Brompton in the background: rare view of the Bloody Plain, Part 2


From Hennessy:

[A preface: Brompton, the subject of what follows, is the home of the president of the University of Mary Washington, and is not open to the public.  But, as you likely know, we are holding our first 150th event on November 20th at the Baptist Church, “Years of Anguish: The Coming Storm,” which will look at how the nation, state, and community tumbled toward secession, featuring George Rable and Bill Freehling. You can register here (the program is free). As prelude to that event, from 10:30 till noon that morning, we will be hosting a walk-around of the grounds at Brompton, the home of Fredericksburg’s delegate to the secession convention, John Marye. If you want to see for yourself some of what is in these images, we heartily invite you. Enter through the pedestrian entrance off Hanover Street. For the walk, there is no pre-registration required.]

In our last (click here), we explored the background of a couple of A.J. Russell images, getting a new look at the Bloody Plain in front of the Sunken Road. The second of those images, above, also offers an unparalelled look along the top of Marye’s Heights, specifically at Brompton and the outbuildings that surround it.

Brompton is a place of visual and historical prominence, and yet much of its story remains obscure. Its wartime owner, John L. Marye (rhymes with Marie), acquired newly built Brompton about 1823 and would, on the eve of Civil War, represent Fredericksburgers and Spotsylvanians at the 1861 secession convention in Richmond. He was a man of calm manner and centrist politics, disinclined toward confrontation–either individually or on behalf of the constituents he represented.  He was, by his own admission, a “slow coach” when it came to secession.  Yet beyond this and a few scattered details, we know little of Marye and his life before the war (though we know a great deal about his son, John Jr., who was lieutenant governor of Virginia in the 1870s and a prominent local attorney–the two men are routinely confused with each other). We don’t even have a picture of him. We do know this: his majestic home projected power and wealth, a stark contrast to his neighbors just yards away on the Sunken Road (a heterogeneous lot of families you can read about here).

He is, though, synonymous with the Battle of Fredericksburg, for it was John L. Marye Sr. who gave his name to Marye’s Heights, the commanding Confederate ground that dominated the plain below. This image offers by far the best sense of how dominant Brompton was, and it offers a terrific view of the landscape beyond the big house.

To the left of the big house, most apparent is a white building with narrow pillars supporting an overhanging roof–it is either a shed or, more likely, an office.  Here is the same building photographed a year later, in May 1864, medical officers lounging about while Brompton was being used as a Union hospital. Continue reading

News at Sherwood Forest and an important acquisition at the Wilderness


We’re not usually about current events, but when news comes along that touches on things we’ve posted about, we’ll note it here.

The Free Lance-Star of October 28 has news about Sherwood Forest in Stafford County. A while back we did a post on the crumbling slave cabin at Sherwood, which you might note is not within the protected historic area. You can read about it here.

Also, the Civil War Preservation Trust has contracted to buy perhaps the most important parcel within the NPS boundary at the Wilderness–the land that constitutes the eastern edge of Saunders Field. We have written about Saunders Field a couple of times, here and here.

Rare views of the Bloody Plain–Part I


From Hennessy:

How ironic is it that the most important battlefield landscape in Virginia that’s been virtually lost is also the one that’s the best documented photographically?  I suppose there’s some consolation in that.

These images are nearly 150 years old, but they’ve rarely been seen or published. At first glance they look to be fairly common images of Fredericksburg during the Civil War, offering little that hasn’t been noted before. But a closer look into the background in fact reveals an entirely new perspective on the fields beyond town–the Bloody Plain. These images, together with the Federal Hill panorama  surely make Fredericksburg’s Bloody Plain the best photographically documented battlefield landscape anywhere (at least in terms of wartime images). 

There are three images, two of which we share here today. Both by A.J. Russell; both 1863. The first shows a familiar foreground–John Marye’s Excelsior Mill, just below the ruined railroad bridge, and beyond it Alexander and Gibbs’s Tobacco Factory, where the slave John Washington worked in 1860.

Original at the Wes. Res. Hist. Soc.

The second image takes in ground a bit farther downstream and focuses on an industrial part of town that is today largely consumed with parking lots associated with the train station.

Original at the West. Res. Hist. Soc.

We will look at all these things eventually, but for today let’s look into the distant background of these images, for together they offer a view of the Bloody Plain and Marye’s Heights beyond Fredericksburg that is exceeded only by the famous Federal Hill panorama (which we have explored extensively here, here, and here). Continue reading

Mary Washington to the rescue: the most dramatic land save in the park’s history (and a home for the Kirkland monument)


From John Hennessy:

In July 1963, Fredericksburg native and former Detroit Tiger turned developer Russell Sullivan (you can see Sullivan’s Major League stats here) acquired a small parcel of land along the Sunken Road just below historic Brompton and started planning a new apartment complex. One 72-foot long, 4-unit apartment was to face south, along Mercer Street; another of eight units was to face Brompton itself.

