from: Harrison

Imagine troop concentrations in southern Stafford County and on the heights just west of Fredericksburg…and military movements from one towards the other. Easy to do? Yes, but I have in mind such scenes from the eighteen-teens, not the eighteen-sixties. Let’s consider another American war with a single- or multiple centennial this year. This post, part 1 of a short series, recounts the first sequence of operations that occurred in Fredericksburg and Stafford during the War of 1812, specifically events in the summer of 1813.  (Limited space necessitates omitting the better-known operations that took place further afield that summer, along the Northern Neck.)

Besides surveying some of the local contours of the conflict during its bicentennial, my interest lies with an intriguing aspect of the history of the Fredericksburg area, an aspect that’s obscured by the drama and duration of the Civil War: the nature of military events here, whether limited or extensive, has shifted back and forth between those involving local or regional combatants, and those featuring overseas interests or forces.

Artist Tom W. Freeman, SM&S Naval Prints, recently created the only known rendering of a Fredericksburg landscape during the War of 1812 era. Published here for the first time through the courtesy of business- and civic leader Joe Wilson, who commissioned the painting for his family’s collection in 2006, “Fredericksburg Landing” shows the town’s Rappahannock wharves in 1816. The painting illustrates vividly the local river connections—Potomac as well as Rappahannock—that brought vulnerability as well as economic opportunity. Permission courtesy Joe Wilson, copy photo courtesy Tom W. Freeman; image not for re-use or reproduction.

Artist Tom W. Freeman, SM&S Naval Prints, recently created the only known rendering of a Fredericksburg landscape during the War of 1812 era. Published here for the first time through the courtesy of business- and civic leader Joe Wilson, who commissioned the painting for his family’s collection in 2006, “Fredericksburg Landing” shows the town’s Rappahannock wharves in 1816. Local river connections—Potomac as well as Rappahannock—brought vulnerability as well as economic opportunity. Permission courtesy Joe Wilson, copy photo courtesy Tom W. Freeman; image not for re-use or reproduction.

The local-regional category of military history includes everything from a battle near Potomac Creek between resident Potowomekes and Indian outsiders in the 1610’s to the launching of a raid into Maryland by the Stafford Troop of Horse in 1675 to the numerous clashes of the Civil War in 1861-1865.  Events in which overseas interests or forces played a key role include the Mannahoc-English skirmish at the Rappahannock falls in 1608—resulting from an effort by the Virginia Company of London to find gold, silver, and trade routes to the Pacific—to a brief but contested British amphibious landing on Stafford County’s Widewater Peninsula in 1775.  This varied, shifting nature of “war” and “the enemy” is even more pronounced when we also consider the fears (however unfounded those proved) of overseas invaders operating in the Fredericksburg area, particularly Spanish landing-parties in 1898 and Axis saboteurs and aircraft during World War Two.

In the era of the French Revolution and through the rise of Napoleon, Europe’s wars roiled the people of the central Rappahannock valley despite the vast distances intervening. An early Fredericksburg historian, who doubtless had neighbors and acquaintances possessing memories of the Napoleonic period, wrote that “bitter feeling” over foreign policy and other political issues increased locally through the 1790’s, “even boiling over at times.” In 1796, Fredericksburgers learned that one of their fellow townsmen, William M’Coy, was among the American sailors impressed by the British Navy. In the Caribbean, the French seized in 1795 the Fredericksburg-based sloop Martha, and in 1797 the Tappahannock-based sloop Prudent, also voyaging from Fredericksburg and also carrying barrels of flour.

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Conjectural sketch (inset) of Fredericksburg’s first Market House/Town Hall, constructed c. 1757 and fronting on Caroline Street. This building hosted public meetings about the coming and fighting of no less than three wars between 1774 and 1812. It was demolished in 1813 and replaced with the current Market House/Town Hall (situated on the opposite side of the same block). The alley in the modern photo passes through what was once the center of the c. 1757 building. Modern photo courtesy Greg Chapman; sketch courtesy Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center.

