How soon after the first battle of Fredericksburg, in mid-December 1862, did Northern photographers resume documenting the area’s wartime scenes? Pursuing answers to this relatively straightforward question has led me down a surprisingly complicated path to a particular part of a particular month in 1863, and to a particular area of Stafford County—if not yet to an exact day and spot. The story I found, at least as I currently understand it, is one of different artistic media converging to record and popularize an iconic tableau of freedom but, ironically, leave it unidentified in terms of date and location.
An oft-published image of the still-smoking ruins of the Phillips House in Stafford, which caught fire on Feburary 14, 1863, marks an early post-battle effort at local photography that, thanks to the drama of the blaze and consequent recording by various writers, is dateable to within a day or two:
Yet it seems unlikely that the lapse in photo-documentation of the Fredericksburg area would have continued for two months following an event as attention-grabbing as the December 1862 battle. Were the camera lenses really not uncapped again until mid-February 1863?
(In the current absence of known images of the Confederate occupation of the area in May 1861-March 1862, a dozen or so views of the Union occupation of April-August 1862 hold distinction as the earliest examples of local landscape-photography during the war. No images are verifiably dateable to the time of the battle itself.)
Previously, I devoted a series of detailed posts to another candidate for the distinction of earliest post-battle photograph: a stereograph depicting a flag-of-truce exchange, amid no less than 160 spectators, on the Fredericksburg riverfront. Although I would be delighted if this image turned out to document the post-battle truce crossings there on December 17-18, 1862, my current suspicion is that the actual date will prove to be sometime in February or March 1863, as suggested in different records at the Library of Congress, and when truce crossings indeed also occurred.
In an article published in 2009 in the journal Fredericksburg History and Biography, I considered a third photograph as the area’s earliest outdoor-view following the December battle. Let’s revisit that image today in order to update research, and to take advantage of the opportunities for higher-resolution analysis of pictures afforded by this blog.
In its issue for January 31, 1863, Harper’s Weekly devoted an entire page to a woodcut-illustration (below left) of former slaves. The caption titled the woodcut “CONTRABANDS COMING INTO CAMP IN CONSEQUENCE OF THE PROCLAMATION.” Harper’s noted that the woodcut was based upon a sketch (below right) by special artist Alfred R. Waud, bearing his manuscript caption, “An arrival in Camp—under the Proclamation of Emancipation.” On a separate page in the same issue of Harper’s, Waud noted that the picture was intended to document the “beginning of the effect of the President’s Proclamation of Freedom”—the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln signed and issued on January 1, 1863: