Echoes from the Bloody Angle: a real-time description from Katherine Couse’s Laurel Hill

From John Hennessy:

It is both a source of confusion and obscure–Katherine Couse’s home, Laurel Hill. It is often confused with the Laurel Hill area of the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, where the Union Fifth Corps opened the battle on May 8, 1864. In fact, Couse’s “Laurel Hill” stood 1.75 miles northwest of the Bloody Angle, off what is today known as Gordon Road. That the house is obscure is perhaps rooted in its confused identity–it could not be because it is unknown, for in fact there are few homes on the Spotsylvania Battlefield better and more vividly documented than Laurel Hill.

The Fifth Corps hospital at Laurel Hill, by Edwin Forbes. Kate Couse recorded that Forbes ate dinner at her house on May 12, the date of this image.

Unionists lived at Laurel Hill–indeed, a cluster of Unionists surrounded Laurel Hill in this part of Spotsylvania County. William and Elizabeth Couse moved to Laurel Hill in 1840 from New Jersey, along with their family of seven children. With more than 1,400 acres of land and a robust saw mill, the family did well, until war came to the neighborhood. In March of 1862, son Peter Couse was arrested by Confederate authorities on suspicion of disloyalty, imprisoned in Richmond, and once released returned north. That left Laurel Hill in the hands of three Couse sisters: Cornelia, Sarah, and 28 year-old Katherine, or Kate. The three women and the farm suffered in the presence of armies.  Katherine remembered in May 1864,

Forbes's sketch is the only known image of Laurel Hill.


There is no encouragement here to try to do anything. Last spring & summer [1863] nearly all our fowls were stolen at different times. Meat very scarce and high we had to buy them at extravagant prices. We raised sweet potatoes and watermelons but enjoyed none of the benefits. They disappeared soon as fit for use. This winter some hungry rogues stole part of our small supply of meat out the cellar w[h]ich we were at much trouble and expense to get in the fall. Not long since our last horse was stolen from us. It is too bad. Horses like every thing else in Dix are so scarce and high we do not think of trying to get another. I have felt for a long time that we have had just as much of the disagreeables of this life as we well could.

After occasional annoyance and discouragement in 1862 and 1863, the war visited with destructive might in 1864. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the Union Fifth Corps established its primary field hospital at Laurel Hill, and soon the place was flooded with wounded, wagons,soldiers, and surgeons.  So it was on May 12, when fighting raged just over a mile to the south, along the Muleshoe Salient. It was the heaviest sustained fighting of the war, and in a letter to friends, Katherine Couse wrote of it in real time, surrounded by neighbors taking refuge.

Two milestones…and a question for you

It’s worth noting that Mysteries and Conundrums has just passed its first anniversary, which coincided almost exactly with our 100,000th visit to the site. For the latter we are incredibly grateful. The response to M&C has astonished us all–Eric, Noel, and John–and it’s a big reason we have kept at it with as much energy as we have. We thank you for that. We have solved a few mysteries along the way, talked about some fairly profound conundrums and issues, and turned up a fair amount of material that’s new to all of us.  We’ve explored the Kirkland Story, Jackson’s arm (thoroughly), put Lincoln in the Sunken Road (yes, really), and about 100 other topics.  And many of you have made substantial contributions to those efforts. 

In case you’re curious, the five most popular posts in the history of M&C are:

1)  Images of Destruction

2)  Eric’s post on the Medal of Honor winner visible in the famous images taken at Massaponax Church (given its recent date, this has to rank as the most popular ever on a hits per-day basis).

3)  Noel’s Secret Careers of Civil War Photographers.

4)  Sherwood Forest and its Crumbling Slave Cabin

5)  The Eerie Ice House at Federal Hill

Here’s a question for YOU:  what would you like us to tackle going forward?  Any particular sites or themes? 

Many thanks for taking the time to read….

More on the Widow Alsop Farm Photos

From Mink:

Over on Spotsylvania Civil War Blog, our friend John Cummings has taken the Widow Alsop Farm photos we’ve been discussing here a bit further. John is an indefatigueable researcher and historian of all things related to Spotsylvania Court House  Battlefield. In his most recent post “Placing Some of the Dead at Widow Alsop’s”, he attemtpts to do just that. John’s interpretations on where these photos were taken and their locations on today’s landscape are worth a read. Check it out.

Eric J. Mink

Follow-up: Miss Mary Scott revealed? And some notes on Widow Alsop

From John Hennessy:

We learn new things every day. 

