Abraham Lincoln was in the Sunken Road (no kidding)

From Hennessy:

Abraham Lincoln likely passed down the Sunken Road (coming toward the camera) in a four-horse carriage on May 23, 1862. This is a postwar image.

Abraham Lincoln was in the  Sunken Road.  I know it sounds like a bad plotline from the Twilight Zone, but it’s true.

Every once in a while you see something new in a picture even though you’ve looked at a hundred times before. The same is true with research. We have long known a good deal about Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Fredericksburg on May 23, 1862, during McDowell’s peaceful occupation of the town. After taking a boat to Aquia Landing, Lincoln took the trains to Potomac Creek Bridge, famously opted to walk across that seemingly flimsy structure (much to Secretary Stanton’s fright), and then on to Chatham.  After reviewing some of the troops on the Stafford side, Lincoln crossed the Rappahannock on the canal boat bridge at the town docks and eventually proceeded to the Farmer’s Bank building on Princess Anne Street, where he met for a time with General Marsena Patrick, then governing the still-relatively placid population of Fredericksburg.

But recently reading through my notes and Ed Raus’s excellent Banners South, the history of the 23d New York Infantry (which includes by far the best published account of the Union occupation of Fredericksburg in the spring and summer of 1862), it became obvious that most references to Lincoln’s visit make mention of  a detour Lincoln took beyond downtown Fredericksburg.  General Marsena Patrick recorded in his diary that he “took [the President] through town to my camp.”  The local Unionist newspaper, the Christian Banner, likewise noted that after visiting General Patrick in his quarters at the Farmer’s Bank building, Lincoln “moved off, as we were informed, to visit some camp of soldiers out of the town.”  Fred Burrritt of the 23d New York, whose camp was atop Marye’s Heights on the site of what is today the National Cemetery (as carefully calculated by Ed Raus), recorded in a letter home that Lincoln visited the camps west of town.  And J. Harrison Mills of the 21st New York, whose camp was on the heights between the Orange Plank Road (William Street) and Hanover Street, also wrote briefly of a presidential visit on May 23, as did a member of the 35th New York, nearby.

Given all that, it’s surprising the President’s visit to the troops on the Fredericksburg side of the river received such scant notice.  One reason, certainly, is that his trip to Fredericksburg was quickly overshadowed by dramatic events in the Shenandoah Valley, as that very day Jackson was dispensing with Banks at Front Royal.  But another reason the President’s  journey received such scant attention from the troops is perhaps explained by Patrick. He said the President saw men “under arms only at the Guard,” but that other soldiers lounging in the camps turned out to have a look. In other words, Lincoln passed by, but there was no ceremony, no review.

It all seems a small matter, except for one curious thing:  all this means that Abraham Lincoln very likely passed along Marye’s Heights or down the Sunken Road in May of 1862, six months before Union soldiers would attempt to claim the same ground in his name at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

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“In an effort to be of still further service to the traveling public…” – Battlefield Contact Stations, Part 2

From Mink (for part one of this post, click here):

In the late 1950s, the various contact stations appear to have still been in operation. Their removal seems to have been decided through the efforts to upgrade park facilities through the Mission 66 program. In addtion to the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, which replaced the contact station near the Jackson monument, the park erected three “exhibit shelters” – one at each of the three other battlefields.

These shelters were of standard Mission 66 construction and made of brick, concrete and steel. Three-sided, open structures, they contain outdoor intepretive panels. One was constructed on Lee’s Hill of the Fredericksburg Battlefield, replacing the Prospect Hill Contact Station. A second was built in Saunders Field of the Wilderness Battlefield, replacing that station. The third was constructed near the intersection of Grant Drive and Brock Road on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, replacing the Bloody Angle structure.

All three of these shelters were finished by 1963 and the old wood and stone contact stations were dismantled around the same time. 

Although the 1930s contact stations have been gone for nearly fifty years, one can still find evidence of them on the landscape.

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“In an effort to be of still further service to the traveling public…” – Battlefield Contact Stations

From Mink (for part 2 of this post, click here):

In developing the Fredericksburg area for visitation, the National Park Service (NPS) sought to provide facilities at each of its four battlefields. The Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building, now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, was completed in 1936 and served as the primary interpretive stop for the battlefields, as well as the park headquarters. Before the completion of the main facility at Sunken Road, however, the park began construction of small wood frame “Ranger Contact Stations” on each of the battlefields to serve the public

“In an effort to be of still further service to the traveling public, the National Park Service has planned additional contact stations which will be erected at convenient points through the park.

