On Sunday, an American now living in France, and his French wife visited a historic Bedford site because of another war. This time, the site was Avenel—the old Burwell plantation; the war was the Civil War.
Avenel wasn’t crowded. Volunteer Annette Allen, historian June Goode, a young intern from the Bedford Bulletin (accompanied by her mother who took pictures), and I were the only ones present besides the visiting couple.
Avenel wasn’t open to the public on Sunday. But it was open to us, and Annette—a wealth of information about the history of the place—gave us a tour. Here's why:
In 2006 Farrar Richardson, an American living in Bordeaux, France, was researching information about his great grandfather, Henry Brown Richardson, a Confederate officer and the son of a Maine abolitionist minister. Richardson knew that his ancestor had been wounded in the battle of Sharpsburg and had been hospitalized in Bedford, Virginia, and had visited Avenel while in Bedford.
When Farrar googled Avenel, my blog popped up because I’d blogged about doing a reading at Avenel with fellow Lake Writers. He e-mailed me to ask if Avenel might have been a hospital; I contacted Bedford historian June Goode, whose book Our War, was Lettie Burwell’s diary that covered a portion of the Civil War. Avenel hadn’t been a hospital. I also told him about another book that picked up where Lettie’s diary left off—Lucy Breckenridge of Grove Hill, by Mary Robertson. While LT. Richardson was referred to in both books, neither Lettie nor Lucy identified him by first name. Mary Robertson assumed the Lt. Richardson from Louisiana was Lt. Frederick Richardson, who was killed at Gettysburg. But she was wrong—it had to have been Henry. Both Lettie and Lucy left enough clues for us to make that assumption. Plus Henry Brown Richardson, who joined the Tensas Rifles while he was working as a engineer in Louisiana, eventually became a Virginia soldier under General Averill. Henry Brown Richardson was wounded at Gettysburg and eventually imprisoned at Johnson’s Island Prison, where he received a message from a mysterious "R" at Avenel.
Anyhow, Farrar and his wife recently came to America and visited some places that Henry had been—Gettysburg, Sharpsburg, and Avenel. At Avenel, June and I were finally able to meet the person we only knew through e-mails.
(flanked by June and me) had stopped at the D-Day Memorial.
Annette gave us a tour and showed us the rooms where Henry would likely have been. She also showed us rooms where he wouldn’t have been (and a few places where most visitors don't go) and told us how the house had changed during remodeling.
Henry would have entered the front of the house where the drive circles.
He wouldn't have come in this side, which faces what is now called Avenel Street, and what most people think of as the front:
Perhaps he passed these boxwoods near the circle. They look very old, so maybe they were here then:
He would have entered by this door:
Then he would have walked into the hallway.
Perhaps Lettie and her sisters might have watched from upstairs.
Perhaps he would have sat and visited in this room, which was later used as a bedroom. Both Mrs. Burwell (Frances Steptoe Burwell) and her daughter Lettie died in this room:
Most likely he visited in the adjacent parlor to the right. He probably didn't go upstairs, so he didn't see what is now called the Lee Room (Robert E. Lee once stayed there):
And he certainly didn't go into what is now called the Pink Room:
Perhaps he noticed this portrait of Mrs. Burwell:
Or this one of Mrs. Burwell's mother, Mrs. Steptoe:
He wouldn't have seen this painting. It didn't exist then. And the wraparound porch was added later.
Did he ever go onto the upstairs balcony? If so, he wouldn't have seen the red barn in the background; it was was built later.
Had he gone onto the balcony, he might have noticed the steep stairs going toward the attic. What secrets hide in that attic, do you suppose?
It's hard to say what the young soldier, recovering from his wounds, might have seen. But we're sure Henry Brown Richardson was there.
During our visit, we no doubt walked in a few of his footsteps. And we had a most enjoyable time doing so.
Edited to add the write-up in the June 17, 2009, Bedford Bulletin (click to enlarge):