Poplar Grove Farm

Sallie Virginia French Fitzhugh

Sallie Virginia French Fitzhugh was the child of John Isemonger and Lula French. She was a schoolteacher at Concord in her younger years and married Lee Brockenbrough Fitzhugh. She had four children, Virginia, John, Lee Jr, and Sally Lou. She wrestled with societal adaptation during a time of rapid change in America.

Sallie Virginia French Fitzhugh Table of Contents

Pig-shaped bank purchased by Sallie Virginia French Fitzhugh for her grandson, Davis

Reading and The Pig

Sallie was an avid reader, and it has always been said that she would read any book — trash or treasure. The family was often in disadvantaged circumstances during her lifetime, so she usually purchased used or borrowed books to read. She had several partial sets of classic books, including Mark Twain (we completed the set with a copy of Huckleberry Finn in 2023), art books, and many more. She was a particular fan of Pearl Buck, with over 30 volumes in her collection. She’d read many books by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dumas. She also enjoyed romance novels — even questionable ones.

Sallie passed her lifelong love of reading to her grandson, Davis, with this iron piggy bank. Sallie collected her spare change throughout the year in this bank, and when Davis visited, Sallie would “Kill the Pig” and empty out of its contents. After counting up the coins, she and Davis would go to the used bookstore and buy books to enjoy. Davis usually bought Tarzan books, and he passed those books on to his children, who also enjoyed them.

Interviews with Larry Evans

Sallie was interviewed many times by Larry Evans, then a journalist with the Free-Lance Star Newspaper in Fredericksburg, now living in Florida. He found Sallie well-read and articulate but struggling to reconcile her views on race with a racially integrated America. In fact, he found her so interesting that he wrote his Master’s thesis on her views. Sallie was especially proud of his work, and she had several dozen copies printed off that she would pass along to visitors and family as they’d visit Poplar Grove. We found a box full of them when we cleaned up the house in 2023.

Unreconstructed Confederate

Sallie considered herself an “unreconstructed Confederate” and kept Civil War memorabilia throughout the house, including a shot glass, framed Confederate bills, and a pillow. Her views on race were complicated and may make little sense to modern people. She was an avid supporter of anti-segregationist Alabama senator George Wallace — she had campaign buttons and a letter from him she’d framed on the wall — but she also was the oldest living subscriber to Ebony, a magazine focused on black culture and marketing mainly to black people. When she first met granddaughter-in-law, Carol, she said, “Blue eyes. Good. No ni–er blood,” but she considered her best friend to be ____ Brantham, a black woman.

Sallie’s emotional and intellectual struggle is characterized by the books on her bookshelves. Many of the books on her shelves were about race-related issues, and she’d clipped and filed hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles on the subject, too. Much to our surprise, there were over thirty miscegenation romance novels on her bookshelves.

Sallie wrestled all her life with loyalty to the Lost Cause and recognition that times had changed. She knew her Uncle Charles, who’d been captured at Gettysburg and later shot and killed a carpetbagger who came down Poplar Road, well and loved him. She was intelligent and understood the intellectual and moral reasons for the Civil Rights movement, but she fought integration by attending local political events and wore one of her trademark hats over her bright white hair at these events. Politicians loved to be photographed with the elderly, fiesty, local folk hero, and there are multiple photographs of her at political events in the Free-Lance Star. As late as 2022, locals in the Hartwood Community group were still talking about Sallie as a local political fighter. I fear they are usually disappointed to find me unsympathetic to most of my great-grandmother’s politics, but knowing the family female proclivity toward sharpness of tongue, they don’t confront me.

Later years

As Sallie got older, she became less able to eat or move easily. The family cleared out the dining room on the first floor of the farmhouse and moved a hospital bed into the room for Sallie. Sallie had a helper named Millie who looked after her while Sally Lou was teaching school and John worked on the farm. I remember Millie as a stout woman with fluffy curly brown hair. Eventually Sallie’s care became too much, and Sally Lou took Sallie to the nursing home where she lived out the rest of her days, visited frequently by Sally Lou. I can remember that Aunt Sally Lou took me to the nursing home to visit my great-grandmother. This visit must have occurred at the time of Uncle John’s funeral. Sallie seemed insensate to me, but Aunt Sally Lou asked me to sing Dixie to grandma in her ear where she could hear me, and so I did. She roused, squeezing my hand. It was one of only three times I saw Aunt Sally Lou cry.

Last moments

On Monday, September 15, 1986 at 12:10 AM, Sally Lou was asleep in her bed in the southernmost bedroom at Poplar Grove Farm but awakened to the sound of her mother’s voice calling her, “Sally Lou, Sally Lou.” She woke up, surprised, and shortly thereafter the nursing home called to say her mother, Sallie, had passed away at age 100.

Funeral, as remembered by Sallie’s only grandson, Davis

September 16, 2002

Dear Donna:

With your permission, I will use you as an excuse to write down a few things for my children. I think I will first describe to you my grandmother’s funeral at Poplar Grove in 1986……but my real purpose is more broad….in anticipation, that you will someday visit Poplar Grove, I hope to begin to describe what Poplar Grove REALLY is…… much more than a truly beautiful farm with fields, meadows and woods…….more than a quiet sense of peace, or of nature, or of ancient buildings……..to try to begin to give you a feeling of the sense of history there, the tangible feeling of the generations of our family gone before………indeed, even wisps of your ancestors there too.

Indeed, if this beginning appeals to you, I may send you other items that also barely begin to describe Poplar Grove.

