A Key Landmark Vanishes from the Fredericksburg Battlefield

from:  Harrison

I always savor the irony of a Civil War-era “outsider,” whether a soldier or a civilian, a writer, sketch-artist, or photographer, creating what turns out to be the most detailed of all the known portrayals of a building destined to vanish from the landscape.

The war was extraordinary in part for bringing national and enduring fame—even international renown—to countless, ordinary sites and structures that would otherwise have received little if any notice, even on the local level.  In peacetime such places gained, at most, only fragmentary documentation in census- and legal records, insurance policies, or the occasional notice in a diary or newspaper.  The events of 1861-1865, however, brought scrutiny by strangers with fresh eyes, sharpened still more by the awareness that a particular building could mark the boundary between life and death, or even success and failure of national import.

And a further irony presents itself:  the very Civil War events that brought the attentions of strangers and their heightened sensitivity often destroyed the places they documented vividly…soon after that documenting was achieved.

Working from John Keyser’s eyewitness, black-and-white sketch, a Philadelphia lithographer produced a vivid, color depiction of Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop complex—its principal building shown with dark roof at upper center in this detail from “Charge of Kimball’s Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg.”  Yet a comparison with the sketch and other contemporary pictures, below, reveals artistic license and distortions in the color version.  (Note Brompton at upper right and the millrace at bottom for orientation.)  Courtesy Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

Working from John Keyser’s eyewitness, black-and-white sketch, a Philadelphia lithographer produced a vivid, color depiction of Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop complex—the large building with dark roof at upper center in this detail from “Charge of Kimball’s Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg.” Yet a comparison with the sketch and other contemporary pictures discussed below reveals major distortions in the color version. (Note Brompton at upper right and the millrace at bottom for orientation.) Courtesy Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

Such was the case with Allen Stratton’s wheelwright shop, situated on what in December 1862 became the Bloody Plain at the outskirts of Fredericksburg.  Stratton’s enterprise consisted of two principal, wooden structures likely housing a blacksmith’s forge, a carpentry shop, and a stable/storage area, and perhaps linked together by a smaller connector-structure.  (I will refer to the shop in the singular for the purposes of this discussion.)  Of these two principal components, one fronted Fair Street, and one fronted both Fair and a stretch of Telegraph Road also known as the “Court House Road” (modern-day Kirkland Street in that vicinity) opposite Sisson’s Grocery Store.

On the eve of the Civil War, Fair Street extended a short distance beyond and south of the wheelwright shop, and past Allen Stratton’s brick dwelling, to or near the Fredericksburg fairgrounds’ north gate.  (Fair Street, modern Littlepage Street, now extends south entirely through the densely-subdivided site of the former fairgrounds to an intersection with modern Lafayette Boulevard.)  I’ve annotated a survey map, dating from 1856, to show the street- and building locations on the eve of the war (with north pointing right):

Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop was definitely standing by 1856.  It appears as a hazy, two-component building on the Sachse chromolithographed panorama of Fredericksburg (below), which also dates to that year.  The shop is largely interchangeable with dozens of other white structures appearing elsewhere on the chromolithograph.  (Note that Stratton’s brick dwelling, built around 1858, has not yet appeared on the landscape.)

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The legacy of misplaced assumptions

From John Hennessy:

Confederate trenches on the east face of the salient at Spotsylvania, in the 1930s. The wooden marker indicates where Confederate general Allegheny Johnson was captured.

It seemed like a good idea at the time–the government would own only tiny slivers of land, while the ever-present farmers would perpetually manage all else.  The underlying assumption: the farmers would be here always–the land preserved in partnership, the vistas always accessible to visitors.  In 1927, the year Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP was created, it seemed like a reasonable approach.

But, that assumption, made nearly 84 years ago, has dominated the management and evolution of the park ever since.

The park in 1936. Click to enlarge.

The original concept of the park focused almost entirely on the physical and visible remnants of battle–trench lines, house sites, and a few old road traces. It was the embodiment of what was known as the “Antietam Plan.”  With two notable exceptions, the park consisted entirely of historic roads and earthworks, or earthworks with new roads built along them (e.g. Lee Drive at Fredericksburg).

