“If these signatures could talk…”: Chatham Graffiti, Part 1


From Mink:

Throughout time, soldiers taking the field have always left their mark behind. Visible evidence of their presence on battlefields includes fortifications, artifacts and battle debris, and even graves. Less visible reminders can take the form of graffiti. These writings are often more personal, with soldiers leaving sketches, commentary on the times and events, and most often their names and military unit affiliation. In the Fredericksburg area, the most well known examples of graffiti left by Civil War soldiers can be found at Massaponax Church in Spotsylvania County and Aquia Church in Stafford County, where interior and exterior walls are covered with a wide variety of penned drawings and statements. Perhaps these were left out of boredom and inactivity, or perhaps the soldiers’ uncertainty of their fate resulted in a desire to leave behind a mark to be remembered by.

In the years following the end of the Civil War, a great deal of soldier graffiti on houses and other structures was covered over. From time to time, work done on local buildings reveals the writings and etchings. Such is the case at Chatham, where every few years another example of a soldier’s presence here is uncovered.

As early as 1929, workers were finding graffiti at Chatham. A newspaper article from that year reported on quite a few prominent names that were found scrawled on exposed plaster.

“Among the signatures standing out most distinctly were the following: General Burnside; Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, Commanding 3rd Division Cavalry Corps; Lieut. James B. Seywell, 1st New York Mounted Rifles; T.W. Moffett, 3rd Indiana Cavalry; Brig. General Buford, September 2, 1863; Capt. Nelson, Co. B, 1st Reg. New Jersey Corps; John F. Bradshaw, April 1, 1865; F.D. Gorman. There are scores of other names scrawled on the walls which are more or less distinct. The hand of time has obliterated a larger number of the signatures, which were found only in the hall and which was evidently unpapered in the sixties. They extend from a wooden chairboard up as high as the tallest soldier could reach from the floor. If these signatures could talk, no doubt thrilling and secret tales of the War Between the States would be uncovered.”

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The Secret Careers of Civil War Photographs


from: Harrison

When we think about Civil War battlefields, we often rely upon art, memories of our visits to those places, and the scenes that our imaginations conjure from soldiers’ writings.

I here include Civil War photographs in the category of “art” because of course those were composed consciously to one degree or another.  At the dramatic end of the spectrum of examples, consider the images made by the photographer who moved a Confederate soldier’s corpse in Devil’s Den at Gettysburg, or by the photographer who several months later posed living men as dead men in the same area.  Yet beyond this type of subjectivity, some photographs have undergone physical transformations after their original creation and thereby assumed multiple careers.  In the case of iconic pictures of the December 1862 battle of Fredericksburg and its aftermath, moreover, “moonlighting” by photographs in other media presents us with mysteries of artistic selection.

Allen C. Redwood (1844-1922) created the original drawing upon which engravers for Century magazine made this woodcut of Confederate Sharpshooters, Fredericksburg:

After 1886, when the picture made the first in a series of nationally published appearances, it achieved a high profile in Americans’ mental re-creations of the December 1862 battle, particularly of the bombardment and river assault-crossing on December 11.  In late 1862 and early 1863, Redwood had spent considerable time in the Fredericksburg area with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, first on detail to the commissary department of the 55th Virginia Infantry, and then as its Regimental Sergeant-Major.
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The eerie ice house at Federal Hill


From Hennessy:

In 1862, Federal Hill, the wartime of home of 32-year-old merchant H.H. Wallace and his wife Elizabeth (and an ancestral home of Confederate General Thomas R.R. Cobb), stood on the very outskirts of town, overlooking what would become a bloody plain in the December 1862 battle. The view from the yard of Federal Hill is dramatically captured in one of the most famous battlefield panoramas ever taken.  It was done in two parts; Donald Pfanz of our staff has put them together, thus (click to enlarge):

Here is a map derived from Virtual Fredericksburg that conveys the landscape captured in the image.  I have marked the photographer’s location with a big red dot in front of Federal Hill, on the right of the map (click to enlarge the map).  Bear in mind that the map is oriented north and south–the camera angle is east and west.

The great panorama is a vivid testament to the power of information and knowledge when applied to a landscape or a photo.  While there are literally dozens of details to wonder about in this image, look closely at what appears to be a tumble-down building in the foreground–the roof of a building that seems simply collapsed.  Few people note this feature, except to be confused by it.

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The Many Stories of the Upper Pontoon Crossing (Part Three: A Question of “When”)


From Harrison: (see here for Part I of this story, and here for Part II)

Returning to the Upper Pontoon Crossing, let’s consider the central mystery of the stereograph, or stereo view, depicting the crowded flag-of-truce exchange:  when did the photographer create the image?  By mid-January 1863, several exchanges were made daily across the Rappahannock at the foot of Hawke Street.  With the practice grown routine, what rendered this particular flag-of-truce crossing unique enough to draw at least 160 people to one side of the river, and a photographer to the other?  However unintentionally and by default, he achieved what could well prove, under still greater magnification, one of the most extensive and complex feats of single-image (stereoscopic, in this case) photographic documentation ever made of the Army of Northern Virginia in the field.  A date could lead us to identification of a sufficiently unusual or appealing event, if not vice versa.

