Posted by: The staff | November 11, 2015

Rice Bull’s Legacy of War

From Beth Parnicza

When we prepare special programs, exhibits, or even blog posts, we often pull soldiers’ letters and diary accounts written immediately following the action. Untainted by the warm glow of nostalgia, such accounts have an authenticity that draws us in as historians.

With so much of our interpretation and research focusing on a battle or its immediate aftermath, we are sometimes guilty of forgetting that these moments are brief touchstones in the lives of soldiers, which, if they were lucky, stretched far beyond the few days that command our attention. One such account that we draw on to the point of canon is Rice Bull’s spectacular recollections of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Bull served with the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, and it was both his and his regiment’s first major battle. Bull completed the memoirs of his wartime experience in 1913, fifty years after the Battle of Chancellorsville, but his clarity and descriptive ability speak to a clear mind and a sharp memory of these transformative events.

Image of Rice Bull, 123rd New York, in uniform

Rice Bull volunteered with the 123rd New York Infantry in the spring of 1862, explaining, “it was our sense of duty; …if our country was to endure as a way of life as planned by our fathers, it rested with us children to finish the work they had begun.”

After describing a collective effort to overcome the fear of battle, Bull described being wounded as his regiment confronted Confederates attacking in the woods west of Fairview: “I had just fired my gun and was lowering it from my shoulder when I felt a sharp sting in my face as though I had been struck with something that caused no pain. Blood began to flow down my face and neck and I knew that I had been wounded.” As he moved toward the left and rear, “…when back of Company K felt another stinging pain, this time in my left side just above the hip. Everything went black. My knapsack and gun dropped from my hands and I went down in a heap on the ground.”

Bull’s account is particularly remarkable for his account of lying wounded on the field for nine days at a makeshift field hospital near the Fairview house. Beyond the agony of his wounds and the suffering cries of his comrades, Bull noted the weather, which took a turn for the worse a few days after the battle. A thunderstorm, followed by a cold, steady rain, made the unsheltered miserable and caused two men to drown. Bull wrote, “It is now fifty years since that day, but in my memory, I can yet see those wounded men as they lay on the ground half covered with the yellow mud and water.” Decades later, the horrible sights he witnessed were seared into Bull’s memory.

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From John Hennessy [we wrote about Lincoln’s visit to Fredericksburg and the bank building here.  We wrote about the bank building more broadly here, and Lincoln’s visit generally here.]:

steps AL JWAbraham Lincoln spent an afternoon in Fredericksburg, on May 23, 1862.  We know his route through town, we know what he saw, we know some of the people he met.

But at only one spot we can place him in our mind’s eye with certainty: the former Farmer’s Bank/National Bank building, at the corner of George and Princess Anne Streets.  More specifically, it’s easy to imagine him on these steps–the steps to the George Street entrance (which led to the portion of the building used a residence, and likely as offices by the Union occupiers.)

Prior to his ride out George Street to Marye’s Heights that day, Lincoln very likely walked down these steps, and then hoisted himself into a carriage pointed west on George Street to continue his journey.

Bank steps3Five weeks before, on Good Friday, Fredericksburg slave John Washington also walked  down these steps, though he had done so probably thousands of times, for he lived in the bank building with his owner. Washington’s trek down the steps that Good Friday was, for him, momentous. The Union army had arrived across the river that day; Washington had returned to his mistress’s house; she urged him to flee to the south, “so as to keep away from the Yankees.”

John Washington replied, “Yes Madam.”  He then opened the door to the spring day outside and walked down these steps. In so doing he passed from slavery to freedom–the exercise of his own free will. He walked down the hill to the Rappahannock River and soon passed across into Union lines, to freedom.

Fredericksburg is full of small, common places with immense associations.  

Posted by: The staff | September 16, 2015

Upton Gets His Star…Eventually – Part 2

From Eric Mink:

In a previous post, found here, I looked at the sources of the long accepted story that Union Colonel Emory Upton received a battlefield promotion following his May 10, 1864 attack at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Also, I considered the efforts made before the battle to secure for Upton the promotion to the rank of brigadier general. In this post, I will examine the timeline and circumstances surrounding that promotion.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

The attack for which Upton has gained much notoriety occurred in the early evening of May 10. He led twelve regiments, organized in an assault column, across open ground and briefly penetrated the strong Confederate entrenchments along the western face of the “Mule Shoe” line. Although ultimately forced to withdraw, Upton’s success has been credited with giving Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant the idea for a larger attack two days later. Grant later wrote that he immediately promoted Upton to the rank of brigadier general for leading this May 10 attack. Grant claimed he received this authority before leaving Washington, D.C. two months earlier, but contrary to this assertion he does not appear to have had the liberty to make battlefield promotions on the night of May 10. In fact, he did not receive that latitude until six days later.

