A new arrival…the Wellford piano

From Hennessy:

In addition to our intensely interesting landscapes, we also manage a fairly robust museum collection at the park.  Today, a momentary departure from our usual focus to share with you our newest arrival at Chatham, received yesterday:  the piano that belonged to the family of Charles Wellford, who lived at what is today 1501 Caroline Street.  The piano comes to us from Ricmond’s Valentine Museum (which decided to de-accession it–we’re thankful for their generosity) and, indirectly, thanks to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, which decided the thing was too large to accommodate in their collections area and graciously put us in contact with Valentine.

The piano was purchased by Charles and Mary Wellford from White’s Bookstore on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg in 1848.  By virtue of long involvement in the community, the Wellfords were among the most prominent of Fredericksburg families.  Charles’s brother John Spotswood Wellford was the founder of Catharine Furnace–later famous in connection with the Battle of Chancellorsville–and owned extensive properties at the corner of Caroline and George Streets, a complex still known in town as Wellford’s Row.  Charles himself (below left) ran a drygoods store in Fredericksburg, and in 1862 reopened the dormant furnace at Catharine.  The family moved between their home in Fredericksburg and their place just west of the Furnace, a site marked today along Jackson Trail East. 

On December 11, 1862, the family had already departed Fredericksburg, leaving behind much of their property, including this piano.  Of all the homes in Fredericksburg, none played a more prominent role in the street fighting of that day than did Wellford’s place at the corner of Caroline and Pitt.  The family recorded that at least two Union soldiers were killed inside the house–and one of those was killed at this piano.  Another source suggests a Union soldier fell on the doorstep of the house (below) as he pushed out onto Caroline Street.  (Thanks to David Ellrod of our staff for the photo below.)

The piano is said to bear battle damage, and there is indeed a spot above one of the front legs that shows evidence of repair.  Until the day when we can display this at Fredericksburg, we will exhibit it at Chatham as the centerpiece of a new exhibit that looks at the bombardment of the town and the vivid, important experience of civilians and their homes during the four days of battle.

While the park manages a collection of more than 100,000 objects (many of them from archeological digs), about 6,000 items constitute the heart of the collection–that which we consider for use in public displays and seem to be of occasional interest to researchers.  The Wellford piano instantly takes a place probably in the top 20 of those artifacts, if not higher.

If you get a chance, stop by Chatham to see the Wellford piano and the other new addition to the collection:  J. Horace Lacy’s traveling trunk.   The exhibit materials for these are now in development, so they currently stand somewhat starkly, but they offer great opportunities for additional interpretation of the Civil War and its many facets.

8 thoughts on “A new arrival…the Wellford piano

    • Carolyn: Chester B. White’s bookstore became W. Hargrave White’s bookstore in 1856, and then Henry T. Botts’s in 1860. It was on Caroline Street, and I believe at what is today 823–in a building that no longer stands.

  1. John,
    What a great acquisition this is for Fredericksburg. I can hardly think of a more tangible object to accompany those stories of the action on December 11 that can be viewed by the public. Look forward to seeing it!

    • Sam: Ahhh… The question of provenance. It’s a little bit like the chain of evidence required in criminal cases. If the item at any point loses its connection with the story that surrounds it, the interpretive value of it often plummets (and sometimes disappears altogether). Gettysburg, for example, has a stretcher that was reputedly used to carry Stonewall Jackson after his wounding at Chancellorsville. An eye-popping artifact to be sure. But its provenance is uncertain–we have never been convinced that it is what it’s claimed to be–and so we have never pursued getting it for our park and putting it on display. Provenance is everything.

      The Wellford piano was donated to the Valentine Museum in 1989 by a member of the Wellford family (the piano had been in the family since the war). That’s pretty good as far as the ownership and origins are concerned, and there doesn’t seem to be much reason to doubt it. (If the piano had been carted to California by someone named Kowalksi in the 1920s and they came to us today claiming it to be THE Wellford piano, naturally there would be questions.) The piano came too with an advertising card from the bookseller in town who sold it to the Wellfords, with the handwritten note (visible in the image in the post) that it was acquired in 1848. Beyond that, the piano has been looked at and assessed by the curators at The Valentine, who concur that, as an artifact, it is indeed a piano of that period. It all fits.

      Harder to handle are the stories and legends that come with an item like this one. For example, family lore holds that a Union soldier was shot and killed while playing this piano on December 11. For something like this, there is often no corroborating evidence. All we can say is, that’s the story that has been passed down with the artifact…and then add a bit of context–that we know, for example, that the Wellford House was in the middle of some of the heaviest fighting on the streets of Fredericksburg. Whether that adds up to a definitive belief that a Union soldier was indeed killed while playing the piano is up to each individual viewing the object to decide. Either way, the story is part of what fascinates about artifacts like this. We are indeed fortunate to have it. John H.

  2. John,

    I’ve seen the “Stonwall jackson” stretcher at Gettysburg and was immediately struck with the question of “Why is at Gettysburg?” and “how do they know it was the actual stretcher used to carry the General?”. With all the casualties at Chancellorsville, it seems very likely that it would have been used to carry many other wounded soldiers as well. Who would have bothered to try to keep track of it? Did they have nothing better to do. I’m glad to see your comment about it and see I’m not the only one who questioned it’s provenance.

    • Sometimes simple logic constitutes a major challenge for what has often become conventional wisdom. Things like the 30-second amputation really make no sense when you think about them, and too often we do not think about such things. Your questions about the stretcher are precisely ours….
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. I was very interested to read the story about 1501 Caroline St. My great great grandfather, Joel Willard Adams Sr., worked for White’s Bookstore in the music department, then took over the business and renamed it Adams’s Book Store in 1855. The store address was Main Store 905 B St., Branch Store 909 B Street. I think it burned in the 1930s or 40s, was replaced by a movie theater, and is now a boutique the last time I visited. J. W. Adams lived at 1500 Caroline across the street from the Wellford house. 1500 had damage from the Civil War when J. W. bought it in 1865, not surprising as the intersection of Caroline & Pitt was right in the middle of the Battle of Fredericksburg.
    — Peter Adams Linenthal

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