Location and scale of proposed buildings gleaned from news reports

The National Park Service reacted with alarm, but due to “technical difficulties which we couldn’t overcome” (probably issues with the deed or a lack of money), Superintendent O.F. Northington was unable to acquire and protect the property. In early 1964, the bulldozers started to move, preparing the site for the apartments–just 25 feet from the original section of stone wall on the Sunken Road. Newspaper photos from the Free Lance-Star show piles of earth and heavy equipment in action. The site was a mess.

An image from the Free Lance-Star showing work underway. That’s the original section of the stone wall.

A hue and cry went up from history sorts, but with the NPS “dreadfully disappointed” and  powerless (apparently) to intervene, and with the city absent any ordinance governing the protection of historic resources, all seemed loss. The bulldozers rumbled.  Continue reading

Battlefields as fundraising tools–1868 (and the fate of walls on the Sunken Road)


From John Hennessy (based on an article in the Washington National Republican, August 6, 1868):

The Sunken Road at about the time of the Episcopal visit in 1868; note the camp for the burial parties at left.

The year was 1868. The collection of the bodies of Union soldiers from the battlefields around Fredericksburg, and the burials of those soldiers in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, was ongoing. Likewise, the Ladies Memorial Association of Fredericksburg was tilting along full speed ensuring Confederate dead were gathered from the fields and reinterred in the Confederate Cemetery at the end of Amelia Street. The fresh dirt of newly disinterred graves pocked the landscape around Fredericksburg.

Yet, in August 1868, the aspiring congregation of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in what is today Anacostia (for a time called Uniontown) conceived what was then surely a novel fundraising scheme: mount a field trip to the battlefields around Fredericksburg. The destination was apparently inspired by some former Fredericksburg residents in the congregation.

“Every effort was put forth to make the excursion a success and to get up just such a party as would be a credit to the prime movers in the effort and a pleasure to those who would compose the body of visitors.  Quite a large number of persons who had been born and reared in the town of historic renown (Fredericksburg) embraced this opportunity of paying their old and honored home a visit, many of them returning there for the first time since the outbreak of the rebellion, and they did so with evident delight and gratification.”

The jolly group left the Seventh Street wharf in Washington at 11 a.m., stopped briefly in Alexandria, and arrived at Aquia Landing at 3 and the rail station in Fredericksburg b y 4.  Along the way, the travellers enjoyed themselves:  “the excursionists were tripping the light fantastic toe to Weber’s fine music, and if there were any that did not enjoy themselves it was all their own fault,” wrote the reporter. Continue reading

A profound and ubiquitous image: slaves crossing the Rappahannock


From Hennessy (cross-posted at Fredericksburg Remembered):

The image is captioned, “Fugitive Negroes fording the Rappahannock (during Pope’s retreat).” It is perhaps the most widely used of all Civil War photographs, simply because there is little else like it. The image appears in dozens of exhibits and publications that treat the subject of slaves seeking freedom–including some in the Fredericksburg region–and over the course of the Sesquicentennial, will surely appear many more times. But what do we know about the image?  What does is show?  Where and when was it taken? And is it really relevant to portraying the exodus of slaves to or with the Union army in the summer of 1862? (You can download and explore the image yourself here.)

The image is part of a remarkable series of at least seven taken by photographer Timothy O’Sullivan on a frantic day for the Union army: August 19, 1862. That day, John Pope’s Army of Virginia was in full retreat, falling back from the Rapidan River through Culpeper County (on the left of this image) to a new line behind the Rappahannock River, in Fauquier County (to the right). The movement was rapid and large–55,000 or more men heading to the crossings of the Rappahannock River. The biggest and best of those was the bridge of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad across the Rappahannock at modern Remington (then Rappahannock Station). This picture was taken a few hundred yards downstream from that bridge, at a rarely used crossing called Cow Ford. The site is about 30 miles above Fredericksburg.

We know that at Fredericksburg, when the Union army abandoned the place twelve days after this image was taken, slaves saw the Yankees’ departure as their last chance for freedom, and flooded north with the Union army. This image suggests that something similar happened when the Federal army left Culpeper County on August 19, though I have no sense that the exodus on August 19 was anything close the scale of that at Fredericksburg. Still, this is an image that apparently captures a hugely significant act in progress: slaves emancipating themselves.

There is nothing in this image that raises doubt about its nature or origins (there can be no doubt it was taken when it where the caption claims), but under close scrutiny some interesting details–with consequent questions–emerge. Continue reading

Is this a Lost Panorama of Chancellorsville…Now Reassembled?


from:  Harrison

Recently, the Library of Congress posted online a blurry and unfinished but still intriguing sketch of the Battle of Chancellorsville.  The Library credits the artwork to Harper’s Weekly special artist Alfred R. Waud, and cites the manuscript caption “Somewhere near Chancellorsville – 1863.”  (You can find a hi-res version of the image here.)

Hoping to identify the subject-landscape of the drawing, my attention was drawn to several features in particular:  artillery in action under a cloud of smoke at center horizon, a homestead under a copse of trees at right horizon, and a linear shadow slanting down from the artillery and towards the lower right corner:


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“If these signatures could talk…”: Falmouth Graffiti, Part 2


From Mink:

Another example of soldier graffiti in Falmouth can be found here

Old Union Church Blog Photo

Union Church in Falmouth – ca1880s.

