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

From: Harrison

Continuing from the previous article in this series, I’d like to conclude my discussion of the Upper Pontoon Crossing by considering how a particular Civil War site becomes obscured or altered through changes in art and on the land.  At the pontoon crossing, such changes, while subtle or rarely noticed today, nonetheless represent early or underlying stages through which our perceptions of a historic place could shift markedly or even come into conflict.

(Recent articles on this blog and the Fredericksburg Remembered blog explored two prominent 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 area in front of the Sunken Road and Stone Wall, with some narratives about treatment given Union wounded there in December 1862 coming to overshadow others and inspire postwar sculpture and other artforms.)

My previous three articles 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.
The importance of securing protection between the river and the row of houses along the west edge of Sophia Street is suggested by the fate of those soldiers who found themselves outside or away from adequate cover.  The same Pennsylvanian also wrote of seeing the “first street running parallel with the river…covered with Union and Confederate dead.”

On December 27, 1862, Harper’s Weekly published two woodcut views of the bombardment and cross-river assault that had occurred at the Upper Pontoon Crossing on December 11.  Neither woodcut included the blockhouse or stockade (or, for that matter, the Scott Tenement):

Yet the stockade, and probably the blockhouse as well, did appear in a woodcut of the Upper Pontoon Crossing published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Harper’s chief competitor, on December 27:

To judge from the Leslie’s woodcut (itself based on a sketch by combat-zone artist Henri Lovie), the crescent-plan stockade had by December 11 lost some of its wall yet still offered shelter to the Michiganders ascending the riverbank.  The blockhouse, meanwhile, probably appears at center right—recall that the pre-battle Harper’s woodcut also showed it as a low, rectangular-plan building with a roofline situated perpendicular to the river.  And the Leslie’s woodcut shows the Scott tenement, at left, complete with the partial-stone construction and gambrel roof documented in the sources I discuss in a previous post.  (The separate, booth-like structure under the trees at far right in the Leslie’s woodcut may be a shelter built by Confederate pickets on the eve of the December battle.)

Harper’s essentially erased the stockade, the blockhouse, and the tenement (which actually survived that day’s combat, albeit as a short-lived, three-cornered shambles) from the landscape of the December 11 fighting, while Leslie’s preserved those.  Harper’s, in other words, accomplished inadvertently what even the destructiveness of battle could not, at least for its readers.

The Leslie’s woodcut, with those heavy, uninviting shadows, was destined to become one of the least-republished illustrations of the battle.  Yet it represents what is perhaps the most accurate contemporary depiction, in art, of the Upper Pontoon Crossing combat.  (Alas, the Lovie sketch upon which Leslie’s engravers based the woodcut has gone missing.  What at first glance may appear to be Lovie’s sketch is actually a steel engraving that artist Alonzo Chappel based on the Lovie/Leslie’s picture and that altered a number of its details.)

In the nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, non-photographic Civil War art often found an audience through woodcuts—whether appearing in Leslie’s or Harper’s or a postwar venue such as Century magazine’s Battles and Leaders series—but rarely through sketches.  Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, however, the sketches upon which the woodcuts had been based started entering the public consciousness.

Some one hundred years after its creation, a sketch drawn by Harper’s combat-zone artist Alfred R. Waud and depicting the December 1862 fighting—a sketch that the Harper’s editors chose not to publish, as a woodcut—rose to become the dominant, contemporary artistic depiction of the Upper Pontoon Crossing, from a Union perspective.  (In the 1880’s, a woodcut based on a sketch by Allen C. Redwood, who had served in the Fredericksburg area with the Army of Northern Virginia, became the iconic depiction from a Confederate perspective.)

Waud had captioned the drawing “Building Pontoon bridges at Fredericksburg Dec 11th”:

Following the Civil War, financier and art-collector J.P. Morgan acquired the sketch. Morgan’s estate conveyed it to the Library of Congress in 1919, three years after his death.  (Whether Waud, who died in 1891, also prepared the sketches upon which Harper’s based the two Upper Crossing woodcuts that I discuss above is unclear, as the Harper’s editors chose not to publish those with accompanying attributions.)

The sketch’s post-J.P. Morgan rise to documentary prominence derived from its vivid composition; Waud’s reputation for accuracy; and its appearance in a long succession of mass-market publications, including Divided We Fought, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (both the full- and the abridged, Golden Book versions), Time-Life Books’ Voices of the Civil War:  Fredericksburg, and The Battle of Fredericksburg edition of the Eastern National Park and Monument Association’s Civil War Series.

The influence of Waud’s sketch over our imagining of the events of December 11 notwithstanding, its terrain cannot be matched to the known, “real-life” terrain of the Upper Pontoon Crossing during the Civil War.  My studies of the sketch led me to the opinion that it bears no more value as a document of the Upper Pontoon Crossing than the two Harper’s woodcuts published on December 27.  Instead, the sketch depicts the December 11 fighting at the Middle Pontoon Crossing, situated more than a mile downriver from the Upper.

So if the Harper’s woodcuts obliterated essential details of the Upper Pontoon Crossing for that newspaper’s Civil War-era readers—leaving only a built-up riverfront and a partially constructed bridge in the realm of veracity—and if Waud’s sketch did the same for the readers of our era, to what extent can the site itself help us?  How might the ground there today enhance the information conveyed visually in the pictures that do corroborate one another: the pre-battle Harper’s woodcut, the post-battle photograph, and the Leslie’s woodcut showing the stockade and the probable blockhouse?

