From John Hennessy:
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.