In the wake of last week’s post on Clearview and the mysterious Miss Mary Scott, Norman Schools sent along this image, which we are happy to share.  Norman owns the house of Walker and Margaret Conway in Falmouth, the childhood home of Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway; Norman is a driving force behind the Moncure Conway Foundation. Few people are more devoted to both history and home than Norman and his wife Lenetta, and over the years he has organized the very popular Yankees in Falmouth event each September.

Is this Mary Scott?

He received this image from a man named Silleck, a visitor to Yankees in Falmouth one year.  The man’s ancestral family, the Wallace’s, owned Clearview after the Civil War, and Mr. Silleck brought along several images of Falmouth from his collection. They included this image, showing an older woman on the back porch of Clearview. The woman is not identified, and nor do we know the year it was taken. But given the style and the look of  the image, it seems likely it was prior to 1900.

Is it Mary Scott?  She died at Clearview in August 1891 at age 67.  Her younger sister Fanny was twenty years her junior–too young, it seems, to be the woman in the picture.

So, it very well could be Mary Scott, though we will never know for sure.  The possibility that it could be is intriguing.

Our thanks to Norman Schools for sharing this little piece. He asked that we cite the image as from the Silleck Collection.

Since our post on the Confederate dead at Widow Alsop’s farm–and the revelation that the widow was just 23 years old in 1864–I came across her obituary from the Daily Star, December 6, 1915. She never remarried and never moved–living out her remaining half-century on or near the farm where the pictures were taken. Continue reading

“What will the country say?”: Lincoln’s lament, Chancellorsville, and public history

From John Hennessy:

We are starting to get into the weeds in planning the new exhibits for Chancellorsville Visitor Center (click here for a post about this project). Doing exhibits, or any public history, has an especial demand because they both demand the delivery of big ideas in efficient ways, often with no more than 75-100 words. Writing really good exhibits is, I think, one of the best laboratories for a writer. The task allows for no tangents, no sloppiness, precise language, and complete focus on the message at hand. It is indeed, as Twain suggested, much harder to write 100 words than 500 or 1,000.

Of our four battles, Chancellorsville has always seemed to me to be the most difficult to convey to the general public. It took me longer to write the script for our present Chancellorsville film than any of the others we have done, though in many ways the story is simpler. That relative simplicity, though, implies a narrative flatness that our other three battle stories lack–especially Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg has many, many layers: civilians caught in the storm, the river crossing, street fighting, the drama of Marye’s Heights, a town devastated, and so on. Wilderness and Spotsylvania have Grant and Lee, a haunting landscape, and an evolving human experience of battle that challenged survivors to describe it in vivid ways. But, stripped to its essentials,  Chancellorsville is–from a literary standpoint–a flatter story. Lee and Jackson, of course. Lots of woods. Lots of death. For the public at large, Lee and Jackson alone give the story relief (albeit vivid relief), with Hooker’s travails a minor storyline for most.

For us, the first step in doing a new exhibit is to decide what it is you want everyday visitors to walk away with–what are the two or three or four most important things that you want to have a fair chance that they’ll remember or understand? We are in this process now, and this has led to some interesting discussions about Chancellorsville. Continue reading

Building research into media: Virtual Chatham

From John Hennessy:

While we generally enjoy the process of research and writing about the landscapes we manage, we ultimately do it to inform the public. We continue to search for ways to deliver important and interesting things to park visitors and those who engage the park online (be it here, on our website, or on the park’s Facebook page, which our staff is fast turning into a very interesting resource–check it out). As we have mentioned before, we are developing a number of digital projects. Our latest uses the accumulation of decades of knowledge about Chatham and its landscape, including Eric’s Mink’s work on Chatham’s slave cabins, first presented on Mysteries and Conundrums a few months ago (you can see his work  here and here).  It is a digital re-creation of Chatham over the decades, showing its evolution from classic Georgian mansion to the still-beautiful-but-altered vision of Chatham we have today (for a post on Chatham and its modern setting, click here).  This fly-around will soon go on permanent display at Chatham (and elsewhere), but we present here publicly for the first time.  The silky voice of the narrator you might recognize as Donald Pfanz’s.

Bear in mind that this vision of Chatham shows only what we can reasonably deduce from the evidence. It does not show everything–there were at times more than 25 outbuildings on the site. 

The mysterious Mary Scott of “Clearview”–and a trivial feud bubbles forth

From John Hennessy (for a possible image of Mary Scott, found since this post was done, click here)

Today the place, which still stands, is largely forgotten and invisible, enshrined only by the name of the subdivision that surrounds it:  Clearview Heights. “Miss Mary Scott’s” Clearview was in 1862 one of the most visible and prominent homes in the region, though hardly palatial. It appears in dozens of Union accounts of the war.

