Fame, a first, a fire, balloons, and a radio tower: the Phillips House

From John Hennessy (Note:  all of the sites described in this post are on private property and not open to the public):

Look to the east from Chatham or Marye’s Heights and you’ll see it. No, not the Phillips House itself, but rather the huge radio tower that rises next to the site of the house, visible from miles around. It is, I think, the only time and place we take advantage of (rather than lament) the presence of a 500-foot tower.  We point it out probably a thousand times a year.

The Phillips house was located about a mile east of Chatham

“Mulberry Hill” was the home of wealthy merchant Alexander K. Phillips. During the war it became world-famous as the “Phillips House.”Completed on the eve of the Civil War, this was one of the most fashionable homes in the Fredericksburg region.  Its high style befit its wartime owner, Phillips, a diverse entrepreneur who served on town council and owned a brew house, warehouse, three wharves, and a lumber yard in Fredericksburg.  Phillips purchased the land at “Mulberry Hill” in 1855, though he lived in his mother’s residence on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg.  In 1860, Phillips, 56, lived with Anna Phillips, 28, his daughter, and his mother, Margaret, 82. Phillips kept twelve slaves at Mullberry Hill, working its 550 acres.

The Phillips House reflected one of the stylistic rages of the time—Gothic architecture with some features of an Italian villa.  Among other niceties, it featured running water—supplied from a tank in the attic. A reporter for the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch described the Phillips House in January 1863, just weeks before its destruction.

The only known image of the Phillips House before its destruction in February 1863.

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An unseen sketch of Fredericksburg, December 1862

from:  Harrison

The vast Civil War output of special artist Alfred R. Waud includes this depiction of Fredericksburg during the December 1862 battle, a sketch probably appearing here for the first time in an interpretive venue. I find it one of the most powerful works in Waud’s portfolio:

The specific date and location within Fredericksburg are not identified by the online catalog for the Library of Congress, where the sketch resides.

The window- and door placements on the partially rendered building at left bear some resemblance to those of the Wallace House and Store. That once stood at the corner of Caroline and William streets (more recently the “Ben Franklin”-store corner) and appears in the right foreground of a different battle illustration from the Library of Congress collections–a frequently published sketch drawn by special artist Arthur Lumley on the night of December 12:

(Also appearing, in the left background, are the ruins of the Fredericksburg branch of the Bank of Virginia, destined to be photographed a year and a half after Lumley’s visit and sketching.)

Rarely seen today, however, is Lumley’s word-picture (spelling below original) on the reverse, applicable to Waud’s sketch as well as his own:

This night the city was in the wildest confusion sacked by the union troops = houses burned down furniture scattered in the streets = men pillaging in all directions – a fit scene for the French revolution and a discrace to the Union Arms – This is my view of what I saw.

Wireless digital media: rattling the cage of traditional onsite interpretation

From John Hennessy (this was originally posted over at Fredericksburg Remembered last summer):

We are rapidly moving toward a world where fixed, structural onsite interpretation (like the wayside exhibit at Jackson Shrine, above) will be obsolete. Someday not far off, visitors will come armed with wireless devices–think not cellphones and Blackberries, but I-Pad and its successors–that will deliver film, maps, audio, animation, and other nifty things that will make current wayside exhibits seem like 1950s TV (quaint and nostalgic, but clearly out of date).  This is not a bad thing. In fact, we ought to look forward to the possibilities of more dynamic presentation of media.  Our visitors deserve it.

(Apropos to this, and contrary to popular perceptions, between 80% and 85% of our visitors are completely reliant on media for their interpretive experience onsite.  Put another way, only 15%-20% of our visitors attend live programs by one of the park’s historians–this due to a combination of timing and inclination on the part of visitors. Media, obviously, shapes the quality of experience for most of our visitors.)

But the transition to digital media raises some very interesting issues.   Continue reading

The canal boat bridge (part 2): details innumerable

From John Hennessy and Paul Nasca, field archeologist at Ferry Farm (we suggest you read our initial post on the canal boat bridge first; you should also read Noel’s very detailed post on a sketch of this, the “middle crossing” site, here):

In our prior post on the 1862 image of the canal boat bridge we focused on the group of African-Americans in the foreground of the image. In this installment, we’ll take a look at the rest of the image–a trove of details innumerable.

Photo courtesy Marc Storch.

As we mentioned earlier, the canal boat bridge at Fredericksburg was one of four constructed by the Union army in the spring and summer 1862–construction made necessary by the Confederates’ destruction of the bridges when they (the Confederates) abandoned Fredericksburg on April 18, 1862. For more than a week after the burning, the Union army did not enter Fredericksburg en-masse–a fact that inspired some quiet taunting by the locals. On April 25, steamboats chugged up to the wharf with as many as 20 canal boats in tow,  and that day Union engineers started building the first bridge across the Rappahannock.  The bridgebuilders were protected by a pair of Union howitzers likely placed on Ferry Farm, overlooking the bridge. Betty Herndon Maury recorded that as the bridge went into place, soldiers bantered loudly with African-Americans who had come to the town dock to watch the work.

The bridge built on canal boats was completed on May 1. Of the four bridges (a pontoon bridge would be completed below Chatham on May 2, the railroad bridge about May 9, and a bridge on the old abutments of the Chatham bridge sometime thereafter), the canal boat bridge was intended to carry the heavy wheeled and horse-borne traffic.  That Mayday afternoon, May 1,  Union generals Rufus King and Marsena Patrick led a contingent of cavalry across the new bridge into town. Two days later, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase crossed the bridge for the first visit of Union politicos to Fredericksburg. The four-month occupation of the town had begun.

