Posted by: The staff | March 11, 2011

Revisiting the Confederate dead at the Widow Alsop’s farm


From John Hennessy:  Note:  since we did this post, John Cummings has done some additional analysis of these photographs. Check out his excellent work here.

They are perhaps the most compelling photographs taken in the Fredericksburg region during the war–the images of Confederate dead at Widow Alsop’s farm on May 20, 1864, after the Battle of Harris Farm. They are perhaps the visual portrayal that most shapes our perception of the battlefields in human terms.  They were first looked at by William Frassanito in his book Grant and Lee, in 1983. Today, high-resolution scans of the images are available, but truth be told, not much new can be derived from the images that was not spotted by Frassanito in his look at the original plates nearly three decades ago. The landscape of the site then and now was largely non-descript, and while we might be able to guess at the precise location and angle of some of the views, we would be doing no more than guessing.

Still, there are a few things worth noting, and curiosity compels us to avail ourselves of the digital scans now available to take a closer look.  Since Frassanito’s work, Noel Harrison has done extensive work on civilian sites in the region, and we now have a better understanding of the nature and location of Widow Alsop’s farm. (Noel’s work is the foundation for almost everything we know about the civilian landsape on the four battlefields here.)

The Alsop farm as it relates to the Bloody Angle.

The term Widow Alsop conjures an aged image, but in fact, Susan Alsop was just 24 or 25 years old when battle visited her farm. Her husband James A. Alsop, died in December 1860, and Susan carried on without him. No genealogy in our region is more complex than that of the Alsop family (pronounced awl-sup), for no family was more numerous. There were no fewer than sixteen Spotsylvania households that included an Alsop in 1860. Fortunately, few families have had more work done on them than the Alsops. The family geneaology, Alsop’s Tables, published by Jerry David Alsup in 1986 is a gold mine. Family lore holds that young Susan Alsop, along with her ten slaves and a white farmhand, got along in “a very successful manner” after her husband’s death.

Susan was next-door-neighbor to Clement Harris, whose farm would lend its name to the 1864 battle. Overlaying Nathaniel Michler’s 1867 map of Spotsylvania Battlefield allows us to locate the farm fairly well: it sat well off the main road, almost exactly one-third of a mile north-northeast of Harris’s Farm. Michler’s map shows a main house with three outbuildings extending southward on the farm lane leading to the Harris Place–though we cannot be sure that the buildings shown on Michler’s map were present in 1864, we presume they probably were. Today the Alsop farm site is in a lightly used area west of Route 208 and Smith Station Road. We cannot say with certainty that the site has been consumed by modern buildings–the overlay suggests that it has. But perhaps archeological remnants of the house or outbuildings survive.

Note that at "the gate," modern 208 diverts from its historic route. Historic roads are marked in red.

The same map, but with Michler overlaid upon it.

The same overlay, with Michler included. In 1867 Michler labeled Alsop's farm "Shelton"

We will leave it to you to explore Frassanito’s work in its original form, and here we will simply share some of the images.  The only one that can fairly be placed within the context fo the site is this one.

We cannot know with certainty whether this is the front or back of the house–the presence of a porch suggests the front, but even if so, we cannot know which way the house fronted at the time.  If we take Michler’s map as accurate, then this image would be of the south facade of the house, with one of the outbuildings visible at the right, placing the camera southwest of the house. That would mean, though, that the gable end of the house faced the main Road–Smith Station Road.  That would be an uncommon arrangement in 1864.

Beyond this image, we cannot be certain of the precise location of any of other five images taken on the farm that day.  Still, they constitute a vivid look at the aftermath of battle, and a close look at them cannot help but humanize the event.  Soldiers of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, engaged in their first battle at Harris Farm, likely were responsible for causing of the deaths portrayed in these images. They also had to bury them.  Here members of the regiment are pictured actively working on a grave (hence the blurry details).

Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan focused much of his attention on two bodies lying near a fenceline. Of all the images taken that day, these beg the least analysis.

The soldier in the distance, from another angle.

And perhaps the most famous of all the images made at the Alsop farm that day.

As O’Sullivan shows, the dead were gathered for more efficient burial.

Frassanito suggests that the distant body shown in the image of the two soldiers near the fence appears too in this line of bodies awaiting burial.

And finally, a face…probably a North Carolinian…one that the day before had struggled through a long march, likely chatted with fellow soldiers, laughed, and ultimately been full of fear, his eyes still seeming to see.

Update:  Since our post on the Confederate dead at Widow Alsop’s farm–and the revelation that the widow was just 23 years old in 1864–I came across her obituary from the Daily Star, December 6, 1915. She never remarried and never moved–living out her remaining half-century on or near the farm where the pictures were taken.