A postwar view of the Scott House, "Clearview"

The label that appears on many maps, “Miss Mary Scotts” or “Miss Scott’s” conjures an image of an independent, together, self-contained woman.  In fact, Miss Mary Scott was none of those things. When the Union army arrived in the spring of 1862, she was 39 years old, unmarried, and apparently unstable. She lived at Clearview with an invalid aunt and a sister, Fannie, separated in age by 20 years. Mary owned twelve slaves.  For practical purposes, Fannie, just 19,  ran the place, largely keeping out of view and turmoil, living “in great retirement.” A neighbor said of the sisters, “Fanny was the younger of the two but she generally took the lead in everything, and what she did or said Miss Mary generally acquiesced in and she does yet. ….Miss Fanny generally did all the talking. Miss Mary could not get a chance to say anything…”

One of the most interesting and obscure images of slaves or former slaves, taken at Clearview. Mary Scott owned 12 slaves in 1860. We know little of the origins of this photograph.

Other neighbors testified to exactly why this was: Continue reading

Revisiting the Confederate dead at the Widow Alsop’s farm

From John Hennessy:  Note:  since we did this post, John Cummings has done some additional analysis of these photographs. Check out his excellent work here.

They are perhaps the most compelling photographs taken in the Fredericksburg region during the war–the images of Confederate dead at Widow Alsop’s farm on May 20, 1864, after the Battle of Harris Farm. They are perhaps the visual portrayal that most shapes our perception of the battlefields in human terms.  They were first looked at by William Frassanito in his book Grant and Lee, in 1983. Today, high-resolution scans of the images are available, but truth be told, not much new can be derived from the images that was not spotted by Frassanito in his look at the original plates nearly three decades ago. The landscape of the site then and now was largely non-descript, and while we might be able to guess at the precise location and angle of some of the views, we would be doing no more than guessing.

Still, there are a few things worth noting, and curiosity compels us to avail ourselves of the digital scans now available to take a closer look.  Since Frassanito’s work, Noel Harrison has done extensive work on civilian sites in the region, and we now have a better understanding of the nature and location of Widow Alsop’s farm. (Noel’s work is the foundation for almost everything we know about the civilian landsape on the four battlefields here.)

The Alsop farm as it relates to the Bloody Angle.

The term Widow Alsop conjures an aged image, but in fact, Susan Alsop was just 24 or 25 years old when battle visited her farm. Continue reading

The Bloody Angle 1866

From John Hennessy:

Union graves near the Bloody Angle.

That the Civil War was central to the generation of men who trod the battlefields is evidenced by the fact that so many of them sought to return to the battlefields in the years and decades following the war. One of the earliest visits was by former Colonel Theodore Lyman, who served on George Gordon Meade’s staff during the Overland Campaign. Lyman visited Spotsylvania on April 15, 1866–less than two years after the fighting at Spotsylvania. He wrote vividly of his walk along the Confederate works from the East Angle to the Bloody Angle.

From Lyman: We followed the salient northward, towards its apex [the East Angle] and traced the way in which our men had turned the works; – there was open country all about this part of the works; and the scattered graves marked where men had fallen as they advanced from the edge of the wood to the assault. At the very apex (which is obtuse) we had a good view over the country and I saw the Landrum house, only 600 yards off, where Hancock had his headquarters; and to the left and a little to the rear, the hollow, where Wright was, and where the missiles of all kinds were so plenty. The point termed “Death Angle” is still more to the left where the west face of the salient begins to slope and where the captured portion is connected with the prolongation of our line. The Quartermaster’s party has done its work on this field partially. Not only are the remains not collected in a common cemetery, but many marked graves have been overlooked. But, after all, the graves give little idea of the carnage here. Piles of men were thrown into the deep holes behind the entrenchments (built for cover by the enemy) and simply buried by digging down the parapet upon them. Only the scattered dead are marked and of those probably only a portion. It is here that the background of large oaks is completely dead; the trees girdled by bullets; and the red oak, 23 inches in diameter was cut down by bullets only. Nailed to a tree is a board with this verse: –

“On Fame’s eternal camping ground

Their silent tents are spread,

And Glory guards, with solemn round,

The bivouac of the dead”

It is a scene of waste on a barren slope; an oak wood, dead; the long, half ruinous intrenchments; and the graves and the scattered debris of battle! We turned from here, crossed a field strewn with the sabots of a rebel 12-pounder battery and passed through a wood of small pines all scarred by rifle balls.