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.

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8 thoughts on “A beleaguered courthouse

  1. It’s post like this that keep me coming back for more. Each weekend I walk around town, visiting these sites ‘seeing’ them for the first time. You guys have accomplished alot with this site. Keep up the good work.

  2. Joseph Muffly’s, The Story of Our Regiment mentions before your quote that the hospital of the Second Corps was in a “large brick building belonging to the fire department of the town” As you state the original building is sandstone. Is this the same building in the Muffly quote ?

    The reference to fire departments is interesting.
    Quinn’s history on Fredericksburg on page 180 says that the fire companies were disbanded before the Civil War (unbelievable given fires earlier in the century) and not organized again until 1885.

    The closeup work is excellent. What software do you use ? I may need to get a better image to start or to get a tutorial about handling historical pictures.

    I too enjoy this site as well as the programs of the NPS, especially this past Friday’s History at Sunset and the Saturday Chatham special.

    • As for software: the magic really is in the resolution of the digital scans. Once you have that, you can gaze deeply into these images with any program that has a zoom function. I use photoshop, but others work as well.

      I am amazed that to my knowledge no one has done any deep work on the fire companies in Fredericksburg (unless my memory is failing me). I know there was a fire company at the time of the war, and for many years the fire company was located between the courthouse and Masonic Hall–even, I believe, before the construction of the old firehouse there today. In any event, maybe someone will do something on the fire companies over time and sort things out. Thanks for picking up on my mistake. Thanks too for reading.
      John H.

      • To my memory, the Fire Company was once inside the south end of the Courthouse. In both the drawing attached, and the enlargements from the photo, the viewer can see the large bay doors that the equipment was stored behind. Above the doors in both images can also be seen the sign reading “HOPE FIRE CO”.

  3. Nice work on the close-up evaluation. I must note one thing regarding the stucco. While the photo clearly shows the sandstone blocks on the main building, there had to have been some sort of covering on the bell tower. During a renovation of the tower a few years ago, four timbers were removed and replaced where the tower changes from a square structure to a hexagonal one. The butt ends of these timbers were (and are) cut flush with the wall. Without some sort of skin on the exterior of the tower, those butt ends would have been (and would be) exposed to the elements. Although the court house was not stuccoed at the time of the CW, the tower may well have been, at least on the upper portion.

    • All sources I have referenced, state the Courthouse was built of brick and then given a faux finish. Most recently, the “Court Facility Feasibility Study”, dated August 27, 2007 by the firms of Moseley, and Sadler & Whitehead provides this, “The original exterior stucco was scored and tinted to look like stone, but in 1916 a “pebble-dash” stucco finish was added to the exterior, further eroding the Renwick design.”

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