Read More…


Our friend Pat Sullivan, who maintains the excellent blog “Spotsylvania Memory,” has done a wonderful post on the unendingly interesting details of Phenie Tapp’s lifeTapp, Trephine and Happel.1975. Phenie holds a prominent place in the history of the park–in the 1930s she narrated [left] to park historian Ralph Happel her memories of the Battle of the Wilderness (she was four or five at the time). But mystery has surrounded her life, which, as Pat shows, turned out to be a whirlwind of drama, betrayal, and intrigue. As Pat’s work demonstrates, not all our local legends were the stuff of virtue.

Our thanks to Pat for a great piece of work.


From Beth Parnicza:

This post continues the story of park infrastructure expansion during the Mission 66 period, introduced here.

Two movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s captured Americans on a global and local level: the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. As tensions mounted at home and abroad, the National Park Service prepared to turn 50 years old. As part of the NPS anniversary “Mission 66” initiative, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP seized the opportunity to craft new exhibits in the old museum space at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building (now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center), and at the new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center.

The challenge was high. The park’s small staff of historians faced the greatest expansion of interpretation since the park’s creation. Staff had to balance their understanding of the past with the conflicts and societal understandings of the present. Our past defines us and provides us with an identity, but we can only understand the past through our own experiences. In this sense, the past becomes another layer of the present that manifests in history books, exhibits, and storytelling. To help visitors connect with the war, the new exhibits needed to fit a modern generation’s understanding of the Civil War as the conflict neared its centennial anniversary.

1937 view of Fredericksburg Battlefield museum and administrative building exhibits. Two chairs, a diorama of destruction downtown, four exhibit cases, and a large map.

The exhibit space in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building in 1937, shortly after it opened. This room looked much the same 20 years later, as the park prepared for new exhibits to occupy this space.

Looking around the existing gallery space, the park’s historian staff must have been both dazzled by the possibilities and alarmed at the open-ended questions they confronted. How broad in scope should the new exhibits be? How do we fit such a vast and compelling story into a compact space? How do we teach visitors with an increasingly distant view of the war? Which stories of the Civil War should we tell? Read More…


from: Harrison

My previous post introduced Union veteran Morris Schaff and his authoring of The Battle of the Wilderness, the first book on its subject. That post also began considering why Schaff’s goal of writing careful, conventional battle history remains virtually unknown today. When we compare his ambition to the same ambition embodied in John Bigelow’s book, The Campaign of Chancellorsville, published the same year, 1910, and destined to garner wide respect for evaluating the tactics and grand tactics of another local battle, the obscurity that befell Schaff’s project is all the more striking.

This post explores the principal, ironic impediment to Schaff’s hope of being remembered for his conventional history: his book’s parallel, unconventional goal of understanding the battle and its participants as affected by activist spirits and ghosts, and intelligent, even compassionate, vegetation. As I noted earlier, a critic who reviewed Schaff’s book in 1911 marveled at an author “who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” A second reviewer, commenting on his book in The Dial in 1912, worried that the pairing of very different interpretive methods was “a stumbling-block” for many readers. The Dial critic went on to relate the response of a “distinguished fellow-soldier” to Schaff: “When you get done with your poetry and get down to history you will write a valuable book.”

Marginalia and an inscription in this copy of Morris Schaff’s book indicate that 49-year-old Franklin J. Roth read it over the course of three weeks in the fall of 1912. A 1920’s newspaper article described Roth as president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School Board and “a collector of old documents and historical data.” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park library.

Marginalia and an inscription in this copy of Morris Schaff’s book indicate that 49-year-old Franklin J. Roth read it over the course of three weeks in the fall of 1912. A 1920’s newspaper article described Roth as president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School Board and “a collector of old documents and historical data.” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park library.

If Schaff’s diversions into the supernatural had been less prominent, readers might have understood those as efforts to enliven the book with analogy and allegory, or to achieve other purposes common among writers of his era. For instance, some of Schaff’s passages reflect the view, shared by many of the Civil War generation, that battlefield death could bring nobility, individual peace in the Christian afterlife, and North-South reconciliation. His book at one point has the allegory of Death encountering the mortally wounded Lieutenant Colonel Alford Chapman of the 57th New York Infantry; likely at no other place in the Wilderness had Death “met more steady eyes than those of this dying, family-remembering young man.” At another juncture, the spirits of dead soldiers, from both armies, rise “above the tree tops…a great flight of them towards Heaven’s gate…. [T]wo by two they lock arms like college boys and pass in together; and so it may be for all of us at last.”

