Bloody Plain Panorama Part 2–The Enigmatic Fairgrounds

From Hennessy (click to enlarge images):

Let’s pick up our exploration of the great Panorama taken in front of Federal Hill, on Hanover Street, looking west toward Marye’s Heights.  You can find prior posts on this here and here.  Here is the image in full, again, digitally stitched by Donald Pfanz. 

Of all the features that helped shape the battle as it unfolded in front of Marye’s Heights, none is more enigmatic than the Fairgrounds.  Before the war the Fairgrounds consumed much of the ground on the left of the panorama.  By 1864, when this photo was taken, only a single vestige of the Fairgrounds remained visible: the dirt road from Hanover Street that led to the front gate of the fairgrounds, which appears as a whitish line  running right to left just beyond the canal ditch.

Fredericksburg had long had an annual fair–indeed today it claims to have one of the oldest operating fairs anywhere.  In 1855, the Rappahannock Agricultural and Mechanics Society and the town of Fredericksburg collaborated on the development of this site, which formerly had been cultivated (in fact, both the local diarist Jane Beale and Confederate soldier John Dooley noted the irony that the Irish Brigade charged across a field that in 1848 had been cultivated with potatoes to be sent to Ireland to relieve the famine).  The town purchased the ten acres–which popularly became known as “Mercer Square”–and accorded the Society rights to use it so long as it used the land for its annual fair.  Over the next five years, the Society invested about $2,000 in developing the site, enclosing it with a sturdy board fence and building a variety of small buildings and enclosures.  The only image we have of the fairgrounds comes from the great 1856 Sacshe panorama.  This image dates to just a year after the creation of the Fairgrounds, and no doubt additional development took place on the site subsequently. But, despite its distorted dimensions, it’s still a worthwhile image.

To give some perspective, I also include here a segment from the Virtual Fredericksburg base map.  Note that the Stratton House, clearly visible in the panoramic photograph, stood just north of the north fence, and that north fence ran along what is today Mercer Street (remember, this map is oriented roughly north).  

From 1855 to 1860, the Fair served as the central event on Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford’s social calendar.  It was part community fair and part trade show.  In fact, 19th century fairs were vital to the marketing of new products and machines.  The 1858  fair featured the “Fat Lady” and the obligatory “big snake.”  Judges gave awards for livestock, peaches, sweet potatoes, syrup and chinese sugar, blackberry wine, sponge cake, preserves, turnips, beets, apple jelly,  soap, a two-horse plow,  three-horse plow, Osnaburg, “Negro cloth,” barrel flour, ladies shoes, “brogans for negroes,” cigars, pressed brick, and many other things.  “Waite and Sener’s Old Dominion Coffee Pot has been so highly approved by all who have  tried it,” reported the local newspaper.  “A lot of lard exhibited by Mrs. Joseph Alsop would doubtless have won a premium for its brightness, cleanness and sweetness.”  (Lard doesn’t often get such praise these days.)

The climactic event was “The “Tournament,” a contest of “knights” competing on horseback.  In 1858, between three and four-thousand people witnessed this final event of the fair.  The annual winner of “The Tournament”–the “Knight of the Horseshoe”–was entitled to pick the “Queen of Love and Beauty,” a title, it seems, that routinely went to the daughters of Fredericksburg’s most prominent families.   

All this revelry ended with war.  In 1861, Confederate troops took over the Fairgrounds as a training ground, naming it Camp Mercer.  When, in April 1862, the Confederates withdrew from the Fredericksburg area, they burned whatever structures stood on the Fairgrounds, leaving some of the fences.  These fences would obstruct the early Union advance across this field in December 1862, but they would quickly be knocked down or removed.  And so, by the time the panorama of the Bloody Plain was taken in 1864, virtually nothing remained.  That the vast majority of Union troops who attempted to cross the Bloody Plain, and thousands who became trapped in the swale, were in fact struggling for life on a piece of ground that before the war had been the site of annual joy and adventure, is largely lost to history.  Here is a view of the Fairgrounds site taken from the opposite direction, from atop Marye’s Heights (in what is today the National Cemetery) looking back toward town.  The Stratton House is at left.  The dark line running through the near edge of the field likely marks the western edge of the Fairgrounds.

One last offering: the Fairgrounds overlayed on a modern aerial image.  As you can see, the area is completely consumed by housing built between 1910 and 1940. 

Ashley Whitehead at West Virginia University has done some excellent work on the Fairgrounds for our Virtual Fredericksurg program; it will be included in the first wave of material put into the system in the coming weeks–material directly related to the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights, our highest priority area to get up and running.