In a dispatch dated May 15, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote Grant: “If you deem it expedient to promote any officer on the field for gallant conduct, you are authorized to do so provisionally, and your appointment will be sanctioned by the President and sent to the Senate.” This message did not reach Grant until the following day. Two things about it are important. Until it reached his hands on May 16, Grant did not have the leeway to make battlefield promotions, and once he did have that authority, the promotions still needed to be confirmed by the Senate. So, Grant did not have the authority to promote Upton on the battlefield six days earlier.

Edwin Stanton's May 15 message to Grant. This authorized Grant to make battlefield promotions, something he did not do until June 1864.

Edwin Stanton’s May 15 message to Grant. This authorized Grant to make battlefield promotions, something he did not do until June 1864.

This is not to say that Grant did not recognize Upton. The lieutenant general did recommend the young colonel for promotion. It’s likely, however, that the recommendation actually originated with Army of the Potomac commander Major General George Meade. On May 12, while the battle raged along the Confederate “Mule Shoe,” Stanton fired off messages to both Grant and Meade in which he urged the two generals to forward nominations for promotions. To Grant, Stanton wrote” “Please furnish me with any nomination you desire to have.” To Meade, Stanton pleaded “The sad casualties that have befallen the officers of your army leave many vacancies to be filled, and if you will send me the names of the persons you desire to have appointed to the rank of brigadier, their nominations will be immediately sent to the Senate.” The following day, Meade sent a message to Grant’s headquarters in which he recommended certain officers for promotion. The dispatch requested Brigadier Generals Horatio G. Wright and John Gibbon receive promotions to the rank of major general. Colonels Samuel Carroll, Emory Upton, and William McCandless were recommended for the rank of brigadier general. Meade simply stated that the men deserved promotions “for distinguished services in the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court-House.” This same list of names appears in a dispatch from Grant to Edwin Stanton, also dated May 13, suggesting that Grant simply endorsed the recommendations made by Meade. Grant requested the promotions “to be made for gallant and distinguished services in the last eight days’ battles.” No specifics actions or reasons were provided for any of the men. Stanton replied the following day informing Grant that “The brigadiers in volunteer service you name shall be appointed.” The appointments still required confirmation by the Senate and that took time.

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Posted by: The staff | September 14, 2015

Upton Gets His Star…Eventually – Part 1

From Eric Mink:

For last year’s (2014) 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, a colleague and I provided a tour that focused on the May 10, 1864 Union attack on the Confederate “Mule Shoe” defenses. We entitled the program “Upton Gets His Star: Revolutionizing Warfare,” a reference to Colonel Emory Upton, who we understood was promoted to the rank of brigadier general following the assault. A month later, while assisting with the Battle of Cold Harbor programs, a visitor who had been on the Spotsylvania tour asked me why the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery’s monument at Cold Harbor listed Upton, the regiment’s brigade commander, as a colonel if he had been promoted two weeks earlier at Spotsylvania. I questioned Bob Krick, my friend and colleague at Richmond NBP, who informed me that when the monument was being planned in 2001 he could not find any indication that Upton held the rank of brigadier general at Cold Harbor. This interpretation ran contrary to the story we told, and had been telling for years, at Spotsylvania. If Bob was right, then when did Upton receive his promotion?

Monument to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor Battlefield.

Monument to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor Battlefield.

The claim that Emory Upton received his promotion to brigadier general at Spotsylvania originates with an authoritative and seemingly indisputable source. Ulysses S. Grant claimed in his military memoirs that he promoted Upton on the field. In his own words:

“Before leaving Washington I had been authorized to promote officers on the field for special acts of gallantry. By this authority I conferred the rank of brigadier-general upon Upton on the spot, and this act confirmed by the President.” Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume II (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885) 224-225.

Another oft-cited source for Upton’s promotion on the field at Spotsylvania is the memoir of Dewitt Clinton Beckwith of the 121st New York Infantry, as quoted in Isaac O. Best’s 1921 history of that regiment, and available here. Best quotes Beckwith remembering “Colonel Upton had been made a brigadier general upon the field by General Grant.” Best takes it further and quotes Beckwith relating a conversation the latter had after the war with Martin T. McMahon, former Chief of Staff at Sixth Corps headquarters. Beckwith said, as quoted by Best, that McMahon made the following promise to Upton just prior to the attack on May 10:

“’Upton you are to lead those men upon the enemy’s works this afternoon, and if you do not carry them you are not expected to come back, but if you carry them I am authorized to say that you will get your stars.’” Isaac O. Best, History of the 121st New York State Infantry (Chicago: W.S. Conley Co., 1921) 135-136.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

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The staff:

A piece on Jackson published on Fredericksburg Remembered a couple years back…

Originally posted on Fredericksburg Remembered:

From John Hennessy.