So far as we know, the bridge would remain in place throughout the occupation, with the exception of a week or so in June when it was carried away by high water. Abraham Lincoln crossed the bridge on May 23 during his tour of Fredericksburg (which you can read about here).

This image of the bridge was taken, according to its label, in June 1862. We can likely narrow that time-frame to sometime after June 12 (or so), for the bridge as washed away on June 4 and took more than a week to re-gather and reconstruct. It’s virtually certain that this image is of the second iteration of the canal boat bridge.

In the image are many details that hint at the everyday work of occupation and the nature of the town in 1862. At both ends of the bridge are facilities to house the guards that regulated passage over the bridge. A the near end is a rude, triangular guard shack, a couple of soldiers peering from it toward the camera, with another, leggings in place, also aware of the photographer at work.

These men are likely from the 76th New York Infantry–from this unit several companies were detailed to guard the bridge and regulate traffic to and from town. These men were quartered on the boats themselves, which made for something of a wild ride on June 4 when the high water swept the boats as far as 20 miles downstream (steamboats hauled them back, and in the meantime a Union gunboat acted as a ferry between Stafford and Fredericksburg). Continue reading

A long life ending, and a dilemma

From John Hennessy (for an earlier post on the Chatham catalpas, click here):

The Chatham catalpas are among the most famous trees in Virginia, likely mentioned by Walt Whitman in his remembrance of his time at Chatham in December 1862. He described the scene outside “the surgery”–the room we today use to show our A/V program:

The catalpas in front of Chatham, 1863

At the foot of a tree, immediately in front, a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening–in the garden near, a row of graves.

By then, Chatham’s catalpas were probably 40 years old. Today, they are famous, old and gnarled. Their decrepitness conveys a sense of nobility.  (If only it were so with people).

Last summer a regular walker at Chatham came in to tell us she thought one of the trees was leaning precariously. Continue reading

Around the watering hole: faces of war in Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy:

Sometimes we look deeply into images of the war in the Fredericksburg region because they tell us something important about the landscape. But sometimes a deeper look is just purely interesting. In May 1864, a photographer (or photographers–we can’t be certain they were taken by the same man) thought it interesting enough to stop and take three images of soldiers in the simple act of getting water at or near Fredericksburg. At one place, he took two images, at another only one.  But in each he captured common people doing an everyday thing, without pretense or pose (at least not much).

The first image a group of men gathered around what apparently is a well or watering station, filling their canteens. Continue reading

Escape to Spotsylvania and beyond: the geography of Fredericksburg’s refugees

From John Hennessy:

On December 12, 1862, the roads leading into Spotsylvania were crowded with civilians seeking escape from looming battle. There was no system to this exodus. People headed to friends’ homes, to churches, and to the homes of strangers, seeking shelter. There are many affecting descriptions of civilians finding their way across the early winter landscape of Spotsylvania (read one of the best in this post over at Fredericksburg Remembered), but our purpose today is to look at least at a few of the sites that help define the geography of the exodus so far as we know it.

By far the most famous of Fredericksburg’s refugees on December 11 and 12, 1862, was Jane Beale and her family. They lived on Lewis Street and endured most of December 11 in their basement, under fire. As the Union army battled its way across the river and into Fredericksburg’s streets, Beale, assisted by Rev. Beverley Tucker Lacy, fled in a wagon brought by Confederate soldiers.

The family’s path out of town is clear: over to Hanover Street, westward to what is today Kirkland Street, left on the Sunken Road, and then to a temporary camp established by refugees on the back side of Willis Hill–today’s National Cemetery. She wrote vividly about the place.

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Images of Destruction on the anniversary of the bombardment

From Hennessy:  [click on images to enlarge them]

On this the 148th Anniversary of the bombardment of Fredericksburg, I thought it might be timely to revisit a post we did back in April on battle damage in town.

Today, few visible examples of external battle damage survive in Fredericksburg.  I am aware of only a few buildings that show it, and then only subtly.  It’s a different story on the interior of buildings in town.  Probably dozens still bear scars, and many owners consciously preserve the evidence of battle.  The Baptist Church has spectacular damage in its steeple; the courthouse bears scars, as does the Rising Sun tavern–both in their roof structures.  One of our hopes is to do a photographic inventory of all the battle damage in town, and perhaps even some online videos that document some of it.  More on that another day.

The upper pontoon crossing, below Chatham--at the base of Hawke Street.

At the height of the Union bombardment on December 11, as many as 100 shells a minute exploded over town (so says E.P. Alexander).  It’s likely virtually every building in town suffered some damage.  A search of tax records indicates about 100 taxable buildings were either destroyed or so heavily damaged that they had to be pulled down–about 10% of the town.  Bear in mind that not all these buildings were destroyed by Union fire.  The Confederates fired into town too over the next four days; I would estimate that about one-quarter of the town’s damage came from Confederate guns, and on the outskirts of town, below Marye’s Heights, the vast majority of damage came from the Confederates, as Russ Smith pointed out in the discussion of the Sandy Bottom image the other day.

Accounts of the destruction are vivid, but in fact photographers who came to the town in 1863 and 1864 recorded few images intended to document it specifically.  Four images are known, including three images taken on lower Caroline Street–one of which I include here (this is of 136-138 Caroline, which still stands in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in town).

Despite the photographers’ inattention to battle-damaged buildings, a close look at some of the many panoramic images begins to hint at the extent of the destruction in Fredericksburg.  Take, for example, this blow-up from the now-familiar panorama taken from just below the ruined railroad bridge.

There, just above the dangling terminus of the railroad bridge, is a lonely chimney, the remnant of what had been a rental property owned by John L. Marye (exactly who lived in the house we cannot determine).   Continue reading