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.

Once in Fredericksburg, the former residents among the crowd rushed to join old friends.  But most of the group “repaired to the battle grounds to see what is yet visible of the results of one of the hardest fought battles of the rebellion, and to seek relics for themselves and friends.”

They quickly learned of the ongoing reburials–and also of the hasty post-battle interments that had begotten the creation of new cemeteries in the first place. “These bodies, we regret to state, were put out of sight soon after the battle, in indecent haste, and in the most brutal manner imaginable.”  The reporter learned of burials in the unfinished railroad near Fredericksburg (later the Virginia Central, to Orange):  “The deep cut of the road that had been made, on which to build a railway to Gordonsville, some 50 miles away (the cut being about as deep as an ordinary house is high) great numbers of these bodies were thrown on top of each other like so many hogs.”

The ice house at Federal Hill.

He also heard of the untoward burials of Union dead in the ice house at Federal Hill:  “Near the centre of this slaughter ground, was an old ice house, probably between twenty five and fifty feet deep, into which many of the dead were pitched without ceremony, and there they were left to rot and decay.” (Click here for a post on “the eerie ice house of Federal Hill.”)

The Sunken Road, 1884--the stone wall to the right, gone.

But most interesting is his description of the Sunken Road:  “The greater portion of the stone fence from behind with the rebels shot down Burnside’s men has been torn down, and a house or two has been erected of some of the stone.” This is the earliest known reference to the removal of the stone walls along the Sunken Road. Just as we do not know why those walls were built, we do not know why they were removed. Some have speculated that the stone went into the construction of the cemetery lodge, but that building did not go up until 1871, and a geologist who assisted with the archeology of the Sunken Road several years ago concluded the stones in the lodge basement today do not match those original stones remaining along the Sunken Road.

Others claimed that the stone was used to construct terraces at Federal Hill, which overlooked the battlefield from the east. That’s possible. Or perhaps the stone was used, as the writer here implies, to help build new houses on the Bloody Plain. We don’t know. But we do know that very likely somewhere near the Sunken Road, the stone was put to new use and likely remains today–cut stone of that sort was and is too valuable to simply discard. It remains a mystery.

The traveler continued, describing what was almost certainly the Innis House and the Stephens House:  “Just at the north end of this wall stands an old frame house [likely Innis] which was so badly riddled with shot and shell that one can scarcely lay his open hand on it anywhere without covering some of the holes thus made.  The house is now occupied.

The Innis House today--still bullet-riddled--with the wall rebuilt in 2004.

A very few rods further south is another frame building, occupied also [likely Stephens], with a honey pod tree standing on the east side of it.  Under this tree Gen. Cobb, of Georgia, was standing, issuing his commands, when a piece of shell from Burnside’s army passed through the walls and portions of the house, struck Gen. Cobb and killed him.”

The Stephens house. It burned in 1913.

The Episcopal travelers had only three hours to see the sites, and all gathered back at the train by 7:30 for their return trip to Washington–the music and gaiety hardly diminished by a few hours on still-fresh killing fields.  “Everything passed off to the satisfaction of the excursionists, and they landed at the Seventh street wharf at half-past one o’clock Friday morning, where they took street cars that were in waiting and proceeded to their homes highly delighted with their trip to the Fredericksburg battle-fields.”

These are the sorts of things we are constantly discovering, each of them helping us to understand the physical evolution of the battlefields and, just as interesting, the cultural values that overlay them.

By the way, the congregation’s fundraising efforts succeeded. The new Emmanuel Episcopal Church opened in 1869.

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

  1. The Rector of Emmanuel Parish, The Rev. Willard G. Davenport, fought in the Fifth Regiment of Vermont, as did his brother, William Davenport. Both men fought in the Battle of the Wilderness, William was killed there. Perhaps that explains the reason for their visiting the battlefield.

    • His brother was George Daniel Davenport (1832-1864), Private, Company H, Fifth Regiment, Vermont Volunteers, Sept. 2, 1861; First Sergeant, Sept. 16, 1861; First Lieutenant, Company G, Nov. 22, 1861; Captain, Company B, Dec. 2, 1862-1864. Died on the field from wounds received in the battle of the Wilderness, May 12, 1864
      He was: Davenport, Willard G., Age: 18, cred. Brandon, VT; service: enl 8/22/61, m/i 9/16/61, CPL, Co. H, 5th VT INF, pr SGT, SGT-MAJ 2/1/63, wdd, Fredericksburg, 6/5/63, comn 1LT 11/1/63 (11/7/63), wdd, Wilderness, 5/5/64, m/o 9/15/64
      Born: 05/09/1843, Unknown; Died: 10/12/1919; Buried: Pine Hill Cemetery, Brandon, VT

      • Thank you J E. for this great information. I felt bad because I knew Willard’s brother’s name was George but for some stupid reason typed it in wrong. Willard was married to Mary Hannah Converse Backus, also from VT. They named their first son, George, I believe after his brother. George also became a priest in the Episcopal Church and went on to become the third Bishop of the Diocese of Easton Maryland. Willard and Mary were an incredibly interesting couple and did a lot for children in their day.

  2. I should mention that when Rev. Willard received the call to serve as rector of Emmanuel Parish it was in total disrepair. Through his ‘fund raising’ efforts he was able to not only rebuild the parish but also honor those who died in the battles around Fredericksburg, especially his brother. He was a a good man.

  3. I am a direct descendent of the Rev. Willard Davenport. I have, in my possession, a first person account from the young widow of George Davenport of her traveling down to the battlefield about a year later and collecting George’s body to bring it back to Brandon Vermont.

    • Wow, that is fantastic! I would love to talk to you about this among many other things. Would you mind if I contacted you? I am also very interested in Mary Davenport. I am a member of the Order of the Daughters of the King, which she helped found. Her work with the Junior Daughters has been inspiring to say the least. Please let me know if I can contact you, I would love to talk.
      Take care.

    • Dear Polly, just yesterday I attended the 150th commemoration of the Battle of the Wilderness and was blessed with the opportunity of placing a wreath next to the Vermont monument. I hope in some small way I honored these men who fought and died there.

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