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.The men buried in these graves are likely from the Union Second Corps, which suffered mightily in fighting along the Orange Plank Road on May 5 and 6, 1864. The huge Second Corps hospital was at the Carpenter farm. “The site was a good one, with good water, and two ambulance roads leading to the front, which was only a mile distant,” wrote the army’s chief medical officer McParlin. This hospital was closer to the fighting line than others, McParlin noted, and on May 5, 1864, about 600 wounded from the Second Corps were brought to the Carpenter Farm. Later, “the influx of patients was so rapid and their numbers so great that it was not possible to record all of them,” which may help explain the presence of unknown graves in the photograph. The image has a sense of desolation. The lone headboard brings relief to the graves of the men not so marked. Who were they? Did they sense they’d die the soldier’s nightmare–a nameless corpse on a nameless piece of ground far from home?
But look closely at the lone headboard.
Most striking and unusual is the art. Someone took the time to paint or draw a dove on this man’s headboard–an expression of affection uncommonly made under such circumstances. We can only surmise that a friend–and likely a dear friend–was by some happenstance with him when he died, or perhaps got permission to carry his body to the rear. I am no student of wartime burials, but I have not seen anything like it.
Under magnification the identity of the man in the grave becomes clear. While some of the board is illegible, the name clearly reads “R Ross” and below that 40 NYVV. This is the grave or Sergeant Richard Ross of the 40th New York, the famous “Mozart Regiment,” from New York City. Ross enlisted in the 87th New York Infantry early in the war, but with the remnants of that regiment was transferred to the 40th in 1862. Our region was unkind to Ross. He was captured at Chancellorsville, and a year and two days later killed at the Wilderness. Thanks to whoever it was that made the effort to properly mark his grave, Sergeant Ross is today buried in an identified grave (#3994) at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Those men buried around him in the image are likely buried there too, among the more than 12,000 unknowns that lie atop Willis Hill.
I’ll keep digging to see what I might be able to turn up on Sergeant Ross. But we wanted to share this in the meantime–a little burst of humanity amidst the pixels.
10 thoughts on “The obscure Carpenter farm, and a soldier’s grave”
Hi John. Excellent post. According to what I could decipher from visiting the site two years ago, the house was located in the center of the modern-day pond. I’m sure you are aware of the two maps that show the locations of the division hospitals at the Carpenter Farm? According to the maps, the four division hospitals were located in designated areas, with the 2nd Div hospital closest to the house and the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Division hospitals scattered north and east of the house. According to Surgeon McParlin, 2907 wounded Federals were brought to the farm between 5-7 May 1864, 83 died and 207 amputations took place.
Todd, as always a great addition to one of our posts. If only the level of McParlin’s efforts to document the service of the medical corps in the Overland Campaign was matched for other battles, we would know a great deal more about all of them. For those interested, you can find his report here:
When I get a chance I will post the maps showing the hospitals. I should have done it at the outset. Many thanks. John H.
Thanks John. As you know, Meade’s aide Theodore Lyman visited the Carpenter Farm on the late afternoon of May 6th to visit the wounded George Macy and the mortally wounded Henry Abbott, both officers in the 20th Mass. Lyman and Macy were present when Abbott passed away there, probably in the 1st Division hospital.
Todd and John,
My take on the maps referenced (and compared to the Michler map) against modern topographic and aerial maps, orients the right margin of both as north, not at the top of the page as is expected. With this in mind, the main house and outbuildings would have occupied the high ground as you come off of Herndon Rd today to enter Izaak Walton. This area was the 2nd Division hospital section, and it could not have centered in the current pond which is created by flooding the stream bed. The stream did however seperate the 2nd Division from the 1st Division which is now in woods to the west. The 3rd Division area (which is where Ross technically would have been treated) was slightly north of the house and south of Cool Spring Creek. The question does still remain as to where the burials took place and were they seperately maintained for each Division or centrally located? There is a big clue for at least this photograph’s location and that is the immediacy to a steep hill clearly visible to the right, behind the rows of graves. I will suggest, that based on my six year study of this entire series of images, these graves were not in all likelihood more than 75 yards from Herndon Road, as the photographer did not venture too far beyond any avenue of approach to obtain his subject matter.
When I first saw the detail of Sergeant Ross’s headboard, I thought, How interesting — somebody drew an eagle on it. But I prefer John’s kinder, gentler interpretation of the image as a dove.
Do you know if ground penetrating radar could discern earth disturbed so long ago?
A year and three months later I have posted my follow-up on this photograph. Took some time to arrange access to the property and to wait for the foliage to clear.
If this story interests you, may I suggest joining a facebook group?
I figured this story out in about an hour after I realized I could read most of the headboard in the photo, enough to determine the Soldier’s id, then saw that this had already been figured out by others….
sgt ross memorial:
// While I can’t pinpoint the exact location of SGT Ross’s exact gravesite, I do have a picture of my wife, Donna, standing in the approximate location of where the doctor was standing in 1866.—it’s in the vicinity of the lower cemetery. // SANDY