A wild ride on the canal boat bridge

From John Hennessy:

In our previous posts about the canal boat bridge built by the Union army in the spring of 1862 (click here), we mentioned that the bridge was swept away by high water on June 4. We are constantly turning up new material, and it so happens that a nice little description of the event came in last week, courtesy of Mark Silo of Loudonville, NY. It’s from the June 9, 1862 letter of Uberto Burnham (76th New York) to his parents (the letter is in the excellent collection of Burnham papers at the New York State Library). As you may recall, part of the 76th was detailed to both guard and live on the canal boat bridge. Apprising his parents of the regiment’s new quarters in town, Burnham wrote:

We did not leave the bridge of canal boats, but the bridge left us…. Tuesday night it commenced raining and by 3 o’clock the next day all the bridges across the river were carried away by the flood. Co. D. went down the river with their bridge, and some of the men did not get back until three days after. A few guns and knapsacks were last, but no men. We shall in a few days be all right again.

Little tidbits like this brighten the day of government work…. Our thanks to Mark Silo for sending this along.


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. Continue reading

Fighting for Their Freedom

From Mink:

From time to time, we like to inform the readers of this blog about some of the research we are conducting and the new and interesting things that we are discovering. Over the December holidays, I seized the opportunity of a lengthy vacation to reacquaint myself with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  I spent two days there digging into the pension files of members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who hailed from the Fredericksburg region.

The graves of John Mahoney and John Bell at Arlington National Cemetery. Mahoney, a freeman born in Fredericksburg, rose to the rank of 1st Sergeant in the 23rd USCT. Bell, the former slave of Linia Arrington of Stafford County, served as Principal Musician for the regiment and became a Pullman porter in Philadelphia after the war.

As we continue to expand our research and interpretation beyond the traditional subjects, one area continues to prove a mystery and conundrum – the slave experience in the Fredericksburg region. We have accounts from those that came into contact with slaves, but with the exception of a precious few, we lack almost any narratives from the slaves themselves.  Estimates on the number of slaves that escaped northward through the Fredericksburg area in the summer of 1862 have ranged as high as 10,000. Passage into the Union lines meant a new life, but we know little to nothing about who they were, what they experienced or what became of them. That’s where these Civil War pension files prove exciting.

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Edwin Forbes Leaves Us a Colorful Stafford County Mystery, in Black-and-White

From Noel Harrison:

For me, few eyewitness artworks better match the written accounts of the bleakness and tedium of Civil War life than this sketch by special artist Edwin Forbes:

His drawing depicts one and perhaps two brush shelters, and occupants, of a Federal picket station situated in Stafford County on Potomac Creek, somewhere upstream from its gorge crossed by the famous “Beanpoles and Cornstalks” railroad bridge.

It’s March 13, 1863. In a diary entry for that day, a soldier in one of the regimental camps guarded by the picket line noted, “A little snow this morning—some clouds—clear this evening.”

On the one hand, Forbes accurately captures the eternal, overarching reality of soldier life: the “wait” part of “hurry up and wait.” The sketch’s undistinguished setting, moreover, characterized the terrain along at least a third of the length of the picket line that surrounded the Army of the Potomac’s camps in southern Stafford in November 1862-June 1863. Much of the line extended between low, brushy hills north and west of the Rappahannock, far from the diverting vistas (and banter with enemy pickets) that duty along the river and its high bluffs afforded.
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