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.