Online, the Library of Congress has made available two images of this particular scene.  Of these, a digital file of a full stereo view (my principal reference for this post and my previous posts here and here) bears an attribution to Timothy O’Sullivan and a date of March 1863.  Yet the Library has also made available online a digitized paper-print of part of a stereo-half of the very same image, which bears no photographer-attribution but does carry a date of May 1863, conveyed in the title “Removing wounded across Rappahannock River after the battle of Chancellorsville—under flag of truce.”

(During the battle, from early morning May 3, 1863 until the afternoon of May 5—more specifically, during the combats often referred to as the “Second Battle of Fredericksburg”—the Federals built and then maintained two pontoon bridges at the foot of Hawke Street, which obviously eliminates May 3-4 and at least part of May 5 as date-candidates for the bridge-less scene in the stereo view.)

Online, the Library of Congress has also posted several portions of a second, different stereo view that a Northern photographer made from virtually the same vantage point utilized for the first view but with the scene shifted slightly downriver, to the southeast, and showing only a few lone pickets along the Fredericksburg bank, in place of the crowd:


The two scenes are similar enough that an initial glance suggests that they were perhaps made the same day.  But a closer examination of both leaves open the possibility of different days, and perhaps even different months, since the wetness of the ground appears to differ where the two images overlap (although far from definitively differing, in my opinion, due to the first image not extending significantly into the area occupied by a puddle in the left-middleground of the second).  Indeed, the Library of Congress dates this second stereo view to February 1863, and attributes it also to O’Sullivan.
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Battle Damage


As a follow up to our post of yesterday, Dennis Sacrey, the administrator of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, sends along some images of remant battle damage in the roof and wall of the church.  I mentioned in a comment that Dennis is the outgoing president of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society; he also volunteers for the park and has been an immense supporter of telling the story of Fredericksburg in the war.  Many thanks Dennis.

A Church Ravaged


From Hennessy (see here for an earlier post on damage in town):

Fredericksburg had eight churches at the time of the Civil War, and all of them played a central part in the town’s thrice-repeated role as a Union hospital.  Of them all, by far the best documented is the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.  The sanctuary, shown below, was just seven years old when war visited its walls on December 13, 1862. That morning, Union hospital workers arrived and cleared the main sanctuary by throwing most of the pews out the windows.  Then the wounded started pouring in, using the seat cushions as beds.

That the Baptist Church became such a visible and important hospital is a little surprising given the physical layout of the place.  The doorway you see in the image opens to what in 1862 was probably a chapel or meeting room.  The main sanctuary is upstairs, reached by one of two fairly arduous stairways.  Getting wounded into the main sanctuary meant carrying them up the stairs–no easy task.

This is one of four buildings in town that we can be certain had Clara Barton grace its entryway during her four visits to Fredericksburg.  Far more important than that, during the massive movement of wounded through Fredericksburg in 1864 (26,000 wounded in two weeks), the Baptist Church was the domain of Dr. Frank Hamilton, one of America’s premier surgeons, who had been lured out of military retirement to help treat the wounded in Fredericksburg.  The use of the hospital is exceedingly well documented.

The war left the Baptist Church a mess.  Resident H.W. Willenbucher later testified to the damage.

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Are Battlefields Museums of Interpretive Expression, Too?


From Hennessy:  Unlike most governments, whose planning horizons can’t extend too far beyond the next election, planning and management of an NPS site has to look forward decades, even centuries. These places are, after all, supposed to be as vivid and meaningful to Americans in 1,000 years as they are today.  At the same time, battlefields have become a setting where Americans across generations have expressed themselves toward their past.  The veterans were most ardent about this, of course, but later generations have also found need to leave a mark in the form of monuments–from the Centennial to as recent as last May, when South Carolina dedicated a monument near the Bloody Angle.  In the last fifteen years, the NPS as a whole has recognized the long-term implications of a continuous accumulation of memorial expressions and has put in place a very tough process for getting a monument in a National Park approved. Rightly so.

But we are left still with an even more numerous form of expression:  interpretive exhibits and signs.  At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP we do not have the old War Department markers that are so common at Gettysburg, Antietam, and other  battlefield parks created before 1933, but we do have a fondly regarded layer of interpretation dating from the 1950s: the Happel signs, mentioned by Craig Swain in his post of yesterday.  These are cast aluminum, text-only signs (a few later attempts at imitation include some simple graphics) intended to be read from your vehicle, planned and written by long-time staff historian Ralph Happel.  Here’s an example of a set on Grant Drive at Spotsylvania.

Like many, this set of signs includes a companion cast-aluminum map, also from the 1950s.  These signs are beautifully written, generally accurate, and their distinctive form has become closely identified with the park.  Some local developers have even copied the style, and a few grace local subdivisions.

But, they are upright and huge.  They were designed in a different age, when the intent was for visitors to tour the park in their cars, without much footwork on the ground (though over time they were often put in places only accessible to pedestrians).  And the maps that accompany them are invariably badly out of date. As an added joy, they need to be hand-painted every few years.


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