A bit more on the lower crossing site

From John Hennessy:

First an update:  it looks like we have found a way to get people to the lower crossing site safely–though not without some bushwhacking and the inevitable and attendant afflictions of ticks and such. We should be able to announce the date firmly soon. We are working with Spotsylvania County on this, and so we do not have total control on when the tour is done.  For prior posts about the middle crossing site, click here and here.

In anticipation of that, we include a couple more views of the crossing site. The first, above, is taken from the Stafford side looking southwest in May 1863. Like most of these images, this one has a multitude of little details worth noticing.

Clearly visible is the extensive cut made in the river bank to create one of the ramps on the south shore.  One would wish and think that some evidence of the huge berms on each side of the ramp might survive, but not so–at least not that we saw.

Look at the many impromptu hitching posts on the far side, some of them occupied, some of them not.

The image includes a great view of unarmed soldiers posing on the near bridge. These men were likely members of the 15th New York Engineers. Look too at the details of their bridge–essentially very simple structures, with anchored boats, the balks that connected each boat to the next, the cross-planks (chesses–each 13 feet long), and the side rails. A bridge like this could be built in just a few hours and taken apart in less than 60 minutes.

Finally, here’s another image, though admittedly not a very good copy (we do not have a scan of the original). It’s another of the series taken by Andrew J. Russell in May 1863, this one looking back across the river toward the Stafford shore.  Once again, members of the 15th New York Engineers are visible in the foreground.

We will use all these and more on our tour in May, and will probably share a few more as we get closer to the date.


Can’t See the Battlefield for the Trees: Lost Viewshed from Lee’s Command Post

From Mink:

Lee’s Hill is Stop #3 on the Fredericksburg Battlefield self-guided driving tour. Historically, it was known as Telegraph Hill for the Telegraph Road (present-day Lafayette Boulevard and Business US Route 1) ran across its crest. The hill derives its current name from the fact that Confederate General Robert E. Lee established his command post here during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Its eastern slope was cleared of trees, although covered with brush. At 243 feet above sea level, Lee’s Hill provided a commanding view the Rappahannock River plain from beyond Marye’s Heights to Hamilton’s Crossing. From here, Lee watched the Battle of Fredericksburg unfold below him.

Sketch made by Frank Vizetelly, artist for the Illustrated London News. The sketch is looking from Lee's Hill towards Marye's Heights. Note the unobstructed view.


From his command post atop the hill, Lee made one of his most famous and oft-quoted observations of the war, as he watched the doomed Union assaults recoil against his defenses – “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”

During the May 1863 Second Battle of Fredericksburg, a depleted Confederate force yielded Lee’s Hill to attacking Union troops who fought and scrambled their way to the crest. A sketch made by a Union soldier in that attack clearly shows an eastern slope devoid of trees.

Sketch made by Albert A. Carter of the 4th Vermont Infantry. The scene depicted is the successful Union attack against Lee's Hill on May 3, 1863.

Continue reading

A historic change

From John Hennessy:

A typical exhibit at Fredericksburg.

We have written a great deal on Mysteries and Conundrums about the evolution of the park since its founding in 1927 (click here for some of the posts). You may have heard by now that the park has received funding to re-do the exhibits at both the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville visitor centers. To help put this into perspective:

– The existing exhibits were installed during the Centennial of the Civil War, nearly fifty years ago.

– Since then, the park has only once received a comparable amount of funding for any single project intended to enhance the visitor experience–the Sunken Road restoration, completed in 2005.  Indeed, the amount of funding for these exhibits probably exceeds ALL of the combined funding available for the development of interpretive media in the last fifty years.

The Fredericksburg exhibits are classic examples of media from what the NPS called Mission 66–the 50th anniversary of the NPS in the 1960s.

The importance of media–exhibits, films, publications, digital stuff–is often dramatically underestimated. Fewer than 20% of the park’s visitors ever take a guided tour. While that’s still a fair number of people, the fact remains that 80% of our visitors are entirely dependent on media for getting our story, for understanding the significance of what otherwise might appear to be typical Virginia landscapes. As it is, visitors get Civil War History 1960s style–in terms of both design and content.  We hope that every one of our visitors who enter one of our buildings will get something out of the new exhibits–at least if we do them well.

