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. Following the riverside cliff, we came to a place where suddenly the cliffs yield to a bowl–the high ground pulls away from the river, leaving a relatively flat space with substantial but passable slopes to the upland.  This bowl is clearly visible in the wartime photographs.

The crossing site. Photo by Eric Mink.

We had hoped, of course, to find physical evidence of the crossing site–some remnant of the roads and ramps built by the Union engineers. Nothing recognizable remains. But, the topography of the lower crossing seems largely intact, save for a few anomalies and some washes created by drainage systems emerging from the industrial area on the upland above the site.

Looking upland from the crossing site. The ridgeline is barely visible through the trees. Photo by Eric Mink.

While the absence of any evidence of the literal crossing site was disappointing, the topography still allowed us to precisely determine the location of the bridges visible in the 1863 photos. There are two features that matter.  The first, already mentioned, is the cliff-end mentioned above. This feature is off the right edge of the wartime images, but was a clear indicator that we had found the crossing site at large. Second, and far more important, is a low shelf in the riverside ridge that marks the beginning of a second, broader bowl just downstream of the crossing site.

The ledge or shelf is in the center of this image.

This shelf is visible in the historic images and is easily found today, and by locating it we were able to locate precisely the location of the lower bridge visible in the images.

A couple of final notes. Comparing the photographs with Alfred Waud’s sketch of the December 1862 crossing, it seems clear that the third bridge present in 1862 stood downstream from the two photographed in 1863; the other two appear to be in the same location.

Compare the pattern of trees in this view with those in the photographs, and it becomes apparent that the third bridge in December 1862 sat below the two visible in the images.

We hope to get down to the crossing site on the Stafford side soon.  We’ll certainly share whatever we find.

And finally, we are working with Spotsylvania County to see if there is any way for us to do a tour to the site this spring. We certainly cannot get in there the way we went last week, but perhaps there is another way.  We’re working on it and will keep you posted.

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10 thoughts on “Exploring the Lower Pontoon Crossing Site

  1. It’s wonderful that the County is working with you to help study the site. I hope it works out for a tour before too much foliage comes back.
    It sure looks like the ruins of Mannsfield are readily visible in your second image, (the one John Kelley dates as May 1863), to the right of the darkest and tallest trees on the horizon. This would make the only wartime photograph, unfortunately within a month of its having burned. Is there a higher resolution copy available for this photograph on hand?

    • John: You are quite right that that’s Mannsfield, or rather one of detached wings of the place. There is a better resolution image available, but too large I am afraid to post on the blog with bogging it down. We will do a post soon that uses the various images on both sides fo the river to decipher the landscape west of Mannsfield.

  2. What great images, both historic and modern. I can only hope such a tour can be put together, like Mr. Cummings states, before the foliage returns to obscure long range views. I find these posts so important when the site cannot be visited. Great job and many thanks to the county for letting you all in. It looks like visiting the site from the Stafford shore is a much less “hostile” approach and maybe more telling, except of course for the overgrowth…keep up the great work.

    • Glenn: We hope to get permission to go down from the Stafford side soon. But, it does appear to me that the Spotsylvania side is (with due respect to Stafford) the more important and interesting, given that the topography on the right bank clearly dictated where the crossing could and would be. The Stafford shore is far less dramatic, though I am very interested to see if there are any visible remnants there. We hope to go soon and will keep you posted. John H.

  3. John, yes, I see your point and I do agree with how the lay-of-the-land determined the Federal movements – once across. I guess my interest lays mainly in the fact that the December 11 action occured on the Stafford side. I would be very interested as well to know if any trace of, well, anything, remains there such as a road or path. Again, excellent post and thanks for the reply.

  4. Please keep us posted on the proposed tour, I want to be there. My great-grandfather crossed one of those bridges in 1862, with the Pennsylvania 136th.

    • David: I had a conversation about this with Spotsylvania County today, in fact, and it looks like we WILL have access. The date looks to be May 21, but put that down in pencil at this point. We’ll have to bushwack through some pretty heavy stuff (with all the joys attendant to that), but it looks like we’re good to go. It will be nice having you in, and an honor to show you around. If for some reason the walk falls through, I might see if we can mount a canoe expedition to the site. Access that way would be easy. Thanks for reading. John H.

  5. Hello Staff: I’m pleased to find this blog and these photos. My great-grandfather, Henry Brown Richardson, was Early’s (later Ewell’s) Engineering Officer. He reported for duty near Hamilton’s Crossing on December 13th. He had just returned from medical leave after a wound at Sharpsburg. I doubt he received much of a welcome since Early’s Staff was pretty busy at that moment. I’m finishing a book about Henry and his family. My book blog at henrybrownrichardson.wordpress.com My wife and I had a great visit to Fredericksburg almost two years ago, and a pleasant conversation with Don Pfanz, to whom please give my best regards.

  6. The area of the Rappahannock from Deep Run to the Gun Pits at Cosner Park have always sparked my curiosity. Over the last 5 years I have walked both sides of the banks exploring landing sites, earthworks and consulting my O’Riley diary of the events and troop movements of the first and second landing. If you are going to do a tour I would love to be there. The 1863 landing at Pollacks Mill is readily visible also along with existing earth works. In my experience though these sites are much better observed in the winter for obvious reasons. Are there any pictures of the 1863 site?

  7. I would love to find a way to convince Walmart to open up the Franklin’s Crossing location with a few simple trails and a memorial marker or two. My GG GF fought here with the NJ 26th including the first battle considered to be part of the Gettysburg Campaign. I have talked / corresponded with Walmart Corporate who referred me back to the local manager, etc etc. If anyone has knowledge of how this is done, I am willing to pay the costs. Seriously.

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