Churches seem to have been a favorite target for soldier graffiti during the Civil War. This was most likely due to the fact that as they did not contain residents, the buildings were unoccupied and thus easy targets for vandalism. Additionally, churches were often used as hospitals and barracks, where soldiers spent much idle time. In the Fredericksburg area, we have examples of soldier graffiti at Massaponax and Salem Churches in Spotsylvania County, as well as Aquia Church in Stafford County. Add to that list Union Church in Falmouth.

Built around 1820, Union Church served the Falmouth community for over 130 years. Union Church is actually the third house of worship constructed on the hill overlooking Falmouth. At the time of its construction, the Falmouth community did not contains members of any one single congregation to warrant a church devoted to either the Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian faiths. Union Church served all three congregations.

Upon arrival of Union troops in the spring of 1862, Union Church served the occupying forces as a hospital. Union forces also used it as a barracks, housing Union soldiers on picket duty along the Rappahannock River. One regiment to occupy the building was the 7th Michigan Infantry. This regiment had been the first to cross the river opposite the upper end of Fredericksburg on December 11, 1862.

7th Michigan Monument Blog Photo

7th Michigan Monument at the site of the upper pontoon crossing – Fredericksburg.

Continue reading

The Many Stories of the Upper Pontoon Crossing (Part Four: Changing a Battlefield, in Art…and in the Dirt)


From: Harrison

I’d like to offer a (long-delayed) conclusion to my discussion of the Upper Pontoon Crossing by considering how a particular Civil War site becomes obscured or altered through changes in art and also on the land.  At the pontoon crossing such changes, while subtle or rarely noticed today, nonetheless represent early, or underlying, stages of ways through which our perceptions of a historic place could shift markedly or even come into conflict.

(This blog and its sister blog, Fredericksburg Remembered, have recently explored two dramatic and “matured” examples of other types of processes leading to altered or contested understandings of Civil War-era sites: the Fredericksburg “Slave-Auction Block,” with narratives coming to be woven around a particular artifact; and the treatment given Union wounded in front of the Sunken Road and Stone Wall in December 1862, with some narratives coming to overshadow others and inspire postwar sculpture and other artforms.)

My previous three posts on the Upper Pontoon Crossing included discussions of wartime topography.  A quick review:  in the wake of the Federal army’s cross-river assault and bridge-building there in December 1862, major landscape features on the Fredericksburg side of the Rappahannock included Sophia Street, the ruins of the Scott Tenement, the probable (crescent-shaped) outline of the Union bridge-stockade’s foundation, and the lane that extended Hawke Street down to the river’s edge.  I annotated those features on a photograph of the pontoon crossing, taken during a flag-of-truce exchange sometime after the December battle:


Let’s now consider a few of the changes occurring at the site following the battle, beginning with changes made through art.  My first post on the pontoon crossing included this pre-battle Harper’s Weekly woodcut depicting the Federal blockhouse and stockade, built in the late-spring or summer of 1862:


The pair of structures had disappeared by the time of the photograph taken after the December 1862 battle.  But were the two structures present at the battle’s onset, on December 11?  If so, the stockade and blockhouse, while small, would have been key elements of the local terrain, offering clear fields-of-fire and tempting fortifications to the Confederates who opposed the Federals’ crossing efforts–tempting, I’m guessing, no matter how illusory the structures’ protection ultimately proved in the face of concentrated artillery fire.  The stockade and blockhouse, if those survived the bombardment, would next have offered immediate protection to men of the Seventh Michigan Infantry, who ferried over the Rappahannock and then battled up from the water’s edge towards Sophia Street.

Written evidence for the presence of at  least one of the two structures during the battle may include the account of a Pennsylvanian who visited the same area in the wake of the December 11 combat and noted a dead soldier beside a “block-house.”  The Pennsylvanian, however, left unclear whether he referred to the military building on the riverbank or to a civilian building situated somewhere in the vicinity of the crossing and reinforced for defensive purposes by Confederates.
Continue reading

“I was in the Secret Service of the Army of the Potomac…” – Isaac Silver of Spotsylvania County, Part 2


From Mink:

Part 1 can be read here.

Joseph Hooker had ordered the creation of the Bureau of Military Information under Colonel George H. Sharpe. Even after Hooker’s removal from command of the Army of the Potomac, Sharpe stayed on as the head of the bureau and Isaac Silver continued to work for it.

Not much is known about Silver’s activities during the period between the Battle of Chancellorsville and the spring of 1864. He must certainly have been working for Sharpe, as his neighbor Ebenezer McGee is known to have acted as a guide for the Army of the Potomac during the Mine Run campaign in November and the Ulric Dahlgren Raid in March. McGee is reported to have been killed during the latter operation.

Monument at the site of Ebeneezer McGee's Spotsylvania home.

The spring offensive brought the Union army once again into Silver’s backyard. In a postwar deposition, Silver claimed that he was “a guide for Gen. Sheridan at the time of the battle of Spottsylvania Court House in May 1864. He was at my house.”

Continue reading