The fabulous diorama at Fredericksburg, which will be incorporated into the new exhibit.

[For more on the famous Fredericksburg diorama, click here.]

These exhibits will be the face of the park for probably several decades (we hope not fifty years this time, but it’s reasonable to expect they’ll be there for at least 20). Continue reading

High-Ranking Skedaddle: a Previously Unidentified Sketch of Spotsylvania?

From Noel Harrison:

The following sketch appears among the many pictures recently added to the Library of Congress’ digital collections. The Library identifies the artist, Alfred R. Waud, the principal subject, Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George Meade, and the year, 1864, but neither the location nor the specific date. The sketch probably appears here for the first time in an interpretive venue:

A high-resolution version is here.

Waud’s handwritten caption reads:

Narrow escape of Genl Meade Some cavalry dashing out of the woods suddenly upon the genl & his attendants came very near cutting off Their retreat and making a capture of the party. Prominent near the genl., Col. Michler on a rough track or farm road that wound along the foot of a tree covered knoll out from which came the rebs to cut them off.
Continue reading

A mystery photograph no more: artillery battery below Fredericksburg May 2, 1863

From John Hennessy (with assistance from Eric Mink, who found the image in the first place, and Noel Harrison, who added the Waud sketch at the end).  Note: before reading this, you should take a look at our exploration of Franklin’s Crossing, which you can find here. It will help make this analysis a bit clearer.

This is perhaps the least-recognizable of all the wartime photographs attributed to Fredericksburg, and indeed its precise location has been a mystery.  Eric Mink came across it during a visit to Western Reserve Historical Society a few years back.  The label on the image says:

“Distant View of Battle of May 2d/63 – Below Fredericksburg. – Foreground – Falmouth side of river, and from about centre of picture winding along up to the trees are the Federal Batteries, but these too far off to be used against the foe. Over the hill in foreground, reaching from right hand down centre of picture, are the camps of Federal army, the white patches being smoke of camp fires. Another row of camps and camp fires are beyond the first, and in the distance, like mist, is the smoke ascending as the fight progresses.”

At first blush, the image appears too distant to be of much interest. But looking closer some interesting things emerge. Most obvious is the prominence of the ridge upon which the camera sits.  There are few sites in the Fredericksburg region hat match–a prominent ridge bordered by a wide plain extending to beyond the camera’s range. This indeed helps confirm a location on the Stafford side south of Fredericksburg.

Something else that stands out is the complex of four artillery lunettes clearly visible. Continue reading

Exploring the Lower Pontoon Crossing Site

By John Hennessy and Eric Mink (note: for a rigorous analysis of some of the historic images included here, see John Kelley’s article, “Hidden in Plain Sight: The First Photographs of the Gettysburg Campaign.”)

This image clearly shows the roads heading up the ridgeline. They cannot be seen today, but their locations can be determined.

Last week we had the unprecedented opportunity–thanks to the folks at Spotsylvania County–to explore the Spotsylvania side of Franklin’s Crossing (often called the Lower Crossing because of the three Union crossings at the Battle of Fredericksburg, it was the farthest downstream). It was here, in December 1862, that the left wing of the Union army (commanded by William B. Franklin) crossed the Rappahannock on its way into battle. Likewise, in May 1863 and June 1863 Union troops crossed at this site. In fact, the Union army built a system of pontoons here again in May 1865 too, for the passage of the Union army as it headed back to Washington for the Grand Review. This was a busy, important place.

Another 1863 view, looking slightly downstream in the direction of Mannsfield.

It’s always exciting to see something you have never seen before; it is doubly so to see something few people have explored before. The site is behind the Bowman Center–an industrial area–off Route 2/17, about a mile south of Fredericksburg. From the land side, the site is completely inaccessible to the public. We gained access by the graces of Spotsylvania County, which operates a sewage treatment plant that is tightly fenced. It helped greatly that we had county staff along with us, else we doubt they would have let us through.

