears of the Virginians. A straw poll at UVa, for example, tilts with the numerous students from the Deep South supporting Democrat John C. Breckinridge for president. When Lincoln wins the presidency under the new Republican banner, there is no stopping the breach. Virginia follows the Deep South, a tragic decision because of its close proximity to Union troops in Washington, which meant Virginia withstood the brunt of the war’s suffering, bloodshed and grief.
The war brings immediate change to the prosperous Fleet family and “hands.” Benny’s academy closes and he sees the end of his formal education as Fred leaves UVa and joins a local military unit stationed at Gloucester Point along with a Mississippi regiment that has come to help Virginia defend the York River. The guns soon begin to shoot and before long even moderate citizens like the Fleets are caught up in a ferocious battle for survival and a growing hatred for marauding Yankees that destroy everything in their path.
By the end of the war the Fleet’s home is fortunately still intact, but the fields are in waste, the livestock gone, even the lighter that once took their grain down river is sunk. There are no jobs or food, and Confederate money is worthless. Hunger and desperation soon comes to the land that was once so plentiful in a time when there were no federal programs to feed the poor and hungry, and no “Marshall Plan” to help rebuild the savaged economy.
The diaries (I am only halfway through the book) show no concern over the morality of slavery, which I think very odd for such an unusually reflective young man as Benny Fleet. Writers usually are painfully aware of ills and injustices in society and will write on such subjects. The book teaches many lessons, such as how reckless passion and zeal can lead to death and destruction, and dangerous times result when “hot heads” (and every age produces them) win political power. Anger and intolerance quickly turn into killing, and moderate Virginians had no choice but to shoulder together to try their best to survive once the Union forces arrived. And, finally, there are never any winners in war.
The war caused 750,000 casualties, more than any other conflict in U.S. history, and left deep scars that are still evident today. This book lends understanding of the suffering in our area (also read Larry Chowning’s “Soldiers at the Doorstep, Civil War history in Middlesex County”). Both books clearly define what it would be like to have military troops at your door stealing, killing and burning your property.
History teaches what following generations need to remember. This Christmas “Green Mount” is a reminder that our ancestors really suffered in Christmases past. As long as we remember history, civilization will remain alive and well and we will have reason to hope we will never have to repeat it.
Note: One Woman’s Opinion will return in March. Merry Christmas!