Coaxing Second Fredericksburg Out of the Shadows: The Howison Farm, “Braehead”

from: Harrison

The Howison farm, “Braehead,” consisted on the eve of the Civil War of some 600 acres and, on the south side of Hazel Run, at least three clusters of buildings:

-the estate’s namesake house, a mansion built for the Howison family in 1859, together with outbuildings.  This large brick home distinguished itself with tower-like wings:

(Today, the mansion is preserved and protected in its rural setting thanks to the loving custodianship of postwar owners and a major, timely investment by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.)

-a smaller house, perhaps the dwelling of the estate’s overseer or dairyman and designated “Jones” on a Confederate map and in an after-action report.  A pair of outbuildings flanked the Jones House.  (The postwar incarnation of this homestead, whose site now lies within the Fredericksburg Industrial Park, appears to have been destroyed sometime after 1943.  The postwar occupants included a pair of Buckner sisters renowned for their marksmanship and feared by railroad survey-crews and hobos alike.  It is also my understanding that in the mid-1890’s members of the recently formed National Geographic Society picnicked near the house.)  

-a large brick barn and at least one additional building–possibly another barn or a dwelling for some of Braehead’s enslaved workers. (The census enumerator counted 14 slaves at the estate in 1860.)  The barn complex probably housed most of the Braehead dairy operation, a major supplier of milk to antebellum Fredericksburg.  (This group of structures was evidently destroyed sometime between 1864 and 1867; their sites are likewise today in the industrial park.)

(A fourth cluster of Braehead-estate buildings, at Howison’s Mill, stood north of the run and lies outside the purview of our discussion today.  In a previous blog post John Hennessy mapped a Union camp established along what was in the summer of 1862 an idyllic stretch of Hazel Run near the mill buildings.)

Despite its physical centrality on and between the opposing front lines, the Howison farm saw relatively little combat during the December 1862 fighting at Fredericksburg.  This detail of a woodcut, based on an eyewitness sketch by London Illustrated News artist Frank Vizetelly (who produced the only known, contemporary artistic depictions of the battle from a Confederate perspective), omits Hazel Run and other details but does show a sizeable swath of the farm on December 13, 1862, looking east from the base of Lee’s Hill, with Fredericksburg in left background.  Howison’s Mill is in left middleground and the Jones House buildings-cluster in right middleground, with the Howison barn-complex and the Braehead mansion just outside the picture at right:

(The structures in right background are the gasworks, situated on the bank of the Rappahannock and not part of the Howison estate.)  

In his exhaustive research on the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, former NPS historian Mac Wyckoff uncovered the story of a “private little battle” waged on December 13 by 20 skirmishers from that regiment arrayed south of Hazel Run and near the Jones House.  The intrepid group sustained six wounded, two mortally, and claimed to have inflicted “hundreds of casualties” among enemy troops positioned north of the run, probably in and around the cut of the Unfinished Railroad (the prominent gouge extending into the distance in Vizetelly’s picture). 

The ground south of Hazel Run hosted more extensive events during the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, in May 1863, when Union General Albion Howe’s division first maneuvered into and then advanced across the property in force.  Here’s the final stage of his move, on May 3, 1863, as depicted on Map 34 of John Bigelow’s classic, The Campaign of Chancellorsville.  Map 34 is a stylized composite of maps from the wartime and immediate postwar periods; on this version of 34, I have denoted the three clusters of buildings (plus a related landmark, the Hall House beside the Stone Wall and Sunken Road), which had appeared on those original maps:

While preparing an article on photographic documentation of the Second Fredericksburg battlefield, for the 2008 edition of the annual journal Fredericksburg History and Biography, I realized that the backgrounds of several well-known images provided little-known depictions of the three clusters of Braehead-estate buildings.  My exploration continues here, thanks to this blog’s capacity to display details of two of the photographic depictions at still greater magnification, and to add a photo that did not appear in the 2008 article.

In the wake of the Federals’ reconnaissance-in-force against the Stone Wall/Sunken Road at dawn on May 3, 1863, General John Sedgwick ordered early morning flank-attacks against that segment of the Confederate line.  The southerly of these thrusts fell to Howe, who cancelled it upon discovering geographic obstacles and Confederates on Lee’s Hill.  Howe owed at least some of the latter revelation to the seizure of the Jones House by the 77th New York, which came under artillery fire from the hill after ejecting enemy infantry skirmishers from the grounds of the house.  (A Confederate battery commander on Lee’s Hill, Captain John C. Fraser, complained of defective ordnance that passed through the Jones House without exploding.) 

