Setting the Stage for War: A Pictorial Proto-Website from 1856

From: Noel Harrison

A panoramic chromolithograph, View of Fredericksburg, VA, published in 1856 and sampled from time to time on this blog, offers a contemporary database of incredible scope and accuracy for our sesquicentennial consideration of Civil War events there.  As orientation for discussing a number of magnified details, here’s a medium-rez look at the picture:

I take time today to review the chromolithograph’s own history; its testimony to the antebellum appearance, development, and self-image of Fredericksburg; and its documentation of the wartime landscape of 1862, six years into the future and little changed in some aspects from the picture of 1856 but altered markedly in others.

Edward Sachse & Co. of Baltimore published View of Fredericksburg, VA in 1856.  Sachse & Co., which had already produced panoramic views of Alexandria and Washington, D.C., as well as of Baltimore, began work on the Fredericksburg picture by dispatching an artist, or artists, to the town.  Judging from John W. Reps’ book, Views and Viewmakers of Urban American, Sachse artist James T. Palmatary was probably responsible for walking Fredericksburg and its outskirts and preparing at least some of the reference sketches in 1855 and/or 1856.  These were then compiled as a master drawing, which back in Baltimore was etched onto smoothed pieces of limestone for printing.

Preparation of the master drawing had involved a key rearrangement of data:  re-picturing the human’s-eye, ground-level drawings of Fredericksburg and its individual buildings from a single, high “bird’s-eye” angle, to show the complete town while maximizing information about individual structures.

The final perspective for View of Fredericksburg, VA looked across and over the town from a point just across the Rappahannock River and hovering above Stafford Heights, about a half mile from the RF&P Railroad bridge over the river, and a quarter of a mile or so from the farmstead that occupied the site of George Washington’s boyhood home.

Speaking of which, someone is plowing a field at the former Washington property (known after the Washington era as “Ferry Farm”), while travelers arrive at the adjacent landing of the namesake ferry:

Fast forward from 1856 to December 1862:  artist Alfred Waud positions himself beside the ferry landing to sketch Union bridge-builders under fire at the Middle Pontoon Crossing.  A week later, following the defeated Federals’ retreat across the river, some of them convert “an old cherry-tree” on or near Ferry Farm into “all sorts of crosses, pipes, rings, etc., that can be sent away by mail” as mementoes of George Washington. 

The 1856 panorama is comparable to a modern website in both its accessibility—an easy-to-grasp overall portrayal—and its richness, once the viewer begins to plumb the depths of that image, especially when magnification is handy.  As printed and sold, each View of Fredericksburg, VA was large…just several inches shy of two feet by three feet in size.

Its accuracy is extraordinary, especially in the main picture of the town, where one might expect far less precision than in the nine large vignettes arrayed along the bottom.  Yet even a couple of houses on Caroline Street that are tiny compared with many of the other structures in the main view are correctly distinguished from one another by the artist’s placement of their porches (and those shown correctly as one-story in height):  130 Caroline with a single porch, and the duplex at 132-134 Caroline with a pair of porches:


Fast forward to December 1862:  the same houses sustain the artillery damage that comes to make them nationally publicized symbols of wartime devastation, once they are photographed by James Gardner in May 1864 and then published, as stereographs during the 1860’s and 1880’s and as book illustrations beginning in 1894:

Color, moreover, is used in the Sachse panorama to distinguish the bottom, sandstone level of the Market House/Town Hall from the two brick levels above:

Fast forward to July 1862:  the Federals’ summertime occupation of Fredericksburg emboldens longtime Unionist editor James Hunnicutt to resume publication of the Christian Banner newspaper in its prewar office and printshop in the Market House/Town Hall.  Hunnicutt uses the issue of July 2, 1862 to reflect upon self-emancipation by enslaved people, and his own recent conversion to the cause of antislavery:  “changes are being made and new relations are being formed.  Servants are everywhere leaving their masters…. constantly flocking into Fredericksburg from the extreme borders of Essex, Hanover, King and Queen, Louisa, Caroline, Culpepper, Orange, Madison, Albemarle, and all the counties in the northern neck of Virginia, and from all parts of Spottsylvania county.  Did the ‘Yankees’ go to all these different localities and ‘steal away the negroes?  No: the negroes voluntarily leave their homes and come to Fredericksburg. …the slaves of Virginia have an idea of freedom…and are determined to be free…. That the condition of many of the present generation will ever be bettered, we do not believe; while, on the other hand, we do not think that the condition of some of them can be very much worsted.”

View of Fredericksburg, VA is not perfect.  It greatly exaggerates, for instance, the distance between the southern edge of town (left edge in the main picture, top) and Hazel Run (flowing across upper left).

And the first Mary Washington Monument, begun in 1833, is portrayed as a complete structure.  The reality, however, was quite different, as suggested in a woodcut from the Harper’s Weekly issue of December 6, 1862:  the unfinished shaft lay on the ground nearby; the stumpy, built portion of the monument lacked the final 15-20 feet of its projected height:

Fast forward to December 1862:  a member of Company K, 122nd Pennsylvania Infantry, helping to cover the Federal retreat from Fredericksburg on the night of December 15, joins his company in moving forward to restore a picket line from whence “a furious volley from the enemies videttes” had driven soldiers of the 124th New York.  The Pennsylvanian notes that he and his comrades discovered their new posts to be “close by the tomb of the mother of our revered Washington…. Heavy firing was begun about midnight and kept up at intervals, so that we were compelled to…closely hug to mother earth.”   

