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.

Here, below, is the first of the two: a detail of a Harper’s Weekly engraving that was based on a summer 1862 panoramic sketch by Henry Didiot of the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry:

(Although the engraving based on the Didiot sketch seems to suggest that “Building One” is actually two structures standing very close together, I will continue classifying it as a single structure for the purposes of this discussion.)

And here, below, is a detail from a pre-battle Waud sketch:  a panoramic view from November- or early-December 1862 that Harper’s later published as a woodcut:

I now needed a reliable, wartime picture that looked at the wharf-area between Buildings One and Two, head-on from across the river, rather than from the angles used in the two panoramic pictures.  Waud’s mystery sketch, after all, was a head-on view.  I also hoped to find a picture of the southern wharf-area offering more detail, since the two panoramic views diminish in specificity as they move visually away from the riverbank and into their backgrounds, towards Marye’s Heights.  Exactly what structures were behind and near Building One?

It occurred to me that I might find the further detail and corroboration in a photograph (below) of the Federals’ Middle Pontoon Crossing canal-boat bridge.  An unknown photographer made the image sometime in June 1862, according to its handwritten caption.  The canal-boat bridge was installed on May 3, 1862 but broken apart in a flood on June 4, so this view may depict a final phase of its reassembly.  (John Hennessy has posted here about President Abraham Lincoln and his entourage crossing the bridge on May 23, 1862.)

Sure enough, the photograph turned out to offer a head-on view—at right angles to the river—that barely misses Building One (just outside the left edge) and Building Two (just outside the right edge) but does show everything in-between…including the configuration of background structures appearing behind and to the right of Building One in Waud’s sketch.

Here’s the canal-boat-bridge image, annotated to show some general landmarks: Berkeley Street/Rocky Lane, the elegant manor house of W. Roy Mason’s “Sentry Box” estate, and part of a stone wall that bordered the upper lawn along the estate’s river side:

Courtesy of Marc and Beth Storch. Used with permission.

And below are the specifics:  side-by-side details of Waud’s December 1862 mystery sketch and the June 1862 canal-boat-bridge photograph, showing the probable correlation of the four buildings in the sketch’s right-background to actual structures.  Note, too, the correlation of the trees:

blog 7 final revFrom left to right, those four buildings are:  a dwelling with a gambrel (“Dutch”) roof and a north end-chimney that stood on the east side of Caroline Street until being demolished sometime prior to 1878 (probable close-up view, below right, in a sketch of the Federals looting in December 1862); the characteristically-narrow dwelling at number 130, which sports a south end-chimney and still stands on the west side of Caroline (May 1864 photo at below left); its duplex neighbor at 132-134 Caroline, also still extant; and what is perhaps the next (also surviving today) duplex, at 136-138 Caroline.  Note that that duplexes also appear in the sketch of the December looting.  Another post by John Hennessy discusses the full set of May 1864 photographs that depict the duplexes and their narrow neighbor-building.

To sketch this configuration of buildings, the center of Waud’s depiction of the December 11, 1862 fighting would have been a line about where I’ve marked one on this detail of the 1867 Michler map (red line on map, below left).  Buildings One and Two had vanished by time time the Michler map was surveyed, but it still represents the best Civil War-era documentation of the Middle Pontoon Crossing topography overall, on both sides of the river.   My estimated location for Waud’s sketching-position is indicated (red arrow, below right) on a detail of a photograph that looks in the opposite direction as the sketch and depictes the Union pontoon bridge built to connect the Stafford ferry-landing with the wharves in May 1864:

I devote considerable attention to Waud’s sketch in part as a reminder that Fredericksburg’s Battle of the Pontoons on December 11, 1862 involved fighting at places besides the Upper Pontoon Crossing.  My interpretation of the sketch also suggests a more precise set of locations than we typically imagine for the combat at the Middle Pontoon Crossing that day.

For one, Waud’s inclusion of the Middle Crossing pontoon bridge, albeit still unfinished, and in relation to Building One, indicates that the Federals centered their December 11 assault around a point on the wharves a full block south of the point (just upriver from the foot of Berkeley Street/Rocky Lane) implied by the Humphreys, Whipple, Griffin and Sykes map.  Second, this reorientation suggests that Building One was in the late afternoon of December 11, 1862 the first major objective—or among the first—reached and seized by the 89th New York Infantry, which crossed the river after enemy fire thwarted further unsupported work by the Union engineers shown in Waud’s sketch.  (Building One may have shared the fate of the “old buildings on the outskirts of town dismantled to obtain materials” for the pontoon bridge established here in May 1864.)

On December 11, 1862, Colonel Harrison S. Fairchild, commander of the 89th New York, had

received an order from General Burnside, directing me to detail…4 officers and 100 men, to be sent over in pontoon boats…to take possession of the houses on either side of the landing….

