Photographs of Second Fredericksburg: Interpreting Smoke Then and Now


from: Harrison

This blog has devoted several posts to the Second Battle of Fredericksburg component of the Chancellorsville Campaign, and to the photographic documentation of its landscapes, most recently and dramatically with a post exploring a newly identified image of Federal operations around Franklin’s Crossing on May 2, 1863.

Along with contemporaneous documents of Second Fredericksburg, I also find fascinating (if vexing) the postwar telling of its story—its historiography. Strangely, Second Fredericksburg has benefited from the impressive scholarship of historians such as John Bigelow, Douglas Southall Freeman, Stephen W. Sears, and Ernest B. Furgurson but only in books treating broader subjects, such as the Chancellorsville Campaign overall or the Army of Northern Virginia overall, and limited almost entirely to evaluating the non-photographic record.

Meantime, other scholars have pursued the battle’s rich photographic documentation in books, and with increasingly impressive results, beginning with the pioneering efforts of Francis Trevelyan Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War of 1911, work that found dramatic elaboration and expansion in the 1980’s with Time-Life Books’ first Civil War series, and the National Historical Society’s Image of War series, themselves stepping-stones to further elaboration and discovery in fine books of the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Yet much of the photo-centric work on Second Fredericksburg neglects the full chronology of the battle’s key events, as highlighted by Bigelow, Freeman, and Sears in particular: six major troop movements in the demonstration phase, April 30-afternoon May 2, 1863; seven more during the start of the combat phase, evening May 2-early morning May 3; six more during the late-morning combats of May 3; and ten more on May 4-5, when the fighting shifted back from Salem Church towards and partially onto Marye’s Heights. Also neglected is a sense of the full expanse of key landmarks: from Hamilton’s Crossing and the Telegraph Road-Courthouse Road junction, on the south, to Banks/Scott’s Ford on the north, and from the Downman House (“Idlewild”) on the west to Franklin’s and Reynolds’ pontoon crossings on the east.

Instead, the focus remains on the powerful photograph of the dead Mississippians at the base of Marye’s Heights:

…and, after being revealed in the Time-Life and National Historical Society series of the 1980’s, on a number of photographs that look west across Fredericksburg on May 3 and depict battle smoke rising from the bases of Marye’s Heights and Lee’s Hill. (For a state-of-the-discipline inventory of Second Fredericksburg images as of 2005, as well as for a superb survey of the methods and personalities behind the war’s images overall, I highly recommend Bob Zeller’s The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography.) Zeller notes additional evidence of battle smoke along the heights and hill in photographs taken on May 3, 1863, including at left-center in this detail from an image made sometime prior to the Federals’ successful mid-morning attacks, launched around 10:30:

Fredericksburg, morning May 3, 1863. Looking generally west from Pine Grove farm, with possible artillery-smoke identified by historian Bob Zeller. Library of Congress.

(If Zeller’s tentative identification proves correct, then I suspect the smoke in the photograph may be emanating from Battery C, First Pennsylvania Light Artillery, whose commander reported advancing to “within several hundred yards of the stone wall” and firing upon it to cover three Union regiments withdrawing from a dawn reconnaissance-in-force that had left many of their members strewn over the Bloody Plain, and then firing at Marye’s Heights from a second position. I suspect, also, that examination of this photograph at magnifications greater than those currently available online could reveal some of the Union casualties of that dawn operation, and perhaps even the blurred forms of some of the comrades dispatched to retrieve them. Observant Federals who removed the wounded there under a flag-of-truce would relay news of the numerical weakness of the Confederates’ position, news that encouraged the much larger, successful attacks around 10:30.)

The amount of visual information presented by the two book-series of the 1980s, each designed to survey the entire war but not to provide the definitive account of any component-battle, may remain unsurpassed among similar, non-digital media. Yet the outstanding quality and revelations of these works and their successors has not inspired any specialty books on Second Fredericksburg along the lines of, say, William A. Frassanito’s Early Photography at Gettysburg. That book presents images taken both during and after the summer of 1863, within a map-supported context reflecting the fuller duration and geographic scope of the Battle of Gettysburg.

For Second Fredericksburg, photographic discussions in books remain submerged within surveys of broader topics. However unintentionally or implicitly, those studies tend to collapse Second Fredericksburg into the narrative suggested by its most dramatic photographs: the successful Federal assaults on Marye’s Heights and Lee’s Hill around 10:30 on May 3. For me, however, the 1980’s discovery of westward-looking photographs documenting soldiers fighting and generating smoke in great volume along the heights and hill that morning was extraordinary in the context of the history of combat photography yet unremarkable in the context of the history of the battle, as detailed previously in the work of Bigelow and other historians.

Bigelow, moreover, had made a vital point—extended and clarified by Freeman and Sears—that tends to be obscured by a photo-centric emphasis on Marye’s Heights and Lee’s Hill. Not only was the overall duration of Second Fredericksburg composed mainly of events other than the Federals’ seizure of those features late on the morning of May 3, the precursor troop-movements, beginning on April 29, were as responsible for the success of the 10:30 a.m. assaults as the constituent events of the assaults themselves. Bigelow, Freeman, and Sears noted that on May 3, Confederate commander Jubal Early had remained convinced until too late that the enemy’s primary blow would strike his right (from Hamilton’s Crossing to a point north of Deep Run). He thus left his center (from the Howison farm north past Lee’s Hill and along Marye’s Heights to the Plank Road) especially weak.