The Mountain Road Illuminated, May 2, 2013. Here Jackson fell wounded. The Mountain Road Illuminated, May 2, 2013. Here Jackson fell wounded.

These are the first portion of the remarks I gave at the event marking the 150th anniversary of the wounding of Stonewall Jackson. More than 450 people gathered at the site in the fading light and eventual darkness. My purpose was to talk about the man and our collective historical relationship with  him. Greg Mertz and Frank O’Reilly brought visitors through the events of May 2, culminating with Jackson’s wounding at about 9 p.m.  It was a memorable evening.

It strikes me that one of the differences between our treatment of historical icons and our treatment of merely famous Americans is this: for merely famous people, we are satisfied to understand their deeds. For our icons, we seek a vision of the person, replete with personal details, almost all of them flattering. 

 Thomas Jonathan Jackson…

View original 572 more words

From John Hennessy [We offer this up in advance of Friday night’s History at Sunset program in the city and Confederate cemeteries in Fredericksburg. This post originally appeared in the Free Lance-Star in 2010.]

The headstone of Evy and George Doswell, young victims of the 1861 Scarlet Fever epidemic in Fredericksburg.

The headstone of Evy and George Doswell, young victims of the 1861 Scarlet Fever epidemic in Fredericksburg.

Few things of such permanence in Fredericksburg came to be so quickly.  On the night of January 3, 1844, as the town of 4,000 or so regained its rhythms after the holidays, a group of nine men gathered in the study of 28-year-old Presbyterian pastor George W. McPhail.  They came together to discuss, as the minutes of their meeting described it, “a Cemetery for the Burial of the Dead.”  The old Corporation Burial Ground on Prince Edward Street was nearly full, and looking tattered to boot.  Now, an old field of corn along the “New Turnpike” (what we know as William Street) was suddenly available.  The nine men of rather common backgrounds, including a shoemaker, editor, jeweler, bookseller, saddler, and merchant, decided that night to purchase the land.  The next day the deed was done:  three acres for $550, bankrolled by bookseller Edward McDowell.  The new town cemetery was born—a place “for the decent interment of the dead.”

Within ten days the committee decided how the lots would be laid out; in six weeks the group petitioned the legislature to incorporate, in two months the site was cleared of its rotting cornstalks; in May grass was sown; and by September 1844 workers completed the brick wall surrounding the cemetery—with the prominent gate on William Street that still stands.

Soon thereafter someone stenciled the name “Fredericksburg Cemetery” on the walls, and the place opened for business and burials.  A thirty-by-eighteen-foot lot cost $30; a lot eighteen feet square $15 (by 1860, the lot prices would nearly double).  The new corporation contracted to have graves dug: two dollars for a “plain grave” and $2.50 “where a box is used.”  )Only white residents qualified for burial here.  Slaves and free people of color were usually buried across William Street in the “Potter’s Field,” where Maury School now stands.)  The corporation reserved the four lots around the center point of the cemetery “for the exclusive use” of the pastors (and their families) of the four major churches in town: St. George’s, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian.  By 1860, more than 160 burials had already takScott, Hughen place.

By then, remembered a visitor, the cemetery was “regularly laid off…the walks being graveled, and the plats covered with a rich carpet of greenwood and adorned with many a fragrant shrub and flower.”  Each family decorated its plot according to taste or means:  “Some were simply surrounded by a plain white paling and improved and attended within by the assiduous hand of affection. Others were enclosed with costly, elaborate railings and the interior embellished with every thing that wealth could purchase.”  The overall effect, wrote this observer, “was pleasing in the highest degree.”

* * * * * * *

The cemetery that so swiftly and beautifully found its place on the Fredericksburg landscape still exists; the corporation that engineered its rise continues on as well.  The problem is, few people in town today realize it.  Read More…

Posted by: The staff | June 10, 2015

History at Sunset 2015

We know that many of you are committed followers of History at Sunset, and so we wanted to share with you the schedule for this year.  We kick off on Friday night, with Frank O’Reilly leading a program that will start at the newly cleared overlook of the Rappahannock at Chatham, and then continue to the literal site of the Union pontoon crossing on December 11, 1862.  We have only brought visitors to the Stafford side of the river here a couple of times.

