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.
This is the roof of Mr. Wallace’s ice house, which explains why it sits so close to the ground (indeed on it, as part of it has clearly collapsed–but even in its good days was only a couple feet off the ground). Why does this matter, beyond visual documentation of a common landscape feature? When this image was taken in 1864, the photographer surely did not know that the ice house was still filled with the bodies of as many as 90 Union soldiers taken off the field of Fredericksburg and carelessly tossed here in lieu of the more arduous job of burying them (always, always people will find ways to cut corners, no matter the endeavor). Here are several accounts that attest to the “burials” in the ice house.
Randolph Abbott Shotwell of the 8th Virginia.
“…and the utter indifference—nay, perfect heartlessness of the detachment, in their treatment of the dead surprised and shocked me. They huddled the corpses like logs of wood; and certainly would have been fare more careful had they been so many hogs. Even a dead brute could only be hauled about by the legs from one place to another. An old ice house was appropriated for a ‘deadpit,’ and thither two Yankees could be seen dragging a third, smoking their pipes indifferently as if they were clearing the meadow of its rock piles…many of the corpses were stiff and rigid in the contracted positions in which they died; so that arms, legs, knees, etc. could be seen sticking up out of the gravel—a ghastly sight!
A Georgia soldier, writing to his hometown newspaper: “So to tell you how they did this would seem so barbarous that you might doubt its correctness, but horrid as it is, all is true…. [They would] drag the bodies to the pit of an old ice house, 15 feet deep, and cast them, all turned and twisted and doubled; the feet of one sticking up, the head of another, the arms and back of another; the upturned faces, beside the protruding entrails. Hundreds were to be thrown in, and what a horrid spectacle the whole mass would present, the imagination must picture. They care no more for the dead than they would logs and brush. Our noble dead are carefully interred, their graves carefully marked.”
W. Roy Mason, a local attorney (whose office we saw in the William Street image) served as a staff officer and was outraged by the use of the Wallace ice house (Battles and Leaders, Vol. 3, p. 101).
That day I witnessed with pain the burial of many thousands of Federal dead that had fallen at Fredericksburg. The night before, the thermometer must have fallen to zero, and the bodies of the slain had frozen to the ground. The ground was frozen nearly a foot deep, and it was necessary to use pick-axes. Trenches were dug on the battlefield and the dead collected and laid in line for burial. It was a sad sight to see these brave soldiers thrown into the trenches, without even a blanket or a word of prayer, and the heavy clods thrown upon them; but the most sickening sight of all was when they threw the dead, some four or five hundred in number, into Wallace’s empty icehouse, where they were found — a hecatomb of skeletons— after the war. In 1865-66 some shrewd Yankee contractors obtained government sanction to disinter all the Federal dead on the battle-fields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. They were to be paid per capita. When I went out to see the skeletons taken from the ice-house, I found the contractor provided with unpainted boxes of common pine about six feet long and twelve inches wide; but I soon saw that this scoundrel was dividing the remains so as to make as much by his contract as possible. I at once reported what I had seen to Colonel E. V. Sumner, Jr., then in command of the Sub-district of the Rappahannock. He was utterly shocked at this vandalism. I afterward heard that the contract was taken away from the fellow and given to more reliable parties.”
While the numbers of men thrown into the ice house varies upward to many hundreds as described by these accounts, in fact when the army returned after the war, soldiers disinterred fewer than 100 from the ghastly place.
I confess that since I discovered all this a few years back, I have never looked at this image of the panorama the same way. I ALWAYS notice the ice house.
It only goes to show that according significance through information can transform a place in a visitor’s mind’s-eye. We deal with generally non-descript landscapes, and they will remain non-descript until we do our work. But when we do it well, these places can be the setting for some of the most memorable experiences our visitors will ever have.
Today the site of the ice house is overawed by an old shirt factory that stands along Kenmore Avenue. Here is a recent photo of the big house at Federal Hill–that which accompanied the National Register documentation.