Posted by: The staff | July 30, 2013

If these signatures could talk…”: Braehead Graffiti


From Eric Mink:

Braehead Post

Most visitors to the Fredericksburg Battlefield pass “Braehead” when driving the park auto tour. The antebellum home sits along Lee Drive, between Tour Stops 3 and 4. The majority of travelers along this stretch of the tour road probably don’t notice the house, as it is screened by trees and lacks any markers or interpretive signs. Braehead is, however, a significant battlefield landmark and is one that still bears scars from the intrusion of war in the 1860s.

John Howison built Braehead in 1859 as the home for his family, which included his wife Ann and seven children. The home is built of brick with a raised basement and a unique plan comprised of two two-story sections connected by a single-story central structure. Howison used salvaged brick from buildings already standing on his property to reduce construction costs, which totaled $15,000 when finished. During the Civil War, Braehead became a refuge for locals during various Union occupations of Fredericksburg. The house and property sat in the middle of the Confederate defenses for both the first and second battles of Fredericksburg. Rising south and west of Braehead is Howison Hill, upon which Confederate artillery shelled advancing Federal troops. During the May 1863 battle the Union lines swept across the Howison farm on their way to the crest of the heights behind the house. Other notable events that occurred at Braehead during the war included Robert E. Lee’s having breakfast at the house prior to the December 1862 battle, Confederate use of the building to conduct courts-martial, as well as the housing of wounded following fighting in the area.

Sketch made by Albert A. Carter of the 4th Vermont Infantry. The scene depicted is the successful Union attack against Lee's Hill on May 3, 1863. Braehead can be seen to the left of the advancing battle lines.

Sketch made by Albert A. Carter of the 4th Vermont Infantry. The scene depicted is the successful Union attack against Lee’s Hill on May 3, 1863. Braehead can be seen to the left of the advancing battle lines.

Read More…


From John Hennessy:

On this the anniversary of Gettysburg, I hope you’ll pardon a departure from our normal Fredericksburg-centric fare.

I wish I could say that Gettysburg doesn’t interest me, largely because it interests just about everyone else (I confess it irks me no end that the most popular post in this blog’s existence remains a post about a bullet found in a tree at Gettysburg). Historical revelations about the battle dwell in the deep details that, in a historical sense, often really don’t much add to our understanding of why Gettysburg matters so much to Americans. If anyplace illustrates how Americans’ traditional quest for knowledge about the Civil War trumps our desire to understand, Gettysburg is it. We know the details cold and increasingly; we understand why they matter only vaguely.

July 1, 2013--the march to McPherson's Ridge attended by hundreds.

July 1, 2013–the march to McPherson’s Ridge attended by hundreds. NPS photo.

Yet, the place, the event, and the culture that surrounds Gettysburg fascinates me. I probably know (or at least knew) as much about Gettysburg as I do about anyplace other than Manassas (including our own four battlefields in Fredericksburg’s environs), but in many ways it’s knowledge put to no good use–amusement or self-reflection largely. So it is for most of us. That in itself is not a bad thing. For me, the story of Gettysburg, told by MacKinlay Kantor and American Heritage in all its human detail, spurred an interest in history that shaped my life.

Gettysburg is America’s simplistic case-study in civil war: the place where all that Americans feared or hoped for was realized or dashed amid a tumult of human struggle. On no event in our history have we imposed more than on Gettysburg. It is the Confederacy’s “high tide.” It alone is America’s “new” birthplace of freedom.

On the ground, no event seems more pregnant with possibilities than Gettysburg. Faulkner’s “every Southern boy” lives perpetually on the cusp of Pickett’s charge. Generations have reveled in the rumination, “if only Jackson had been at Cemetery Hill as the sun set on July 1….” William C. Oates and Joshua Chamberlain battled for nothing less than the fate of the Republic on the slopes of Little Round Top on July 2.

Americans thrive in the world of the possible but unprovable–the world just beyond truth, just beyond our reach. We cannot resist filling that intellectual and emotional space with high drama. Might-have-beens enthrall us, spur us to imagine. No single place in America has been the subject of such vivid imaginings as Gettysburg.

