Fredericksburg–the most complex field in America?


From Hennessy:

While the battle itself is often (though perhaps wrongly) viewed as being straightforward and simple, Fredericksburg’s is likely the most complex battlefield landscape in America.  Integral parts of the battlefield landscape include:  the site of a river crossing made under fire, using both boats and bridges; a core urban area devastated by the massive Union bombardment intended to quell resistance to the bridge-builders at two sites; the scene of intense street combat, some of it from house-to-house (many of the houses remain); a town that became a staging area for massive Union attacks and the scene of American soldiers looting an American city; industrial facilities (most notably, the canal ditch) that materially affected troop movements and tactics and added significantly to the human ordeal of battle; farms and plantations–with distinctive patterns of forest and fields–that were the scene of intense fighting; road networks; and smaller residential communities (like that along Hanover Street and near the Fairgrounds west of town) that were consumed by battle. 

Much of the park’s research (constant over the years) and investigation (usually archeological) is focused on understanding this varied landscape and how the events of December 11-15, 1862 affected and (more importantly) were affected by it.  The process is like putting together a huge puzzle with many missing pieces.  Every once in a while, a new piece of the puzzle comes to hand.  That’s the sort of thing we plan to share on this blog. 

What do we do with it all?  Fortunately, the park has tremendous institutional memory in the form of Noel Harrison, Eric Mink, Frank O’Reilly, Donald Pfanz, and Greg Mertz (of those, I, Hennessy, am the short-timer, and I have been here for 15 years).  But we are also undertaking a major project that will capture all the work that’s been done over the years–all the pieces of the puzzle–in the form of “Virtual Fredericksburg”–a digital, interactive, 3-D, navigable map of the Fredericksburg Battlefield that we plan on rolling out this summer.  Into this map (or rather the database that underlies it) we will deposit most of what we know about specific sites on the battlefield and in town–every photograph, every primary source, digital media like short films and podcasts.  We are working on a similar project for the Wilderness.  This project is a prototype not just for battlefields, but for all National Parks.  Our goal is to have these be the virtual, one-stop gateways to these sites.  We will keep you posted on our progress on this project–one that I must say intrigues me in its possibilities more than anything else I have worked on in my NPS career. 

Another little tidbit from the panoramic image we unrolled the other day.  This blowup shows two things of interest. 

Most notable is the African Baptist Church, now the site of Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) on Sophia Street.  Prior to 1855, this building housed the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, including both white and African-American members (the latter considerably more numerous, by the way).  But in 1855, white congregants built the present church on Princess Anne Street and sold the building in this view to the church’s black congregants.  Rev. George Rowe, a white man and father of Absalom Rowe (see post of yesterday), was the pastor of the church (law required that a white man be present for gatherings of African-Americans).  After emancipation, the church became Shiloh Baptist Church.  The building in this view survived until the 1880s.  The congregation still thrives.  This, by the way, was the slave John Washington’s church; he writes vividly of this in his memoir.

Also of interest in this image is the roofed structure on the camera side of the church.  This was the community ice house–owned in 1860 by a man named John Ferneyhough.  Most years, ice was shipped to Fredericksburg from up north, but occasionally the Rappahannock produced enough to stock the place. In 1857, workers cut ice 17 inches thick off the Rappahannock.  Many homes had their own ice houses (the ice house for the Sentry Box on Caroline Street was recently the subject of an extensive archeological investigation), and indeed we will do a post soon on the ice house at Federal Hill on Hanover Street, which would become notoriously famous.  But the one in this view served the needs of downtown for many years, and is an example of the sort of utilitarian structure once common on American towns that is now obsolete.

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3 thoughts on “Fredericksburg–the most complex field in America?

  1. Betty Herndon Maury wrote in her diary on December 28, 1862 second-hand reports of the effects of the battle on the town as seen by her brother-in-law, Spotswood Wellford Corbin. Most striking, to me at least, was her comment, “The streets were strewn with the fallen enemy . . . and their dead were buried in almost every yard . . . and a Yankee (Byron Pearce of N.Y.) is buried at the kitchen door” of John Minor’s house.

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