The other stone wall?

From Hennessy:

It may be the most overlooked of all the features on the Bloody Plain–a forgotten survivor that thousands pass daily without a thought. Union soldiers sought its cover; our own Frank O’Reilly identified and documented it: a low stone wall that offered fleeting shelter to desperate Union troops struggling to and across the Bloody Plain.

Looking SW, along Weedon Street--is this the remnant of the stone wall that sheltered Union troops and Hazard's Battery on December 13, 1862?

It’s “the other” stone wall, first identified by Frank O’Reilly in his extensive work on the attacks on Marye’s Heights. His work generated several references to the wall. A man in the 14th Connecticut remembered that his regiment went across the causeway they took position “near a stone wall, behind which a number of wounded lay.” A man in the 131st Pennsylvania of Humphreys’s division likewise declared that his regiment “formed behind a stone wall, just under the brow of a hill, occupied by a battery.”

That battery was Hazard’s Rhode Island Battery, which was one of just two Union batteries to cross the canal ditch that day, sent there, as O.O. Howard remembered, to “encourage the infantry.” Howard’s chief of artillery protested the order to Hazard: “General, a battery could not live out there.” Said Howard, “Then it must die out there.” Continue reading

Are those trenches real?

From Mink:

Are those trenches real?

It’s a common question heard by those who work at Civil War battlefields containing well-preserved trenches and earthworks. “Are those trenches real?” In other words, are those actually the trenches built by the soldiers? On the Fredericksburg area battlefields, the answer is: “Well, yes and no.”

Spotsy Trenches Modern

Trenches at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield

For many folks visiting the battlefields, the trenches appear awfully deep to have survived in that condition for almost 150 years. This has lead to the belief that surely they must have been rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s or by the National Park Service (NPS) at some other time. Overall, no, there was no wide-spread rebuilding of the earthworks. There was, however, a reconstruction program, for interpretive purposes, of select small sections of trenches on some of the battlefields.

There has long been a debate within preservation circles over the ethics of historical reconstructions. Can accurate reconstructions be built? Is there a risk to the historic resources through reconstructions? Can reconstructions best interpret vanished resources?

In 1933, Major General Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the Army’s involvement in the CCC, penned a memo to CCC Director Robert Fechner, in which he offered his views on the management of trenches on historic battlefields:

“It must be borne in mind that the development of these parks has for its purpose the restoration of the battle fields and preserving historic locations, monuments and sites of battle. Consequently, such work as is done must be performed with this in view, in order that the trench system and other historic points may not be destroyed but retained in their present condition or restored to the condition they were in at the time of the battle.”   – John C. Paige, The Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park Service, 1933-1942: An Administrative History (1985)

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The Moving Buildings of Fredericksurg

From Hennessy:

Preservation ethic commands that moving a building ought the last option, borne of desperation and the absence of any other solution. Since the 1950s, when the modern preservation movement in the Fredericksburg area began with the creation of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, preservationists in Fredericksburg have come to that unhappy place more than once. The result: a handful of Civil War-era buildings that have shuffled across the landscape, and a few that have vanished altogether.

The bank’s kitchen dependency in 1927, when Frances Benjamin Johnston photographed it.

HFFI had its birth in the wreckage of Matthew Fontaine Maury’s Charlotte Street home (from 1835-1842) when it was demolished in 1953 to make way for a prospective Chevy dealership on what is today the back lot of the Post Office. Two years later, the nascent organization faced its first crisis: the impending loss of the kitchen dependency (above) behind the National Bank building on Princess Anne Street, when the bank decided to put in what was probably the town’s first drive-through teller windows (the drive-through still stands). The kitchen quarters dated to 1820.  In 1953, though, no one in town recognized that it was also the workplace of the slave John Washington’s mother Sara, and perhaps the birthplace of John Washington himself (Fredericksburg or anyone else didn’t pay much attention to such things in 1955). The bank immediately offered the building to HFFI for relocation, but HFFI refused, choosing instead to fight for its preservation in place.

