Even familiar sites continue to yield historical riches, if the public is fortunate enough to have those places preserved for long-term study and contemplation. New research has just given us a far clearer picture of the antebellum- and early-war purpose of Saunders’ Field, which during the battle of the Wilderness became one of the Fredericksburg area’s most bloodsoaked clearings. Historians believed heretofore that Saunders’ Field, also known as “Palmer’s Field,” shown below in 1866 straddling what was then the Orange Turnpike (today’s Virginia Route 20/James Madison Highway), had been devoid of buildings before and during the Civil War.
In the 1930’s, enrolees of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) erected a barracks complex in part of the field. Reoccupied for various periods by thick vegetation before and after the CCC era, the clearing has now been restored to its approximate Civil War configuration, and is home to the Wilderness Battlefield Exhibit Shelter in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.
While researching the field in the 1980’s, I was unable to place any buildings there on the eve of the Civil War, despite periodic searches through vague tax records, deeds, and census information.
But thanks to maps recently posted on the Library of Congress’ American Memory website, I was able to determine that the field had functioned as a homestead, rather than as merely an agricultural clearing that did not host buildings. The house, moreover, was extant at the beginning of the war but burned sometime prior to the battle of the Wilderness. The building may have become a casualty of the campaign of Mine Run, in November-December 1863, when elements of the Army of the Potomac advanced and withdrew past Saunders’ Field.
Taken together, at least two and perhaps three Confederate maps document a dwelling (red arrows on the map-details below) in the field and on the north side of the turnpike (horizontal lines, middle of details).
Of these, a sketch map made in 1862 or early 1863 (left) and bearing the signature of engineer Captain James Keith Boswell (destined to die in the same firing that mortally wounded “Stonewall” Jackson) labels the building “Mrs Palmer.” Another map, based on fieldwork by engineer Lieutenant Walter Izard in 1863 or early 1864 (right), labels the building “burnt.”
A third Confederate map, depicting Orange, Spotsylvania, and several other counties in 1863 (probably prior to Chancellorsville, judging from the absence of earthwork-symbols at the site of that battle), shows one dwelling and possibly an outbuilding as well at a point denoted “Stevens,” in or very near Saunders’ Field:
That “burnt” describes the fate of the building by May 1864 seems confirmed by the numerous eyewitness accounts I’ve read of the fighting in the field, none of which mentions a structure there. Structures are likewise absent from the clearing as it appears on maps published by the United States War Department in 1865 and 1867.
The home’s presence on Confederate maps gives us an initial glimpse through the fog of time. We still lack an idea of the building’s basic apperance, but the revelations of the maps offer hope that its obscuring mists will continue to dissipate. And we now have a much clearer idea of what prompted the establishment of a field on which many men would converge but never leave alive.
Noel G. Harrison