Coaxing Snowden and Fall Hill Out of the Shadows

From:  Harrison

Military studies tend to neglect Civil War sites and events along that half of Marye’s Heights situated north of the Orange Plank Road (modern William St. or Rt. 3).  During the first battle of Fredericksburg, in December 1862, some Confederate artillerists there directed oblique and enfilade fire against Federals operating south of the Plank Road.  During the second battle, in May 1863, Confederate infantry and artillery along the same segment of Marye’s Heights blocked the northern flanking prong–Gibbon’s division–of an early morning advance ordered by Union General John Sedgwick.

For the main ridgeline hosting these and other events north of the plank road, “Marye’s Heights” is a common military designation.  The most accurate civilian description, however, divides the Civil War-era ridge into three principal segments, beginning on the plank road and extending to the north:  “Byram Hills,” the Smith estate; then “Snowden,” the Stansbury estate; and then “Fall Hill,” the Taylor estate, bounded on the east and north by the Rappahannock River.

What follows throws quick spotlights on the manor houses at Snowden and Fall Hill:

Snowden and Fall Hill on the Nathaniel Michler-compilation map of the Fredericksburg battlefields, 1867. North at top; town of Fredericksburg just off map at lower right. (Red-highlights for Confederate infantry- and artillery fortifications are original to this copy of the map.)

…using a fairly familiar Civil War stereograph–here’s a crop of one of its halves–attributed by the Library of Congress to Timothy O’Sullivan and, I’m guessing, taken sometime between the two battles:

In its background, as shown in the details below, I’ve identified Snowden and Fall Hill, probably for the first time in this particular stereograph.  While the two manor houses remain blurry given the magnification currently available, their visual juxtaposition with familiar buildings down in the town emphasizes the commanding nature of the heights at the two properties, and how that elevation aided the Confederates’ artillery enfilade in 1862 and artillery-infantry defense in 1863:

(Note the trees on the horizon, on a higher terrace of Marye’s Heights behind the Snowden terrace.  Part of the higher terrace is today crowned by Cowan Boulevard.)

At the time of the photograph, Snowden was definitely in need of repair.  During the first battle the Confederates had posted a gun and limber of Parker’s Virginia Battery directly behind the manor house, with the horses “put into the basement,” as one of the Virginia artillerists later recalled.  “The enemy must have suspected our whereabouts,” he added, “for they begun [sic] to fire at the house from their heavy batteries…. shot after shot tore through the massive brick mansion, smashing window-glass and precipitating bricks upon us and the horses…. ”

During the second battle, as Gibbon’s division approached and began its ill-fated effort to cross the canal at the foot of the heights, the infantry brigade of Harry Hays occupied rifle pits at and near Snowden.

Previously that day and just to the north, the brigade of Cadmus Wilcox had taken position on the heights near Fall Hill to obstruct Gibbon’s advance:

The main component of the Snowden manor house was devastated by fire in 1926.  The building was subsequently reconstructed, on the same site, “from walls and ruins of the original.”  Several antebellum outbuildings survived intact, however, including a wing, a brick structure, and a stone structure.  The land and buildings are today private property and compose an attractive and evocative part of the campus of Mary Washington Hospital:

Snowden today, viewed from an angle similar to that utilized in the Civil War photograph. Note original, brick wing at left.

The Fall Hill manor house and several antebellum outbuildings stand today in an excellent state of preservation, likewise as private property: 

The Fall Hill manor house today, viewed from the opposite angle as that used in the Civil War photograph.

Historic map and stereograph both from the online collections of the Library of Congress.

Noel G. Harrison

3 thoughts on “Coaxing Snowden and Fall Hill Out of the Shadows

    • Thanks, John and Erik. I’m certainly the beneficiary of many conversations with each of you over the years, about the history of this and nearby areas. And we’re all the beneficiaries, Erik, of your efforts on behalf of preserving the fortifications extending across this same segment of the heights. Noel

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