Mrs. Susan A. Alsop, widow of the late J.A. Alsop, of Spotsylvania Co., Va., passed away peacefully at he residence of Mr. S.R. Alrich…July 31, 1915, in the 76th year of her age, after a long and painful illness, which she bore with Christian fortitude. Mrs. Alsop was married in early womanhood. The happy union was soon broken, Mr. Alsop having passed away two years after the marriage, leaving his young widow with one child, for whom she tenderly cared, and in whose companionship she found great joy and comfort. But death soon tore him from her embrace, leaving her to mourn her sad loss.

Mrs. Alsop was a member of the Massaponax Baptist church from early childhood and continued faithful to the end of her life. To the Sunday School of her church she left an amount adequate to establish a library.

Mrs. Alsop was tenderly loved by all who had the pleasure of knowing her. She was a true friend, a kind neighbor and a lovely Christian character. Her genial disposition greatly endeared her to those with whom she came in contact.

Her funeral took place from Massaponax Baptist Church Tuesday, August 3, 1915, at 10 o’clock a.m. attended by a large company of friends and relatives and the body was tenderly laid to rest in the old family burial ground.

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Responses

  1. Great post, John.

    Ten years ago before much of the newer development took place along Monument Drive, I was able to park my car along that road and attempted to walk to the Alsop House, knowing that it was located along a relative straight line from the Harris House. I walked through the woods and came out–probably by luck–at the point where Michler has the Alsop House, although I didn’t know at the time this was indeed where the house stood. But I did recall the strange five roads that converged at that point where the Alsop House stood, and was later able to confirm that the house stood approximately at that spot.

    As for the casualties for the Battle of Harris Farm, in addition to the 900 casualties suffered by the Rebels, and the 1st Mass Heavy Artillery’s 394 casualties (honored by the glorious monument to that regiment), many forget the bloody fighting that took place near the Peyton House, including 524 casualties sustained by the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. This regiment would go on to lose another 600 men on June 18 in front of Petersburg one month later. It appears the 1st Maine’s battle line stood on what is now Springwood Drive and was opposed by John B. Gordon’s division that was posted on the opposite side of the creek (which still can be seen today) on what is now the northern portion of Bloomsbury Lane and Pineberry Court.

    Such horrific fighting in what is now a quiet suburban neighborhood. It is a real shame that this battlefield is lost forever.

    • Todd: Thanks for this terrific additional information and reflections. One of our staff lives very close to the Peyton House site. I’ll ask him what he knows about that. As you note, it is now in a subdivision. John H.

    • The Peyton farm structures were situated along the finger of high ground that comprises Kings Cove Court, about 300 yards to the rear of the Federal battle line that Todd suggests. There were buildings remaining until the Westfield subdivision went in about ten years ago or so.

    • Thank you for your timely posting! My g-g-grandfather was wounded with the 1st Maine on the 19th, and died of his wounds in DC by June. We’ve been planting flowers on his stone every memorial day for as long as I can remember, but I never knew where he fought until tonight. Thanks for helping me pin point it. Google maps helps so much, although sad to see the developments instead of National Park land..

  2. My great great grandfather, Fredericks Unger, fought with the 7th New York Heavy Artillery and took a bullet to the left arm during the Harris Farm action. The wound troubled him the rest of his life. He died while walking home from a GAR meeting in Albany New York, in 1883. He is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

  3. Mr. Hennessy,

    Really enjoyed reading the post. I was wondering however, if you or anyone else knows the reason why these Confederate dead show so little apparent decomposition. If the fighting took place the day before, I realize these bodies wouldn’t look the way they do in the Gettysburg photos, considering those photos were taken 3 and 4 days after the battle or perhaps even some of the Antietam pictures, taken only 2 days after the fighting. Were temperatures lower than average at the time, thus delaying some of the decomposition? The photograph of the young Tarheel on the end of the line of bodies gathered for burial looks to be still alive as do many of his comrades. Just wondering as I have not read Frassanito’s work on the Overland Campaign photos and don’t know if I missed something somewhere.

    Thanks.

  4. Ryan,
    With the photographs being taken late morning to early afternoon, we can estimate that some of the bodies have been dead around 17-19 hours. Rigor Mortis is clearly visible in most as evidenced by arms, legs, and hands. The ambient temperatures between the time of death and the taking of these images probably ranged from the mid to upper 50s or lower 60s to the upper 70s or lower 80s. The rate of decomposition looks to be within reason. The one detail that the camera would not have captured though would be an abundance of blow flies. It is interesting that the ground looks relatively dry despite the heavy rain that is reported to have fallen after the fighting was underway. The body supported by the fence corner does appear to have evidence of lingering moisture in the clothing, particularly around the midsection where it would have essentially drained to and collected as time went on. Interesting, under magnification it is clear this man was also attempting to stem the flow of blood from his chest or upper abdominal wound. A blood soaked cloth protrudes from his open shirt and vest, so we know he did not die instantly. It is also clear that his pockets have been ransacked after death as they are all turned out. This is most probably the position he assumed as he expired, with his head fallen backward and his exhausted arms fallen to his sides. One will note that as he was placed on the stretcher, to be carried over to the Alsop house to be buried, his arms still maintain, due to the rigor, the bend they assumed as he lay propped up, although he is now laying flat. The face of the one man you are specifically wondering about shows a typical relaxed drooping of the tissue, and fixed stare, but I will suggest that he and the man immediately next to him may have been two of the last to die that evening, for, and I hate to say it, they do look the “freshest”. I hope this has been helpful.

