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?

The woods in this postwar view appear to be 30-40 years old.

We’ll spare you the calculations, and head straight to Sean’s conclusion about the timber consumption of Catharine Furnace: at peak operation,  the furnace required between 300 and 400 acres of timber per year for charcoal.  Sean concludes:

…The impact of Catharine Furnace’s charcoaling operation would have clear-cut less than a square mile per year of operation—thus suggesting that from 1837 to 1847, the years in which Catharine Furnace operated, the Fredericksburg Iron and Steel Manufacturing Company would have clear-cut, at the most, nine or ten of Spotsylvania County’s over 400 square miles of territory.  Catharine Furnace’s fuel needs, along with timber consumption by local gold-mine complexes and a recently opened plank road, certainly contributed to the environmental conditions that created the Wilderness by 1863-64, but it was by no means solely responsible for it.

Likely, Sean notes, Catharine Furnace had ample timber supply on the 5,000 acres of land it owned to support the operations of the furnace.  I think when the day comes that we are able to determine the boundaries of the holdings associated with Catharine Furnace (a project as yet not done), we will also know the extent and reach of those operations on the landscape. Suffice to say, the requirements of Catharine Furnace cannot account for the transformation fo the forests on most of what are today the Chancellorsville and Wilderness Battlefields.

Wadsworth's Division in the Wilderness, fighting amidst fairly mature woods.

The presence of Colonel Alexander Spotswood’s Tubal Furnace along Spotswood Furnace Road is also often cited as a factor in shaping the Civil War landscape of the Wilderness. It likely was not, for two reasons. First, the forests that Spotswood was cutting in the early 1700s were likely more substantial than those encountered by the charcoalers working for Catharine Furnace a century later, and so, assuming similar levels of production between the two furnaces, it’s likely that Spotswood’s Tubal Furnace required considerably less acreage than did Catharine–likely in the neighborhood of 200-300 acres of timber per year rather than the 300-400 acres required by Catharine. While the documentation of Spotswood’s iron production is fragmentary, we do know that the furnace was nearly or completely unproductive for part of its existence. Even assuming Spotswood’s furnace matched Catharine in output, the amount of timber required by Spotswood would have been less because of the more mature nature of the forests in 1715. It’s unlikely the reach of Spotswood’s charcoalers extended much beyond what William Byrd II estimated was required to sustain a furnace: two square miles.

While Spotswood’s charcoaling operations probably extended onto what is today Chancellorsville Battlefield, it’s difficult to imagine they sprawled westward enough to affect what we today know as the Wilderness Battlefield.

One of the most interesting images of all: scrubby, ravaged woods along the Orange Plank Road--precise location unknown.

The second reason that Spottswood’s furnace was not much of a factor in creating the Wilderness the armies encountered in 1860 is more obvious: the passage of time. By the time of the Civil War, well over a century had passed since one of Spotswood’s colliers had felled a tree, and about a half a century since miners had extracted ore from his former lands. Left untouched since, the forests would have closely resembled the forests present at Chancellorsville and Wilderness today.

There were of course other industries at work in northern Spotsylvania that required timber: mines, sawmills, charcoaling, etc. They required timber for structures and for running mills, pumps, fuel, and other equipment. It’s difficult to know how many acres of timber these operations required. Certainly no where near that required by Catharine or Spotswood furnaces.

But another commercial enterprise likely did reshape at least the perception of the Wilderness by Civil War soldiers: the construction of plank roads. There were two, both born of the same company: the Orange Plank Road and the Germanna Plank Road (also known as the “Culpeper Plank Road” and evidently constructed by the time of the Civil War to a point at or near mo.dern-day Lignum).

Specifications for the construction of the roads called for 8-foot planks 3 inches thick and six inches wide to be laid on stringers. Given that, and given our knowledge (thanks to Sean Adams’s work) of the likely cords yielded per acre of timber, we can pretty well calculate how much timber was needed to build the approximately 22 miles of plank roads through the Wilderness in the early 1850s.  A cord of wood would plank about 36 linear feet of road. A mile of road required about 147 chords.  An acre of forest would yield, conservatively, between 15 and 20 cords of wood; each acre could plank between 540 and 720 linear feet of road. Each mile required between 7.33 and 9.8 acres of timber. The planking of 22 miles, then, required between 160 and 215 acres of timber. Compared to the 70 square miles of the Wilderness, that’s a tiny number.

But, here’s a theory. If, as is possible, most of that timber was cut from woods immediately adjacent to the roads in 1862, then that timber was re-emerging in 1864, and was likely the very tangled, choking mess that is described by participants in the battle. Is it possible that the wretched condition of the roadside forests helped shape a perception of the Wilderness at large? Did participants in the battles of 1863 and 1864 presume that what they saw in the road corridors (where most of the fighting occurred) characterized the Wilderness as a whole?

The point here is not to deny that the Wilderness was a mess–a haunting, confining space that dominantly shaped the nature of the Battles of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. Rather, the point is that the entire expanse of the Wilderness was not the uniform warren of brambles and thickets so often described. It could not have been.

Perhaps the idea that the Wilderness was a patchwork of many things rather than singular, uniformly confining area is obvious and anticlimactic after all this calculating and scribbling. But the consistent portrayal of the Wilderness in print and the constant questions and assertions of visitors suggest otherwise–that we generally have not understood the origins and nature of the Wilderness very well. I think the work of Noel Harrison and Sean Adams have helped rectify that.

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