Because of changes to the land, we need to be as careful as students of the Upper Pontoon Crossing’s modern terrain—on the Fredericksburg side of the river—as we are as students of its historical art.  A brick home, built by Dr. Thomas B. and Mrs. Virginia Garnett Payne in 1935, stands as the most obvious of the postwar alterations.  The home, a driveway, and attendant landscaping now occupy the Upper Crossing area between Sophia Street and the Rappahannock, and north of (upriver from) the wartime extension of Hawke Street down to the river’s edge.  The home or its landscaping probably covers the site of the blockhouse, which was definitely upriver from the Hawke extension.

As things turned out, however, the Paynes literally saved the rest of the Upper Pontoon Crossing site, between the street and the river, and south of the Hawke extension.  In 1964, they and Miss Mary B. Garnett donated 1.05 acres at that location as an addition to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and in memory of the Paynes’ son, Robert Mercer Payne, and of Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter of Essex County, statesman (and compiler, as National Park Service historian Emmanuel Dabney has reminded me, of a widely varied Civil War resume that included authorship of a proposed compromise to avert war in January 1861, expulsion from the U.S. House of Representatives as a secessionist, service as C.S. Secretary of State and Senator, critic of Jefferson Davis, and C.S. peace-commissioner to the Hampton Roads Conference with Abraham Lincoln and others in February 1865).

This land encompassed the remainder of the immediate area of the Upper Crossing on the Fredericksburg side of the river, a preserved zone that included the trace of the Hawke extension and the sites of the stockade and the Scott Tenement.  The Payne-Garnett donation, in fact, brought the National Park Service its first Upper Crossing land, since the property immediately adjoining the pontoon-bridge abutments sites on the Stafford County side of the river did not come under Park jurisdiction until donation via the will of Mr. John Lee Pratt in the 1970’s:

Historical markers along Sophia Street and in front of northern half of preserved area at Upper Pontoon Crossing. Rappahannock at rear, 1935 Payne House and landscaped grounds off picture at left, southern half of preserved area off picture at right. Dip in curbing at left marks beginning of trace of wartime Hawke Street extension.

Prior to the Payne-Garnett donation, the future preservation-area on the Fredericksburg side of the river had undergone major change.  A pair of broad terraces were created, with a smaller, upriver terrace adjoining a wider, downriver terrace.  The smaller terrace soon supported a tennis court; the larger, downriver terrace may have been built at the same time as preliminary landscaping:

Looking across northern half of preserved area towards rear of row of historical markers, and from lower, post-Civil War terrace to upper, post-Civil War terrace (former tennis court). Note steepness of transition slope in foreground, and steepness of slopes where upper terrace abuts Sophia St. (brown vegetation in left background) and the trace of the Hawke St. extension (yellowish vegetation in center background). Photo courtesy of David Ellrod.

These features, situated at and north of the site of the Scott Tenement, represented a major departure from the previous pattern of terracing in the area, which the wartime photograph shows as narrower and limited mainly to the riverbank on the opposite (south) side of the tenement.

When envisioning the bombardment and cross-river assault of December 11, 1862, then, we need to bear in mind that the just-landed Seventh Michigan fought its way not up the series of small but steep-edged plateaus present in the preserved area of the Upper Crossing today but rather up a comparatively steady incline there, to and past the tenement, the stockade, and the blockhouse.  Here’s an aerial image of the area today, with topographic annotations:

North at upper right, Sophia St. vertical at left, Rapphannock vertical at right. General locations of preserved area/National Park boundaries at top and bottom horizontal.

Fortunately, the enhanced research opportunities of the digital age give us what seems like an ever-expanding supply of new lenses with which to view past events.  This abundance allows us to compare, contrast, and even reverse the obscuring, however inadvertent, by nineteenth-century artists (and their editors) of battlefield landscapes.  In the realm of dirt and sod, the changes reflected by the modern terrain at the Upper Pontoon Crossing battlefield may to an extent be reversed virtually and (someday, if needed) literally.  This is possible thanks to the interpretive illumination of artistic and written perspectives on the Crossing, and to the presence of archeologically protective caps of earth that the post-Civil War terraces perhaps placed over any surviving traces of the stockade and the ruins of the Scott Tenement, not to mention over fragile, war-related features that have escaped our historical notice thus far.

[Special thanks to John F. Cummings III and Walter J. Sheffield, for answering some 11th-hour inquiries with their usual graciousness, and to David Ellrod and Don Pfanz, for photographic assistance.]

Noel G. Harrison


5 thoughts on “The Many Stories of the Upper Pontoon Crossing, Part Four: Changing a Battlefield, in Art…and in the Dirt

  1. Stephen: The Union House stood right on the corner, between the current library and Caroline Street. The two buildings stood side-by-side for a short time. At some time soon, I’ll do a post on the Union House, which is one of the more interesting vanished buildings of Fredericksburg. John H.

  2. Anyone else find it ironic the land was donated in memory of U.S. and later Confederate Senator R.M.T. Hunter considering that it was Union troops who crossed into Fredericksburg?

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