That we imagine so fervently at Gettysburg suggests to me that we pay far too little attention to the rest of the war, for the rest of the war gives us plenty with which to quell fantastic speculation. What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg?  Jackson was at Chancellorsville and engineered a stunningly successful demolition of the Union flank–an attack that achieved all that might have been hoped. The result: a won battle, unchanged war.

What if William C. Oates had vanquished  Joshua Chamberlain and took Little Round Top?  The Confederate army had been there before too: Longstreet overwhelmed the Union flank at Second Manassas on a far greater scale.  The result: a decisive victory, but war unrelenting.

What if Lee had won at Gettysburg?  Would the Union army have collapsed like a broken camp stool? Lee had won in front of Richmond, at Manassas, at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. None of those Union armies had collapsed. It seems to me that the Union army’s presence on Northern soil makes it even less likely it might have done so in July 1863.

Our mania about Gettysburg, and Gettysburg alone, compels us to see it as a petri-dish of immense and immediate possibilities rather than as part of a grinding, consumptive war that by 1863 was little affected by the outcome of a single battle.

Having said all that, there is no denying Gettysburg’s singular place in American culture and in the lives of most Americans who have an interest in the Civil War.

Gettysburg is the biggest. We love big.

Gettysburg is the place where Lincoln chose to connect the sacrifice and purpose of war. His was a speech about the war at large, and could have been given appropriately at a dozen places. But he chose Gettysburg (not only was it the war’s deadliest battle, but also, in 1863, its most accessible battlefield), and so Gettysburg is seen by many through the lens of Lincoln’s address. Other places, like Antietam and even Fredericksburg or Fort Monroe, may lay claim to a more immediate and intrinsic connection between freedom, Union, and war. But Lincoln chose Gettysburg, and so do we.

But there is something else, something both important to the war and Gettysburg’s place in American culture.  Read More…


From John Hennessy:

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the Confederate capture of Union wounded at Sherwood Forest in southern Stafford County. The moment prompts a post on this compelling place. 

Sherwood 6In the last ten years, as the threats that would consume it intensify, Sherwood Forest has assumed a majestic aura wrapped in melancholy. Atop a rounded hill a mile from the Rappahannock (near what we know as Fitzhugh’s Crossing), the former home of Henry Fitzhugh and his wife Jane Downman Fitzhugh peers out between massive trees over a landscape that was for two centuries formed and managed by slaves. Today, the “big house” is boarded and mouldering. The adjacent kitchen quarters (an impressive building) is likewise sinking, while a nearby slave cabin (which we have written about here) is near collapse. The prospects for Sherwood Forest are not bright. A development company owns the house and surrounding acres. No plan is in place to preserve it. No one has stepped forward offering to do so. Thus the melancholy aspect of Sherwood Forest.

The kitchen quarters at Sherwood Forest

The kitchen quarters at Sherwood Forest

Though the house is commonly dated to 1810, it’s more likely the Fitzhughs built Sherwood Forest just after their marriage in 1837. In the years before the war, Henry Fitzhugh established himself as one of the best farmers in the region. He also developed a reputation for hard drinking and  hard dealing, especially as his slaves saw it (we have written about that here).  During the war, two sons entered the Confederate army and the elder Fitzhugh left for more southern environs, leaving the house to the care of his wife and daughter.

The entire Union bridgehead, from Fitzhugh's Crossing to Franklin's Crossing

The entire Union bridgehead, from Fitzhugh’s Crossing to Franklin’s Crossing

Read More…


from: Harrison

Northeast Virginia’s railroads showcased Civil War creativity that was both constructive and destructive, and originated with soldiers and civilians as well as with generals and other top officials. Prototype, customized, or infrequently seen structures, equipment, extensions, alternatives, and practices appeared along or were proposed for the region’s iron arteries. Those often offered previews, with technical or procedural novelty that had appeared along one line reappearing along another.  What follows is a sampler of the lesser-known, novel developments during the first year of wartime operations along the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad (RF&P).

The RF&P’s railyard and its approaches from the Rappahannock River bridge in 1856.   This area, extending several blocks from river’s edge to the station buildings, was the scene of nerve-wracking but creative moments for Southern forces in 1861 and, a year later, for Northerners.  Looking west.  Detail from Edward Sachse chromolithograph, copy in collection of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP.