The basic materials used will consist of native stone and cresoted [sic] cypress or pine planking with a roof of the same type. The entire design will harmonize with the general landscape features so that none of the natueral charm of the localities will be disturbed.

When completed…they will enable the Park Service to reach a great number of visitors who daily traverse the Park in ignorance of the trained staff of historians who are available to them.” – Free Lance-Star, May 30, 1935

Each station essentially followed the same plan, drawn up by the NPS specifically for the Fredericksburg area battlefields – a one-room, one-story cabin measuring roughly 17.5 feet by 11.5 feet with a stone fireplace and a small porch.

With the fireplace, the structures were apparently intended as all-weather, year-round facilities to be staffed by one of the park’s historians or rangers. All four of the stations were built adjacent to main roads and park automobile tour routes. The locations were: among the artillery lunettes and gun pits along Lee Drive at Prospect Hill on the Fredericksburg Battlefield:

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Belvoir today–the Yerby place and Stonewall Jackson

From Hennessy:  (Note: this post deals with a historic site that is privately owned. While the property owner has been gracious in permitting us occasional entry and establishing a deed restriction that will protect the house site and about ten acres, access to the site by the general public is not permitted [which is one reason we’re offering up this glimpse].  We will attempt to organize a tour to the site for those of you who wish to come in the fall or spring.  But in the meantime, please respect the property owner’s rights and do not attempt access.)

One of the real challenges that faces the NPS is how to respond when significant sites outside our boundaries are threatened. Opinions on the proper role of the NPS in such cases–which are quite common hereabouts–range from, “Keep your nose out of our business” to “buy it all” (that, by the way, ain’t happening).   When a site is on or near our boundary, I think most people understand the interests that compel the NPS to offer an opinion on the likely impacts of development on that site.  But when a site is well beyond our boundary, our interests narrow, sometimes to little more than a hope something good happens.  Most commonly, in such cases we play the role of advisor rather than advocate, and then only when invited to do so by someone involved in the issue–be they a local government, a sister federal agency, or the landowner or developer.

 One case years ago had a fairly happy ending.  We were asked by Hal Wiggins of the Corps of Engineers to advise on the possible long-term preservation of Belvoir–the Yerby home beyond the southeast edge of the Fredericksburg Battlefield.  Long story short, the end result was that the site of the house and ten surrounding acres was put under deed restriction (largely thanks to the efforts of Hal and Noel Harrison).  While the restriction does not permit public access, it ensures the site will be forever preserved.  It’s a good thing.  The site of Belvoir is a magnificent place.

This view is of the house site, taken from about the location of the small tree to the left of the steps in the historic photograph. Jackson, Lee, Ewell, and a mortally wounded Maxcy Gregg passed over this ground

While it may be difficult to ponder the words romance and Stonewall Jackson in the same sentence–much less in the same physical space–there is indeed one such place where the two famously come together:  Belvoir, the home of Thomas Yerby.  It was at Belvoir that Thomas J. Jackson spent the last happy week of his life, with his wife Anna and five-month-old daughter Julia. The story is well known. Few passages in Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants surpass his description of Jackson’s time at Belvoir, and Anna Jackson’s own memoir offers memorable images.  From there, of course, Jackson would ride to victory and tragedy at Chancellorsville.  He next saw his wife on his deathbed at Fairfield Plantation–today’s Jackson Shrine.

Lee came here too, the last week of March 1863, when he suffered a severe respiratory infection that we now know to be his first bout of heart trouble.  He remembered the doctors at Belvoir “tapping me all over like an old steam boiler before condemning it.”

Click to enlarge

Today the site of Belvoir is privately owned, largely inaccessible, and overlooked by most. But it is, in fact, one of the more compelling historic places I have ever been. The house burned about 1910, and the property would not again be occupied. Though deep in the woods, tucked amidst briars and poison ivy, as a ruin and archeological site the place retains much of its integrity. Each spring Yerby family daffodils by the hundreds bloom all over what was the yard.  The cellar of the big house is still clearly visible, with at least a couple of its walls intact. East of the house is the Yerby family cemetery, covered with periwinkle (as so many family plots were). West of the house is evidence of several outbuildings–some of them no doubt home to some of Yerby’s 41 slaves in 1860 (only four of the plantation’s 45 residents in 1860 were white)–including an ice house. Terraces step down to the house from a hill behind it–terraces no doubt created by slave labor, and once the site of elegant gardens long ago gone (except for the daffodils).  And winding through the woods are the several simple roads that led to Belvoir–driveways that in 1862 carried hundreds of wounded Confederates (including Maxcy Gregg, who died in the house) and in 1863 the elite of the neighborhood and brass of the army for a lavish reception welcoming Dick Ewell back from the wound he received at Second Manassas. These roads came from the Hamilton Place at Forest Hill (along Mine Road) and Hunter’s Lodge, the home of John Pratt Yerby, the site of which now resides under a cul-de-sac on the Lee’s Hill subdivision.

