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).

Though indistinct, the photograph also shows the guard facilities on the Fredericksburg side of the bridge–an elevated platform of logs, with some sort of palisade or stockade at the entrance to the bridge itself (Noel noted a similar structure at the upper pontoon crossing–click here for that) .

The image also offers one of the more useful views of the town’s docks. Today the city of Fredericksburg owns the waterfront here, but prior to the Civil War the docks were privately owned. The location of the bridge hints at something largely overlooked: the best and most important dock facilities in 1862 were NOT those at the site of the present city docks, but slightly downstream. The location of this bridge was, on today’s landscape, 80-100 yards below the today’s paved parking lot at the city dock. In 1860, the docks here were owned by the Wellford family. But, naturally, with a good deal of naval and steamboat traffic running to and from Fredericksburg, the army would not have blocked access to the best docking facilities by building a bridge. Instead, the best facilities were slightly downstream–just out of this view. Indeed, the waterfront land just on and below the left edge of this image was owned by a Northern-born dentist named M.A. Blankman. Valued at $16,000, his property here was one of two or three most valuable parcels in town. It was likely on Blankman’s wharf that Union boats did most of their business.

The photo shows clearly the bulkhead built along the waterfront. Blankman’s wharf was below an unimproved inlet. Look closely at this enlargement: you can see the inlet–which perhaps functioned as a boat launch–and to the left of it (on the very left edge of the larger view) you can see the bulkhead resume. That is Blankman’s wharf, which extended downstream.

Moving away from the water’s edge itself, you can see a collection of buildings that had likely been on the Fredericksburg waterfront for a century or more. Of these, a portion of only one remains–the 1860 home of widow Eliza Guttridge–the darker half of the building on the extreme right of the image.

Also clearly visible in this image is what is today called Rocky Lane–the street leading from the city docks up to Caroline Street. Today the street is unimproved, evocative, for pedestrians only.

Rocky Lane today.

Above the waterfront are visible several houses on lower Caroline Street, though most of them indistinctly. Most apparent is the back side of the Sentry Box, in 1860 the home of W. Roy Mason, lawyer and future Confederate officer.

The Sentry Box is worthy of a post all its own, but know now that few houses in Fredericksburg suffered more than it did during the war. Today it is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful homes in Fredericksburg.

Along with Washington Roebling’s wire bridge, the canal boat bridge was one of the great curiosities to be found in Fredericksburg during the spring and summer of 1862. We are grateful to Marc Storch for his generosity in allowing us to share this image, which is from his personal collection.

Have a merry Christmas.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s