My grandmother died in 1986…….sixteen years and one day ago, on September 15……She was 100 years old. I received word of her death that afternoon when I was in my office in Mississippi. My wife and my 4 children rode with me as I drove in my car all that night (900 miles) to arrive at Poplar Grove early the next morning… thinking that it would be good to arrive early to make plans for the funeral. I thought that would be my duty, because I was the only adult male left alive in the family. But, I had underestimated my grandmother— my grandmother’s funeral plans had already been made years before……I was not to be the planner of her funeral. Indeed, I was actually the object of her planning for her own funeral.

The description of my grandmother’s funeral, begins on June 30, 1863….the day before the Battle of Gettysburg. On that day, Charles French of Poplar Grove and his cousin Edward Mankin were in the Confederate cavalry and were captured by Yankees.

They were imprisoned first in Ft. Delaware and then at Point Lookout, Maryland for almost two years. The conditions in these prisons, particularly Point Lookout, were terrible.

History now most familiarly records the terrible death tolls of prisoners in the Confederate war prisons and the conditions in these southern prisons were truly awful. However, most scholars agree that these terrible conditions were the result of dire shortages of supplies in the South generally, and not from any Southern malicious intent toward prisoners.

What is not generally known (because the victor writes history), is that the death rate in Yankee prisons were actually higher than the death rate in southern prisons. The Confederate prisoners were starved and denied medical treatment like their Northern counterparts. What makes this situation really horrible, is that unlike the South, maltreatment of Confederate prisoners was a deliberate policy of the North. The North had supplies but chose to knowingly deny these supplies to the Confederate prisoners, so that they would be treated equally or worse than the Northern prisoners. There was also the deliberate policy of the North, beginning in 1863, to cease prisoner exchange…..so the South could not release Northern prisoners and prevent their re-entry into the war against the South.

This was the situation when Charles French and Edward Mankin were imprisoned. They both were starving and sick…..in fact, both were close to death many times. Then one day, weak and faint, they turned to each other, and each made a solemn promise to the other. They would not let their cousin die. They began to get scraps of bone, wood and other articles and carve them. They would then trade these items through the prison walls for extra smuggled food. This extra food helped keep them alive. When one cousin would get sick, the other would nurse him, even at risk to his own health, and the sick one would get the other’s rations to improve the chance of recovery. The two cousins did this for almost two years.

When they were released from prison in the spring of 1865, they were at that time carving a walking stick for trade. In fact, the cane had been completed but not yet traded for food. This turned out to be good, because the boys were told to walk back to their homes, despite their weakened condition. Both boys had to use this cane to walk back to Poplar Grove.

As these two cousin walked back to Virginia, they both realized that they truly owed each other their lives…..and though they were cousins and of shared blood, now in many ways, they were more closely related than brothers.

As they walked, they made a second solemn promise to each other…..each year the two cousins and their families would have a reunion to remember what they had gone through and to remember that each owed his life to the other……and thus the Mankin/French reunions began in 1866 and continued each year thereafter.

When I arrived at Poplar Grove sixteen years ago today, I found that my grandmother had already made detailed plans for her funeral and that all arrangements had been made. I found that her first arrangement was the unusual request to be cremated. I was told that she did this because I was the only living male in the family and that it would be my job to carry her urn to the family cemetery….there were no other family males to carry a coffin.

While we were waiting for the hearse to arrive at Poplar Grove where the funeral service was to be held, an elderly preacher arrived at the farm. He took me alone inside the house, and told me my grandmother had instructed him in all the details of my grandmother’s funeral and that I was to do as he told me. This preacher was Rev Melvin Steadman…..I was surprised at meeting him…..he was in VERY poor health….he had to walk with a cane in one hand and pull a two wheeled oxygen tank with the other….despite all of this, he said he had long ago promised my grandmother that he would conduct this funeral, and that he fully intended to do so. Rev Steadman then told me that he and I were to walk side by side from the farm house, then I was go to the back of the hearse and pick up the urn containing my grandmother’s remains, and then the two of us would walk side by side a few hundred feet to the family cemetery. I was surprised at this too, because it was obvious that Rev Steadman would have great difficulty in walking just the few hundred feet, but he persisted…..and but for his cane, I think he would have fallen several times. However, we both did slowly walk side by side and made it to the cemetery. There Rev Steadman stood and gave a truly remarkable eulogy…..my grandmother was truly unique in her life and her funeral was truly unique as well…..there was a much laughter as there were tears… I never saw such before at a funeral……my grandmother was deeply loved by all that knew her….yet she was 100 years old and infirm and had lived a very full life…..and all that was said by Rev Steadman was planned by my grandmother.

I was also surprised when Rev Steadman toward the end of the service turned to the grave of Charles French there in the family cemetery and began to tell of the story of the two cousins in the Civil War prison. I was even more surprised when Rev Steadman concluded by turning to me…..and said “Davis, I now give to you my cane….you see this is really not my cane…..this cane is the one carved by the two cousins in prison……I am the last male descendant of Edward Mankin and you are the last male descendant of the French family owning Poplar Grove. You see, this is not really a funeral…..this is the last family reunion.

I was stunned…..my grandmother knew how to teach me family history and the power of Poplar Grove to the very last in a way I would not forget. It truly was the last reunion, because Rev Steadman died about a month later.

But then again, my Aunt and I hope someday soon, to have another family reunion at Poplar Grove with the descendants of William Lewis French that we can find….such is the power of Poplar Grove.

Letter by Wilburn Davis Moore, Jr; September 16, 2002