Several years ago I did an article on Belvoir for the Journal of Fredericksburg History.  You can read it by clicking here (a new window will open).

To see images of Belvoir as it exists today, continue reading beyond the jump. Continue reading

In Our Midst: First Combat of the USCTs in Northern Virginia

From Harrison:

The Alrich House, at the junction of Old Plank Road (Rte 610) and Catharpin Road, Spotsylvania County

Almost every day (literally) we learn something new about the historic landscapes around Fredericksurg. Sometimes it’s new information; sometimes it’s new understanding–putting together pieces of knowledge that allows us to see a site or event in a different light.  Over the years, I have had the chance to do some extensive research.  Some of it–and indeed that which we are most often asked about–dealt with an engagement at the Alrich Farm on May 15, 1864, during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House.  This small engagement has huge symbolic importance: it was the first directed combat between Union African American soldiers, known then as United States Colored Troops (USCT’s), and Confederates in the Army of Northern Virginia.   Over the last week we have been pulling together all that we know about this event: it’s time to be as definitive as we can.

The engagement occurred after Southern cavalrymen in the brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser had driven the Second Ohio Cavalry northeast along Catharpin Road towards its intersection with the Orange Plank Road, a point occupied by the house and extensive farm-clearing of John and Jane Alrich.  The Alrich farm had already hosted combat action the previous year, when its occupation by elements of the Union 12th Corps on May 1, 1863 prompted an artillery duel and infantry skirmishing that drove the Alrichs to seek refuge in their semi-flooded cellar, and denoted the high-water mark of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s eastward advance along the plank road.

On May 15, 1864, Rosser’s men sought information on a Union army corps as it shifted southeastward towards Spotsylvania Court House.  Apprised by the retreating Ohioans of Rosser’s approach, the 23rd United States Colored Infantry hastened southeast from Chancellorsville, where those and other African American regiments of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division had bivouacked.  Moving in column along the plank road, the reinforced 23rd first made contact through its deployed skirmishers with Rosser’s men.  The Confederate troopers had stopped short of the Catharpin-plank road intersection to occupy the southwestern side of the Alrich clearing, holding an edge-of-treeline position that likely straddled Catharpin Road.

The climax of the action came when the column of the 23rd reached the intersection and faced right.  In an account recently uncovered by historian Gordon C. Rhea, one of the Ohio cavalrymen wrote, “It did us good to see the long line of glittering bayonets approach, although those who bore them were Blacks, and as they came nearer they were greeted by loud cheers.”  The 23rd charged southwest toward the treeline.  Rosser’s men withdrew, pursued by the now-reformed Ohio cavalrymen.  The engagement had taken the lives of several Confederates and wounded several Federals.  A small action indeed, otherwise not important, save for the first shots in anger fired by USCTs–some of them former slaves.

Noel G. Harrison

[Ed. note:  For a little context on the growing movement to understand and interpret sites like this, check out Noel’s most recent post at Fredericksburg Remembered.]

Today the site of the engagement at Alrich Farm largely intact, though as you can see from this aerial view, subdivisions are nearby.

A beleaguered courthouse

From John Hennessy:

It is perhaps the most important, impressive piece of architecture in Fredericksburg: the Circuit Courthouse on Princess Anne Street. It was designed in 1852 by James Renwick–the designer of the Smithsonian Building in Washington and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City–for a design fee of $300 and a total cost of nearly $14,000.  For Fredericksburg, it was an uncommon bit of finery. Indeed, local residents rebelled at the cost, submitting a petition with 172 signatures asking for the new courthouse to be scaled back to a $6,000 building.  Town council refused…and today Fredericksburg has one of the finest gothic courthouses in the mid-Atlantic states.

When this rarely used photograph was taken in 1864, the courthouse was a dozen years old.  As Noel Harrison notes in his Fredericksburg Sites book, it had seen hard use already during the war: as a Confederate barracks in 1861; as housing for newly escaped slaves in 1862; as a signal station; and as a hospital after the Battle of Fredericksburg.  When this photo was taken, probably on May 20, 1864, the place was once again being used as a hospital–part of the massive evacuation hospital established by the Union army for wounded from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania.

The courthouse under Union occupation, 1862

To the right of the courthouse is the corner of the Masonic Hall, which was also being used as a hospital at this point.  To the left is St.George’s, and in between is an excellent view of one of Fredericksburg’s main streets, Princess Anne. Note too that the courthouse itself appears to be made of huge sandstone blocks; the stucco that characterizes it today didn’t make its appearance until years later.