The RF&P’s Fredericksburg railyard and its approaches from the Rappahannock River bridge in 1856. This area, extending several blocks from river’s edge to the station buildings, was the scene of nerve-wracking but creative moments for Southern forces in 1861 and, a year later, for Northerners. Looking west. Detail from Edward Sachse chromolithograph, copy in collection of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP.

At the time of Fort Sumter’s bombardment, the RF&P’s uppermost segment extended 14 miles north of Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock River.  The railroad then lacked a trackside telegraph-line, and its managers feared surprise by Federals coming ashore at Acquia Creek landing. That place marked the RF&P’s northern depot, at the mouth of the creek on the Potomac River.  Acquia boasted a hotel; an engine house; fishery buildings; and a long, shed-roofed railroad wharf where in peacetime passengers and freight had transferred between trains and steamboats.

The Acquia Landing-Fredericksburg and Fredericksburg-Guiney’s Station segments of the RF&P Railroad, 1860’s.  North at top.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Acquia Landing-Fredericksburg and Fredericksburg-Guiney’s Station segments of the RF&P Railroad, 1860’s. North at top. Courtesy Library of Congress.

On April 18, 1861, three days after President Abraham Lincoln called for armed suppression of the lower South’s rebellion, the RF&P’s Superintendent of Road instructed his representative in Fredericksburg to implement an early-warning system in the event of threatening moves by Union forces:

If any of the citizens exhibit any alarm [emphasis original] you can tell them that we will keep the Engine at [Acquia] Creek fired up all the time so that in case…any vessel come[s] in sight that looks suspicious or anything else[,] we will run the train direct to Freds’burg to give the alarm to the citizens….

Detail from an undated, rarely seen Alfred Waud sketch of Acquia Landing and environs, showing the cluster of huge buildings that probably housed the salting; drying; and storage operations of Walter Finnall’s Fishery. The Fishery complex was one of the most prominent but also the shortest-lived of the wartime Acquia landmarks, surviving the ship-to-shore fighting of May 31/June 1, 1861 but removed before or during the first Union occupation in the spring of 1862.  (The wharf and hotel are just outside this view, to the right; the railroad extended from left to right and a short distance behind the Fishery buildings in this perspective.) Courtesy Library of Congress.

Detail from an undated, rarely seen Alfred Waud sketch of Acquia Landing and environs, showing the cluster of huge buildings that probably housed the salting, drying, and storage operations of Walter Finnall’s Fishery. The Fishery complex was one of the most prominent but also the shortest-lived of the wartime Acquia landmarks, surviving the ship-to-shore fighting of May 31/June 1, 1861 but removed before or during the first Union occupation in the spring of 1862. (The wharf and hotel are just outside this view, to the right; the railroad extended from left to right and a short distance behind the Fishery buildings in this perspective.) Courtesy Library of Congress.

On May 14-15, 1861, either a train-borne alert or its horseback equivalent triggered the dispatch from Fredericksburg of a hastily organized, armed reconnaissance by railroad, as recalled by an officer in the Virginia State Forces: 

[T]he enemy sent down an old passenger steamboat, the Mt . Vernon, which had formerly been used to carry the mail between Aquia and Washington City, no doubt to see what we were about. [A] messenger was dispatched with the news. Ample time was allowed, during a ride of sixteen miles, for him to imagine all kinds of wonderful things; and by the time he reached head-quarters [at Fredericksburg] it was asserted that a fabulous number of vessels of war of the largest class were landing untold hosts of Yankees at the Creek; that they had already captured the works, and were advancing rapidly by way of the railroad on Fredericksburg. [The town] was thrown into alarm and excitement. Trains were ordered to be fired up. All the troops…turned out under arms, while staff officers dashed about in a manner truly wonderful to behold. General Ruggles’s forces had by this time been increased to five or six companies of infantry.
Read More…

Posted by: The staff | May 3, 2013

A little perspective: the value of a view from above


From Hennessy:

This is a repost from a couple years back, germane to today’s 150th anniversary of the fighting at Fairview.

