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).  

The heaviest damage was concentrated upstream from the railroad bridge.    It was at the upper pontoon crossing, at least initially, that Union gunners focused their fire.  As the town became obscured by smoke, Union gunners tended to simply fire into the center of town, for it was there–in the 1000 and 1100 block of Caroline Street–that tax records show the heaviest concentration of buildings was lost.  Here is a map I have put together showing the density of destruction in the upper half of town (red markers indicate a building that burned; green markers indicate those that had to be pulled down due to damage).  Elsewhere in town the loss of buildings is much more scattered, and so I have cropped the map for easier reading.

Note the cluster of lost buildings in the heart of town, above the Chatham Bridge.  Much of the 1000 and 1100 block of Caroline was destroyed.  A single purposeful photograph of the damage survives.  It shows the ruins of the Bank of Virginia, which stood at the corner of Caroline and William, as well as two buildings around it.

A bit farther north, in 1863, a Union photographer intent on photographing the upper pontoon crossing captured–probably without knowing it–the most vivid images of damage in town.  (Noel Harrison will have much more to say about a companion view of this image in the next few days.)  Include the full image below–if you want to explore a a hi-res version of this yourself, find it here.

A blowup reveals vividly the toll the artillery bombardment took on this section of Sophia Street–just opposite the upper pontoon crossing.

Most obvious is the remnant chimney of the Scott House, completely destroyed during the bombardment. Beyond that, virtually every building in the view bears heavy damage.  More than that, note that most have clapboards stripped away.  Several residents complained during the winter following the battle that Confederate soldiers took what they needed from damaged buildings to enhance their own comfort.  It’s likely the stripped clapboards are a result of that (the damage done by the Confederates during their occupation of town was extensive and is a topic worthy of further study).  Of the Sophia Street buildings in this view, only one survives today–the Hancock House, the darker two-story building just to the right of center.

Finally, another detail from this panorama.

It shows the burned-out shell of a large building on Caroline Street.

While the damage to Fredericksburg was extensive, it was by no means a ruined town, as some claimed at the time.  Evidence of that fact is the high percentage of wartime buildings that still line downtown’s streets, making for one of the best-preserved and healthiest historic downtowns in the east.  Still, the town’s experience from December 11-December 15, 1862, remains the central event of  its existence–the event that bifurcates its history.  In Fredericksburg, it either happened before the war or after the war, and no one needs to ask which war you’re talking about.


23 thoughts on “Images of Destruction on the anniversary of the bombardment

  1. Is 1312 Caroline one of the more graphic examples of the damage that can be seen today? By all appearances the south wall looks like it had been destroyed to near the first floor height and then rebuilt from that point up with a very different color of brick. The east facade (facing the street) also looks as if it had been completely replaced at some even later date, again judging by the style and color of brick used, perhaps a veneer, even as late as the 1930s or 40s? Certainly the need and/or ability to address damage would manifest itself over time, in portions of the structures that perhaps were not immediately apparent.
    Your thoughts?

    • John: I’ll have to go take a look. I don’t think I have seen the damage at 1312 before… Next time I am heading up Caroline Street, I will stop…. Thanks for the heads up.

    • John,
      1312 Caroline Street is a very likely candidate for severe battle damage. It was certainly in the middle of the street fighting. The new brick facade is thought to date to c. 1920s. The damage would have to have been more than small arms, though. Brick buildings can withstand a lot of bullets, but not so much artillery rounds (as long as the fuze functions properly). There are also steel rods installed in this structure, from side to side rather than fore and aft, which also suggests a serious attempt to salvage a damaged building. Steel rods are not unusual, but there are quite a few in this instance.
      Erik Nelson

      • Thanks for your input Erik. Indeed the rods are much more than usual. Interesting how such effort went in to salvage a structure that received such severe damage, but in hard times every penny counts, right? It is also likely that far more buildings had similar degrees of damage repair but are so well covered up that it is not detected. Frame structures are more easily masked as I have shown with Sentry Box.

  2. this blog is an excellent idea. One note on the damage to the town. The Union artillery apparently had poor quality fuzes, as noted by various artillerymen submitting after action reports, including Henry Hunt. Some batteries were so disgusted with their ammunition, they dumped it all out on their way off the line. I wonder how many of these piles of ordnance were ever found by zealous young men with metal detectors. If the fuzes had been better, the damage to Fredericksburg would have been considerably worse.

  3. Do you have any pictures of Main St Fredericksburg? My great, great, great Grandfather Robert Oscar Perry was a tailor at 717 Main St, Fredericksburg VA after the war. The name of his store was Perry & Sons tailors.