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Brompton and Years of Anguish

Rob Hedelt of the Free Lance-Star did a very nice article on our walk-around at Brompton, highlighting Frank O’Reilly’s excellent work. You can find it here. I have posted some thoughts about the afternoon’s proceedings at the Baptist Church event over at Fredericksburg Remembered. Kevin Levin also offered up some thoughts over at Civil War Memory.  Thanks to all of you who were able to attend.

We’ll get a post or two up in our traditional vein before the Thanksgiving break….

Another view of Brompton–and a reminder

From Hennessy:

Saturday is our inaugural Sesquicentennial event, which in fact helps explain the slow pace of posts on here this week. Bill Freehling will be speaking on Virginia’s tortuous descent to war, illuminating his book Showdown in Virginia. George Rable will speak on Secession and the Confederate nation.  And I will treat secession as it played out in the Fredericksburg area. Bill and George are heavy hitters and great speakers. The speakers get going at 1 p.m.  The event is in the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church on Princess Anne Street.  Registration is requested (famcc.org) but not required.  We have well over 250 registered.  Everything is free, except the books. They will be on sale throughout, and a book signing and reception will follow at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. The weather is supposed to be great, the Fredericksburg Area Museum has done a great job of organizing the event.  We hope to see you.

As we have mentioned here before, in the morning we will be doing a walk-around at Brompton, featuring Frank O’Reilly, Greg Mertz, Eric Mink, and me–each of us covering a different aspect of the place and its story.  That starts at 10:30 and runs till noon.  You can join in any time–we’ll be rotating people around the grounds from stop to stop.  We’re very grateful to the University of Mary Washington and President Rick Hurley for giving all of us the chance to spend some time on the grounds of Brompton, the home of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania’s delegate to the secession convention, John L. Marye.  The walk around too is free. Just come along.

In advance of that, I wanted to share a an image that has rarely been seen–a nice addition to our earlier post on Brompton. We present it here today courtesy of Jerry Brent, one of the premier collectors of things Fredericksburg, and, fortunately, incredibly generous in sharing his finds.  It is an immediate postwar image taken from the ravine that borders Brompton to the South. The camera is located almost directly across the Sunken Road from the Stephens house site, facing northwest. At the Second Battle of Fredericksburg on May 3, 1863, it was up the ravine in this view that men of the 6th Maine rushed after breaking through the paltry Confederate defenses in the formerly unassailable Sunken Road. The bullet holes that still mark the house and the outbuildings of Brompton are likely from the combat that attended this breakthrough.

Courtesy Jerry Brent

Now look at this wartime image taken from atop the hill. The farm office and barn are both clearly visible in the postwar view.   Continue reading

Finally Found: the Location of Waud’s Fredericksburg Pontoon-Laying Sketch?

From: Harrison

In a post about the Upper Pontoon Crossing, I discussed how an iconic Alfred Waud sketch of fighting along Fredericksburg’s riverfront, at a site never located definitively, could not be a depiction of combat at that crossing on December 11, 1862.  I had been unable to document the existence of a particular building, shown in his sketch as advanced from its neighbors and sporting a lower component that extends to the left of a higher component, in known pictures of the Upper Crossing area, and in relation to the other structures appearing in his sketch.

Here’s the sketch, with an arrow marking that advanced, mystery structure, which we’ll call “Building One”:

Courtesy Library of Congress.

Courtesy Library of Congress.

My post went on to speculate that the sketch was evidently not a depiction of the Middle Pontoon Crossing (a mile downstream from the Upper crossing), where Union engineers that same December day completed a 440-foot bridge.  It connected a ferry-landing adjacent to the site of George Washington’s boyhood home, “Ferry Farm,” in Stafford County, to a point along the Fredericksburg wharves on the opposite side of the Rappahannock.