Yet Schaff’s supernatural characters appear even more dramatically, across some 25 per cent of his book, in repeated interventions that alter battle outcomes and soldier experiences. For starters, there’s “The Spirit of the Wilderness,” which in turn has the capacity to conjure The Spirit of Slavery. Schaff at several points describes The Spirit of Slavery as a single being and at another as “a resurrected procession of dim faces” moving “in “ghostly silence.” The Spirit of the Wilderness is determined to punish the Confederacy for the miseries suffered in the same forest a century earlier by those people while alive and enslaved on Alexander Spottswood’s vast local landholdings (and more generally by all slaves since then).

Even media not typically hospitable to supernatural interpretation conveyed the view that Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville was an eerie, extraordinary event. Detail from Benjamin Lewis Blackford, "Part of Spotsylvania County," Gilmer Civil War Maps Collection, University of North Carolina.

Even media not typically hospitable to supernatural interpretation conveyed the view that Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville was an eerie, extraordinary event. Detail from Benjamin Lewis Blackford, “Part of Spotsylvania County,” Gilmer Civil War Maps Collection, University of North Carolina.

(Click here for hi-rez version.)

First, The Spirit of the Wilderness in 1863 takes the life of Stonewall Jackson, who finds himself transformed into yet another specter haunting its depths. Then, a year later, the Spirit strikes down James Longstreet, “just as victory was in his [Robert E. Lee’s] grasp,” and in a battle where success was “absolutely necessary to save the life of the Confederacy.” Schaff’s very next paragraph describes the underlying forces at work, with “miraculous” by no means synonymous with “benevolent”: 

Reader, if the Spirit of the Wilderness be unreal to you, not so is it to me. Bear in mind that the natural realm of the spirit of man is nature’s kingdom, that there he has made all of his discoveries, and yet what a vast region is unexplored, that region among whose misty coast Imagination wings her way bringing one suggestion after another of miraculous transformations….

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From Hennessy: Update:  On July 31, 2014, PNC Bank announced that the former National Bank Building on Princess Anne Street was up for sale, bringing its continuous use as a bank since 1820 into question (certainly no building in town has been subject to the same commercial use for as long).  This post, done originally in 2011, seems pertinent anew, so we post it again. I spent the day today with a National Geographic film crew and the great-great-grandaughter and g-g-great grandson of John Washington, retracing with them the Fredericksburg world of John Washington, a slave who came of age in the years before the Civil War, and who left behind an astonishingly good memoir. We spent a fair amount of time at the Farmer’s Bank Building at the corner of Princess Anne and George Streets. The experience–profound in many ways–got me wondering whether or not we were standing before the most important Civil War-era building in the Fredericksburg region. Some, like Chatham and Brompton, are surely more famous. But for association with important events, people, and themes of American history, is there anyplace hereabouts with greater association with famous people, events, and major themes of American history than this?

William Lewis Herndon, commander of the doomed steamer Central America, spent part of his childhood living in the Bank building. Herndon, VA, is named in his honor.

Built as a bank in 1820, it continues as a bank in 2010. But it’s always been more than a bank. The side entrance to the building leads to spacious and beautiful living quarters that were traditionally home of the bank’s cashier or head teller. The first to live here was Dabney Herndon, whose offspring were several and famous. Ann Hull Herndon married Matthew Fontaine Maury. Lt. William Lewis Herndon gained fame as an explorer of the Amazon, but died famously in 1857 when his steamship bearing both mail and gold went down in a storm off Hatteras. Herndon was hailed a hero for helping to save more than 150 souls. In appreciation, the people of New York purchased a home in New York City for his wife and daughter, Ellen Lewis Herndon. While in New York before the war, Ellen Herndon met young Chester Arthur, whom she would soon marry. Dr. Brodie S. Herndon, a prominent Fredericksburg physician and reportedly the first American doctor to perform a cesarean section, also spent part of his  youth in the Bank building. Later, the Ware family took over management of the Bank and its residential space. One of the family’s slaves was John Washington, who spent most of his first 24 years living in this building, tending to the needs and wants of his owner, Catherine Ware, later Taliaferro. Washington’s memories of slavery in Fredericksburg, and especially in this house, are a powerful testament to a life striving toward freedom. Standing outside the building today, we read Washington’s description of his separation from his mother and siblings, when they were hired out to a farm in Staunton. The room he describes is likely that directly over the side entrance–the third window from the left. Read More…

Posted by: The staff | July 7, 2014

Holy cow, a half-million


About fifteen minutes ago, the 500,000th viewer of Mysteries and Conundrum clicked in.

