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.

These have all the appearance of permanent fortifications, rather than the hurried construction of something built for the moment. They appear to be dug from the outside rather than the inside, are carefully constructed, and broadly spaced. The guns within them appear to be field pieces, and their limbers are in place regulation distance behind each gun–an indication that this is a battery “in action” rather than permanently assigned to this location. Both the topography and the presence of earthworks here match the area just east of the old Washington Farm–Ferry Farm. In fact, it strikes me that the three distant lunettes in the above image–echeloned as they are–are probably  the same three lunettes shown in this oft-published view, taken looking back toward town from the other side of them.

That the lunettes in the two images are likely the same is supported by a deeper look toward the Union camps in the distance.  On close inspection, we think there can be little doubt that the Union force shown are AT Franklin’s Crossing, clustered on the south (Spotsylvania) side of the river, on the very groundwe explored last week. Here’s the evidence of that.

First, look to the left. The river is visible, though indistinctly. More importantly, a dark line marks the river’s northern bank coming closer to the camera, following precisely the path you would expect it to, bending broadly at the crossing site itself.

On the right edge, the distinctive “cliff’s end” we identified on our walk at Franklin’s Crossing, and the bowl created by the bluff moving away from the river are clearly visible.  That bluff can be seen close up in this view.

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

I have taken the two images and plotted them on an aerial.  We know with some certainty exactly where the view of lunettes looking into town is–and I have shown it here. Plotting the mystery image based on the interpretation given here, it’s clear the two views intersect and are very likely related.

Unfortunately, the distant landscape in the mystery view is not distinct enough to pick out specific landmarks on the south side of the river–landmarks that would remove any doubt about its location. Alfred Bernard’s The Bend is lost in the pixels on the right edge of the image. Mannsfield–burned just a few weeks before–is lost amidst the white of the Union tents, smoke, and wagons beyond the crossing. But still, I think the larger geography of the view, the supporting label, and visible details within it, support the conclusion that this image is indeed of Franklin’s  Crossing and the Union batteries overlooking it on May 2, 1863. It’s not the most interesting or important image we have, but at least knowing what it is adds a measure of value to those looking to explore it.

Finally…a late addition. Noel points out a Waud sketch that seems to match the lay of the land in the photograph. This image is dated June 1863. We know, of course, that there was activity at Franklin’s Crossing both during May and June. (It should be apparent to you by now that we don’t do a lot of coordination before doing these posts, and often the work each of us does is a revelation to the others. Thanks to Noel for adding this image.)

6 thoughts on “A mystery photograph no more: artillery battery below Fredericksburg May 2, 1863

  1. Eric Mink,
    Fantastic – bloody fantastic. Your work has made my day! And there I was with this image looking north and looking at the background of a O’Sullivan view along the river, B811-1191.
    Congradulations Eric!

  2. Intriguing. Noel Harrison has published another panoramic photo of lower Fredericksburg, ostensibly taken on May 3rd that shows battle smoke in the background. Have these photos been examined as a possible series?

    • Erik: Yes, a few times, most notably in Zeller’s book, The Blue and Gray in Black and White. This, though, is the first time this particular image has been understood within the context of the landscape and those other images. John H.

  3. Another note about Union activity on the east side of the Rappahannock river on May 2nd. Union artillery on Stafford heights initiated counter battery fire after Confederate artillery zeroed in on Fitzhugh Crossing south of Franklin’s Crossing. We also know the date for the image of Pratt’s Battery on Stafford Heights. It is May 2nd, 1863, although stated to be May 3rd, 1863. The reason is in the photograph itself. There are no pontoon bridges on the north side of Fredericksburg in this photograph. The pontoon bridges were not assembled across the Rappahannock river until the early morning hours of May 3rd.
    One other note, elements of the 6th Corps, a brigade, were sent south along the east side of the river to guard that crossing and the disasembled pontoon bridge secured to the east side of the Rappahannock River after General Reynolds First Corps marched north to join General Hookers forces at Chancellorsville.

  4. Very, very interesting stuff. The spot you identify as the location of the lunettes is presently about 200 feet down the street from the house where I grew up and where my dad still lives. Great detective work!

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