The Chancellors of Chancellorsville

From: Harrison

Over at Spotsylvania Memory: The Row Family of Virginia, our friend Pat Sullivan has started a nice series of posts on the Chancellors of battlefield fame. We also encourage you to browse his blog’s earlier posts, always related in a friendly and accessible style, for little-known, detailed accounts of various families whose homes were in the Fredericksburg-area combat zones and whose lives intersected those of his well-archived ancestors.

A Little-Known-but-Well-Known Photograph of the Second Battle of Fredericksburg

from: Harrison

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?
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Spring Winds

From Hennessy:

Last week brought spring winds to the park. Among the casualties was a tree in the National Cemetery. I am always struck by how much effort we–an organization fundamentally committed to preserving nature’s work–spend battling Mother Nature’s efforts to either overgrow or destroy. Most of our budget is spent on keeping nature in its place. Sometimes nature wins.

The Mysterious, Second Combat-Action for USCT’s in Spotsylvania County

From: Harrison

Although the engagement at the John Alrich farm, on May 15, 1864, was the first combat action involving United States Colored Troops (USCT’s) in Spotsylvania County, it was not the only such combat in the county. A second engagement, now almost unknown aside from a brief mention in Noah Andre Trudeau’s Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, featured them again, four days later. What follows describes historical detective work undertaken in 2012 to discover the location of their May 19th skirmish.

On May 17, 1864, the six USCT regiments (and a detachment from the 29th Connecticut Infantry) composing the two infantry brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward S. Ferrero’s division moved east from bivouacs in the vicinity of the Alrich and Isaac Silver farms, both on the Orange Plank Road, to the area of Salem Church.

Salem Church, principal landmark for the main camp of the USCT regiments on May 17-22, 1864, the period of their second combat in Spotsylvania County. National Park Service photo.

In serialized reminiscences published in 1899, Freeman S. Bowley, a young lieutenant in the 30th USCT, wrote of visiting another USCT regiment near Salem Church on the evening of either May 17 or 18, 1864:

Grouped under the great pine trees, the scene lighted up by fires of pine knots, the men, all wearing their accouterments, gathered.  Every black face was sober and reverent.  The leader “lined off” the words of the hymn, and all sang…. Then came prayers and exhortations.

The cannon were roaring at Spottsylvania, and the dropping sound of musketry was heard all the time. 

An encounter with the enemy was indeed in the immediate offing for the USCT’s.

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