Undeterred, the bank sold the building materials to be recycled, and demolition began. Faced with the total loss of another downtown building. HFFI reconsidered and days later arranged to buy back the building materials from the very building it could have had for free weeks before. The demolished building was rebuilt  as a new visitor center at the corner of Princess Anne Street and the then-new Route 1 bypass. It remains today as an insurance office.

The workplace of John Washington’s mother, relocated and now an insurance office at the corner of Route 1 and Pricess Anne Street.

HFFI led a far more successful rescue of an otherwise doomed historic building in 1977, when the U.S. Post Office offered the George Gravatt House, along with funds enough to move it, to the organization. Continue reading

A patriotic end for some cool history stuff: what happened to Jackson’s fence?

From Hennessy:

The fence that once surrounded the monument marking Jackson's wounding at Chancellorsville is clearly visible in this image of veterans at the site.

On the scale of mysteries, it ranks low, but its unraveling is, at least, interesting. For many years we have wondered at the fate of the decorative fence that once surrounded the monument to the wounding of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville (for an interesting photo exploration of the monument, see John Cummings’s post over at Spotsylvania Civil War Blog).  The distinctive fence is visible in early images of the monument.  But, clearly, it’s not there today. What happened to it?

Rumors and presumptions about the fence had been around for years, but the mystery persisted (at least for me) until last year when I was doing some work on a presentation on Fredericksburg’s homefront experience during the Second World War. Hunting through the excellent photo collection at the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, I came across a number of photos of the scrap drive held in September 1942.

Mystery solved: the fence amidst the scrap in September 1942 Image courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

In a shot of the accumulated scrap deposited near the corner of Wolfe and Prince Edward Streets, there it was, clearly visible among the detritus: the fence from the Jackson wounding monument. It is a measure of the patriotic fervor of the moment that the NPS felt compelled to peel off some of the historic fabric in its charge to support the war effort.

Beyond the historic fence, patriotic citizens donated a number of things that would today make us cringe with a sense of loss. Some examples:

The 122-year old furnace from the National Bank building on Princess Anne Street was one of the biggest items donated–1,500 pounds. It hadn’t been used in at least 50 years.

.Judge Alvin T. Embery donated his family’s collection of Civil War cannonballs picked up off area battlefields–….nearly 1,000 pounds of solid shot and shell.  Almost certainly, the shells in the collection were still active (no doubt generating a little bit of excitement as they tumbled into the smelter).

The Free Lance-Star reported:  Herbert and George Haley of William Street donated an unexploded cannonball which they want used to “kill Hitler.”….They thought maybe the newspaper could arrange this….  They found the loaded missile in a creek in Shannon’s Field on the edge of Fredericksburg….

The drive produced more than 463,000 pounds of scrap–more than 100 pounds per resident. Other than actress Greer Garson’s appearance in town for a war bond drive a few weeks later, it was by far the biggest war-related event in town during World War 2.

The sign for the old Chatham bridge, donated to subdue Hitler. The bridge had been replaced in 1941, rendering this sign superfluous. Courtesy Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

“I was a slave of Major Horace Lacy.” – Andrew Weaver of the 23rd United States Colored Troops

From Mink:

In two previous posts (found here and here), the possible locations for J. Horace Lacy’s slave cabins at Chatham were discussed. The 1860 slave census reveals that Lacy owned at that time, 39 slaves on his Chatham plantation, 48 slaves at his Ellwood property in Spotsylvania and Orange counties, and hired out 8 slaves to individuals in Fredericksburg. Of the 95 slaves owned by Lacy on the eve of the Civil War, little to almost nothing is known about them. Who were they? Where did they go and what became of them following emmancipation?

The names of slaves were not recorded in the 1860 census. We simply have their ages and gender. Tracking them is extremely difficult, but in the case of two of Lacy’s slaves we know that upon securing their freedom, these two men chose to join the Union army.