Other highlights of this year’s series include our first-ever visit to Belle Plain, a walk among the Second Corps Hospitals at the Wilderness on the Carpenter Farm (where we will visit the location of this photograph), “The Tale and Trail of Stonewall Jackson’s Arm,” and more. We hope you will join us.

Click the image to enlarge.

2015 HaS rack card back

2015 HaS rack card_Page_1

Posted by: The staff | May 26, 2015

The soldiers’ faith….in us

From John Hennessy.  [This is derived from the speech given in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery yesterday, Memorial Day, 2015.]

Luminaria 2013 moonWe take for granted that men and women are willing to die for their country when called upon to do so.  We presume their trust in what Democracy and freedom are and what they mean to the world are inspiration enough.  We presume their determination to protect things precious to all of us—family, our communities, our most cherished principles and traditions—will ensure our own safety, our own prosperity.

We presume.

But think for a moment of this transaction from the other side:  what underlies their willingness to give their lives for us, if need be?


Faith is the foundation of the military experience.  I don’t mean faith in God or a religion—though that’s certainly important to many.  I mean the faith that a soldier must have in what we ask of him or her.  When we ask a soldier to fight for this nation, he or she serves because he has faith the cause is worthy of the effort.

When a lieutenant asks a private to charge across the plain at Fredericksburg in 1862 or to kick in a door in Ramadi in 2004, the private does so in part because he has faith—faith that what he’s being asked to do will somehow contribute to a larger end.  That faith is what renders, by virtue of a word or a wave of an army or a blast on a bugle, a non-descript rise of ground or a distant fenceline or the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania worth dying for, if need be.

Soldiers rarely have the perspective to see how what they are doing fits into the larger effort, but they must have faith that it does.

That fiber of faith runs from the lowest private to the highest general and beyond.

When that faith is threatened or broken, armies cease to function and causes, no matter how noble, can fail.

I mention this particularly today, here, because the soldier’s faith extends not just to his fellow soldiers, or commanding officers, or generals-in-chief.  That fiber of faith extends to the nation beyond, to all of us. When we ask young men and women to die for our nation if need be, they agree because they have faith in us.

They have faith that what we are asking of them is reasonable, just, achievable, and necessary to the health of our nation.

They have faith that we will value and appreciate their efforts and their sacrifices.

They have faith that should they fall, we will care for those left behind–for the grief of families is also part of the national sacrifice of war.

And there’s something else.  It applies as much to the men who repose in this cemetery—men who died for their nation more than 150 years ago—as it does to more than 35 men and women from this region who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan:

They had faith that should they die, we of their generation and all who followed would not forget what they had done.

We are part of that vital fiber of faith that sustains our nation and inspires the men and women who serve it.  The sacrifice of the more than 15,000 men who lie in this cemetery is a sublime thing to be sure—and history tells us without question that their sacrifice propelled our nation down an essential path of improvement.

But know this too:  your presence in this cemetery today, too, is essential to the health of our nation.  Indeed, your presence here today justifies their faith in the America they left behind.

from:  Harrison

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, photographed at center in Washington in 1865 within a week or two of touring battlefields in the Fredericksburg area.  He rode with the Twentieth Army Corps and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, seated here at Sherman’s left, through Spotsylvania to Chancellorsville, and with the Fifteenth Corps and Major Gen. John Logan, seated at Sherman’s right, north from Fredericksburg.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, photographed at center in Washington in May 1865, within a week or two of touring battlefields in the Fredericksburg area.  He rode with the Twentieth Army Corps and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, seated here at Sherman’s left, through Spotsylvania to Chancellorsville, and with the Fifteenth Corps and Maj. Gen. John Logan, seated at Sherman’s right, north from Fredericksburg.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

With the Civil War’s post-sesquicentennial era nearly at hand, and the Centennial of the National Park Service coming next year, I’ve been considering the origins of public history at the sites of, or about, the Fredericksburg-area battles.  “Public history” of course is variously defined.  My understanding for the purposes of this blog post is a broad one:  publicly funded, historical engagement with places that would eventually compose Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and undertaken outside of commercial, private, or civilian-academic endeavors.  That leaves in play a wide range of both motivations and interpreters, eyewitnesses or otherwise.

In between, for instance, the official reports of Civil War officers and current National Park Service tours and exhibits stretches a long chain of governmental endeavor—whether undertaken on or away from the sites of the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House—embodied in documents or events ranging from courts martial evidence; medical and surgical case-histories; damage/requisition claims submitted by civilians before and after 1865;  soldiers’ pension- and service affidavits; United States Army staff rides beginning locally around 1911; federal legislative action beginning in 1898 towards creation of the park in 1927; and NPS living history programs of the 1970s’ and 1980’s.