More specifically for the Middle Crossing possibility, I ruled-out as a subject for the sketch the likeliest target of Union bridge-builders seeking to connect to those wharves:  an area where a photograph from early 1863 shows that a particular building is advanced noticeably from its neighbors but lacks both the design of Building One and the configuration of a row of structures that Waud sketched to the right and rear of Building One.  We’ll call the structure in the photograph “Building Two”:

For the Middle Pontoon Crossing, my idea of a “likeliest” target-zone for the Union bridge-builders in December 1862 was derived in part from a Union map entitled Position of the Divisions of Humphreys, Whipple, Griffin and Sykes at the battle of Fredericksburg, on Dec. 13th, 1862.  Here’s the section of that map that specifies the bridge-location—just upstream from the foot of Berkeley Street, or “Rocky Lane”—and upon which I’ve noted the location of Building Two.  It (and not a structure with the design and neighbors of Building One) would have appeared prominently in any sketch of a bridge being built from the Stafford side of the Rappahannock towards a point upstream from Berkeley Street:

So what, and where, was Waud sketching on December 11, 1862?  Although I remain certain that his drawing does not depict the Upper Pontoon Crossing on December 11, I eventually found cause to rethink my doubting of the Middle Pontoon Crossing fighting that day as his subject.  While examining the backgrounds of two panoramic, pre-battle pictures of the town as seen from the Stafford riverbank, I suddenly noticed in each of their middlegrounds what appears to be a striking match for Waud’s Building One…sharing the wharf area with Building Two. Unlike the photograph above, the perspective of both panoramas is wide enough to show the southern third of the wharf area.
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The earliest photograph of Fredericksburg?

From John Hennessy:

Original held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin

Noel Harrison used this image in his exploration of the upper pontoon crossing, and Eric Mink has looked at it and others taken about the same time in a Military Images article in 1998 (I hope he will expand on that work here sometime soon), but I do want to point out a few notable things about this image, taken in July 1862.

Given all the images that followed, this distinction is hardly dramatic, but it’s worth noting that this is likely the earliest known photograph ever taken of Fredericksburg. The photographer, unfortunately, seemed more interested in the foreground of Stafford Heights than the river and town beyond. Still, from his vantage point in what is today Pratt Park—north of the maintenance building—the steeple of the Baptist Church and St. George’s are visible, as is the cupola of the courthouse.  The openness of the landscape is in sharp contrast to the heavy woods that border the river today.

On the extreme left of the image is an artillery park adjacent to the woods that mark what we call the north ravine—the ravine just north of Chatham, which sits behind the trees on the left edge of the picture. The road running through the foreground leads to Chatham.

But most interesting in the image are the collection of bridges visible in the background. Most obvious—as discussed by Noel—is the pontoon bridge at the base of Hawke Street. Continue reading

When narrative and image merge? More on the ubiquitous fugitive slave image

From John Hennessy:

While it’s not always important, it is unfailingly interesting when a newly found historical narrative confirms or elaborates on the content of a familiar historic image, or when an image emerges that gives vision to a long-known narrative. Recall, if you will, our post on the images of slaves crossing the Rappahannock River at Tinpot Ford (above), just downstream from Rappahannock Bridge on August 19, 1862.

One of the park’s fine interns, Edward Alexander, sent along an item today that he turned up while digging through some Union regimentals. It is from Theodore Gates’s The Ulster Guard in the War of the Rebellion, page 241. The 20th New York State Militia crossed at Rappahannock Bridge and Tinpot Ford on the morning of the following day, August 20, and Colonel Gates offers witness to the passage of fugitive slaves across Tinpot Ford. While Gates and his regiment crossed the day after the photograph was taken, it’s hard not to imagine that Gates might have been describing the very family that appears in the O’Sullivan photograph (see the earlier post for details from that image). The details are uncannily similar in many respects.

A great many negroes accompanied the Union army in its retreat, and some of them manifested the most extravagant and ludicrous joy when they got across the river.  One party of them approached the ford a few rods below the bridge, where the water was two or three feet deep, with an ox-team drawing a wagon, filled with their worldly goods, and on top of these were three wenches, and a perfect swarm of ebony children.