The Jones House appears in the background (below right; note corner of Hall House at far right) of the famous image of the Stone Wall and Sunken Road (below left), made by photographer Andrew J. Russell after Federal troops seized the area in the late-morning attack that Sedgwick launched following the failure of the flanking effort:

In support of the late-morning attack on the wall and road, Howe made a larger commitment, sending regiments in several directions across the Howison estate—west towards Lee’s Hill, northwest up the southern tip of Marye’s Heights, and southwest towards the Braehead mansion.  After passing the Jones House and nearing the Howison-barn complex, the 26th New Jersey fragmented under artillery fire, some of the Jerseymen drifting in front the the 2nd Vermont, advancing to their left and rear.  The Union brigade commander, Colonel Lewis Grant, responded by ordering the 2nd “by the right flank,” which took it “around by the right of the barns and up the highest range of hills [Lee’s Hill]” (a journey depicted only partially on Bigelow’s map 34). 

The largest building of the barn complex appears in the background (below right) of a southward-looking image (below left) taken from the southern tip of Marye’s Heights in May 1864 (the horse or mule visible in the magnification stands atop the heights, not beside the barn down on the Howison plain):

A portion of the 26th New Jersey, meanwhile, reorganized itself and charged from the area of the barns-complex towards and past the Braehead mansion.  The 3rd and 4th Vermont soon passed through or near that homestead as well.  The mansion appears in the background (below right) of the famous, westward-looking photographic panorama (its left half, below left), taken on the edge of Fredericksburg in May 1864:

Coaxing these images of the Howison farm into the spotlight helps us visualize a zone of the Fredericksburg battlefield, of December 1862 as well as of May 1863, that was altered drastically after the war, first by the establishment of a large repair- and storage complex for a narrow gauge railroad (a postwar enterprise that, under various corporate names, “finished” and operated the Unfinished Railroad between Fredericksburg and Orange) and then by the construction and gradual expansion of what is today the industrial park. 

Also, these wartime photographs and their contexts emphasize the complexity of Sedgwick’s planning at Second Fredericksburg, the story of which is much more than merely a single Union drive against the Stone Wall and Sunken Road followed by the making of a single, triumphal photograph.

Noel G. Harrison

Postscript:  This being a blog about historical mysteries, it was inevitable, I suppose, that some obscuring shadows advanced as others receded.  Not long after posting the above paragraphs, it occurred to me that the Howison barn-complex and the Jones House complex were not readily visible in my background-magnification of the panoramic photograph taken at the edge of Fredericksburg in May 1864 (from the grounds of Federal Hill on Hanover Street, specifically), although both complexes should appear given their geographic positions within the zone of view towards the Braehead mansion. 

(Another of the photographs that I discuss above, the southward-looking image taken from atop the southern tip of Marye’s Heights in May 1864, not only shows the barn in magnification but, further to the left but not visible in the magnification that I supply, depicts a whitish shape that I strongly suspect is the Jones House, thus attesting to the likely survival of both structures at the time of the panoramic photograph’s making in 1864.)

I believe that the two complexes do appear, but faintly, in the panoramic image.  My current guesses are summarized on this additional (and grainy) detail from it:

Note the possibility that the barn complex and the Jones House complex may blend together visually here, as one of the blurry, whitish shapes, given the photograph’s angle.  Note also an additional feature, a probable structure on the horizon that may well be the “brick cabin” plotted on at least two wartime maps not far from the Braehead mansion.  (I am not sure, however, if the cabin as shown on those maps fell within the Howison estate’s boundary.)


5 thoughts on “Coaxing Second Fredericksburg Out of the Shadows: The Howison Farm, “Braehead”

  1. I stumbled on this through a CWPT site and am fascinated. I went to a long-defunct private school at Fdksbg (at Fall Hill and then Beauclair Farm, which was a Harrison property then) 70 years ago and have always had an interest in the area since, although I’ve not spent much time there since. Can I impose on you to ask how I can get to this site directly since I want to spend a lot more time studying it? For what it’s worth I am an extreme Civil War buff–my activity is mainly reading, over the last 70 yrs. The local names I remember from Fdksbg are Max Klotz, Charles Taylor Lewis, Mike and Pat Driscoll, Ted Craver, Butler, Jenny, Beth and Lynn Franklin, also Tommy Gale and Joan Rhodes from Staffprd, I think. I was Neil Gorham from Alexandria in those days and now live in Springfield. Frank C Gorham 703/451-4165 fax 703/451-0384. Thanks for your help.

    • Hi Frank: You can access the site entirely by going to

      I can’t offer much on the family names you cite, but Beauclair plantation is certainly a worthy topic for a future post on here. During the war it was owned by Benjamin Temple, and it was a key destination for refugees fleeing Fredericksburg–most notably the diarist Jane Beale. I’ll try to put something together on it in the near future. Thanks for reading, and stop back often. John Hennessy


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