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.