  5. [...] our post on the Confederate dead at Widow Alsop’s farm–and the revelation that the widow was just 23 years old in 1864–I came across her [...]

  6. I noticed in image 726 the musket is positioned with the butt a few inches beyond the level of his feet. Whereas the other image looking at him from the front, the musket is clearly positioned further up on his legs and resting on the wood. I assume this was due to the photographer positioning it for better composition of each photo, similar to what was done at gettysburg with the famous sniper. And I realize I’m probably not the first to notice this, just like looking at and studying these old photos.

    • Dwayne: You are right. Frassanito in his book, Lee and Grant, noticed this too. Indeed, he establishes that it was a regular practice to “improve” the scene around the dead by adding props of this sort. Don’t feel bad that you’re not the first to spot this. Every time I think I have found something new, in short order I learn that Noel Harrison already found it 20 years ago. Such is the way of history. Thanks for reading. John H.

      • Nice blog! I’ve read your book on 2nd Manassas liked that too! Toured the place about 10 years ago with Ed Bearrs, hope to make it back soon.
        Dwayne

  7. It is my assessment that these Confederate dead in these photos probably are skirmishers or the van of Ramseur’s brigade killed early in the battle because the main Confederate line later in the fight would have been a few hundred yards west of the Alsop House site.

    The 4th New York Heavy Artillery occupied the Alsop farm buildings early on in the battle, and according to Gordon Rhea’s book, the early fighting between the 4th NYHA and Ramseur’s men took place at the house site and at the fence line just west of the buildings, with the Rebels even using some of the outbuildings as cover. After the 4th NYHA secured the Alsop Farm, with the help of reinforcements from the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, the battle shifted west and the Alsop Farm became the rear of the Union battle line.

  8. The widow alsop lived on one of the ends of Bloody Angle” battlefield.
    One end was Susan Jane Beazley Alsop B)11sept1823 d)1895 who married Joseph Matthew “Hugh” Alsop on 10feb1848. He was born 10aug1818 and died 25sept1884. The other end was Elizabeth Mitchell Alsop b)~1782 who married James A Alsop on 14dec1815. He was born about 1782 and died Dec 1843. I am not sure where you found your widow alsop but it’s neither of these ladies.
    The granddaughter to Susan Jane Beazley Alsop is still alive at 104years of age.
    The civil war pictures of the alsop farm are of the farm I grew up on. WE even have an old civil war sword that was left in the house once the troops left.

    • Hello T,
      The “widow” Sue Alsop we speak of, both here and in my blog, was born Susan M Read on Sept. 25, 1840 in Kentucky. Susan died August 31, 1915. She had married James Addison Alsop, born 1827, who died by accident in 1860. They had a son John A. Alsop, born June 16, 1860, and he died April 13, 1899. The Alsop house in these images posted here was located at the end of modern Pryor Lane off Smith Station Road, near the Woodfield subdivision.
      The Susan Jane Beazley Alsop you write of lived on the farm on modern Atwood Lane I believe, near Goshen Curch off Gordon Road. Am I correct on that point?
      I hope this has helped to answer your question. Please feel free to contact me at my blog as well.
      Thank you,

      John Cummings

  9. The deed for when the park service obtained Bloody Angle Battlefield was signed by my great grandfather.

  10. In regard to the O’Sullivan photo of dead Confederates lined up in Alsop yard {9th Civil War Picture above} I had a email April 3, 2009 from a NPS Staff historian Donald Pfantz:

    ” In my judgement the ridge that appears in the background of the modern photograph of the Harris farm is the same ridge that appears in the background of the image of dead Confederates at the Alsop farm taken by photographer Timmothy O’Sullivan in May 1864. The two images were taken one-half mile from one another and both appear to be facing generally toward the northwest. That would place the wooded ridge roughtly a mile northeast of the Muleshoe Salient. {An upscale subdivision is on the site today}.”

    The Modern view of the Harris farm he refers to is the following:
    http://www.nps.gov/frsp/photosmultimedia/harris.htm

    Also thanks for Modern Pictures of the Farm at site of Alsop Farm
    It sure has changed since 1864!!!