We reached the site by walking along a fairly narrow path between a fence and the veritable cliffs–probably 65 feet high, virtually straight down–that border the river just west of the crossing.  Please accept our apologies that the site is heavily wooded today and difficult to photograph.

The view toward the crossing from the cliff’s end. Looking east. Photo by Eric Mink.

Our first revelation was that it was clearly the topography on the Spotsylvania side of the river that determined where the crossing site would be, and indeed there is no doubting the location on the ground today. Continue reading

Medal of Honor Recipient Caught Straggling on the March

From Mink:

Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan pulled an impressive and enviable media coup on May 21, 1864. From the balcony of Massaponax Church in Spotsylvania County, O’Sullivan recorded three of the most famous images of the Civil War. This series of photographs focuses on Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George G. Meade during a rest along the march from the battlefield of Spotsylvania Court House to the North Anna River.

Pictured above are two of the three photographs taken by O’Sullivan that afternoon. Gathered in the pews outside the church are the two generals, members of their staffs and others traveling with army headquarters. (I have identified General Grant in each image by a red mark.) In the first photo he is seen leaning over a pew conferring with General Meade, while the second photo shows him seated and presumably drafting an order or dispatch. Visible in the background can be seen the blurred wagon train of the Fifth Army Corps, as it passes the church and continues south.

Many of those who encountered this gathering paused to gaze upon the army’s leaders. One passerby wrote:

“Under the shade of some noble trees in front of Massaponax church, I was permitted to look upon a number of our generals in council, consulting some maps of the region through which we were moving. A crowd of curious eyes gathered around to look upon the noted faces for a moment, while from the gallery windows of the church I observed a photographic instrument seizing the rare chance. I quietly studied the faces of those men, whom the generations will delight to honor, and having photographed them for private use, passed on, leaving the chiefs in council.” – Anonymous, “Notes of a Visit to the Army of the Potomac,” in The Huntingdon [Penn.] Globe, June 29, 1864

The third photo, below, presents the clearest image of the famous generals and prominent members of their staffs .

Identified in this photo are: 1) Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General United States Army; 2) Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana; 3) Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, Chief of Staff of General Headquarters United States Army; 4) Major General George G. Meade, Commanding General Army of the Potomac; 5) Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus B. Comstock, aide-de-camp to General Grant; 6) Lieutenant Colonel Adam Badeau, Military Secretary to General Grant.

There is yet another man of note in this photo. He was neither a general, nor a member of the headquarters entourage. A mere teenage private lurking in the background, he undoubtedly elicited no notice. He was destined, however, to become a highly respected soldier and recipient of the country’s highest military honor. Continue reading

Slave to Soldier…and Back to Slave

From Mink:

Previous posts highlighted a couple of the Fredericksburg area’s soldiers who served in the 23rd United States Colored States Troops (USCT). Their military and pension files provide us with information about these former slaves that we may never have discovered otherwise. In their own words, and those of others who knew them, we learn a little about their lives as slaves, their route to freedom, and their fight to maintain freedom.

Andrew Weaver, a slave of J. Horace Lacy in Stafford County, escaped in the summer of 1862, enlisted in the 23rd USCT in 1864 and served through the war. Abraham Tuckson, a slave of Dr. John Taylor in Spotsylvania County, also escaped slavery in the summer of 1862, enlisted in the same regiment, but fell killed at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. A third former local slave, Peter Churchwell, suffered a different fate at that same battle. A slave of Reuben Lindsay Gordon of Orange County, Peter escaped to freedom, enlisted in the 23rd USCT, but was captured at the Crater. In his pension file, he relates how his former owner found him in Confederate hands, claimed him and sold him back into slavery.

