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.)

Situated immediately on the principal road into town from the south, and only a few yards from a branch of the principal road from the west (the Orange Turnpike), Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop likely appealed to farmers whose wagons did not seem in optimum working-order before or after they tackled the steep slopes along nearby stretches of those highways, especially at Telegraph Hill (soon to be famous as “Lee’s Hill”) a short distance to the southwest, Marye’s Heights immediately to the west, and the millrace valley immediately to the east.

Patrons desiring an entirely new vehicle were also accommodated.  Allen Stratton and six workers processed five tons of iron, 22 tons of coal, and 8,000 board feet of lumber to produce 12 wagons, five carts, and wheels and “other work” valued at $2,000 during a 12-month span in 1859-1860.  (By the spring of 1861, Stratton’s workforce included two enslaved men hired from their owners.)

Beginning around 11:00 a.m. on December 13, 1862, thousands of Union soldiers surged out of the millrace-valley bound, they hoped, for the stone wall and Marye’s Heights.  Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop lay squarely in the path of the right flank of their successive, wavelike attacks.  As each wave–“cluster” is probably a better term–bogged-down short of the wall and heights, the battle degenerated into a firefight between Southerners posted behind the wall and along the ridge, and Northerners who were comparatively unprotected on the Bloody Plain below, their numbers swelled by the survivors of each failed assault.

A woodcut of Federals out in front of the stone wall, December 1862.

A woodcut of Federals out in front of the stone wall, December 1862.

The plain was not entirely devoid of cover.  The static-firefights saw Union soldiers occupy a firing zone roughly parallel to the stone wall and between, behind, and in various buildings out in front of it, from the Stratton House on the south to Hurkamp’s Tannery on the north.  A swale offered slight protection to the men along part of this position (as John Hennessy has shown elsewhere on this blog), and the structures offered greater if scarcer protection.  Of the buildings-turned-fortifications along the swale line, Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop became one of the best documented.

Thomas Galway of the 8th Ohio Infantry had accompanied one of the first waves of attackers on the morning of December 13 and soon found himself ensconced in Sisson’s Store.  From there, he observed events across the Telegraph Road at Stratton’s shop, which Galway and the other soldier-chroniclers would refer to as a “blacksmith shop.”  He later recorded his impressions in a manuscript destined for a berth at the Library of Congress and publication during the Civil War centennial:

Others of our company are around the blacksmith shop across the road.  Corporal Sam Brown had opened the heavy door which swung across the road and for some time had fired through the slits near the hinges, when at last a cannon ball came smashing through the door.  The corporal, who had just loaded and was about to shove the muzzle of his piece through the old chink, laughed and shouted:  “Bully for you, by God!”  He put his piece through the new hole and fired away.

The 24th New Jersey Infantry of the same brigade (Kimball’s) emerged from the millrace valley not long after the 8th Ohio.  The advancing Jerseymen oriented initially on the Stratton House, but those who survived to reach (or even briefly pass) the swale line soon dispersed along it.  These soldiers included John Keyser, who would later add a sketch of the attack of Kimball’s brigade to a growing portfolio of drawings documenting the regiment’s history.  Here’s a detail of his sketch, showing the wheelwright shop and immediate vicinity:

Benjamin Borton, also of the 24th New Jersey, survived the events of December 13 to paint an extraordinary prose-picture of the mayhem at and around the wheelwright shop, evidently from a vantage point behind its southeast corner, on Fair Street:

I ran to a blacksmith shop…where, with a number of other soldiers who had taken refuge there, we banged away at the rebels….

So continuous was the roar of the musketry on the firing line, that I do not remember hearing the reports of the cannon, but the frightful whizz of heavy missiles passing over our heads every few seconds indicated that the batteries were not silent.

The little frame building from which we were firing was by no means bullet-proof, yet we felt much safer there than standing out in full view of the enemy.  Down goes one of our party, shot through the head.

I know not for what reason, but I stopped firing a few moments, and stood over the lifeless form of the unknown soldier with a sort of fascination, wondering who he could be; wondering what mother’s boy had been added to the roll of the dead.

A horse without saddle or bridle dashed from the enemy’s lines and galloped down the slope towards the town.

“There they come!” some one shouted, and looking back toward the city, we saw another long line of reinforcements charging up the slope [from the millrace valley]. Lustily they were cheered as they advanced, and I noticed a wounded man sitting upon the ground waving his cap and cheering….

Some of the boys were jolly and laughing when they passed…by the blacksmith shop…. See! some of them are already returning—I mean those that are wounded—to secure shelter along with us…. Two stalwart fellows came around the corner, dragging their dying Colonel….

Having been ordered to cease firing at this point, to let the unknown regiment pass our line, I joined company with the color-bearers of the Twenty-fourth…Corporal Kelley, of Company A, and Sergeant Thompson, of Company C.  We were seated upon the ground in a small circle, when a shell struck and exploded in our midst.  Stunned and blinded for an instant, with my face smarting with pain, I sprang to my feet.  If it is possible for a man to get scorched by the burning powder from an exploding shell without being struck by the flying fragments, then such was my experience…. I heard Kelley give a piercing scream….

…his wounds were mortal. A shell had torn a great hole clear through one ankle, and another had gone into his body.  Sergeant Thompson had one of his feet partly blown off. How Thompson and myself escaped…cannot be explained.

A bullet crashed through the shop, throwing a splinter into the face of a man standing near. He cursed in hot anger and left the spot.

That same day, Harper’s Weekly special artist Alfred Waud also sketched the Bloody Plain.  He utilized the much wider perspective afforded by what I’m guessing is the steeple (more properly called the “turret”) of the Fredericksburg Circuit Courthouse:

From this greater, panoramic distance, at a viewpoint in the heart of town, Waud essentially replaced the bunched chaos emphasized by the Kimball’s Brigade chroniclers with orderly lines of Federal attackers (high-resolution views of Waud’s full panorama are here).  The distance, too, perhaps explains why Waud’s sketch appears to differ from Keyser’s and from the 1856 Sachse panorama in giving the shop only one triangular roof-gable on Fair Street, facing Fredericksburg.

Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop was destroyed by April 1863—exact circumstances a mystery to me.  The building is absent from a photograph made that month from across the river.  Yet the shop’s vanishing was not of the “without a trace” variety.  Aside from the impressions the building made upon Galway, Borton, Keyser, and Waud—and the depictions that they in turn created—a structural remnant may have survived to feature in the famous panoramic photograph, from 1864, of the Bloody Plain.  A detail of that image confirms the absence of a building at the site but does include a blurry mound that may have served as the wheelwright shop’s tombstone–surviving brickwork from its blacksmith forge perhaps:

This modern photograph looks southwest across Littlepage Street (wartime Fair Street) and diagonally at the building occupying the site of the wheelwright shop.  Kirkland Street (wartime Telegraph Road) recedes into the distance at right, with a stretch of the stone wall visible at the foot of Brompton’s front lawn:

The door from which Corporal Brown of the 8th Ohio had been shooting was likely swung out into the Telegraph Road near what was then the northwest corner of the wheelwright shop, about midway up along the side-wall of the modern building.  Benjamin Borton and his comrades, meanwhile, probably positioned themselves behind the southeast corner of the shop—at or near what is now the low wing (far left) of the modern building’s brick façade—and fired around it, with their backs to us and their rifle muskets aimed towards the stone wall, before the shell exploded in their midst.

Noel G. Harrison


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