Over at Fredericksburg Remembered, I have also posted more reflective things, including my remarks at the opening ceremony for the Chancellorsville 150th: A Remembering People.  

I have also posted “Icons, the merely famous, and us”–my thoughts on Jackson on the anniversary of his wounding. 

Working on these fields, we are of course pretty familiar with them. But closeness doesn’t always make for clarity. No resource on our fields is more obscured by closeness than earthworks. At ground level it’s impossible to see them as anything but vertical features–now slowly fading mounds of earth. But with the advent of readily available high-resolution aerial photography from Google Earth or Virtual Earth, you can see these earthworks in a whole new way: as they relate to each other horizontally.

A case in point:  Fairview, on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. With all apologies to Jackson aficionados, I have always felt that if visitors can make one stop at Chancellorsville to get a general grasp of the battle, Fairview should be it. It was the fulcrum upon which the battle of Chancellorsville turned. That becomes apparent looking at an aerial view of the site (these views are from Google Earth).

I have labeled on the image the six artillery lunettes built by the Union army on May 2, 1863, when its attention was focused eastward and southward. But the aerial view shows the tangible impact of Jackson’s flank attack on the battle, as it crashed down on the army from the west (to the left). The new line of works built overnight May 2-3 is oriented westward, not south, to better defend against what changed front required by Jackson’s assault. Note too that the artillery here on May 2 was paltry compared to the extensive line constructed prior to the fighting on the morning of May 3–as many as 34 tightly packed Union guns fought along this line that morning. Fairview became the focal point of massive, life-eating attacks–some of the heaviest sustained combat of the war (no hyperbole there). For five hours, a man fell every second in the woods and fields around Fairview, more than 18,000 in all.

This change in the works and the relative scale of the lines can be seen clearly in this aerial view, but is much harder to grasp on the ground.

One other little observation. Read More…

Posted by: The staff | April 28, 2013

Stonewall Jackson’s Last Map


From John Hennessy and Beth Parnicza:

Jackson's map.1080

Jackson’s map. See the bottom of the post for a version with the modern landscape overlaid upon it.

It is perhaps the greatest artifact in the park’s collection, and we’re putting it on display for the Chancellorsville 150th. It’s a map in Jackson’s distinctive hand, showing the battlefield around Chancellorsville, with markings both random (seemingly) and purposeful. We cannot say when Jackson composed this map or how he used it. But there are clues, and questions.

First, some background: Robert E. Lee kept relatively few mementoes from the war, but this is one. After the war, he took the map and mounted it in his first-off-the-press copy of John Esten Cooke’s 1863 biography of Jackson. He also pasted into the book Jackson’s autograph, and then signed the title page himself: R.E. Lee.

The history of the book and the map is unclear, but by the 1890s it was in private hands. It came to the park in 1940, donated by Roland I. Taylor, who bought it an auction in Philadelphia for $750 (isn’t THAT painful to read in 2013?). The book and map (they are inseparable now) were on display at the Chancellorsville Visitor Center for more than four decades, though so unobtrusively that most visitors seemed to miss its importance.  We took it off display several years ago, fearful that continued exposure to light would damage it.  The book and map are now back on display for the 150th.

An early article about the map asserts it was used by Lee and Jackson at their final bivouac on the night of May 1-2. That may be true, but it’s also clear the map includes a good deal of information that suggests Jackson used earlier in the campaign: Fredericksburg, Hamilton’s Crossing, and, most tellingly, Tabernacle Church are all marked in Jackson’s hand.  These places mattered to Jackson on April 30 and May 1.

But, the map also includes features germane to Jackson’s flank march and attack on May 2: the Brock Road (almost perfectly drawn), Wilderness Tavern, and the fords on the Rapidan and Rappahannock (though they are not labeled).  Tellingly, it does not include the network of roads that would carry him to the Brock Road on May 2, and ultimately to the Union flank. Information about those roads did not emerge until the night of May 1-2.

A few intriguing marks and symbols appear, their purpose not entirely clear. Read More…


from: Harrison

This is an edited version of a post first appearing in September 2010 on our sister blog, Fredericksburg Remembered. A revision and reposting here seemed timely on the eve of Chancellorsville’s sesquicentennial.

