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Saturday, August 30, 2014

William Lee Kent

William Lee Kent

     When William Lee "Willie" Kent was born, his father was far away, fighting with the Confederate army. His experiences, even though often marked by tragedy, are emblematic of what life was once like in old Spotsylvania. His granddaughter Kathleen, who knew him during the last twenty two years  of his life and even lived with him for a time as a young girl, carefully wrote down the stories he used to tell her and has spent much of her adult life researching the lives of the families that were once prominent in western Spotsylvania. Because of the time she spent with her grandfather, Kathleen is a living link to one hundred fifty two years of history. [Please note that all images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing]

Western Spotsylvania, 1863

     William, born on 10 August 1862, was the son of John Wesley Kent and Martha Catherine Hicks. John was born in Fluvanna County on 1 February 1840 and accompanied his family when they moved to Spotsylvania in 1852. His parents, Warner and Susan Kent, rented a 300 acre farm which they named The Oaks, located adjacent to Hazel Hill. In the map detail above, the Kent place is seen in the center of the image, just south of Todd's post office. This property, which was purchased outright by Warner Kent in 1861, was located between modern Mill Pond and Catharpin Roads.
     Before the Civil War, John Wesley Kent helped his father farm The Oaks and taught at the neighborhood school at Hazel Hill. He was also a member of the Fredericksburg militia.

Martha Catherine Hicks

     On Valentine's Day 1861 John W. Kent married Martha Catherine Hicks, whose family's farm can be seen on the map just southwest of the Kents. Just over a year later their lives would be changed forever.
     On 13 March 1862 John, together with his brother Samuel Rice Kent (also born in Fluvanna, in 1841), enlisted in John F. Alexander's Company of Virginia Artillery. Just three months later the remnants of this battery were incorporated into Company M of the 55th Virginia Infantry. John Kent served with this regiment for the remainder of the war. For his brother Samuel, it would be a different story.
     Just seven weeks after enlisting in Alexander's Artillery, Samuel Kent was taken to the hospital, suffering first with measles and then with pneumonia. Word of his dire predicament was taken to his father, who hitched up a team to his wagon and drove to the hospital. Warner brought him home to be cared for for by himself and Susan. Their efforts were unavailing, however, and Samuel Kent died on 5 May 1862.
     During the last months of her pregnancy, Martha Kent had returned to the Hicks farm in anticipation of the birth of her first child. She and William stayed there for his first year, but ultimately moved back to The Oaks. Meanwhile, for the next three years John W. Kent and the 55th Virginia fought in many engagements, including the Seven Days' Battle, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign and the trenches of Petersburg.
     During the battle of the Wilderness, The Oaks was ransacked at least twice by Union soldiers. Warner was arrested by Federal troops and hauled off the the Old Capitol Prison as "a suspicious character." The tribulations of the Kent family during the Civil War are well documented and I describe their experience in great detail here.
     Just prior to the final vandalizing of the Kent farm, Warner's family was escorted to the farm of John G. Hurkamp for their own safety by a squadron commanded by a Union lieutenant. The children were placed on the horses of Federal troopers for the ride. Two year old William Kent rode with the lieutenant.
     John Wesley Kent was captured at Harper's farm during the battle of Sayler's Creek on 6 April 1865. From there he was taken to City Point and thence to the Union prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. Here he remained incarcerated until 8 June 1865 when he and other prisoners on the sick list took the oath of allegiance and were paroled. John returned home to Spotsylvania, "broken in body and spirit."
     John would father two more children with Martha. Ella Jackson Kent was born in 1866. Her sister Effie Ann was born in August 1867, but John Wesley Kent would not live to see her. Despite the best care possible from Dr. Thomas W. Finney, John departed this life on 5 January 1867.
     After his death Martha took William and Ella back to the Hicks farm and awaited the birth of Effie.
     On a hot July day in 1869, two year old Effie watched as twelve year old Columbus Kent, William's uncle, worked in the truck garden by the creek. Instead of walking back to the house to drink from the well, the thirsty children drank from the creek. Columbus and Effie Kent died of cholera within days of each other.
     The 1870 census shows that William continued to live with his grandparents at The Oaks; Martha and Ella were living with the Hicks family. Susan Kent gave her grandson his introduction to education before he attended an organized school. By the time he was seven, William could read from the Bible, do simple arithmetic and write legibly. Susan taught him the rudiments of American history. The senior Kents - being devout Baptists and members of Wilderness Baptist Church - included moral and religious instruction as part of William's upbringing. Warner taught him practical lessons, including how to make a living out of farming.
     In the 1870s there were no public schools in Spotsylvania as we know them today. School would be held at someone's house, and neighbors would pool their resources to hire a school master. At the age of seven William Lee Kent began his formal schooling at Hazel Hill, where his teachers were Nannie Harris and Bunny Buchanan. His third year was spent at the one room school at Finchville, where he was taught by Miss Ella Rico. Melvin Duval oversaw Williams fourth year of learning at "Poole's Gate,", the school at the home of neighbor Alfred Poole. His fifth and final year of formal education was provided by Samuel Estes at Meadow Hill.

