Images of destruction: ordeal of a Fredericksburg neighborhood

From Hennessy (this is a followup on our entry from a couple months back, Images of Destruction, which you can read here):

The images taken of damaged houses on lower Caroline Street in 1864 have become well-known because one of them, below, has been published repeatedly. Indeed, it is the prototypical portrayal of damage to private homes in Fredericksburg during the war.  (We’ll call this #1)

130 (left), 132, and 134 Caroline Street

It serves well as a signature image, but it also reveals some interesting details that prior to the age of digital scanning have been overlooked. Moreover, this image is just one of four taken on the same day in the same place, and collectively they reveal the ordeal of a Fredericksburg neighborhood–today one of the most fashionable streets anywhere in America.

Before we get to the details, here are two of the other three images taken that day (the fourth we will leave to John Cummings to talk about in his upcoming book on photography in the Fredericksburg area during and after the war).  This image shows three buildings, 130-138 Caroline–two duplexes and a single family home. You can see right away why it’s rarely reproduced; May foliage obscures much of the detail in the image. (for discussion purposes, this is #2)

This rarely published image shows all three houses, 130-138 Caroline.

And finally, an imaged focused solely on the single-family home in the view, 130 Caroline. (#3)

130 Caroline Street

The five residences captured in these images were all just nine years old in 1864 (all built in 1855), and in 1860 were home to 21 people, including three slaves.  Of them all, perhaps 136-138 Caroline (the duplex on the right in image #2) is the most interesting. On one side lived Noah Fairbank, for decades a captain of a steamer running between Fredericksburg and Baltimore. On the other apparently lived William Burke (the owner of the building, who in the 1860 census is listed in sequence here with the other residents on the street). Burke had been in the 1850s a photographer–the owner of a daguerreotype studio in town. But by 1860 he was superintendent of the poor house (which stood several hundred yards away, near the brickyards beyond Charles Street). According to the 1860 census, he lived with seven people categorized as “paupers,” including a free black woman named Elizabeth Marshall, who at 95 was likely the oldest person in Fredericksburg.

Each of these units was worth about $1,500. It’s worthwhile noting that a young male slave with a skill would have sold for about the same amount; on the eve of the Civil War a slave cost the same as a house in Fredericksburg.

Now to the images. What can we see…what can we conclude? And what do these places look like today?

A few things to notice.  The images provide a terrific look at one of Fredericksburg’s dirt streets. Look too at the fencing in front of the buildings–much of it torn away, but clearly once uniform and attractive (worthy of the approbation of even a modern homeowner’s association). But most interestingly, look at the stairs. Of the five front doors, only two still have stairs leading to them, and those two are badly askew. Where shutters remain, they are mostly closed (yes, there was a day when shutters were more than immovable ornaments), likely the work of residents before they left, presumably (and hopefully) prior to the battle.

In the 18 months since the damage to these buildings occurred, there has been almost no effort to make repairs–suggestive that the owners had abandoned their homes at the prospect of battle and likely had not returned. The only evidence of repair: someone has nailed what appears to be a piece of siding across the shutters on the first-floor window of 134, ostensibly to help keep them closed. This was the home of tailor James Walker, his wife Jane, and five children ages 2-11. Did he do it? Or did a soldier improvise a simple solution to a shutter banging in the night?

134 Caroline

Something I never noticed before.  In image #1, look above the entrance to 132, on the left. There are people in the window, apparently posing for the camera.

The person on the left appears to be a woman. A relief worker? Mary Seib, the resident of the home in 1860? Are the two men soldiers? Certainly we know that Union soldiers spent a good deal of time in these houses. Three of them still bear the graffiti they left behind.

But of course most striking about these images is the damage from the 1862 bombardment and battle. Unlike most of the buildings caught in the images of the upper pontoon crossing discussed a couple months back, these buildings have not been systematically dismantled by Confederate soldiers for fuel and building materials. They show in stark, unaltered form the damage that must have been typical of most buildings in Fredericksburg on the streets nearest to the river just after the battle in December 1862. A quick look at 130 Caroline reveals at least 14 areas of significant damage–ostensibly by shells.

