Battlefield Landmark for Sale (1892 style)

From John Hennessy:

Much of the land in this aerial view belonged to Neill McCoull in 1864.

One of the things that has always intrigued me is how modern residents feel about living on or near places of battle. When a young lad, I remember wondering what those people who lived on the Bloody Plain at Fredericksburg knew about the history of their land. Was the violence that took place there a discomfort to them?  Did they even know what happened there?

What today we know as Doles's Salient was once part of the McCoull farm--and for sale, touted as "a famous field living in history as the field upon which conspicuous acts of gallantry evinced to the world that for courage the American soldier stands unexcelled."

Since those days, I have come to know many people who live on these lands. A few seem genuinely affected by the spiritual lineage of their property.  But most, while generally aware of what happened, seem to give little thought to history as they live out their daily lives. This detachment is aided, certainly, by the fact that places like the Bloody Plain have been so thoroughly changed by modern development. The transformation of the land surely provides a barrier of time, space, and aura that makes it easy to forget. I get that. The omnipresence of imagined death and destruction would make life hard to bear.

The McCoull House, Spotsylvania

Today, while developers routinely advertise the benefits of (and charge extra for) subdivision lots that border the park, I have never seen one tout the idea that you can buy and live on a piece of battlefield–that would likely not play well in some circles. It was not always so. Take this vivid example from 1892–an ad for the McCoull farm on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, behind the Blood Angle and Doles’s Salient. Neil McCoull’s several hundred acres of land held a distinction unequalled (and unmentioned in the ad): there is likely no single property in America from which postwar burial crews removed more bodies than McCoull’s (the graves ran in excess of 1,400–a staggering number). A veteran visiting the site after the war wrote of the place:  “This place is one of grim fame and lasting history, for in the woods hereabout death’s maw was gorged in the longest, fiercest, ghastliest hand-to-hand combat known to man.” Still, the ad pointedly used the property’s hallowed nature as an affirmative selling point:

This place has been rendered famous by reason of having been the ground upon which one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the war was fought.  It is now known by no other name than the Bloody Angle, bearing endless reminiscences of the great battle; being visited by all tourists who feel an interest in viewing the scene of battle. Large trees were by the Minnie balls shot as if cut or sawed off I this fierce battle—some now on exhibition.  Some of the bravest officers of both armies were killed here. This will ever be a famous field living in history as the field upon which conspicuous acts of gallantry evinced to the world that for courage the American soldier stands unexcelled.  This land has very valuable timber in large quantity upon it.  Whilst it has been neglected, can be improved and made a good farm for agricultural purposes.”

The McCoull house in the 1880s, looking worse for the wear as the home of tenants.

The ad resulted in the sale of the property to Vespasian Chancellor and the Battlefields Land Company–a holding company formed by veterans to acquire and preserve significant battlefield lands. The company held the land until 1918, when a lack of resources forced its sale back into the private sector. (Note that when the War Department acquired the property in 1932, it was not the first time it had been acquired for the purposes of preservation.)

The business of explicitly marketing places of death as places for living has a long record of failure.  How many of you remember the proposed Civil War-themed cemetery on the Orange Plank Road between Chancellorsville and the Wilderness a few years back? I wonder if they ever sold a grave–certainly they have never filled one.

Three years after its sale by the Battlefields Land Company in 1918,  the McCoull house burned to the ground, leaving only a chinmney behind. Today we have marked the site with stone.

The McCoull house site today.

6 thoughts on “Battlefield Landmark for Sale (1892 style)

  1. When I first moved to Virginia, I was deeply affected by the Manassas battlefield. Today I don’t feel quite the same degree of impression, although I am always aware of the death, suffering and feelings of fear which seem to have soaked into the ground at the Fredericksburg battlefield. I would not/could not live in such an area.

  2. Maybe I just did not understand all of the’s getting late, but none of this gournd is now for sale, it is part of the NPS, right?

  3. Thanks for clearing that up…if figured as much but wanted to make sure.

    Also, I would like to complement you on this blog. I have learned a great deal of wonderful information through this blog and I have even gone back and re-read the Blue and Grey magazine articles on Fredericksburg after reading this blog.

    Job well done.

  4. Hi John. A few years ago I was walking along the park trail leading from the Mule Shoe to the McCoull House site. I noticed an elderly man behind me. As we both approached the area near the McCoull Spring, I said hello and asked him if this was his first visit to the battlefield. He responded, “No, I grew here.” I replied, “Oh, you grew up in Spotsylvania?” He said, “Yes, right here on the battlefield.” We shook hands and he introduced himself as “Bill McCoull,” if I remember correctly. We exchanged further pleasantries and went on our way, but I regret not asking more questions about growing up the battlefield. I assume he grew up in the post-war McCoull House that stood near the modern parking lot. I wonder how often he visits the battlefield–also his home–and he seemed like he was enjoying a walk down memory lane. John — do you know if Bill McCoull is still alive? Todd Berkoff

    • Todd: I do not. The McCoull family divested itself of the farm at Spotsylvania in the late 19th century. It’s possible some of the family rooted nearby, but I am not aware of it. If John McCoull grew up on the battlefield, it was not on the McCoull farm itself, certainly. Still, it would have been a great thing to encounter someone from the family. Perhaps someone else knows of the fate of the family and can enlighten us. Thanks for the observation.

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