  4. Devin: There are, to my knowledge, only two wartime images that show Caroline (or Main) Street above the RR tracks–one of 706 Caroline, and the image of the ruined Bank of Virginia at the corner of William. There are many images taken from the early or mid-20th century. Historic Fredericksburg Foundation holds several. Whether they reveal anything about 717 I don’t know. The 700 block of Caroline is the best preserved of any in the city. Ironically, the only wartime building NOT present on the east side of the street is that at 717.

    The Perry’s did not own property in town during the war, so I can’t say where they lived. Robert O. appears on the tax rolls in the 1870s as the occupant (not owner) of some property on the riverfront above William Street. Robert carried on a tailoring business begun by his father and mother (who was a seamstress).

    If you know anything about their home during the war, or their place of business, I would be glad to know it–and will include the information in Virtual Fredericksburg. Thanks. John Hennessy

    • I, too, am a great, great grandson of Robert Oscar Perry, and I would appreciate any information you could send me on the man and the Perrys in Fredericksburg.
      – Shawn Perry

      • Shawn, All that I know about Robert Perry is included in the comment above. I have not come up with anything new since the original answer back in 2020.

  5. Pingback: Images of destruction: ordeal of a Fredericksburg neighborhood « Mysteries and Conundrums

  6. I like the research that is shown in the blog. The most impressive thing to me, however, was the quality of that photograph taken from above the pontoon bridge site showing damage to the town. That was a fantastically clear and detailed photo considering the technology of that day. When you click on areas to get the blow-ups you can see that they are also very clear and show much detail. I did not think this possible using a photo of that era. Kudos!

  7. This is a fascinating look at the neighborhood to which I have recently moved. I own 1316 Caroline Street and I must admit that I have a hard time distinguishing it from the photos. I am informed it is the Zachariah Lucas house and that, indeed, there is still much evidence of damage in the attic. I have not been in the attic for a number of reasons, one of which is I don’t want to blunder around and perhaps damage or otherwise disturb what might be still of value to historic researchers. I would appreciate any information about the house. Thank you for this great site!

    • I had not noticed that before. At first I thought the image might be mis-dated, but the presence of a cluster of canal boats in the river (to the left) confirms the date of the sketch as May 1862.

      But, a close look at the sketch below the skyline reveals that the artist wasn’t very careful about details. The buildings shown in the area of the chimney bear no resemblance to what appears in the great panorama (from almost the same spot) taken a year later. Too,the photo does not show a chimney there, but rather several hundred feet to the left of the one in the sketch. Where, according to the sketch, a chimney should be, the photo shows no evidence of one having been there. I would posit two options: sloppiness in detail, or a relocation for artistic sake the chimney that stood near the bridge. If the latter is correct, then your theory of some sort of fire unrelated to Yankee destruction would be correct. John H.

  8. John,

    I attempted to reply earlier, my post appeared to immediately disappear. So if this is a repeat, I apologize.

    At first I thought the same thing regarding the placement of the chimney in the sketch. But on further inspection, I believe that the apparent proximity of the chimney to the bridge is the effect of foreshortening. The photo appears to have been taken from farther downriver, at a more severe angle, making the chimney appear closer to the bridge than it actually was. Compare with this photo from a more direct angle ( The chimney is clearly farther away than it looked in the original photo, an more in line with its placement in the sketch.

    Also look at the building to the left-rear of the chimney in the sketch (with the three separate rooflines). I believe that this building appears in the original photo, partially obscured by the mill. To my eye the roofline looks to be an exact match.

    Of course it is possible that Forbes was not exact in the details of his sketch. But if that is the case, it seems curious that he would invent the detail of the lone chimney, given that no Union bombardment of Fredericksburg had yet occurred.

    My next question would be: was your identification of the chimney as a Marye property based on its apparent proximity to the bridge? Or did he own all those lots along the river? Is it possible that the lone chimney is part of another property altogether?

    • Angles and distances are tricky things in these photos. You might be right. Still seems a bit distant to me, but your ability to conceive angles and depth is likely better than mine.

      The placement of the Marye tenant structure that appears only as a chimney in the photograph is based on tax records, maps, and, in fact, the photograph. There is little doubt Marye owned the ruined building on Sophia Street.

      Let me know if you have any additional thoughts.

      John H.

      • Thank you for the information on the Marye property. In your Fredericksburg base map, it shows the Marye property as adjacent to the Rowe slaughterhouse. Looking at the sketch again, it seems likely that the fenced in structure adjacent to the lone chimney is likely an attempt to depict that slaughterhouse. If so, then the perspective would indeed seem to be a bit off. But it seems even more coincidental, then, that the slaughterhouse is already adjacent to a lone chimney in May of 1862. Do you know if Marye claimed property damages at this location as a result of the shelling?

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