Charles Henry Sprout (aka Sprow) served in the 1st United States Colored Cavalry from his enlistment in 1863 until he was mustered out of service in 1866. His army service record states that he was born in Spotsylvania County between 1840 and 1842. After the war, he returned to the area and worked as a farmer. His 1926 obituary provided the identity of his prewar owner, as it stated he had been born “into the family of the late J. Horace Lacy…” Sprout is buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

Andrew Weaver is another of Lacy’s slaves who served the Union following his escape from slavery. In Weaver’s case, we are fortunate to have, in his own words, more specific information about his service in the army and his own admission of ownership by Lacy.

Continue reading

A cruel fate

An update:

Here’s a shot of the remnant stump of the adolescent tree, with the ancient catalpas beyond. 



The good news is that the park maintenance staff foresaw the need to plant a descendant catalpa tree next to the ancient specimens that stand in front of Chatham. They did so a couple decades ago, and the tree–just north of the pair of catalpas that appear in every Civil War-period image of the place–thrived, achieving a size comparable to its progenitor in 1863 (see historic photo, below).

Until Saturday night.  And that’s the bad news.

The catalpas in front of Chatham, 1863

A brief, violent storm ripped off the weighty branch of a huge Kentucky Coffee tree nearby. The branch, very precisely, crashed down on the adolescent catalpa, killing it dead.  The adjacent grand catalpas survived unscathed.

The orginal trees at left; the remnants of the adolescent catalpa beyond.

The catalpas at Chatham may be the most famous trees in the region.  They are gnarled and curious, imposing and evocative, and the object of much devotion and affection. These are the trees likely mentioned by Walt Whitman in his description of the surgeons at work at Chatham.  Over the years, the NPS has put in herculean efforts to keep them upright (they probably have as much metal as wood in them)…but their demise seems to be approaching rapidly. That makes the sudden death of the emerging specimen nearby all the more tragic.

Kevin Rawlings presents a program on Walt Whitman in front of the catalpas

Wilderness Origins Part II: clear-cutting (or not)

From Hennessy:  In our last, Noel Harrison looked at the likely role of tobacco cultivation in the creation of the “poison fields” that over time became the Wilderness. In this post we’ll look the nature and extent of the Wilderness in 1860 as it related to subsequent uses–especially the clear cutting required to support two furnaces in the region operating about a century apart.  Part of what follows will be based on Dr. Sean Adams’s new (and not quite finished) study of Catharine Furnace, which we expect to roll out to the public later this year.

Look not at the cemetery, but at the woods beyond, south of the Orange Plank Road at the Wilderness. Clearly, this forest had been cut in the previous 25 years. This image dates to 1866.

The area known as the Wilderness encompassed about 70 square miles in 1860. It included the future Chancellorsville and Wilderness battlefield units of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  One soldier wrote of the Wilderness:

“It is exceedingly broken up, and save a few fallow fields…is covered with a dense undergrowth of hazel and brier, traversed by numerous ravines and narrow roads….From many of the larger trees rank vines hang down, cable-like, nearly touching the ground, suggestive of a halter.”

This sketch of Chancellorsville by Edwin Forbes shows a mature forest astride the road.

We have a tendency to view the entire region as a largely homogeneous being, but it was in fact many things. Small farms were sprinkled throughout the region, but most importantly for our purposes it clearly was not the singular type of woods so often implied. Digging deeper into the descriptions of the fighting there,  it’s common to find references to woods where sight-distance exceeded 50 or 60 yards (it rarely reaches those distances today). At the same time, dozens also described the scrubby, tangled nightmare that most of us associate with the Wilderness. I have always been struck by these varied descriptions–each an indicator of the age of the woods–which begs the question: just how extensive had timbering operations in the Wilderness been?

When we engaged Dr. Sean Adams to complete the Historic Resource Study for Catharine Furnace (which will be, in fact, a really good book), we asked him to look at this issue: in terms of timber, how consumptive were furnaces? Does the activity of furnaces account for the vast amounts of cutting presumed to have been done in the Wilderness? Are the assumptions of wholesale clear cutting accurate? Continue reading

The Origins of the Wilderness: Part I–The Soil

From Harrison, with an intro by Hennessy:  

Intro by Hennessy:  There are sometimes matters of conventional wisdom that upon reflection really don’t make that much sense. To me, one of these relates to the origin of “the Wilderness,” the 70-square-mile area of Spotsylvania and Orange Counties that has loomed darkly over our region much as the deep forest loomed over Dorothy and her cohorts in the Wizard of Oz. The conventional wisdom is that the Wilderness was the product of two things: inherently poor soil and the rampant clear-cutting to supply local iron furnaces with characoal.