Besides Confederate and Federal, national authorities, state governments participated as well.  During the war New York soldiers contributed artifacts found in the combat zones to a “collection of relics” maintained by their state’s Bureau of Military Statistics. In 1898, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill incorporating the Fredericksburg and Adjacent National Battlefields Memorial Park Association of Virginia.  A decade later, the New Jersey Legislature appropriated $6,000 for a monument to the 23rd New Jersey Infantry, dedicated on the grounds of Salem Church in 1907 to mark the regiment’s farthest advance there on May 3, 1863.

In almost any given week, then, from the time during the Civil War when the guns fell silent, and through the time that I write this, historical engagement with some aspect of one of the four battles (or with the collective legacy of all four) was occurring as a function of government, including of the military services.  Moreover, the recording or interpretation of civilians’ perspectives that I note above and below shows that much of this activity, from the outset, involved aspects of what we now call “social history.”

The general march-routes of Sherman’s four corps through the Fredericksburg area.  Green arrow is my notation of Sherman’s personal route from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg on May 15.  Detail from:  Military Map Showing the Marches of the United States Forces Under Command of Maj. Gen'l W.T. Sherman…drawn by Capt. William Kossak and John B. Muller.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Detail from contemporary map, showing the general march-routes of Sherman’s four corps through the Fredericksburg area.  Green arrow is my notation of his personal route from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg on May 15.

(Full map and citation are here.)

This month brings the sesquicentennial of some of the first instances of historical touring of the Fredericksburg-area battlefields during peacetime in Virginia (even if not yet during peacetime nationwide), by military personnel other than members of the units who had fought at those places.

The intermittent touring of mid-May 1865, ranging from the informal or self-guided to the planned and guided, was among the secondary activities of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and some units of a four-corps army group that he accompanied through the Fredericksburg area.  Although a majority of the regiments in one of the four corps had fought at Chancellorsville with the Army of the Potomac, they were strangers to the sites of the local battles that had come after Chancellorsville.  Most of the men in the other three corps were seeing the Virginia combat zones for the first time.  My blog post today samples impressions of the four battlefields penned by soldiers of three of the corps: the Fifteenth, the Seventeenth, and the Twentieth.
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from: Harrison

It’s one of the Civil War’s most poignant series of images: photographs of a burial crew in Union-occupied Fredericksburg in May 1864. The men they inter are casualties of the battle of the Wilderness and, possibly, of Spotsylvania Court House as well. I can’t imagine a more powerful visual accompaniment for reflecting upon the war during the final weeks of its sesquicentennial. And I can’t imagine a more compelling mystery: in Grant and Lee: the Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865 (1983), historian William A. Frassanito noted that identifying the location of the series remained to be accomplished.

Here’s one of its images (with my slight cropping for clarity)—the photo that I relied upon most extensively during the trial-and-error research described below:

Courtesy Library of Congress.

Courtesy Library of Congress.

I’ve studied the set of photos intermittently but closely since 1989, and shared interpretations of it in 1995 in a book and, three years later, in an article in the November-December 1998 issue of Military Images magazine. Although I still believe that the site that I identified and published in 1998 is the correct location for the series, much of my experience in reaching that conclusion (and in discarding the theory I had published in 1995) illustrates the limited shelf-life of my own historical interpretations.

During a three-week period beginning on May 8, 1864, Fredericksburg housed more than 26,000 wounded and sick soldiers—the ghastly harvest carried in from battlefields to the west and southwest. Many of these men never left the town; images of some of their shrouded bodies were made by cameramen at a temporary cemetery someplace on the edge of a Fredericksburg neighborhood. Frassanito’s book discussed seven photographs of the cemetery, images that he found in the collections of the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Here are four more of the seven (also cropped for the purposes of this blog post):

group blog
At least two rows of new graves and headboards are shown, as well as bodies awaiting interment. Frassanito attributed the camera work to Andrew J. Russell and at least two photographers employed by Brady & Company, and dated the seven images to May 19 or 20, 1864. Early prints bore the caption “Burying the Dead,” or variations on those words (and on the army-affiliation of the soldiers being interred); the series would occasionally be misdated to December 1862 when its component photos appeared in books predating Frassanito’s.

Frassanito was unable to locate the site of the temporary cemetery but noted that the large house that appears in the background could be essential to the search. He speculated that it may have been demolished sometime after the war. Inspired by Grant and Lee’s challenge, and more hopeful of the survival of the house, I eventually developed some ideas about its identity and thus about the location of the burial photos.
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