When they reached the bank of the river the oxen refused to go down into the water, and whipping and coaxing were of no avail. The black figures kept their places, waiting the better mood of their cattle.  But suddenly the angry rattle of musketry in the woods near by, suggested, even to their obtuse intellects, that they should not stand upon the order of their going, but go at once.  Quick as thought those black mother siezed [sic] their youngest children, and, followed by the others sprung to the ground, looking, in their descent, like fragments of night, dropping from the sky, and dashed through the water.

As they ascended the opposite bank, the matron of the party clasped her hands, and, looking up to heaven, exclaimed: ‘Bress de Lord–we’se on dis side ob Jo’don!'”

While some of the details differ from those in the image, and though he likely  refers to another family in passage, Gates’s account adds a measure of humanity (and drama) to the passage of slaves at Tinpot Ford.

Our thanks to Edward Alexander for bringing this account to our attention.

The fate of Fredericksburg determined: President Davis’s March 1862 visit

From Hennessy:

The Doswell House. Davis spoke briefly from the front steps on March 22, 1862.

I think it’s safe to say (surely someone will correct me if I am wrong) that other than Richmond, Fredericksburg is the only town or city visited during the war by both Presidents Davis and Lincoln (they both went to Manassas Junction too, but Manassas was not much of a place, and certainly not incorporated). We have explored Lincoln’s highly interesting May 23, 1862 visit in a previous post--chronicling his ride to Marye’s Heights and in the Sunken Road. But what of Davis’s visit, which is scantily mentioned in the historical record but, in one way, far more significant than Lincoln’s?

Jefferson Davis came to Fredericksburg on March 22, 1862. Just two weeks earlier, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had abandoned his army’s position in northern Virginia, anticipating a Union move to the Peninsula. This move, for the first time, rendered Fredericksburg an important place. The question to be answered that day: could Fredericksburg be successfully defended against a Union advance on the Rappahannnock, or would the town have to be left to the Yankees?

Davis arrived from Gordonsville at midnight on the 21st and proceeded to the home of J. Temple Doswell, at the corner of Princess Anne and Lewis Streets. Continue reading

A tidbit from and about the National Archives

We share this video produced by the National Archives about their exhibit Discovering the Civil War.  We don’t normally promote things (else we would do little else), but we are happy to share the work of our sister agency as a way of emphasizing just how important their collections are. We present material from the National Archives here all the time, though still the holdings of the National Archives remains the last great frontier of Civil War research–they have hardly been skimmed.

The obscure Carpenter farm, and a soldier’s grave

From John Hennessy:

It is an evocative though rarely used photograph: a man standing before an unkempt line of graves, the markers askew and unadorned. The image is known to have been taken on the farm of James and Elizabeth Carpenter (an elderly couple whose son Solon served in the Fredericksburg Artillery) on the Wilderness Battlefield, a now-forgotten area well behind the Union lines, about midway between NPS holdings at Wilderness and Chancellorsville.

Today the site of the Carpenter farm is home to the local chapter of the Isaac Walton League.  Nobody that I know of has been able to identify the specific location on the farm of this view (or another less interesting image apparently from the same series).  [Update:  John Cummings believes he has located the site of these graves, and certainly the evidence on the ground supports his conclusions.] These don’t appear to be fresh burials, for the ground seems covered with a season’s worth of leaves and nature’s refuse–something consistent with its 1866 date (our friend John Cummings will have much more to say about this series of postwar images in an upcoming book).

The scene shows at least twenty-one graves, all but one of them seemingly marked by a stake or pole rather than a headboard. The method of marking the graves suggests this work was done in the aftermath of battle, rather than by the Union burial corps that came through the area in 1865. (We discussed and illustrated their method of marking graves in our post on Wilderness Cemetery #2, which you can find here.) No place else do I know of stakes being used to mark field burials, and the lone visible headboard in this view is radically different from the mass-produced, carefully painted boards carried and planted by the 1865 burial crews. Continue reading