There is, in fact, nothing inherently remarkable about the soil in the Wilderness. Left alone, it supports a forest like much of the rest of Virginia Piedmont. Modern visitors are often confused by the typical appearance of the forest there–presuming it to be inherently different. It is not. Rather, it was made distinctive by the acts of people.

What follows is a much-needed critical look at a critical question. Wherefrom the Wilderness? 

The point of departure for questioning the convention is the recent completion of what the NPS calls a “Historic Resource Study” of Catharine Furnace, by Dr. Sean Adams at the University of Florida (Catharine Furnace is a mid-1800s furnace located on the Chancellorsville battlefield). Sean was spurred on by some preliminary work done by our own Noel G. Harrison, the incomparable chronicler of the pre-Civil War landscape in our region. The work of those two forms the basis for what follows, in two parts.  First, a consideration of the soil and tobacco production.

Noel G. Harrison has written (in a file memo he produced for Sean Adams’s use in 2008):

A Progress to the Mines, the 1732 travelogue by William Byrd II, describes the landscape of the future battlefields of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness as composed in large part, if not entirely, of scrubby “poison fields” of saplings, a full century before the appearance of the timber-consumers–Catharine Furnace, the gold mines, and the plank road–that are now often identified as the origins of a landscape described in exactly the same terms during and after the 1860’s.      

Byrd recounted traveling northwest along what is now known as Brock Road between the approximate location of its intersection with modern Rt. 208 Bypass and its intersection with modern Rt. 3, in 1732.  He noted

I rode eight miles together over a stony road, and had on either side continual poisoned fields, with nothing but saplings growing on them. Then I came into the main county road, that leads from Fredericksburg to Germanna [emphasis added].

A day or two later, Byrd traveled with Colonel Alexander Spotswood from Germanna to the Tubal mines and furnace, situtated on the future Chancellorsville battlefield and along what in May 1863 became the eastern curve of the Union army’s horseshoe-shaped defensive line covering U.S. Ford.  (The end of iron production and/or mining at the Tubal site and the beginning of the same activities, in the mid-1830’s, at nearby Catharine Furnace and its mines were separated by about half a century.)  Traveling towards Tubal in 1732, Byrd and Spotswood were headed east, and Byrd again described a scraggly landscape:

 We drove over a fine road to the mines, which lie thirteen measured miles from the Germanna…. The colonel has a great deal of land in his mine tract [at least 15,000 acres] exceedingly barren, and the growth of trees upon it is hardly big enough for coaling [emphasis added].

This raises an important question:  Was the extensive sapling-landscape due to a cause other than, or operating in tandem with, charcoal-making for iron production? 

While paging through Paula S. Felder’s study, Forgotten Companions: The First Settlers of Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburgh Town (1982), an astonishing set of agricultural statistics caught my eye.  This data, when we consider its geographic overlap upon the future Civil War battlefields, suggest that tobacco cultivation might bear much of the responsibility for the “poison” landscape.  Continue reading

In the background: Amelia Street

From Hennessy:As we work on Virtual Fredericksburg (for more on that, click here), it’s becoming apparent that a surprising percentage of Fredericksburg’s wartime buildings appear in photographs. Sometimes we can find a lost building in a postwar image. Other times we have to dig deeply into one of the many panoramas to find them–something difficult to do before the dawn of high-resolution scans of these images. In the end, I’d estimate we have an image of some sort for probably 50% of the town’s wartime buildings.

Here is a dive into a panorama we introduced the other day in our post on Roebling’s wire bridge (see here). This view was taken on May 3, 1863, from the foreslope southwest of Chatham during the fighting just west of town, and is almost always viewed with an eye toward the battle smoke overlaying the town. But it also offers the best look at the Fredericksburg waterfront above the Chatham Bridge, and a view straight up Amelia Street.

