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. 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.

13 thoughts on “Around the watering hole: faces of war in Fredericksburg

  1. Those four Union soldiers with their backs to the camera appear to be cavalrymen based on their accoutrements (pistol holster and two cartridge boxes for carbine and pistol), and the soldier second from left appears to have a reinforced bottom on his trousers, common with cavalrymen.

    I wonder if those African-Americans are assigned to the cavalry regiment getting water. At least one appears to be wearing a cavalry shell jacket.

    Do we know when in 1864 that first photo was taken? If so, we could probably determine what cavalry regiment occupied the city area.

    • Todd. I think because of the seemingly mundane subject matter, these images have never been subject to much scrutiny. The LOC indicates they were taken in May 1864. That would make sense, given the known presence of photographers both in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania. But what we can’t know is how generally the labelers applied the term “Fredericksburg.” Today Fredericksburg refers to anything within 25 miles; in 1864 did they mean the term literally, or was there likewise some squishiness? (That, in turn, would help us determine what unit might appear, or in fact render any such deduction impossible.) I have always had a gut feeling that the first image is somehow associated with the images of Brompton. The two others–I just do not know. John H.

  2. I have a stereoview of the wagon image, the one looking up the hill. It is from Anthony’s “The War For The Union Series”, done around 1890. A paper label on the front bears the inscription, “Soldiers drawing water for the hospitals at Fredericksburg, Va, 2504, 2505, 2512.” My file also includes the notation, “These are Yankees using a well on the Marye property, with a Brompton outbuilding in the background.” Does that jibe? Is the perspective looking down the hill what you would expect to see?

    • Jerry: I consdered whether or not the building on the slope was the farm office/slave quarters seen in the Brompton series, with the peak of the gabled roof in the background being Brompton. But there are too many trees in the view of the well for it to be that. Too, as you suggest, the reverse view is entirely different from the landscape along the Sunken Road–which would have been in the background if the well was on the driveway up to Brompton. It just doesn’t seem to fit. I have a sense, though, that the answer to this is out there, and if we can figure it out, the value of this image rises significantly. Thanks for sharing the information from your caption, and keep pondering this. John H.

  3. Hey, John,

    When we were out at Brompton the other day, you remarked a couple of times about the door to the “office” having been moved from on end of the bulding to the other for no apparent reason. Is it possible that we’re looking at this office photo backwards? Does that help with the well’s position?


    • Russ: I tried that, and while I am not the most clever when it comes to conceptual things, the background pieces just don’t fit when you flip it. You can look at the flipped image here:

  4. John, we’re assuming the driveway runs into Sunken Rd, but could that driveway possibly have led to Hanover St. or some other wartime road behind Brompton?

    • That driveway was pretty flat, and Michler shows no buildings there. I thought maybe it was a bit farther down the hill–where Wrenn and Monroe Stephens are, but the background landsape of the reverse view doesn’t seem to suppor that either. John

    • John: The placement of this along a road would suggest that it may have been a public well of some sort. I don’t recall seeing a reference to such a thing outside of town, except of course at Spotsylvania Court House. Maybe someone out there knows something… John H.

      • Just thought I’d add that we can probably rule-out that section of Marye’s Heights between Poplar Spring (south side of Plank Road) and Smith’s Spring (between UMW’s Secobeck dining hall and its Melchers fine-arts hall, south of modern Jeff Davis Highway).

        Described as a “reservoir” in at least one wartime account that I’ve seen, the surface of Poplar Spring was definitely larger than that of the water source in the wagon-and-well image, and Poplar Spring was in a natural bowl or partial ravine, apparently unlike the crowded image.

        Smith’s Spring was situated in a smaller, and more steeply sided ravine, unlike the crowded image, and was evidently far too shallow (its water came up mid-calf, and its bottom was flat and sandy when I jumped into it during a cleanup project in 1985) to require the windlass shown in the image with the wagon.

        However, I wouldn’t say Poplar Spring is absolutely out of the running as a candidate for the crowded pic, in the event that its ravine–about which we know very little, since the site was heavily re-landscaped prior to the construction of what is now the UMW-owned apartment complex on William Street–had a flat floor, and in the event that the photographer framed the shot so it looked precisely along that floor, and then northeast out across over the millrace valley, without giving a hint of the ravine’s sides.

        One avenue of further inquiry may be to consult the early yearbook-landscapes and aerial photos in UMW Special Collections to see if any features related to these Civil War images survived for a while on the fringes of the developing campus and adjoining residential neighborhood. Noel

  5. My flipped image theory is exploded right away by getting close enough in the picture to realize that a sergeant’s frock coat buttions would be reversed.

  6. i was looking at the picture of the “colored” men on horse back. it is clear that some of the men are ‘freedmen’ or perhaps laborers following the soldiers.
    but I also see two or maybe three of them wearing what is clearly a soldiers brass button coat and hats similar to what many cavalry soldiers wore (known as the hearty hat).
    it is a fact that some colored troopers road with the NJ cavalry and (unofficially) and fought in there ranks, and the army of the Potomac did have a colored cavalry regiment under Phil Sheridan the 5th united states colored cavalry did fight at Fredericksburg.

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