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