I lingered recently over this familiar view of the ruins of “Mulberry Hill,” a Stafford County home owned by Alexander K. Phillips. The building had also housed the headquarters of General Ambrose Burnside during the First Battle of Fredericksburg. The photograph looks southwest from Mulberry Hill across the Chatham estate and across the town. I could not recall seeing a precise date for this picture in the many books and articles that have carried it:
Courtesy National Archives.
The Phillips House was gutted by fire on February 14, 1863, while the Federals occupied Stafford Heights. Thus ended the brief but proud reign of what was perhaps the most elaborate example of the Gothic Revival style in residential architecture in antebellum Fredericksburg and immediate environs. A symmetry on the casualty list of local architecture was achieved two months later when “Mannsfield,” the most elaborate local example of the Georgian style in residential building, was gutted by fire while in Confederate hands. (“Idlewild,” just outside town on the opposite side of the river, was Mulberry Hill’s principal antebellum rival among large Gothic homes.)
Army of the Potomac Provost Marshal General Marsena Patrick had known the Phillips House as a picturesque feature on the backdrop of his rides, visits, and camps the previous spring and summer. The house may be the structure with tall, crossed gables and gable-end windows that appears in the left background of this Edwin Forbes sketch of “Review of Gen. Ord’s division, opposite Fredericksburg, by Maj. Gen. McDow[e]ll and staff” on May 20, 1862:
Courtesy Library of Congress.
(High-rez versions of the sketch are here.)
The Phillips property had also been a place of enslavement. A federal census enumerator recorded at least 18 people among Alexander K. Phillips’s other property in Stafford County in 1860. But by the time that the farmstead perhaps drew Forbes’s attention in late May 1862, it had hosted not only Union troops but, with them, also John M. Washington during his first weeks of freedom. Washington’s reminiscences, including an account of the Phillips house and grounds, would find publication a century and a half later and become one of the best-known documents of enslavement (across the Rappahannock in the town of Fredericksburg) and freedom in Virginia.
Marsena Patrick’s diary described the February 14, 1863 blaze as “quite a sad affair” and repeated a story that some of Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s staffers had been “trying to get a Sibley Stove to work in the Attic.” A Northern photographer showed up, possibly on February 15 or 16, 1863, to record the still-smoking ruins, in a destined-to-be-famous stereograph. Here’s the left-hand view:
Courtesy Library of Congress.
(Standing modestly among the wooden items rescued from the flames, and among the blue-clad gawkers, a telegraph pole attests to the military value of the commanding vista from Mulberry Hill.)
Given that the towering gables and second story of the brick shell visible in the smoking-ruins image had vanished by the time of the photograph I post at the top, I assumed that a considerable period had elapsed between the taking of the two images. So when was the scene at top photographed?