A Journey Across the Bloody Plain, Part I–The Canal Ditch

From Hennessy (click images to enlarge):As mentioned in my post on the Federal Hill ice house, the 1864 panorama of the Bloody Plain in front of Marye’s Heights is one of the richest photographs of a battlefield ever made. I’m going to use a few posts in the coming weeks to explore the image–pointing out some things you may have missed, sharing other images that elaborate on or confirm what’s in the panorama, or showing how it helped inform our development of Virtual Fredericksburg. I’ll ask Eric and Noel and Frank (or anyone else) to jump in when they spot the chance to do so.

We have already talked about the ice house and the Goolrick buildings on Hanover Street. Let’s move a bit deeper into the picture–to the canal ditch, clearly visible at the midpoint of the image.  Here is a closer look.

Of all the features on the Bloody Plain visible in this image, the canal ditch probably had a greater impact on the battle than any other.  It ran (indeed still runs, though now under the pavement) along what is today Kenmore Avenue.  At the time this picture was recorded, the canal ditch was less than a decade old.  It was part of a system of non-navigable canals built in the late 1850s to provide water to various and potential industries in Fredericksburg.  I have added the Virtual Fredericksburg base map to the links to the right.  If you want to see the full route of the canal ditch (and other canals in Fredericksburg), take a look.  You should be able to zoom in and around as you wish.

The construction of a dam above Falmouth in 1854 fundamentally changed the industrial landscape around Fredericksburg.  Prior to 1854, industries in Falmouth held sway when it came to water power.  But the new dam–later supplanted by the Embrey Dam (which was taken down in 2004)–and system of canals allowed water-powered industries to prosper in Fredericksburg.  Among these was John Marye’s Excelsior Mill, which stood at the southern terminus of one leg of the canal ditch.  In photos we have shared previously, you can clearly see water from the ditch pouring out of the flue at the mill.

Here is a postwar view of the canal ditch.  My best estimate is that this  image was likely taken between Hanover and William Streets, looking north at the crossing of the canal at William Street.  To the left is the section of Marye’s Heights that is today consumed by the University of Mary Washington.  To the right, going up the hill, is what appears to be the wall of the town cemetery on William Street.

On December 13, 1862, the canal ditch presented a formidable obstacle to Union soldiers.  Despite efforts by Union officers to drain the ditch, water remained; the depth of the ditch discouraged the movement across it of any sort of organized body of men.  That left the Federals to cross (mostly) at the three available crossings:  Prussia Street (today’s Lafayette Boulevard), Hanover Street (the crossing is visible in this view), and William Street.  Problem was, the Confederates inconveniently pulled up the bridges, leaving the Federals to teeter across the stringers.  Confederate artillery focused on the three crossings.  The one in the panoramic view, at Hanover Street, proved especially deadly.

Franklin Sawyer of the 8th Ohio described his impressions of the ground portrayed in the panorama:  “As soon as the mist lifted I crept stealthily along through the gardens and alleys to the last house within our lines, from which could be seen something of what we had to do. There is a deep mill race or canal taken from the rapids of town that completely surrounds the city, connecting with the river below. The bridges across this were torn up, and the canal itself held by rebel sharp shooters. The plain beyond, to the foot of the hills, was crossed by numerous board and stone fences…”

The Irish Brigade traversed the very ground visible in this panorama.  Three of the brigade’s regiments, led by the 69th New York, crossed on the stringers of the Hanover Street Bridge (the bridge had been fully repaired by 1864 and is barely discernible in this view).  Two other regiments forded the frigid canal ditch in the area captured in the panorama.  All the while various soldiers tried to improvise an improved crossing at Hanover Street, though without much success.  The crossing of the Irish brigade likely took more than 30 minutes. Caldwell’s brigade soon followed, crowding upon the Irishmen on the far side.

You can imagine the relief soldiers felt as they got across and found the embankment visible on the far side, which provided a few moments of cover before they went up and onto what by day’s end would be a Bloody Plain.  St. Clair Mullholland of the 116th Pennsylvania wrote, “After crossing the stream a sharp rise in the ground hid the regiment from the enemy and gave the men a chance to take a breath and dress the ranks….Here the thought occurred to me, ‘How different is the real battle from that which one’s imagination had pictured.'”  In that plain, there was precious little cover–the Stratton House, the famous “swale,”, and a few fences that delineated the Fairgrounds.  By the time this image was taken in 1864, all vestige of the Fairgrounds complex was gone–it stood on the left of the panorama.

But more on all that in future posts.  The Bloody Plain panorama is simply one of the most important images in our constant quest to better understand a battlefield landscape that today is largely gone.  This image, with others, was the foundation of the work done on this part of the field for Virtual Fredericksburg, revealing dozens of details (and not a few open questions) not found elsewhere.   Despite its scholarly value, the image has a far simpler, more powerful quality: it is a timely image of a critical landscape that, when combined with the words of those who crossed this ground on December 13, 1862, allows us to see, understand, and even empathize in a way unexcelled by any photograph of the war.

Next up:  the enigmatic Fairgrounds

6 thoughts on “A Journey Across the Bloody Plain, Part I–The Canal Ditch

  1. John, do you know who took this photograph of the canal and a possible date?
    What of the photograph in Frank O’Reilly’s book, from the NCR Archive at Montgomery County Historical Society? Is that view taken at a later date on the opposite side of the ditch in about the same location?
    Excellent post. What a shame the plain is lost for all time.

    • John,

      It is also an Albert Kern photo, ca1900. The originals can be found in the Montgomery County Historical Society in Dayton, Ohio.


      • John,
        Thanks for the reply. That’s why I was curious if there was a date on this photograph you posted. Since the Rowe Ice Pond appears to have bermed close to the western face of the canal ditch and the southern side of William Street, are we seeing anything of it in this photograph? Granted, in the warm/hot weather conditions of the photograph, no ice would still be formed there, so are we able to see the William Street edge of that berm? Possibly. It is a curious feature, and one that opens up speculation as to what modification may have been made to the terrain to produce the “pond” effect and when? Michler’s 1867 map makes no apparent indication of anything as pronounced as a bermed pond, but would it have been so pronounced anyway? Perhaps not, at least to the point where it wasn’t distinct enough to indicate when devoid of ice.
        According to Frank O’Reilly’s map set, the feature called “Gordon’s Marsh” occupies the area behind the ridge on which sits the Mary Washington grave site (west face) and was perhaps contained by the north side of William Street, if indeed it continued that far. Frank’s book, “Winter War on the Rappahannock” however, has maps, and several references to the “Gordon Marsh” extending on the south side of William and into the ground the “Rowe Ice Pond” eventually (or did) occupy. What are the true confines of the “Gordon Marsh”, and was the section south of William (described as marshy by soldiers crossing it I gather?) actually the unfrozen “Rowe Ice Pond”? Anything that would have been termed “Gordon’s” would, in my mind, have been correctly limited to the north side of William Street and anything south should have been considered “Rowe’s”. Was there any indication that locals made a distinction or not? One would assume that people most familiar with who owned what property (local residents), would have made such a distinction at that time.
        Thanks for mulling this over.
        John Cummings

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