The Many Stories of the Upper Pontoon Crossing, Part One

From Harrison:

(Find later articles in this series here, here, and here.)

During a fall evening in 2008, I began an intermittent but engrossing journey with a particular Fredericksburg stereograph, or stereo view.  This study eventually led to my publishing an article illustrated with details from the image, in the 2009 edition of the annual journal, Fredericksburg History and Biography.  My exploration continues here, thanks to the blog’s opportunities to post details of the stereo view at still greater magnification, offer a sampler of the numerous Civil War stories grounded in just a few square yards of riverbank, and perhaps inspire your rumination on a remarkable place and an intriguing mystery that surrounds it today.

That night in 2008, I was checking the Library of Congress’ online collection of high-resolution Fredericksburg Civil War images in tiff format.  I sought horizon details that might prove helpful in a future edition of a recently revised tour-guide.  My attention soon wandered from the backgrounds of a number of images to their foregrounds.

In particular, I was drawn to this stereo view depicting the site of the Upper Pontoon Crossing on the town’s Rappahannock riverfront.  A Northern photographer, pointing the twin lenses of his stereoscopic camera south from the foot of Stafford Heights on the Union-controlled side of the river, made the image sometime after the December 1862 battle.

I had seen the stereo view previously (as a half view) but never through the resolution that was now available in 2008.  An examination of the tiff version quickly revealed three landscape features to which I had devoted special attention during earlier research on and writing about the Upper Pontoon Crossing, using other wartime illustrations:  an eroded cut that extended Hawke Street down from its intersection with Sophia Street to the river’s edge, at or near the entrances to various past and future Union pontoon bridges in May 1862 through May 1864 (and May 1865); a crescent-edged depression that perhaps marked the site of a crescent-plan, wooden stockade built earlier by Northern troops; and the ruins of the stone-and-wood Scott tenement house:

Next, below, is a view of the same site photographed from across the river and a similar angle but in earlier and comparatively happier times, during the Federals’ near-bloodless occupation of Fredericksburg in mid-1862.  This detail is from an image in the collection of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and published in an article by my colleague, Eric J. Mink, in the November-December 1998 issue of Military Images magazine.  Eric identified the photograph as part of a series of views of the men and camping areas of the regiments that would soon earn fame as the “Iron Brigade”–a series of images made by a Northern photographer in July 1862 atop Stafford Heights.  Eric’s article pointed out the presence of a Union pontoon bridge, likely the second or third span erected here in the spring and summer of 1862.  Note, too, the imposing size of the Scott tenement:

During the same mid-year occupation, Henry Didiot of the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry sketched the site from a nearer vantage point than those of the two images, and looking southeast rather than south.  Months later, Harper’s Weekly posthumously (Didiot having become a casualty of the August 1862 battle of Groveton, or Brawner’s Farm) adapted and published his drawing as a woodcut, when the media spotlight had again returned to Fredericksburg and the magazine was eager for pictorial copy no matter how outdated.

In addition to the bridge, stockade, and tenement, Didiot depicted a loopholed blockhouse built by the Federals to supplement the stockade as security for the bridge.  As I indicate on the second image above, the site of the blockhouse may appear in the stereograph as one of two particular areas of disturbed ground.

Noel G. Harrison

(Next:  160’s A Crowd…and The Mystery…and The Site Today)

4 thoughts on “The Many Stories of the Upper Pontoon Crossing, Part One

  1. I have noticed at the site, behind the grey park sign by the road, there appears to be a right angled depression. Is that from the walls of the Scott tenement?

  2. The photograph of the northern pontoon site at Fredericksburg may have been taken by Captain Andrew J Russell photographic group sometime between May 3 through the 5th of May, 1863. With respect to the wintry landscape, please keep in mind that the winter of 1863 in Virginia was particularly harsh and tree foliage was slow to develop. Photographs taken between at the very end of April to May 2nd, 1863 at and near Franklin’s Crossing show a similar level of foliage. In fact, in the first week of April, there was a blizzard in Virginia to left a foot of snow on the ground. The ship carrying Lincoln to Aquia Creek and Falmouth, Virginia had to hold up in a safe area before continuing to Aquia Creek.

    • Library of Congress dates this stereo to March 1863 and credits Timothy O’Sullivan as photographer. Information verified in Zeller’s numerical compilation of Alexander Gardner’s catalogue, published by CCWP 2003.

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