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.

So we have at least three months to consider for a date for the stereo view showing the crowd:


…a date about which the Library of Congress itself is currently undecided.

Let’s begin with February 1863.  We can find rainfall, snowfall, and above-freezing temperatures chronicled in Robert K. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia, and additional weather observations recorded by Union diarist Isaac Taylor, who picketed the Rappahannock opposite Fredericksburg with the First Minnesota Infantry.  These sources offer the following as the most plausible date-ranges for a February photograph that shows snow-less ground and puddles (assuming, for the moment, that the two stereoviews were indeed made the same day):

-February 1-2
-February 6-16 (with at least one Northern photographer active outdoors in Stafford County and recording the still-smoking ruins of the Phillips House, which burned on the 14th)
-February 19-21
-February 25-28

If we consider March 1863, instead, we can probably rule-out the 24th through the 30th.  Writing to a hometown newspaper on April 1 under the sobriquet “Cincinnatus,” a member of Fredericksburg’s Confederate garrison noted that “the flag of truce boat” had resumed its shuttle service on March 31 after a hiatus of “more than a week.”  Besides the 31st, then, Krick’s book and Taylor’s diary suggest the following photography dates (being snow-less) for the remainder of the month:

-March 1-9
-March 11-19
-March 21-23

Now let’s evaluate May 1863.  In regard to the post-Chancellorsville transfer of Union wounded, Isaac Taylor noted that the flag-of-truce crossings at Fredericksburg resumed on May 8.  On May 9, his diary mentions that the shuttle service continued, and the Federals ferried “ambulances across the river on a pontoon raft & bring in a portion of [Union General John] Sedgwick’s wounded.”  A second Union chronicler, writing to his hometown newspaper, described different or supplemental procedures for either this or another flag-of-truce operation, which occurred sometime between May 9 and May 13.  The correspondent wrote that the wounded were brought through the streets of the town and to “the river in Confed’-wagons…over the river in pontoon-boats, [and] loaded in ambulances.”

(The natural aspects of the stereo view do not themselves rule out a post-battle date in early May.  Taylor’s diary mentions heavy rain on May 6 and “some” rain on each of the following two days.  Moreover, and as historian John Kelley noted in a comment on my first post, leaf-out was relatively incomplete early that month.)

However, I have yet to find persuasive, supporting evidence for a date placing the stereo view within any of these months.  While I have read a number of accounts of the cross-river shuttle, all, with one exception, echo the Confederate correspondent, Cincinnatus, in describing that as a single boat.  Yet you will recall that the stereo view clearly shows two boats:


Moreover, I have yet to find an event in the February-May span, likewise with one exception, that would seem unusual enough to attract a crowd of 160.

The May 1863 crossing provides the exceptions to which I allude, yet even this event begins to look less promising as a subject for our stereo view in light of certain details.  For one, Taylor’s diary entry mentions a raft capable of supporting an ambulance, which would have required multiple, attached pontoons, but the stereo view shows two boats that are still separated.  Moreover, ambulances (also mentioned by the Union newspaper-correspondent) are not visible on either bank of the river in the image.  Litters are likewise absent, at least under the magnification currently available.

We therefore might consider the possibility that the image was made prior to February 1863, although, and as historian John F. Cummings III indicates in a comment on my first post, a definitive analysis of photographers’ catalogs may ultimately preclude that possibility.  At least one Northern photographer, David Woodbury, was present in the area during the first half of January 1863, when he made a stereo view of formerly enslaved people who had just arrived within the Union camping zone in southern Stafford County.  Here’s a detail from Woodbury’s image, also evaluated in my article in last year’s issue of Fredericksburg History and Biography:


In addition, Federal staffer William W. Teall wrote about a flag-of-truce crossing at the foot of Hawke Street that drew an estimated “200 soldiers and civilians” as onlookers to the Fredericksburg bank of the river.  This event occurred on January 9, 1863 and involved the transfer of two women and two baggage-wagons to the Confederate-held bank of the river. Unfortunately, Teall did not specify whether the transfer used multiple boats, or a single boat used as a shuttle.

Finally, a flag-of-truce exchange of unquestionable complexity, crowdedness, and notoriety began on December 16 or 17, 1862, shortly after the First Battle of Fredericksburg, and extended through December 18.  The exchange saw the two sides swap prisoners (271 Northern for 463 Southern), and the Federals dispatch at least 100 unarmed soldiers to the Fredericksburg side of the river to inter the dead on the battlefield.  This activity necessitated crews manning multiple boats simultaneously, as confirmed by at least one eyewitness account.  In addition, the protracted shuttling of prisoners and Union work parties could explain the segregation of the groups in the stereo view—especially that of the cluster of men seated at the site of the former stockade—as well as the absence of ambulances.

Recently, my colleague Eric J. Mink discovered that Union soldier John Keyser had made an incomplete sketch of one of the Hawke Street flag-of-truce crossings.  This picture is among many Keyser drawings preserved by the Cumberland County Historical Society of New Jersey.  The sketch appears to be dated December 1862 or January 1863, as shown in this detail.  Note the presence of two boats.