“I am about 74 years of age; my post-office address is 1808, 24 St. N.W. this city. Shoemaker. I was born + raised in Albermarle Co. Va. near Gordonsville. My father was William + my mother was Dicey Churchwell – dead. I was a slave of Reuben Gordon. I was married when a slave to Maria Grey, she died before the war. No children living by this marriage. I also married Julia Weaver, a year or so after the war, in this city, got a license, + I was married by Rev. Sandy Alexander Pastor Little Baptist Church Geotown D.C. She died about ten years ago in this city. No children by her. I have never married since – I have no children now living by any wife. I got acquainted with Julia Weaver at Fredericksburg Va. before the war. She was at that time the wife of Tom Weaver, + she had a son Andrew Weaver whom I knew when a boy, and he enlisted in same company + regiment and at the same time and place. During the war, Julia Weavers husband died, and she came to Wash D.C. and after my return from the army, I again met and married her. I came to Washington D.C. in August 1862 and I was a coachman for Mrs. Barber, in Geotown D.C. + I worked for her about 2 years. She was the widow of Jno. Barber – dead. I then enlisted in July 1864, at Capt. Sheets Office in Co. H 23d Reg. USCT. I gave the officer at that time the name Peter Churchwell which is my right name and I always answered roll call by that name + was so called by my comrades and I was discharged from the service by that name. They then saw how high I was – I am now 5 ft. 3 in. high (OK AWR) I was next examined by the Doctors. I got a uniform + was sent to Camp Casey Va. + was there about 30 days. My Capt. Fessenden, Burrell Mitchell Robert Green and Andrew Weaver are the only comrades that I can now remember. After we left Camp Casey Va we took boat for City Point Va, then up James River + marched towards Petersburg Va. + was at Bermuda Hundred when we had a fight + we next  had the fight at Petersburg Va. July 64 and in the charge on Continue reading

Kenmore’s last soldier–and one of the last reburials in the National Cemetery

In 1864, Union burial crews interred at least 103 Union dead on the grounds of Kenmore, the elegant plantation home of Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis–George Washington’s sister. By then, Kenmore amounted only to a handful of acres, and exactly where on the grounds the dead were buried is not entirely clear. But, research by Noel Harrison (we’ll post on this in the future) has confirmed that the famous series of images taken of Fredericksburg burials in May 1864 was taken only a few hundred feet from Kenmore’s back door. It is highly likely that the graves in that series of images (one of which is below) constitute some of the dead recorded to have been buried at Kenmore. 

Donald Pfanz, who has written a book on the creation of the National Cemetery, learned of one more soldier from Kenmore, discovered in 1929.  What follows is derived from his upcoming book:

These May 1864 burials along what is today Winchester Street likely included the 102 men recorded as having been disinterred from Kenmore after the war.

Continue reading

Sketching and Mapping Lincoln’s 1863 Reviews, pt.2: Could Different Theories Each be Right? (plus, additional mysteries)

from Harrison:

In a recent article for this blog I posted two contemporary depictions of President Abraham Lincoln’s Grand Review of part of the Army of the Potomac on April 8, 1863: a stunning, panoramic sketch by Harpers Weekly special artist Alfred R. Waud and a map by an unidentified cartographer. These are among the many new records appearing over the past year or two in the Library of Congress’ online collections. Here again are the map and sketch:

Each is an extraordinary document of the April 8 reviewing but is baffling for its apparent incompatibility with the other, as I described in that earlier blog-post.

Since the time of that post, additional, related mysteries have suggested themselves. Although the 8th was but one of four days in April 1863 that saw Lincoln review troops assembled in complete corps for inspection—at various locations in Stafford County—it was the only day that saw him review more than two corps. He reviewed the Second, the Third, the Fifth, and the Sixth (as well as the army’s artillery reserve). Yet the editors at Harper’s did not select Waud’s panoramic sketch of April 8 for conversion to a woodcut.

Instead of focusing on that day’s blockbuster event and Waud’s breathtaking depiction of it, Harper’s pictorial reporting on the April review—pictures published in its issue of May 2, 1863—consisted of two woodcuts based on Waud’s sketches of smaller spectacles that occurred on other days: the Cavalry Corps passing in review before the President on April 6 (sketch at top in John Hennessy’s post here), and Lincoln and others watching the First Corps pass on April 9 (below):

Reviewing the First Corps on April 9, 1863.
First Corps commander John Reynolds probably bearded figure in
front at far left; next Second Corps commander Darius Couch, with
cigar; then Third Corps commander Daniel Sickles on opposite side
of Lincoln; and then a headless Joseph Hooker. Library of

Continue reading