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. The day is cloudy, and a large number of the soldiers appear unaware that a photo is being taken. But most interesting is the variety of people in the image. The soldiers at the well are obvious, but to the right is a group of well-dressed civilians. If indeed this is an image of Fredericksburg in 1864 (and we have no reason to doubt that), they are likely Northern civilians who came to Fredericksburg to assist in the care of the more than 26,000 Union wounded that would flow through the town that month (for other posts on these relief workers, click here).
On the left of the image are no fewer than thirteen African Americans. Judging from the variety of their dress, they are likely laborers or camp servants, not soldiers. Note the variety of hats. This is by far the best image of contrabands or black laborers taken in the Fredericksburg region during the Civil War.
Elsewhere, at a location around Fredericksburg, the photographer likewise stopped at a watering hole. The scene here was far less busy–a simple well associated with a modest home on the slope above. The fences in both views are all intact, which to me suggests a location closer to Fredericksburg, where protection of such things was more tightly enforced by both armies. Still, there is not enough information to conclude whose house that might be, and so the location of the image remains a mystery. The landscape is washed with bright sunshine.
Soldiers work a well to fill a water barrel on a waiting wagon (decidedly NOT a government issue wagon), while at far right an African American looks on.
The photographer then shifted his camera and took an image from the opposite side of the well.
The day must be warm–the men watching have taken refuge in the shade. The cast of characters appears to have changed (the African American is gone, as is the man in the straw hat, and two older men appear on the left). The subject matter seems incredibly mundane–exactly why a photographer would have used two plates to record such a scene is a puzzle. But, we can be glad he did, for rarely are such common activities portrayed. Under magnification the image offers a crystalline view of the man in the wagon, filling the barrel.
Each of these images is available from the Library of Congress website–download the highest-resolution versions to explore them yourselves. If you spot anything interesting, let us know.