I’ve often wondered how developments in the animal-rights movement will affect historical interpretation, including that of Civil War events. I’m thinking today of places related to the Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg campaigns, and eyewitness portrayals of animals there.

A pair of dead horses and, evidently, birds of prey sharpen the visual impact of the Chancellorsville battlefield in a June 1863 sketch, at left; a flock of chickens, in engraving at right, soften it at virtually the same spot 21 years later. Sketch by Confederate engineer Benjamin Lewis Blackford courtesy Library of Virginia; photograph-derived engraving by Charles Wellington Reed from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

Dead horses and, evidently, birds of prey sharpen the battlefield landscape at Chancellorsville in a June 1863 sketch, at left; a flock of chickens, in engraving at right, softens it at virtually the same spot 21 years later. Sketch by Confederate engineer Benjamin Lewis Blackford courtesy Library of Virginia; photograph-derived engraving by Charles Wellington Reed from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

Of course, the record of humans’ advocacy on behalf of animals is as ancient as the record of their affection for or, at the other extreme, mistreatment of animals. Yet I’m still struck by the prominence of recent, animal-centered legal developments, media programming, and product- and service marketing.

Lasting rights-revolutions for people have obviously wrought profound change in the way we talk about history. Will today’s ongoing, dramatic shifts in the status of animals exert comparable influence over our understanding of the past, of those moments when their ancestors shared the stage with ours and with equal visibility?

My preliminary thoughts include placing historical portrayals of animals along a spectrum. Anchoring one end are images of animals essentially as animated scenery for military events, with animals (in humans’ perception) granted only minimal influence or agency. My spectrum’s other end, however, is anchored by humans’ portrayals of animals’ agency or utility, sometimes to the extent of their intervening decisively in human affairs. I am also fascinated by the interplay, within this spectrum, of animals-as-individuals and animals-as-symbols.

Cattle and evidently at least two oxen accompanying the Federal army at Chancellorsville, amid the chaos just behind the gun line at Fairview. Detail from a sketch by Alfred Waud. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Let’s begin with portrayals of animals (again, in humans’ perception) as animated-scenery on battlefields. A Union veteran, describing events near Salem Church on May 4, 1863, wrote about a herd of cattle trapped between the opposing skirmish lines. Watching the animals, the man recalled, “it was very amusing to see them run and bellow, first to the right, then to the left, with tails straight out.”

Half of a two-part ox shoe found in area of Stafford County occupied by encamped Federals during the Fredericksburg-Chancellorsville period, and by units from both armies at other times during the war.  Courtesy White Oak Museum.

Half of a two-part ox shoe found in area of Stafford County occupied by encamped Federals during the Fredericksburg-Chancellorsville period, and by units from both armies at other times during the war. Courtesy White Oak Museum.

Recalling a different moment and place in the Chancellorsville campaign zone, another Federal remembered that whip-poor-wills responded to “the strange changes that have come over their usually quiet haunts” by making the night “hideous” with their calls.

Whip-poor-will.

Whip-poor-will.

In his own recounting of Chancellorsville, Confederate veteran and writer John Esten Cooke described the whip-poor-wills in a more interactive role: performing, however unwittingly, a funeral dirge. Their “mournful” call, he noted, was “that sound which was the last to greet the ears of so many dying soldiers.”
Read More…


From Hennessy:

On the eve of the 150th Anniversary of this event, we repost this from a couple years back.

Regulars of the Fifth Corps pass in review on the Sthreshley farm in Stafford County, April 8, 1863.

It was the greatest gathering of American military might ever displayed before the 1865 Grand Review in Washington, D.C. On April 8, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln reviewed about two-thirds of the Army of the Potomac–as many as 70,00o men–in the Union camps in Stafford County, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. This spectacle was seen by few spectators, and the tortuous logistics that left soldiers standing in wait for hours peeved more than a few. But, the display had a profound affect on the army, for armies rarely get to see themselves. This day they did, and the soldiers were impressed. A few days later an officer of the 12th Corps mused, “after such an opportunity of seeing our army as I have had this last week, I cannot help” but conclude “that the Army of the Potomac is a collection of as fine troops…as there are in te world. I believe he day will come when it will be a proud thing for anyone to say he belonged to it.”