I shared some thoughts on the current state of Second Fredericksburg historiogaphy in an article entitled “A Spotlight for Second Fredericksburg? Integrating a Neglected Battle’s Photographic and Non-Photographic History,” published in December 2008 in the journal Fredericksburg History and Biography. That article included what was probably the first-ever publication of yet another photograph taken opposite Fredericksburg on May 3, 1863. Since the image looks southwest, rather than west as do most of the previously published views, and was likely made several hours before the Federals’ successful assaults, I incorporated it into some suggestions for a more geographically and chronologically expansive study of Second Fredericksburg along the lines of Frassanito’s Early Photography at Gettysburg.

Let’s revisit that particular May 3 photograph today in order to take advantage of the opportunities for high-resolution analysis afforded by this blog:

Fredericksburg, morning May 3, 1863, looking generally southwest from Pine Grove farm, showing possible artillery smoke at Richmond Stage Road/Deep Run ford and along Hazel Run near Hazel Hill. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

The photograph came to my attention after a colleague found it while inventorying the park’s curatorial collection in 1990’s and asked about the likelihood of images being made of Fredericksburg during the December 1862 battle. Based on the position and feel of other images of the town published in the Time-Life and National Historical Society series of the 1980’s, I recognized the photograph as actually a view of the town’s wharves and Middle Pontoon Crossing on May 3, 1863. When placed under a figurative lens not pre-focused on the Federals’ late-morning attacks on Marye’s Heights and Lee’s Hill, the image indeed encourages a broader perspective on Second Fredericksburg.

For instance, the pontoon bridge in the middle foreground represents the end of an operation unique among local Civil War episodes in the Fredericksburg vicinity, a waterborne Union movement that was contested while traveling along, rather than across, the Rappahannock. Specifically, a detachment of the United States Engineer Battalion disassembled one of the bridges at Franklin’s Crossing and, in the early morning hours of May 3, rowed its components, in four rafts, upstream to the Fredericksburg wharves. One engineer would recall, “The enemy followed and fired at the rafts, but without hitting them.” That enemy quickly abandoning the town in the face of a major Union trust north along the Richmond Stage Road, the engineers reassembled the bridge at the wharves and the oft-used Middle Pontoon Crossing site, between 5:15 and 6:30 a.m. on May 3.

The smoke that appears to frame the flat-topped cupola of the Hazel Hill mansion is perhaps that of the First Battery, New York Light Artillery, positioned on or near the Richmond Stage Road just south of its crossing of Hazel Run, and/or of the Third Battery, New York Light Artillery, positioned closer to the mansion. The commander of the First Battery reported opening fire at around 5 a.m. One or both of these batteries likely supported a small early-morning Union probe (consisting mainly of skirmishers from the 77th New York Infantry and separate from the dawn reconnaissance-in-force across the Bloody Plain) launched towards the southern end of Marye’s Heights in conjunction with a planned move by General John Gibbon’s Division towards the northern end.

General line-of-sight (yellow arrow) of the photograph looking southwest from Pine Grove farm on May 3--detail of map 34 in John Bigelow’s 1910 Campaign of Chancellorsville. Although this depicts Second Fredericksburg at the time of the successful Union attacks launched about 10:30 a.m., it does give a sense of the concentration of Union artillery (rows of tiny green crosses) situated on or near the same line of sight and involved in the firing that had occurred earlier that morning. Note, too, the Confederate artillery and infantry positions in red.

Most important, the smoke that appears to rise at the left edge of the photograph perhaps marks an engagement that flared that same morning near the Richmond Stage Road’s ford on Deep Run. Federal reports state that this action lasted more than two hours, with the artillery component underway around 6:00 a.m. and the infantry component underway around 7:00 a.m. The Union success that eventually emerged after 10:30 a.m. at Marye’s Heights and Lee’s Hill, from the smoke shown in the westward-looking images that began attracting published enthusiasm in the 1980’s, may well have owed much to Jubal Early watching and fixating earlier upon the possible smoke at edge of this little-known, southwesterly looking image…sound and fury at the north end of his right flank.

Noel G. Harrison

Special thanks to Erik F. Nelson, editor of Fredericksburg History and Biography, for permission to re-use passages from my 2008 article.

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5 thoughts on “Photographs of Second Fredericksburg: Interpreting Smoke Then and Now

  1. Noel,
    This is an excellent post. Your extensive work with these photos suggests that you be the one to compile them into a cohesive study.

  2. Erik and John, Thanks for the kind words. I hope at least to continue helping lay the foundations for such a study, or studies—when time allows—and am grateful for all the time that you two guys in particular have also devoted to the same end, ranging from preserving parts of the actual battlefield to publicizing its story and complexity. Noel

  3. New York Military Museum has a less deteriorated/sharper version of the second battle smoke photograph posted here. Their online image archive doesn’t seem to be working at the moment, but I posted a b&w version of it on my blog, which also has the link to the NYMM page where it is from: http://chubachus.blogspot.com/2015/05/photograph-taken-during-second-battle.html

    On another note, would it be possible for you guys to do a post including all of the photographs taken during 2nd Fredericksburg? I love the articles that NPSFRSP writes about them (like this one), but there doesn’t seem to be definitive information about how many there are and what is going on in them. Even Zeller’s The Blue and Gray in Black and White seems to be missing the one I mentioned finding another copy of above.

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