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.
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.
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).
From the first image: this magnification shows more clearly than any other image the small suburban neighborhood that stood along Hanover Street, part of which played an important role in the battle of December 13, 1862 (we wrote about this neighborhood here and here). Most prominent is Sissons Store.
Sissons marked the right flank of the main bodies of advancing Union troops on December 13 and is vividly described by several men. Especially memorable was a woman in the house, apparently Sarah Sissons, who was described by Union officer John Ames.
“Here stood a low brick house, with an open door in its gable end, from which shone a light, and into which we peered when passing. Inside sat a woman, gaunt and hard-featured, with crazy hair and Meg Merrilies face, still sitting by a smoking candle, though it was nearly two hours past midnight. But what woman could sleep….[with] two corpses lying across her doorstep, and within, almost at her feet, four more! So with wild eye and face lighted by her smoky candle, she stared across the dead barrier into the darkness outside with the look of one who heard and saw not, and to whom all sounds were a terror.
From the second image more details emerge, including by far the best collective view of the homes that lined the Sunken Road (all are shown here, except Hall, which was off the image to the left and, by the time this was taken, ruined).
Innis stands out most prominently, and from this image we can divine a shed addition to the left side of the house. A similar addition stands there today, though it appears from structural evidence that it’s a bit larger than the wartime version.
And to the left of Innis is Martha Stephens’s house, including a barn and outbuildings, and in all a far more imposing complex than we generally presume.
In the absence of this image, this is how we know the Stephens House
In our next on these images, we’ll push up Marye’s Heights and explore Brompton from a distance and close up.