  11. Recently i Inquired to NPS Spotslvania Website why if the Harris farm battle had 900 Casualiites-why O’Sullivan photographed only about a dozen CS dead at the alsop farm. On August 15, 2011 I received this answear:

    Dear Mr. Fazzini,

    At the Harris Farm, the Union army suffered approximately 1,500 casualties,
    the Confederates 900. These figures include soldiers killed, wounded,
    missing, and captured. The number of soldiers actually killed on the
    battlefield usually comprises something in the neighborhood of 12 percent
    of the total casualty figure in any battle. Going by that figure, the
    corpses of approximately 300 soldiers would have remained on the field
    after the fighting. These would have been scattered over a broad
    area–from the Harris farm in the south to the Alsop farm in the north.
    O’Sullivan’s photograph of burials at the Alsop farm records the burials of
    just a few of those men. Others undoubtedly would have been buried nearby.

    Sincerely,

    Donald Pfanz
    Staff Historian

  12. Dear Mr. Cummings,

    I am researching the Mathew Brady photograph of the unknown Confederate soldier that appears as photo #7 in the sequence above. I am hoping that you will add a caption to the image that credits Brady for the photograph, since it is confusing and seems like O’Sullivan is responsible for all 8 images. “Brady’s Civil War Journal: Photographing the War 1861-1865” by Theodore Savas includes photograph #7 on page 129. Brady is also credited with photo #6 on this page, in Savas’ text on p.130. I am hoping that you can confirm these credits to be correct. And I encourage you to add the photographer’s names, dates and places to these photographs.

    I have a few additional questions:
    1. What is in the hand of the soldier that appears in photo #7? There is a detailed shot included as photo #8 in your sequence, but the object and significance of the object is unclear.

    2. Is the soldier in photo #7 the same soldier in photo #1 and photo #5? If so, did Brady also take these pictures? If they are indeed the same man, there is conflicting evidence in Henry Elson’s “The photographic history of the Civil War” on page 63. Image #1 appears at the top with a caption that identifies the dead soldier as an officer being taken for burial in a special lone grave. Image #7 appears below, with a caption identifying this other unknown soldier as “just one of Ewell’s Men” with a note that he will buried in a mass grave.

    Thank you for your feedback. I really look forward to hearing what you have to say.

    Best Regards,
    Sarah

  13. Hello Sarah,

    I am not certain if you meant to ask me these questions or John Hennessy, since he is the overseer of this blog and the author of this particular post, and the only one that can edit anything within it. Nonetheless, since it is me by name you asked, I will provide what I can.
    Firstly, these images are not taken by Brady. They were taken by Gardner employee Timothy O’Sullivan. Brady never ventured out to the Spotsylvania battlefield. O’Sullivan took all the images in this series on May 20, 1864 around the home of the widow Susan Alsop. I have not seen the Savas book you refer to, but I will tell you that if they are being credited to Brady there, that information is incorrect.
    Now, for your numbered questions: 1. I don’t see anything in the hand of this man, although there is an object on the ground in front which I can not positively identify, but it my be a section of a drum canteen that was modified, or a part of a multi-piece “mess kit” of non regulation issue. As to why Mr. Hennessy placed this detail in the posting, I would have to guess that it was just to show some of the detail the images hold, and not to specifically focus on the object near the man’s hand. 2. Yes, that is the same soldier in images 1, 5, and 7. The captions in Elson’s book are incorrect, and again, the images are not by Brady. By all appearances, this man is not an officer, but an enlisted man from the rank and file.

    All of this information has been long established and supported by the work of William Frassanito in his 1983 book, “Grant and Lee, The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865.”
    Last year I published some research regarding these images on my blog, as Mr. Hennessy mentions at the beginning of his posting. Here is the link to that if you have not visited it already: http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/2011/03/placing-some-of-dead-at-widow-alsops.html

    I hope this information has helped you in your research.

    Sincerely,

    John Cummings

  14. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you need to write more on this subject matter, it may not be a taboo subject but generally folks don’t discuss these subjects. To the next! Many thanks!!

  15. at least one of the pictures was used as a basing for an engraving
    http://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/burying-the-dead-at-spotsylvania-1864/

  16. I am hoping some one can inform me of the latter days of the Battle of Spotsylvania. We have recently learned that my wife’s 3rd great grandfather Patrick Connelly (inconsistent spellings) may have been a member of Co. G of the 164th NY Regiment captured 18 May at Spotsylvania who subsequently died at Andersonville. I have reviewed Rhea’s book on the battle and note that he does not include the 164th in the order of battle although it should have been part of the 4th Brigade of Gibbons 2nd Division of Hancock’s 2nd Corp. I have found separate indications that the 164th was part of the Wash DC defense which was sent to Spotsylvania and was thinking that if the artillery units which fought at the Harris farm came down from DC it was quite probable that infantry units accompanied them. I would appreciate it if anyone could shed some light on this. Thank you, John Keohane


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