Click to enlarge

The huge April 8 review in Stafford (one of five held during Lincoln’s visit to the army) received national coverage in the press, attracting scribblers and artists from dozens of newspapers and magazines. Hundreds of descriptions written by soldiers survive–the vast majority including either grumbling at the wait or descriptions of  a “careworn” President (Lincoln may have thought he was reviewing the army, but the army emphatically was reviewing him).  The Union 2nd Corps, 5th Corps, 3rd Corps, and 6th Corps were all reviewed that day–three of them together on the Sthreshley Farm (called “Grafton”) and the 6th Corps on the fields in front of Boscobel, the home of Henrietta Fitzhugh. What of these sites today? Where are they?  What do they look like?

Read More…

Posted by: The staff | March 29, 2013

Ruminations at the crossing of the canal ditch


From John Hennessy:

I wrote this for the 150th Anniversary observance back in December, as part of the procession that moved from the river through town to the Sunken Road. The procession stopped near the site of the canal ditch–where Hanover Street crossed it–and Frank O’Reilly delivered these words to about 1,500 people. Today the canal ditch runs under Kenmore Avenue. Thousands pass the spot every day, unmindful of what happened here. That’s okay, but it’s well once in a while to stop and remember this powerful story of fear and courage intermingled (as they invariably are).

As Union soldiers descended into this valley and prepared to cross a mill race that ran just off to your left, they encountered dreadful sounds and sights—the full cacophony of battle, a panorama of suffering, the “Valley of Death.”

 Once here, there was no time for reflection.  Men and their commanders could only act. 

Fredericksburg panorama cropped on Canal ditch crossingHere they struggled with the great dilemma that confronts every soldier—the competing forces of fear and duty. Narratives of the Civil War—be they modern studies or eyewitness accounts—invariably discuss courage at length and fear very little. Not at Fredericksburg. 

Fear was omnipresent among Union soldiers on this field, and they freely admitted it. 

  Read More…

Posted by: The staff | March 27, 2013

Lee in 1863–more symbolic than real?


From John Hennessy:

Lee at Chancellorsville.1020One of the great benefits of milestones is this: preparing for them requires you to focus on the essentials, to articulate broad and big ideas efficiently and powerfully. We are currently at work on the Chancellorsville 150th (schedule coming soon). Chancellorsville has always been the most difficult of our four battles to convey. While it features giant personalities on both sides, and while Lee and Jackson produced unarguably an immense military achievement, the battle lacks the texture or landscapes of Fredericksburg (with its varied environments and participants) or the high drama of Wilderness and Spotsylvania (as the first clash of Lee and Grant and the evolution of a truly different way of waging war). 

The recitation of why Chancellorsville matters is familiar: Lee seizes the intiative that carries him to Gettysburg, Jackson dies, Confederate faith in the Army of Northern Virginia intensifies (among the public AND Lee), while yet another Union commander suffers failure in the face of a smaller foe. Lincoln wails, “My God! What will the country say!”

All dramatic stuff, all important. But, let’s go to the last item on the list: what DID the country say about Chancellorsville?

Not much.

Which leads me to my point: maybe the greatest signfiicance of Chancellorsville resides in what it tells us about the war at large. By 1863, the Civil War had become so large and so complex that even a singular, dramatic, decisive victory by R.E. Lee moved the needle of public sentiment or the tides of war very little indeed. The most  unlikely, one-sided victory of the war, born of incredible risk, yielded almost nothing for the Confederate cause.

That in turn begs the question:  by 1863, had the scope of the war rendered Robert E. Lee’s talents more symbolic than real?  Was he the equivalent of Bobby Orr having to play for the 1972 New York Islanders (what a horrifc thought)–an immense talent trapped in a place where he might make some spectacular plays, but with little hope of affecting the larger outcome?  The war, it seems to me, had become a grinding effort to accumulate or degrade, and Lee could accumulate no longer. 

Authors and historians are forever trying to elevate the significance of their subjects. Maybe this is an instance where the larger importance of an event lies not in the impact it had, but in the impact it didn’t have and what that tells us.

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