10 thoughts on “Bloody Plain Panorama Part 2–The Enigmatic Fairgrounds

  1. When did the city relinquish ownership of the fairground acreage? Was this not also the area at one time proposed to be converted into the National Cemetery for Federal dead?

  2. Dennis, you are right. For about six months in 1865 and 1866, the Fairgrounds were considered as a burial site for Union dead–at the time, it was conceived as one of perhaps six national cemeteries in the area. But, the water table was so shallow in the Fairgrounds area (three feet), that the idea was rejected. That didn’t stop the Federal government from seizing the Fairgrounds temporarily in April 1866. According to Donald Pfanz, they did so to prevent the alleged disturbance of the Union dead buried there since the battle. But by then, the decision was already made by Secretary Stanton to put the cemetery on Willis Hill. Construction on the National Cemetery began in June 1866.

    Despite attempts to get the fair going again after the war, the Agricultural Society failed, and the fair went dormant for many years. The town’s agreement with the Society called for the land to revert to the town if the Society failed to use it for its intended purpose. I can’t say when that reversion took place, but it was the 1890s before the fair started again–this time on lands bordering the Rappahannock above the town. Meanwhile, photographs show the construction of new homes on the Bloody Plain was underway by the 1880s or so.

    • The Fair Grounds or Mercer Square was purchased by the city on 30 June 1854 as part of a multi-party development action of land owned by John Howison to George Caldwell et. al. of which the city was represented by the mayor. This land was conveyed to the city by deed on 14 March 1855. The land was sold on 6 May 1868 to Albert G. Caver for $2,500. It contained 10 acres. The deed lays out the land as being 600 feet by 726 feet. This is bounded today by Mercer St on the north, Weedon St on the east, the alley between Wolfe St and Lafayette Blvd on the south and Shepherd St on the west. Note, this differs from the red lines on the photograph which uses Wolfe St as the southern boundary. The property remains whole until it is subdivided in 1922. An article by Corey Compton in November 1998 titled “Ghost house of Littlepage” says that the ultimate owner of the 1868 sale was John Dunstan who built a victorian home called Fairview House situated a Charlotte and Littlepage above the swale. He raised his family there. After he died in 1883, the property was sold to Wilfred S. Embrey, a local judge.

  3. Fascinating stuff. The histories of the bits of land in the area really interest me, as it does a nice job of demonstrating social priorities in land usage and the way towns grow sort of organically.

  4. I just happened to come across this site while researching the history of the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair. I am on the Board of Directors of the fair, and almost 2 years ago, came up with the idea to open a Fredericksburg Fair Museum. It is slated to open during the 2013 Fair. Starting with 1738, I have worked on a historic timeline of fair history throughout the years. I would be interested in speaking with people who have information to share. We hope to have the Governor participate with a proclamation and ribbon cutting during fair time. Please contact me at 540-373-1294. Wendy Jones, Board of Directors, Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair, Inc., Chairperson of the 2013 Fair…”275 Years of Blue Ribbon Fun!”

  5. I would love to speak to someone who has knowledge of the fairgrounds.I was born here in 1970 and until we bought our home on Willis St. in 2003 I had never known that the fairgrounds were ever located nearby. Every Spring when I plant my garden I unearth what I call “Fair Memorabilia”, glass marbles, a ring, one small old die (dice) of unknown composition and now I’ve found 2 clay-like balls, marble sized. My home faces Willis St., would be more catty-corner to the illustration of the red area above, nearer Lafayette Blvd. My house would not directly back up to the red area, I believe. Could these be Fairground relics? Could you put me in contact with someone who know?

    • Kelly: Very interesting finds. Willis Street is a bit beyond the boundaries of the Fairgrounds, but not by much. How your children’s artifacts got there is a good question. Not far from you lived Martha Stephens, along the Sunken Road. Archeology in her yard about ten years ago likewise turned up a pretty good concentration of toys, including a the leg of a porcelain doll with at garter belt on it (not sure how much of a child’s toy that was intended to be). These items were clearly from the Stephens occupancy. It’s also possible the toys are from one of the older houses along Lafayette Boulevard. Of course it’s entirely possible that you have found items relating to the fairgrounds too.

      Perhaps one of our readers has additional theories? Thanks for commenting.

      John H.

    • Hi Kelly, I am the President of the Fair and the curator of the Fair Museum. I would love to help you. I can be reached at 540-850-7942.
      Wendy Jones

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