For certain, though, the stereo view cannot predate the December battle.  The riverbank scene captured by the photographer clearly shows the ravages of the Federal bombardment on December 11 and the ensuing street fighting, discussed by John Hennessy and Coly Hope in their comments on my previous post.  Prior to the Scott Tenement’s conversion to a pile of ruins marked, gravestone-like in the stereo view, by a tall surviving chimney:


…the house had been one of the few riverbank buildings, if not the only such building, north of the stone warehouse (at  William Street, several blocks away) that possessed stone in its walls extensively.  On December 11 this fortress-like construction combined with the tenement’s commanding location directly at the Hawke Street crossing to make the building a prime defensive position for Confederate infantry and a prime target for Union artillery.

After dark on December 11, with the bridgehead secured, a structure that was perhaps the tenement represented, to a passing Pennsylvanian, a kind of ghastly, three-dimensional photograph of the day’s fury:

On the bank of the Rappahannock just south of the lower pontoon bridge [of the pair of bridges built on December 11 at the Upper Pontoon Crossing], stood an old two-story stone house, which had the lower front knocked out of it, together with most of the upper story…. Quite a number of our men had taken refuge in it, and were eating their rations in the dark.  Major Rohrer came along, [and] seeing the danger, said to the boys, ‘This house stands on only three corners, and is dangerous, so you had better get out.’  The house was promptly vacated.  The cannon balls and shells had crushed in the stone wall, and the large chimney in the center of the house was demolished, while upstairs, amongst the debris, were found bodies of twenty-eight dead Confederates; and one man in the corner, with both legs shot off above the knees, [who] begged to be shot—the poor fellow bled to death in a very few minutes.

If nothing else then, the stereo view serves the same narrative function in two dimensions, although with a wider perspective and without the gore.  Additional research, ideally to include examination of order- and letter books of the picketing Federal infantry and pontoon-wrangling engineers as well as of photographers’ itineraries, will presumably provide a precise date for the stereo view, within, I suspect, one of the time parameters suggested above.  Additional, key details doubtless await us in the image itself, perhaps to include the presence of a long rifle-pit beside the bridge access-road cut on the Federal side of the river:


Evaluation of the image, too, at greater examination than currently available online, might better explain the striking, apparent segregation of the seated soldiers at the stockade site:


…either identifying them with or differentiating them from the men whom I think we may assume are Confederate soldiers (together with a few civilians), ranged along Sophia Street.

Noel G. Harrison

(next:  the Upper Pontoon Crossing today…part of your national park)

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

  1. Events have witnesses and a good case in point for searching for clues is after I wrote “Hidden In Plain Sight: the First Photographs of the Gettysburg Campaign,” evidence came forth that Plate 31 of Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book was photographed on June 8, 1863 from the the Diaries of Lt Charles Nelson Warner who was temporarily assigned to Battery D, 2nd US Artillery – subject of Plate 31! Using that note in a diary as a guide, I would suggest looking at any diaries for the 50th & 15th NY Engineers who were moving pontoons from Fitzhugh’s Crossing to the two pontoon crossings in front of Fredericksburg. In addition, in 2004, a photograph of the pontoon bridge on the south side of Fredericksburg was discovered and that image was exposed between May 3rd, as I believe, or taken as late as May 4th. At present in late April to early May, we know that Captain Andrew J Russell and his employee Egbert Faux were taking images along the Rappahannock River. If there were private photographers, did they need authority to take photographs in a potential battle zone from a provost marshall? The events related to these specific images are significant and one cannot imagine that these two photographs are the only two images.

  2. I want to add that I looked at two areas of LC-B815-688 and LC-B811-178: 1) the tree that is seen in both of these images. I checked level of foliage development. The amount of foliage is the same. I enlarged the tree and put it through some photo software and gave the images to people who do not look at Civil War photographs and they could not see any difference in the level of foliage. I went back to images made between May 2nd and May 3rd at Franklin’s Crossing and the spot where General Brook’s forces gathered and check those trees. There was not much difference in the level of tree foliage.
    2) I enlarged the background of the homes along the river bank to see if there was any change in clapboards being removed from the structures. I could not find any differences between the two photographs.
    Thus, I came away with the feeling the photographer who ever it was took LC-B815-688 and LC-B811-178 on, or about the same date.
    I can understand his photographing the activity in LC-B815-688, but I am having difficulty understanding why he wasted a glass plate on
    LC-B811-178.
    One other note the boats look very much like the boats used in pontoon bridges.
    I’m one to think these two images were exposed after the New York Engineers of the 50th and 15th dismantled their pontoon bridges and were in the period after the Battle of Chancellorsiville (Marye’s Heights and Salem Church).

    • Thanks very much for the insights, John. Figuring these things out is a collective process–as our successful deciphering of the mystery cupola shows.
      John Hennessy

    • John Kelley, I echo John Hennessy’s gratitude for all your work and thought here. Perhaps another way to test your taken-same-day theory (or at least taken on days not separated by a rain event) would be to examine carefully the earthen berm of the Union rifle pit appearing in each of the two images and try to determine if the same segment of the berm shows differing degrees of erosion, or any erosion at all. Noel

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