And the vignettes of individual buildings at the bottom of the 1856 panorama implied well-graded streets and sidewalks for the town as a whole:

…a contention hotly disputed by the editor of the Fredericksburg Weekly Advertiser.  In 1857, one year after the panorama was printed, he railed against “the garbage and filth of our streets, the smell of which is enough to create the cholera; and instead of cleaning them out there is a continual pouring on of sand, rocks, &c, making the streets, in some places, two feet above the level of the sidewalks, and causing them to be flooded every rain….”

Yet the chromolithograph’s lapses in delineation or message seem forgivable given the mass of detail corroborated by other evidence.  (Anyone curious about ownership/occupation or other details of specific structures shown in the panorama should examine it in tandem with John Hennessy’s base-map for Virtual Fredericksburg, while bearing in mind that his is a portrayal of the Civil War landscape, with some change in building-locations, configurations, and identities from those of 1856.)

The Sachse chromolithograph’s overall accuracy and precision, especially in depicting structures that survive in 2012, in turn lends credibility to its depiction of now-lost features for which there is only scarce evidence currently, or none at all.  For instance:  although the panorama does not show the line of the Washington and New Orleans Telegraph Company as it winds southward out of town via Hanover Street and the Sunken Road (presumably because of the difficulty of depicting slender poles and wires in the far background), the telegraph route does appear in the picture’s foreground.  The region’s first “information superhighway,” it seems, extended northward out of Fredericksburg across the Chatham Bridge and then along River Road through Chatham’s riverside meadows and Falmouth, not out of Fredericksburg via Princess Anne Street extended and the Falmouth Bridge, as I would have guessed:

Fast forward to November or December 1862:  the telegraph route bearing out of Fredericksburg via the Chatham Bridge and the Chatham meadows is confirmed by Alfred Waud, in a sketch made from the edge of Falmouth and showing the remnants of a telegraph line veering up from River Road towards the corridor of the Telegraph Road and, ultimately, Washington:

Beyond merely using specific hues to more accurately portray individual structures and features, such as the Market House/Town Hall, the Sachse panorama offers us a simple but invaluable reminder:  people experienced the nineteenth century in color.  Although many buildings in View of Fredericksburg, VA are fully or partially hidden due to the limitations of a single-angle perspective, its ambitious, mass documenting of Fredericksburg’s colors was a feat not equaled there until the advent of color photography.

Note, for example, a scene that greeted arriving steamboat passengers–the reds and tans of the utilitarian gasworks buildings, clustered around the brick smokestack and contrasting with the white (or cream colored) mass and neoclassical lines of the nearby mansion, “Hazel Hill”:

Fast forward to December 1862: inside as well as out, and even a day into the battle of Fredericksburg, the Hazel Hill mansion somehow remains resplendent.  On the night of December 11 a Federal bibliophile tresspassing there finds “upon the mantel silver sconces filled with waxen candles that soon filled the room with light that came back reflected from mirrors hanging on the walls…. We passed through a wide opening half closed by curtains of tapestry a little faded but rich in design and warm in color, in to the library…. priceless tomes arranged in stately lines in the best dress of the bookbinder’s art presented a mosaic of color more attractive than ever Roman lapidary has wrought….” 

Noel G. Harrison

Special thanks to Cate Harrison and Ed Sandtner for photographic assistance.  Sources, in order of quotation above: S. Millett Thompson, Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry; James W. Hunnicutt, The Conspiracy Unveiled: The South Sacrificed; Or, The Horrors of Secession; George F. Sprenger, Concise History of the Camp and Field Life of the 122d Regiment; Weekly Advertiser, July 18, 1857; George A. Bruce, “The Battle of Fredericksburg…” MOLLUS Mass. 9.   

9 thoughts on “Setting the Stage for War: A Pictorial Proto-Website from 1856

  1. You have revealed the Sachse print as a treasure trove of information. I’ve always been fond of it, but I enjoy it even more now. I understand that only a few of the original large prints survive, one of which is in the office of the president of UMW.

    I had found mention of the steamboat “Virginia,” which appears in the print, in Brodie Herndon’s diary, so the print had some credibilty with me, but I had no idea just how accurate it is.

    I look forward to more.

  2. Really fascinating and valuable analysis of a litho I’ve seen in
    reproduction but never fully appreciated. It’s great to see the 100
    block of Caroline where I live and the position of Hazel Hill.

    Question for Noel: is there any current trace of the riverside section of
    the Telegraph Road shown in the Waud sketch. Also, I believe present-day Forbes Avenue was part of the Telegraph Road prior to the completion of Route 1. Is this accurate?

  3. Gary, Erik, Bayley, and Russ: Many thanks for your kind words. Gary, Great thought about the attention to detail being so close that it probably wasn’t fully appreciated by most of the owners of the print. Bayley, Since the prominent profile of the Conway House isn’t visible in the Waud sketch, then the telegraph line ascending from the riverbank may be following an extension of Carter Street that was at one time open all the way to River Road (rather than the telegraph following Gordon Street). And, yes: for a long stretch north of Falmouth the line followed what is now Forbes Street, and what was then the Telegraph Road. Noel

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