When we started this experiment several years ago, we had no idea it would be as popular as it has been. Many thanks to all of you who have followed us….

 


from: Harrison

With the park having concluded sesquicentennial observances of the four battles within its historical bailiwick, I’d like to consider how those engaged the imagination once the guns fell silent. Readers of this blog may recall my interest in the literary aspects of early commentary on the fighting. What follows is adapted from a History at Sunset program I presented recently on supernatural imagery, used by some chroniclers of the Civil War generation in describing Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and the vast tract of woodland encompassing both. 

I drew inspiration from Union veteran Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness, published in 1910.  It’s the most unique history I’ve read of a Civil War battle. It’s also the first book to be devoted solely to the two-day clash of May 1864, not to be supplemented in that category until Edward Steere published The Wilderness Campaign half a century after Schaff’s volume appeared.

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Houghton-Mifflin’s advertising for the serialized version of Schaff’s book, Atlantic Monthly, March 1909.

Schaff’s publisher, Houghton-Mifflin of Boston and New York, had serialized the book in their magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, beginning in June 1909. Schaff’s study was thus distributed widely and essentially twice. (The publishers seemed delighted with its reception, inviting him to write an article-length sequel and running that in Atlantic in 1911.)

Readers across the country had this first-ever, book-length encounter with the Battle of the Wilderness in a profoundly strange atmosphere. Schaff’s text swerved back and forth from the conventional to the unconventional, from straightforward terrain- and tactics analysis to supernatural interventions. In 1911, a reviewer for The Nation spent several column-inches trying to finalize his thoughts about Schaff and concluded, “We applaud the writer who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” In this blog post, let’s consider the conventional and even “cutting-edge” aspects of The Battle of the Wilderness. These highlight, through contrast, the weird aspects (next post), as strange now as in 1910.

At the battle of the Wilderness, the 23-year-old Schaff served on the staff of Fifth Corps Commander Gouveneur K. Warren. Some of Schaff’s detailed descriptions of what he saw would become popular among later historians, especially his detailed, vivid recollection of Warren meeting with other staffers in the Lacy House, “Ellwood,” and urging them to reduce the casualty return for his corps.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished postwar structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

Read More…

Posted by: The staff | June 17, 2014

The passing of Jerry Brent


We note with profound sadness today the passing of our friend Jerry Brent.

Jerry was unfailingly generous in allowing Mysteries and Conundrums to publish images from his unsurpassed collection of Fredericksburg items.  Indeed, more than a few of our posts were based directly on images Jerry provided us.

He was the executive director of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, and so was central to innumerable efforts to preserve battlefield land in the Fredericksburg area.

But more than all that, Jerry was one of the kindest, most cheerful souls you ever wanted to meet.  He was supremely skilled and knowledgeable, but as humble as the day is long.

We will miss him.


Posted by: The staff | May 9, 2014

The unique promise of Spotsylvania Battlefield


By John Hennessy: We re-post this on the eve of the Spotsylvania 150th. It originally appeared in 2011.

Ours is an imperfect park constructed on some misplaced assumptions, as we clearly indicated in a post a few months back. The four battlefields within the park are too close together to be administered separately, which in turn has limited the amount of land at each that political reality dictates can be preserved. The result is a land base that does not include key battlefield lands–hallowed ground–and a geometry of the park (more than 100 miles of boundary) that lends itself to intrusion from adjacent development.These factors have shaped the management of these landscapes for decades.

The park in 1986, after the 1974 boundary was set. Click to enlarge

But amidst the imperfection, there is a place of unique promise: the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. It has a few things going for it:

First, its land base tends more toward round than linear, and it’s the only one of the four fields that does. Read More…

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