130 Caroline Street

Virtually every visible window in all three buildings is broken–and apparently not systematically. The duplex at 132-134 (image #1) bears vivid damage from battle, including at least seven holes that might be presumed to be from intact artillery shells.

132-134 Caroline

Most of the damage to these buildings, while dramatic, was also superficial. By the fall of 1865, Mary Seib was back in her place at 132 (the left part of the duplex, above), as was the Walker family next door and the Andersons, who lived in the freestanding structure at 130. Here are those buildings today.

132-134 Caroline Street today, with 130 at left.

In Fredericksburg, little visible evidence of exterior battle damage remains, though many houses still bear interior damage. Indeed, two houses just up the street from these bear visible damage inside and out–both of it, interestingly, caused by Confederate shells. We hope to make it a project in the coming months and years to document all of the remnant battle damage in town. If you know of any, let us know.

9 thoughts on “Images of destruction: ordeal of a Fredericksburg neighborhood

  1. John,
    Excellent post. These images are so reflective of the horrors and loss suffered by the people of Fredericksburg that day. I am glad to see this group of photographs discussed here.

  2. It appears there have been minimal structural changes to 132 and 134 since the war, except for the addition of two windows on the right side of 134. And it appears the brick foundation of 132 and 134 have been painted over too. Those holes caused by solid shot are most impressive– and scary.

    John — have you been inside these homes?

    • Todd: I have only been inside 136, which has both graffiti and battle damage visible. These are beautiful places now, though I will say that occasionally over the years the respective owners of each half of the duplexes have had a tough time coordinating their colors. There have been some odd combinations. Then again, as my wife would say, I have no taste when it comes to such things and no ability to discern taste in others.

  3. John,
    It would appear certain that the damage on the east facing elevations of the homes would have been caused by Union fire. However, is there any likelihood that the damage on the north side of the house at 130 Caroline could have been caused by Confederate fire? The popular history concerning the damage of the buildings in town seems to place all the blame on the Federals even though Confederates were also culpable.

  4. Dennis: There is no question that Confederate fire into town did a good deal of damage. Much of the remnant battle damage I have seen could have been caused by nothing but CS fire–the town was, on December 13, a major component of the battlefield in the same way that Seminary Ridge is at Gettysburg. Still, given the intensity of Union fire during the bombardment on December 11, the majority of damage to the town was without question caused by Union fire. If I had to give it an informed guesss, I’d break it down 80% from Union guns, 20% from Confederate guns.

  5. Being from the Fairbank family, I wish to thank the person who took these photo’s. It birngs Noah Fairbank to life for his decendents and the family itself. Never could we in 2011 find anything like this on our own today. One photo is worth a thousand words they say. This is proof.

    Linda Morris

  6. I am the present-day owner of 130. A previous owner put an addition on the north side of the house and I understand from one of the guys who worked on it, there was quite a bit of damage beneath the surface. There were also some broken floor joists by the front door that looked like a cannon shot had passed through. It was all repaired or covered over and we have no evidence of damage now.

    Interestingly, during the renovation they removed old wallpaper from the 2 bedrooms upstairs and revealed extensive graffiti from both sides. The graffiti has been preserved under plexiglass and researched by the National Park Service. Unit records from the Civil War are so good we have been able to learn quite a bit about those who wrote their names in the “commodious mansion on Caroline St.” as it was described in one account.

    After the war, the federal government paid the owner $400 as compensation for damage caused by the soldiers. That was a lot of money at the time considering the house was valued at $1,500.

    • Craig: Thanks very much for sharing this information. We will be coming down your street on a tour tomorrow afternoon and spending a bit of time gazing at your wonderful home. John H.

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