The Many Stories of the Upper Pontoon Crossing, Part Two: 160’s a Crowd

From Harrison:

A bit of explanation before returning to the subject of my previous article in this series about the Fredericksburg Civil War stereograph, or stereo view, that captured my imagination in the fall of 2008.  In order to save the “mystery” section of my discussion for Part Three of this article series, my account now jumps chronologically from the relative calm at the relatively undamaged Upper Pontoon Crossing site, in the spring and summer of 1862, to the relative calm at the heavily damaged version of that same place in the late winter of 1862-1863 and the following spring, skipping for the moment the fighting and destruction in mid-December 1862.

In 2008, while orienting myself to the visually rich, tiff-resolution stereo view by locating landmarks that I had studied in other wartime pictures of the same place, as discussed in Part One, I was struck by the large number of people visible along the town’s edge.  Ultimately, I counted at least 160 different individuals, mainly men.  (This represents a conservative tally because I counted only one person wherever the available resolution left me uncertain as to whether one or two people stood side-by-side.)  The figures fell into four general categories of poses.

…scattered at various lounging spots across the riverbank:

…standing in the eroded cut near a mounted officer, visible in this detail as the blur at upper right (20+ figures):

…sitting in a comparatively isolated cluster at the probable site of the former stockade (20+ figures):

…and standing or sitting along Sophia Street (100+ figures), including men arrayed along Sophia and across Hawke Street:

…figures arrayed further to the left along Sophia and southeast of its intersection with Hawke, possibly including women:

…and perhaps enslaved people or free African Americans, shown here along Sophia northwest of the intersection with Hawke:

I was therefore inspired to write an article in part to consider the type of event that had drawn the unusual crowd–a flag-of-truce exchange–elaborating on an identification made by editor and photohistorian extraordinaire William C. Davis in his brief caption to a low-resolution, stereo-half version of this image published in 1982.

While the Fredericksburg area had hosted lesser numbers of troops on both sides at various times before, it became a confrontation-zone for the Eastern Theater’s two principal forces only in November 1862.  Beginning that month, and prior to the battle in December and continuing through May 1863, the river crossing at Hawke Street served as a primary communication-link between the opposing armies.  This role likely stemmed from the convenient presence of the road-cut extending Hawke down from its intersection with Sophia to the water’s edge (with a corresponding cut on the opposite riverbank), and the immediate proximity of those cuts to the Lacy mansion, “Chatham,” which overlooked the crossing from the Union-occupied side of the Rappahannock and housed a Federal command post, signal station, and picket reserve and warming station.

Between battles and therefore in the absence of pontoon bridges, unarmed soldiers crewing individual boats operated what was essentially a shuttle service across the river at the foot of Hawke Street, under official flags of truce that suspended hostilities.  The shuttles transported army messengers, other military passengers, and civilian travelers and baggage to or from the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.  A pair of wooden pontoons appear in the stereo view to indicate that, at the time of the photographer’s visit, unarmed Federals had rowed to the Confederate-occupied side of the river on just such a mission:

If nothing else, I hope my 2009 article in Fredericksburg History and Biography, together with these follow-up posts, will spark discussion and evaluation of an extraordinary image that had previously escaped detailed, published historical study.  By comparison, another Northern photographer’s image of a mere two dozen soldiers posing along a different segment of the Confederate-controlled Fredericksburg riverfront, at and near the railroad bridge, has been receiving prominent attention in print intermittently since 1911.

Noel G. Harrison

(Next:  The Mystery and, later, The Upper Pontoon Crossing Today)

6 thoughts on “The Many Stories of the Upper Pontoon Crossing, Part Two: 160’s a Crowd

  1. I just discovered your blog and really enjoy it. I like studying the Battle of Fredericksburg especially the battle on December 11, 1862 which saw Norman Hall’s brigade cross the Rappahanock River and fight in the town of Fredericksburg itself. Look forward to reading future entries in your blog.


    • Thanks Coly. You realize, of course, that Noel’s work on the upper crossing site constitutes a look at the very ground where Hall’s 7th Michigan went across on December 11–one of the more remarkable events of the war. John H.

      • John, I know that the 7th Michigan made history on December 11, 1862. When they crossed the Rappahannock River they became the first United States military unit to establish a beach head under fire. They were followed by the 19th and 20th Massachusetts and took part in some pretty nasty street fighting.

        I believe Colonel Hall is a brigade commander that has never gotten enough credit for what he did in the war.

    • Coly: Out in Washington State (last I knew) the family holds more than 700 letters written by Hall during the Civil War, most of them to his young wife. I got a short glimpse at them once–they’re fabulous (writing just minutes after Pickett’s Charge, he called July 3 the greatest day of his life). Someone in the family had the idea that Hall’s story–his great love for his wife, his central role at
      Gettysburg, and his early death–might make for a good mini-series, so they have sat on the letters, generally not making them available (at least so far as I know). Someday I hope they see the light, and then Hall will get the credit he deserves.

      • That would be great if they made a mini-series on his life but I am not sure that keeping the letters to themselves will help their cause.

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