Exploring William Street


From Hennessy:  (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

Having pretty well scoured the photography of Fredericksburg’s waterfront, let’s move into town, focusing mostly on images taken during May 1864, when Fredericksburg became what many observers called “the City of Hospitals.”  This is a wondrously documented period–one that I am doing some research on these days–and the photography from the period documents both the effort to support the hospitals and, secondarily, the town itself.  We’ll look at both.

This is a familiar view whose detail is often overlooked.  (To explore it yourself in hi-res, click here.)  It is without question the most revealing of all street views taken of Fredericksburg during the war.

A similar view today.

The image was taken in May 1864, and shows a group of about 32 men (30 soldiers, two civilians) gathered on the sidewalk in front of the storehouse of the United States Sanitary Commission on William Street (then known as Commerce Street) in Fredericksburg.  This image captures a lull between what was a nearly constant flow of ambulances into town between May 8 and May 26, 1864, as more than 26,000 wounded passed into and through Fredericksburg after it was designated the Union army’s evacuation hospital.  One reporter wrote:

Hourly, as the days and nights slipped on, trains of ambulances from the distant field wound along the streets, pausing here and there to leave additional wounded, or to permit the guards to lift out the dead and dying, and carry them away on stretchers to the dead-house, or the rooms where the more serious cases were attended to by the surgeons. Scarcely an hour passed, in the five days immediately following our arrival, that trains of this kind did not reach the town.

Another recorded the scene on the sidewalks in town.

On every sidewalk men pass you strengthening a wounded and bandaged leg as they go with a  pole on which they lean their whole weight, and as it were propel themselves.  They sit bandaged on door steps.  Bandaged and muddy and weary, with only canteens of water beside them, the sit on curb stones in every street.

Virtually every public building in town was taken for hospital use, and many private buildings too, prompting more than one observer to call the place, “the City of hospitals.”  In response to the flood of wounded, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the Christian Commission, and various state relief agencies responded with a sense of urgency that dominated Northern newspapers for a week: about 500 volunteers came to Fredericksburg, including, I estimate, about 30 women (more on them in other posts).

The Sanitary Commission provided the largest contingent, and quickly established its headquarters and storehouse on William Street.  This view shows the storehouse, clearly marked by the banner hanging from the second-story window.  (The administrative headquarters were almost directly across the street, though in which building I cannot determine.)  The image shows both wounded and unwounded soldiers–the latter probably in town to assist with care of the wounded (the majority of care was given by soldiers rather than civilians, though the civilian effort was without question substantial).

The image tells us a great deal about the town as well.  Virtually all buildings have broken windows–likely the result of the Union bombardment in December 1862–but none show obvious damage beyond that, further evidence that the damage to Fredericksburg was not total, as is often presumed.

The Sanitary Commission banner hangs over the establishment of “E.L. Heinichen  Agent for B. Heinichen.”  Edward L. Heinichen was a German immigrant–one of many in Fredericksburg–who called himself a “confectioner,” one of at least ten in a town with an obvious sweet tooth.  Heinichen left a vivid memoir of his wartime experience, but, like many Fredericksburg residents, by 1864 had vacated town, so he offers us nothing on the commandeering of his business by the Union army and Sanitary Commission.

To the right of Heinichen’s place is the store of James McGuire, a clothing merchant prominent (though not powerful) on the local political scene.  Five doors down from McGuire–on the site of today’s legendary Hyperion Espresso–is the drugstore of F.W. Johnston (a druggist) & Dr. Robert S. Chew, who was at the time of this photo in command of  the 30th Virginia Infantry.

Faintly visible across the street from Johnston and Chew is a sign for W. Roy Mason’s business.

Mason was a prominent merchant who just before the war bought the famous “Sentry Box” on lower Caroline  Street–a home many consider to be the most beautiful in Fredericksburg.  Mason wrote an account of his experiences at the Battle of Fredericksburg, which you can find here.

The greatest value of this image in terms of landscape is what it tells us about Fredericksburg’s streets and sidewalks.  William Street (then called Commerce) was the main east-west road through town.  It was dirt, and by all appearances seems in this view much like the city streets described in a prewar newspaper article:  “Whence all the garbage, and filth of our streets…?  Instead of cleaning [the streets] there is a continual pouring on of sand, rocks, &c. making the streets, in some places, two feet above the level of the sidewalks, and causing [the sidewalks] to be flooded every rain….”

Granite curbs are clearly visible in the image, and the sidewalks seem to vary.  Under magnification, the solder at the left is standing on a brick surface, with a distinct change in surface at the property line to the right of him.

Elsewhere, the sidewalks seem to be of dirt, or perhaps stone.  The street is strewn with trash–not surprising given three years of war and a much-reduced population (due to those seeking refuge elsewhere).

This image is one of a series taken in this same neighborhood–images we’ll discuss in short order.  It’s hard not to lament, though, that the photographer did not turn his lens 90 degrees to the left to capture the Planter’s Hotel and, in front of it, the slave auction block.  Planter’s was used as a Ninth  Corps hospital and is the subject of vivid accounts left by both Julia Wheelock and Clara Barton.  Indeed, the hotel, which still stands, is one of only four buildings in town we can say with certainty was visited by Clara Barton during her ministrations to Union wounded in three battles.  A great local trivia question:  can you name the other three?

Planter’s and the slave auction block today.

More soon.

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5 thoughts on “Exploring William Street

  1. John,
    With all due respect, your modern camera position and the identification of buidings as they stand today is incorrect. The current gray building is not the central feature of the historic image, in fact it is one of the least visible. The single soldier at far left is standing in front of the extreme right hand door of the gray building, which after the Civil War became the warehouse for Myer and Brulle, operators of the Germania Flour Mill on upper Caroline Street.
    The large group of men coming out of Heinichen’s building are placed on todays street view between the larger green tree and the blue awning of La Petite Auberge, just above the windshield of the car pulling out. The Auberge’s building replaced both McGuire’s structure and the smaller one to its right. Heinichen’s building is likewise gone and replaced. Only one third of the three buiding strip where most of the men are gathered remains today, and that is the one adjacent to the gray buiding (Myer and Brulle).
    James Gardner’s camera position would be close to 80 feet further north west on William Street. The Planter’s Hotel would have been close to 140 degrees to his left rear when taking the Sanitary Commision view.

    John Cummings

  2. It may be my imagination, but in blowing up the smaller .tiff view from the LOC I think I see the Chatham complex in the background.

  3. Russ,
    Based on the camera’s field of view, the height of the buildings in the 200 block of William Street and what apears to be the ruins of the Bank of Virginia on the corner of the 100 block, the visible portion of the Stafford side is probably below the south ravine of Chatham and no less than 55 degrees north east. That’s my calculation anyway.

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