Several prominent landmarks are visible in this magnified view.

Going deeper into the image (below), we find a number of things that simply are not portrayed in any other photograph of Fredericksburg during the war.

Starting at the right, the image includes the only known wartime view of the Reformed Baptist Church on Caroline Street (at least its backside). The structure is one of the two oldest houses of worship in Fredericksburg (both it and the Presbyterian Church were built in 1833). Like every other church in town, it was used as a hospital, though it is without question the most poorly documented of them all. Today the place houses Eileen’s bakery, a popular morning gathering spot.

Little house, with the Reformed Baptist Church in the foreground

The Reformed Baptist Church today. Photo by David Ellrod.

On the ridge just above the church is the longitudinal home of William A. Little–better known today as the Charles Dick House (Dick being a local Revolutionary hero of sorts), one of the oldest in Fredericksburg. Little was a lawyer, councilman, insurance agent, and lawyer in town; his brother Alexander edited the Fredericksburg News. William Little lived in this house with his brother, mother Arabella (who actually owned the house), wife Louisa, sister Arabella (yes, mother and daughter shared a name), and three young children. The Littles were among the best-connected families in town; indeed, Alexander’s opinions as editor of the News mattered as much or more than anyone’s.

The Little house on Princess Anne Street, home to two of the most influential men in town. Photo by David Ellrod.

Continue reading

A Mystery: Roebling’s “Wire Bridge” on the Rappahannock

From Hennessy:

Of all the things that should have been recorded by an artist or photographer in wartime Fredericksburg, it would seem to be the likeliest subject: the wire suspension bridge constructed by Union engineer Washington Roebling in July 1862. But, this curiosity–certainly one of the few suspension bridges built in Virginia prior to 1870–escaped the lens and the pen, at least so far as we know.

Roebling built his bridge on the abutments of the destroyed Chatham Bridge, seen here. Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland

Washington Roebling would later become famous for building the Brooklyn Bridge, but in mid-1862, when the Union army arrived at Fredericksburg for the first time, he was simply the son of a famed bridgebuilder (John Roebling) and an engineer officer on the staff of Union commander Irvin McDowell.  The suspension bridge at Fredericksburg would be the first bridge Washington Roebling could call his own creation.

Roebling during the war

The need for the bridge arose from heavy rains that struck Fredericksburg on June 4, 1862, sweeping away (to local citizens’ delight) the Union army’s bridges on the Rappahannock, including the canal-boat bridge at the town docks, the newly rebuilt railroad bridge, and a pontoon bridge at the base of Hawke Street. Additional rains a few days later confirmed the need for something flood-proof, and so Roebling received his assignment.

He decided on his family specialty: a suspension bridge.  His father, John Roebling, had famously constructed the suspension bridge over the Niagara River near the falls, as well as bridges at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. His great innovation was the improvement of “wire rope”–wire interwoven much as hemp is to make standard rope. When young Washington Roebling took to the field with the army in 1862, he brought wire rope with him–strands substantial enough to support 30 tons. (I’m no engineer, but from what I can determine, a wire rope with that capacity would be about an inch in diameter; if there are engineers out there who can provide additional information, feel free to comment.)

Work started about July 1 and lasted just under three weeks, with ten soldiers and 30 “contrabands” doing the hard labor.  (Roebling appropriated some of the lumber from Joseph Ficklen–likely from the remnants of the destroyed Falmouth Bridge, which Ficklen owned.) The end product was an impressive structure–Roebling declared that “it will defy the highest freshets that will ever come,” wrote the Unionist newspaper Christian Banner. It was 1,028 feet long–more than twice the width of the river itself, using thirteen piers and 14 spans varying between 75 and 85 feet.  Indeed, the length of Roebling’s bridge was almost precisely the length of the modern Chatham Bridge on the same site (bear in mind, though, that the ground at both ends of the modern bridge is altered considerably by fill).

The approximate span of Roebling’s bridge is indicated in red–1,028 feet.

What did it look like? We can determine a few things from what we know.

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