I immediately detailed four detachments, of 25 men each…each detachment occupying a boat, with instruction to each to land, and take a given point…covered by the fire of the right wing [of the regiment, back on the Stafford riverbank] and batteries…. Each detachment took possession of the places designated, capturing in their charge 65 prisoners…and holding these positions until the bridge was completed.

Waud’s application of “chinese white” watercolor (made from zinc-oxide pigment) to the penciled sketch gives us a vivid depiction of intense musketry.  Note especially the smoke issuing from Building One and the area immediately to its front, and from along the gradual slope extending to the yard of the Sentry Box at the upper right corner of the sketch—musketry loosed by the 17th Mississippi Infantry upon the engineers.

Although some of the Federal infantry who later crossed the river, elsewhere that day, evidently found themselves in the welcome protection of steep or abrupt banks, Waud’s sketch indicates that those soldiers from the 89th’s 100-man task force who rowed across the Rappahannock at the Middle Crossing and then attacked over the broad, open shelf around Building One and up the gradual slope nearby found such terrain advantages scarce. Instead, their relatively low casualties (ten for the task force when all was said and done) may have been due to the effectiveness of the renewed Federal bombardment that covered their crossing–again, events occurring after those depicted in Waud’s sketch.

In his report Col. Fairchild had also noted that the enemy occupied “the buildings, cellars, and stone wall opposite.”  Those portions of the Sentry Box’s uppermost grounds nearest the river were indeed bordered by a stone wall.  This, too, was likely high on the 89th New York’s list of objectives, along with the Sentry Box buildings—attesting, incidentally, to the surprisingly broad and varied nature of Fredericksburg’s collection of militarily significant stone walls.

Below, then, is my suggested then-and-now pairing of Waud’s sketch of the December 11 fighting with a present-day view of the same site (adjusting somewhat for an abundance of modern vegetation):

blog 12 final rev2
The points from which the Federals built their Middle Pontoon Crossing bridge in December 1862, and in other years, and from which Waud created a classic of military art are preserved and open to the public as part of George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm, by The George Washington Foundation.  So by all means pay them a visit and enjoy the many layers of history there, including one of the more evocative but lesser-known places on the Fredericksburg battlefield.

Special thanks to David Muraca of the George Washington Foundation, for granting my 11th-hour request for modern photographs with his usual graciousness; Kerri Barile, Ph.D., of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, for documentation of the Sentry Box stone wall—part of Dovetail’s detailed study of the extraordinary history and resources of that estate; and to Marc and Beth Storch for permitting my use of their photograph.

Noel G. Harrison

7 thoughts on “Finally Found: the Location of Waud’s Fredericksburg Pontoon-Laying Sketch?

  1. Waud’s work at Fredericksburg is exceedingly timely. He sketched the rebuilding of the railroad bridge in 1862 and either on April 29, or 30th sketched Franklin’s crossing when it had three pontoon bridges to use to move the 6th corps across the Rappahannock river. It was on the night of the 30th, that the most southerly pontoon bridge was removed. This sketch allowed for more precise dating of Captain Russell, or Egbert Faux’s images of Brooks Division. There is also a sketch of the exact location of Brooks Division with the Barnard house in the distance. This sketch confirms that the celebrated image of the troops in the defensive trench was photographed at Petersburg in either 1864, or 1865.

  2. Excellent detective work Noel! You are the master of the craft. This goes to reenforce the strength of Waud as a reliable artist when he placed elements into a landscape.
    This also affirms (and serves as a triangulation for your discovery) that the Waud sketch “Rebel Pickets dead, in Fredericksburg” shows the Gambrel Roof building at extreme left and the south end exposure of the Sentry Box, just visible beyond, looking through the fence where the man is standing looking at the bodies. At the far right across the river is the Ferry Farm side of the pontoon, just as you have now placed it. Bravo!

    • Guys, Thank you for reading and for the kind words. John K.: No question, using the sketches and photos in tandem is essential. Incidentally, to any interested reader who hasn’t perused it, I would recommend Frederic E. Ray’s 1974 book (reprinted 1994), “Our Special Artist: Alfred R. Waud’s Civil War.” This quotes several contemporary testimonials to Waud’s personal courage, which obviously would have been essential at the Middle Pontoon Crossing through most of the day on December 11. Noel

  3. Excellent work, Noel. Waud also continues to stand out as an outstanding observer, even under fire. Nice touch identifying another significant stone wall.

  4. Fascinating. I wish I knew the town better. I’d really like to connect with someone I couldl hold a two-way conversation with. Any takers?

    • Frank, I’d be happy to field any historical inquiries you might have about the Fredericksburg area. Or recommend sources or source-people to address your areas of interest if those are outside my particular experience. Feel free to email me at: noel_harrison[at]

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