Sarah Catherine Kent

     His schooling now finished, William worked on his grandfather's farm as well as other endeavors, such as laboring at the sawmill of George Washington Estes Row. William made a little extra money by hauling railroad ties to the Potomac, Fredericksburg and Piedmont Railroad. His route routinely took him past the farm of Edward Perry. There he would often see Perry's tall, slender daughter Sarah in the yard or the garden. Over time he worked up the courage to speak to her and introduce himself. On 10 July 1882 they took the train from Fredericksburg to Washington, D.C. where they were married. At the conclusion of the ceremony they took the train back to Fredericksburg, where they retrieved their horse and buggy from the livery and rode back to The Oaks.

Kent home, 1940s

     Warner Kent divided The Oaks between his only surviving son, William "Billy" Kent and his grandson William. Billy Kent built a new house on his section of the farm where he raised his family (which included my grandmother). William and Sarah lived in the main house, where they raised nine children. Warner and Susan Kent moved to the guest quarters over the carriage house.

Shady Grove, 1934

     William was baptized at Shady Grove Methodist Church in 1883 and remained a devoted member for the rest of his life. Sarah attended services with him there, but never gave up her membership at Salem Baptist Church. In 1941 Shady Grove published a brief history of the church. In the introduction, they gave much credit to William for sharing his extensive knowledge of its past.

From the history of Shady Grove

     William's mother Martha married a second time in 1876, to a Spotsylvania farmer coincidentally named John Wesley Wright and raised four children with him. Ella Kent, William's only surviving sister, died on 15 July 1887:

Free Lance 19 July 1887

     William's grandmother Susan died in 1892; Warner continued to live in the place over the carriage house. In early November 1906, 95 year old Warner Kent was one day attempting to put wood into his fireplace. He lost his balance and fell into the fire. Warner cried out for help and William rushed into the room, finding his grandfather backing away from the fireplace with his nightshirt on fire. Willie used his bare hands to put the fire out, badly burning himself in the process. William would recover from his injuries, but Warner would not. He died on 9 November 1906.
     In addition to raising nine children and helping on the farm, Sarah Kent also ran a small general store at The Oaks. It was known to the locals as "Miss Sarah's Store." She kept on hand items that people would normally have to drive to Fredericksburg for: dry goods, sewing notions coffee, tea, sugar, writing paper, ink, pencils etc.
     In 1905 Sarah was diagnosed with skin cancer, which began as a mole on the left side of her face. She took a two year course of treatment at Kellam Hospital in Richmond. When it became apparent that nothing else could be done for her, she was given a bottle of morphine pills and sent home. The cancer continued its progression, until the bone was exposed from her hairline to her mouth. Whenever the pain became unbearable, she would go into the parlor, close the door behind her and scream. Sarah Kent died on 30 March 1912 and was buried at Shady Grove.
William Kent and grandchildren

     As William grew into old age, he was well loved by his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. In the photograph above, his granddaughter Kathleen has her feet on his shoulders.
Below, William is seated between Kathleen and her brother Edward:

William Lee Kent

     William kept his luxuriant moustache his entire life and still cut a dapper figure well into his eighties:

William Lee Kent

     During the 1940s William's birthdays would be marked by large gatherings of relatives at his house, like this one from 1941:

     Near the end of his life William visited Sarah's grave at Shady Grove:

     William Lee Kent died on 12 March 1949. He is buried next to Sarah.

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