A Stafford County Photograph and Sketch Give Faces to Wartime Freedom


from: Harrison

How soon after the summer of 1862 did Northern photographers resume documenting the Fredericksburg area’s wartime scenes? Considering this general question led me down an unexpected path to a particular part of a particular month in 1863, and to a certain area of Stafford County. The story I found was one of different artistic media that had converged to record and popularize an iconic tableau of freedom but, ironically, left its date and location unidentified.

(In the current absence of known photographs of the Confederate occupation of the area in May 1861-March 1862, a series of views of the Union occupation during the summer of 1862 holds distinction as the earliest-known photographic window onto local wartime landscapes. To my knowledge, no such images verifiably dated to December 1862 have been found.)

An oft-published image of the still-smoking ruins of the Phillips House in Stafford, which caught fire on February 14, 1863, marked an early post-battle resumption of 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’s hard to imagine that the lapse in photo-documentation of outdoor scenes in the Fredericksburg area continued through an event as attention-grabbing as the December 1862 battle. After the summer of 1862, did the camera lenses really remain uncapped until mid-February 1863?

Previously, I devoted a series of posts to another candidate for the distinction of earliest post-battle photograph of a local landscape: 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 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 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 formerly enslaved people. 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:


It is interesting to view the woodcut in the context of Harper’s six other pictorial representations of African Americans published that month, after the Proclamation went into effect. In chronological order, left-to-right and beginning with the top row (below), the Harper’s woodcuts featuring them prominently during the first half of January were: January 10, front page—“REBEL NEGRO PICKETS AS SEEN THROUGH A FIELD GLASS” (“Fredericksburg”); January 10, last page—“Massa LINKUM he gib us our Papers on de First January…and so I’ll gib you a Mont’s Notice…”; January 17, front page—“THE TEAMSTERS DUEL” (“Army of the Potomac”); and January 17, middle pages—“A SHELL IN THE REBEL TRENCHES”:

Harper’s issue of January 24, 1863 featured a small woodcut of a slave auction, “A SKETCH OF THE PAST,” and also a two-page woodcut montage, “THE EMANCIPATION OF THE NEGROES…THE PAST AND THE FUTURE.” The elaborate montage and its lengthy explanatory text highlighted the sanctity of free labor (along with, to somewhat lesser degrees, the sanctity of the family and access to education) as a goal of the war effort in general:


The Proclamation promised immense opportunity for individuals and the Union cause—and not a moment too soon for the latter. Such were the editorial messages that Harper’s editors seem, to me at least, to be have been conveying through their woodcuts of January 1863. The Proclamation’s goal of placing black men “into the armed service” was already being accomplished by the enemy, who were using them as unarmed engineers in combat and as fully armed infantry. Haste was in order for the Union to catch up and, looking beyond extant roles for African Americans such as teamsters, transform into free soldiers the two or three military age civilians present in “CONTRABANDS COMING INTO CAMP”…along with thousands of other men of color.

(I should note that Harper’s published an explanatory text for its “REBEL NEGRO PICKETS” at Fredericksburg that reveals a departure from the usual practice: basing site-identified woodcuts upon sketches that themselves embodied eyewitness pictorial reporting. The woodcut’s text attributed its reference-sketch to special artist Theodore R. Davis but noted that he had not actually drawn the “negro pickets” from sight but, rather, had illustrated a scene reported to him by an unnamed officer in the Army of the Potomac.)

