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.

But look farther downstream. The abutments of the Chatham Bridge are clearly seen. The bridge was originally destroyed by the Confederates on April 18, 1862.  The Federals rebuilt it, but the Yankee iteration survived only until June 4, when a torrent washed it away. That no bridge stood atop the abutments when this image was taken tells us that the photographer did his work in early July, before Washington Roebling began construction of his “wire bridge” atop the ruins of the old.  That suspension bridge, which we wrote about here, was completed on July 18.

Beyond the Chatham Bridge abutments can be seen the faint outline of the reconstructed railroad bridge across the Rappahannock, the only known photograph (albeit fuzzy) of that bridge intact.

And the sharpest eyes will perceive beyond the railroad bridge the faint hulks of the canal boats that supported the bridge that linked Ferry Farm on the Stafford side with the town docks in Fredericksburg (we hope to write more about the canal boat bridge soon).

Admittedly, none of this changes dramatically our view of history, but this image does indeed yield a few secrets that provide visual confirmation of what the paper documents have long told us, and that affirmation of our mind’s eye is always gratifying.


4 thoughts on “The earliest photograph of Fredericksburg?

  1. Could this image and the image of the pontoon bridge noted in the Center for Civil War Photography book that was part of their 2004 Seminar be the work of Timothy O’Sullivan?
    I’ve been spending my time tracking the steps of Timothy O’Sullivan, James Gibson, and George Barnard from March, 1862 to August, 1862. We can note O’Sullivan’s movements after he returned from South Carolina in July when he was at Manassas, then in August in the Culpeper and Cedar Mt area along the Orange and Alexandria RR. I believe that dates attributed to the above photo in May. Fredericksburg was occupied into August, 1862 with King’s Division and Burnside’s forces coming in from Aquia Creek. It might be a stretch, but with the RR bridge completed, O’Sullivan could have been there. Areas north of the Rappahannock River were in Federal hands until the second part of August. I do not have a date at hand for the evacuation of Fredericksburg, but it must have been after Stonewall Jackson’s march to the rear of Pope.
    Just a thought.

    • John: Eric knows more about this, but given the content of the image, there is no doubt that the image was taken before Roebling began construction of his wire bridge, probably in the second week of July, 1862. I don’t have Eric’s article at hand, but I believe he dates the group of Stafford Heights images–those that include the views of the troops of the future Iron Brigade. Perhaps he can chime in on this. John H.

  2. John –

    I would love to know who the photographer was for these images. There are at least five photos and maybe as many as a dozen taken around this time and location opposite Fredericksburg. I’m pretty confident these images were made in July 1862. We do know that photographers were active in McDowell’s camps that summer, as soldiers mention getting their portraits taken.

    The photo above and the canal boat bridge are the only two that are “landscape” shots, the other photos all have camp scenes and soldiers as subjects. With the exception of the canal boat bridge, all of these photos also are fairly large format and have rounded corners. They also have as their subjects men of John Gibbon’s Wisconsin regiments. I’m unaware of any other photos of companies or regiments from this place and McDowell’s command that fit the format and style utilized for the Wisconsin images. Do you know if this fits O’Sullivan’s M.O.?

    A shameless reference to my 1998 article on these photos – “Molding a Legend: Images of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry Opposite Fredericksburg, Virginia, July 1862” in Military Images, Volume XX, No. 3, November-December 1998.

    – Eric Mink

  3. Thank you so much for this information. I’m writing a historical-fiction novel that is centered around Fredericksburg, and even just seeing these photos has really helped me! =)

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