Soldiers on the steps...and what are perhaps caskets at far right.

Under magnification, you can see a group of wounded Union soldiers gathered at the side entrance to the building, while others to the left sit on one of the benches taken out of the courthouse.  To the right of them is what appears to be a pile of pavers or building materials, and at the far right wooden boxes that may well be caskets (though caskets were rare and prized in Fredericksburg in 1864).

In another magnified excerpt, notice that the iron fence in front of the courthouse is covered with blankets hanging to dry–clear evidence of what was going on inside the building at the time.  

Finally, I include an aerial view indicating the location and perspective of the 1864 image.

As for conundrums, that relating to the courthouse is not ours, but the community’s. The place is just doesn’t meet the needs of a modern court operation, so the city is actively considering other sites. What the future use of the courthouse building might be is very much open to question.

History in the balance–Sherwood Forest and its crumbling slave cabin

From Hennessy:

Here is a
conundrum that falls not to the NPS, but to all of
us. Let’s start with some powerful context for a look at
one of the region’s most threatened, rarest structures.

duplex slave cabin at Sherwood Forest

After the
Civil War, ex-slave Randall Ward testified about his former owner,
Henry Fitzhugh of Sherwood Forest. Fitzhugh had applied to
the Federal government for damages done to his property during the
Civil War, and Ward was summoned to a hearing to comment on
Fitzhugh’s claims of loyalty (reimbursement for damage claims
required that the person making the claim be able to demonstrate he
had remained loyal to the Union throughout the war). The
government lawyer asked Ward about Fitzhugh’s treatment of slaves,
and in answering Ward offered perhaps the most stunning narrative
of cruelty to slaves ever documented in the Fredericksburg region.
He had an old Baptist colored woman there and he stripped
her stark naked and tied her to a peach tree right in the front
yard, at 12 o’clock in the day, and got a board and made holes in
it and slapped her with that I reckon about fifty lashes, and then
he got some pepper and salt and water, and made another woman wash
it over the woman he had shipped, and then he whipped into her, and
then made her after that stand up there and dance a jig for him,
and made her curse and swear for him. He did that because
this old woman had a daughter there and Mr. Fitzhugh wanted to have
an intimacy with her, and the girl didn’t want him to, and he
thought it was the old woman who kept him away.

forest during a visit by park staff in 2008

the park staff stands in front of Sherwood Forest–on or near the
site of the “peach tree in the front yard” referenced by Ward as
the scene of this horrific act. Sherwood Forest is one of the most
vivid cultural landscapes in the Fredericksburg region. It
is an 1810 plantation that still stands (though losing ground
by the day) in southern Stafford County about four miles downstream
from Fredericksburg. The place was originally owned by Mary
Ball Washington, who acquired it when she was five and owned it
until 1778–indeed the tract constituted part of what the
Washington’s called the “lower plantation” (relative to their home
at Ferry Farm). It soon passed to Jane Downman (a Ball
descendant), and in 1837 she married Henry Fitzhugh. The
newlyweds built Sherwood Forest that year. The house and
outbuildings sit on a hill about a mile from the Rappahannock. The
place offers a beautiful view of the Rappahannock bottom, but more
than that, it could be seen for miles around. During the
Union occupation of Stafford in 1862-63,, Fitzhugh’s place was
constantly used by the Union army–as a picket post, as a launch
site for balloons, and as an exceedingly well-documented field
hospital after Chancellorsville.
Today the
site sits abandoned. The house, as you can see, is boarded
up. The adjacent brick kitchen is likewise boarded
(right). About 100 feet north of the kitchen is the
duplex slave quarters, crumbling. Sherwood Forest is owned by
a major development company; the vast bottomlands around the house
(see aerial view, below) are slated for subdivision. But to
their credit, the owners have carved out 35+ acres atop the hill,
including the big house, kitchen quarters, and other outbuildings
for separate sale and, hopefully, preservation (if you have a few
extra dollars lying around and a penchant for fixer-uppers, let me
know and I’ll put you in touch with the owners). But the
duplex slave quarter sits just outside the protected area, and
the house itself is in dire need of someone to live in it and love
it. The slave quarter at Sherwood Forest is a rare survivor
of a type of building that once was common on this
landscape. It consists of two interior spaces–one,
presumably, for each family (a post-Civil War shed addition on
the back has expanded the space from its original configuration).
And though covered with asbestos shingling from the early 20th
century, most of its structural elements remain, including the

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