“CONTRABANDS COMING INTO CAMP” is unquestionably a document of real people in a real place. The collections of the Library of Congress contain a damaged half of a stereograph that is a reverse-image, near-exact match for the Harper’s woodcut and the sketch from which it was derived. (Historian Frederic E. Ray noted the convergence of artistic media for this scene, in his 1974 book “Our Special Artist”: Alfred R. Waud’s Civil War.) The Library of Congress attributes the stereograph to Northern Photographer David B. Woodbury and assigns Woodbury’s image the caption, “Arrival of Negro Family in the Lines”:


(hi-rez version here)

In the Harper’s issue of January 31, 1863, Waud’s notes and the woodcut’s caption did not specify a location, whether Virginia or someplace else. Yet in early 1863—specifically the period spanning the seven, consecutive Harper’s issues of January 3 through February 14—all of its Waud-based woodcuts focused solely on Army of the Potomac camps and operations in and around southern Stafford County (with the sole exception of a woodcut of a court-martial in Washington, D.C.). Given this geographic association for Waud and assuming the accuracy of the time-period that Harper’s supplied for the woodcut of the freedpeople—the “beginning” of the Proclamation’s effect—Woodbury likely made the stereograph in southern Stafford in early January 1863. The stereograph and the sketch/woodcut reveal a few minor differences but obviously depict the same group of former slaves grouped in and around the same wagon at about the same moment.

Although the names of these freedmen are still unknown, some idea of their origins may be surmised. The Confederates reoccupied the entire southern bank of the Rappahannock in the wake of the December battle, so former slaves who afterwards entered Union lines in Stafford would have come from the Northern Neck or Fauquier or Prince William Counties, rather than from a locale south of the Rappahannock.

With regard to differences among the pictures, the sketch/woodcut does not include the two mounted Federals who appear in the background of the stereograph. Also, the undamaged section of the stereograph’s background is blurry—too much so to readily offer clues as to location, at least to my eyes. Yet the background (left below) of Waud’s companion-sketch is comparatively clear.

The background bears some resemblance to the configuration of tents, and the general outline of what appears to be a civilian icehouse, appearing to one side (right below) of a sketch that Waud made two months later, in March 1863. This March sketch depicted the headquarters complex of Army of the Potomac Provost-Marshal General Marsena Patrick in southern Stafford County. (In his diary-entry for January 3, 1863, incidentally, Patrick recorded “examining prisoners…deserters, contrabands…. gathered a great deal of information in regard to the other side and of the people down below, on this side of the River….”)


(hi-rez here for Waud’s January sketch of the freedpeople, and here for his March sketch of the Provost headquarters; both sketches courtesy Library of Congress)

Overall, the Woodbury stereograph of the freedpeople reveals that one of the first photographic images made outdoors after the December battle—along with a sketch made concurrently with the stereograph—contemplated neither Fredericksburg nor the survivors of combat in and around it, but rather a vital issue intertwined with the battle’s legacy.

On the one hand, as historian George C. Rable notes in Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (pp. 375, 377-378), his recent survey of reactions to the battle among soldiers and homefront civilians, “the heavy losses, increasing desertions, and continuous laments over…white lives lost in vain…powerfully challenged prejudice” among some white Northerners who considered the Proclamation’s provision for African Americans’ military service. Yet Rable finds among other Northern commentators critical views, ranging from open hostility towards “an abolition war” to fears that “an anti-slavery crusade might only make the Rebels fight harder” and boost the “elan and higher morale” they had recently demonstrated on the south side of the Rappahannock. In January 1863, “the slavery question became one more source of division among already disheartened soldiers” in the Army of the Potomac.

My conclusions above are tentative. And specifics remain elusive, including for the exact date and spot of the sketch and photograph of the formerly enslaved people, and documented photographs of other outdoor subjects in southern Stafford during the same time period. Yet possible sources of answers bring optimism. Any detailed record of photographer David Woodbury’s activities during this time would be invaluable; just last week I noted an online museum’s announcement (evidently from 2002) that his wartime letters and diaries survive in a private collection. Frederic E. Ray had gained access to at least a portion of one of the diaries; his 1974 book (p. 41) notes–only in passing, alas–that Woodbury as well as Waud was “in the area of Falmouth and Aquia Creek” sometime in late December 1862 and/or early January 1863.


Noel G. Harrison

Special thanks to Erik F. Nelson, editor of Fredericksburg History and Biography, for permission to reprint passages from my 2009 article, “In the Wake of December’s Disaster: Photography after the First Battle of Fredericksburg.”

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