The canal boat bridge at Fredericksburg: slaves, Lincoln, and details innumerable (part 1)

From John Hennessy and Paul Nasca (for Part 2 of this post, click here):

We are glad to be joined for this post by Paul Nasca, the field archeologist at Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood home on the Rappahannock River–a site operated by the George Washington Foundation. For the past many years, Paul has led the excavations that have revealed the original site of the Washington home and myriad other features on the site. A constant presence in his work has been evidence of the use of Ferry Farm during the Civil War, which in turn has led him into an exploration of the people and events associated with the war and that site. He shares an aspect of that work here.  (If you get the chance, stop by Ferry Farm to see the very nice exhibit they have done on the farm in the Civil War.)  Much of what you are about to read is the product of his work and mind.  We are also grateful to Marc Storch, a fine historian of the Civil War, for allowing us to share the canal boat bridge image from his collection.

Photo courtesy Marc Storch.

This image is the only photograph of perhaps the most notable and famous bridge built at Fredericksburg by the Union army during the mid-1862 occupation. After the first Union troops arrived on April 18, General Irvin McDowell summoned a supply of canal boats from Washington D.C. to build a bridge. Occupied Fredericksburg would eventually have four bridges: the railroad bridge, a pontoon bridge at the base of Hawke Street for passing troops into and out of town, a rebuilt Chatham Bridge—apparently in part for the use of civilians—and the canal boat bridge, sturdy enough to carry heavy wagons, cavalry, and artillery across the river. These canal boats brought to Fredericksburg may have been the very canal boats McClellan had intended to use to build a similar bridge at Harper’s Ferry the previous month, but found that they would not fit through one of the lift locks on the C&O canal.  The canal boats arrived on April 24, and by early May the bridge was complete. On May 23 President Abraham Lincoln crossed this bridge during his visit to Fredericksburg. Surely escaping slaves passed in the opposite direction. And all the while passed the traffic–supplies, guns and soldiers–needed to sustain the occupation of Fredericksburg. There was hardly a busier place in the region.

The bridge shown in this image is the second iteration of the canal boat bridge.  The original version—of which no image is known to exist—broke apart and floated downstream (along with troops of the 76th New York, who were quartered on the boats themselves) in the deluge of June 4, 1862. (This flood destroyed all of the Union army’s four bridges, much to the glee of local civilians, who came to the river’s edge to cheer the destruction.) But Union engineers retrieved the canal boats from downstream and quickly re-placed them. Sometime after that, in mid or late June, a photographer took this image.

It’s filled with interesting details, but at the moment let’s focus on the small group of individuals at the near terminus of the bridge—a remarkable slice of this image.

The group appears to include four African Americans–one female (standing) and three others who are seated and appear to be clothed in dresses. They are located at the bridge landing on the Stafford County side of the river, at what is today Ferry Farm. Who are these people?

We cannot know for sure, but we can suggest the likely possibilities.   They may be some of Fredericksburg’s 410 free blacks, though the circumstances of June 1862 probably render this the least likely possibility.  Or they may be  four of the 23 slaves owned by the estate of  Winter Bray—the recently deceased owner of Ferry Farm (according to the administrator of the Bray estate, these slaves did not run away until August 1862).  Or they may indeed by slaves seeking or enjoying freedom.

Whatever the case, their posture communicates a sense of ease; they almost seem to be waiting for something. They do not appear to have belongings with them–the trappings of travel recent or impending. They and the soldiers seem to coexist easily, without a sense of threat. They do not seem out of place on the landscape. That’s not surprising: by June 1862, probably thousands of slaves were milling about Union lines.  Wrote a man of the 24th New York:

Almost any hour, from the hill where I sit writing, one can count a half-dozen of them rafting their way across the Rappahannock, ‘comin,’ as they say, ‘to be free.’  The camps are flooded with them.… The question is, Who will take care of them and how will it be done? 

What does seem slightly out-of-place in this image is the garb of the woman standing. Her dress contrasts with the attire of the slaves crossing the Rappahannock at Tinpot Ford (you can read about that image here).  Does the absence of any baggage and the relatively elegant dress of the woman suggest that they are, in fact, the resident slaves at Ferry Farm?

Regardless of the answer to this question (an answer we will likely never know), this photo represents the only known image of slaves or free blacks amidst war in the Fredericksburg area. More than that, it reflects the increasingly complex landscape–both physically and culturally–that Fredericksburg would become.

In our next, we’ll look at the bridge itself and the landscape captured in this image.


4 thoughts on “The canal boat bridge at Fredericksburg: slaves, Lincoln, and details innumerable (part 1)

  1. If there was ever a period of Union occupation that has been overlooked, it is that time between April to August, 1862 that requires a good history. Here was the jump off position of 40,000 Union troops to march south and join McClellan’s army. It never happened, but Fredericksburg in July and August was a base of cavalry operations against the Confederate railroads and supply locations. I have been patiently waiting for Russel H. Beatie’s Volume 4 of his study of the Army Of The Potomac, but I doubt whether it will ever be published. But thanks for this article – I appreciate it very much.

  2. The C&O Canal boats used as pontoons for a bridge at Fredericksburg were from the group of boats seized under Stanton’s orders and with Lincoln’s concurrence following the battle at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862 with the confederate ironclad. Stanton proposed filling canal boats with rocks and sinking them at Kettle Bottom Shoals to prevent the Merrimac from ascending the Potomac and shelling Washington. Ultimately this was not done, but the military held 103 canal boats–most of which would be released to their owners later in the spring. However, 40 were apparently taken down the Potomac and up the Rappahannock to Fredericksburg to serve as pontoons for a bridge. The idea you refer to of using C&O Canal freighters for a similar purpose at Harpers Ferry did not involve any specific boats so far as I know. It was simply a possibility. Unfortunately (or fortunately for boat owners whose boats might otherwise have been seized) the river lock was not large enough for the canal freight boats that were common on the canal by the 1860s. You can get documentation for this in the chapter on the C&O Canal during the Civil War in the C&O Canal Historic Resource Study available at p. 725-726.

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