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?

My consideration narrowed to the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, during the Chancellorsville campaign—late-April/early-May 1863.  I remembered John Kelly’s important observations about the absence of leaves in images at and near Fredericksburg during this period, and I also thought about a photograph, from the collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society and published in Bob Zeller’s The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography, showing Federal soldiers (in a small tree) gazing with similar intensity at something in the distance—the developing battle around Fredericksburg on May 3, 1863.

I then checked with my colleague, Eric J. Mink, who had examined many Fredericksburg-area photographs during a research trip to Western Reserve.  His notes indeed include the transcription of a handwritten caption on a print of the same image I post at top: “Phillips House…Day of Battle, May 3/63.”  Eric had also found a second, slightly smaller print of the same view; it’s stamped “Capt. A. J. Russell.”  Assuming the accuracy of these captions, I’m fairly certain that the time of the picture is morning; by noon on May 3 Russell and his crew had crossed the river and were photographing the newly captured Sunken Road on the far side of the town.

A close look at the middleground reveals a large, canvas-covered facility on the plain behind Chatham and opposite Falmouth Station on the RF&P Railroad (both station and railroad being hidden by the steep slope of Mulberry Hill just beyond the ruins):

The canvas may mark a hospital or medical depot.  The after-action report discussing Third Corps hospital- and ambulance operations notes that the duties of Assistant Medical Director Bennett A. Clements during the Chancellorsville campaign included receiving all of the corps’ walking wounded at Falmouth Station, where they were “taken in charge of” for forwarding by train and then steamboat to Washington.  In addition, the recollections of Army of the Potomac Medical Director Jonathan Letterman mention the efficient supply work achieved during the campaign at the Medical Purveyor’s depot “at Falmouth.”

Under the magnification currently available, however, the image gives almost no other indication of why May 3, 1863 was momentous in Fredericksburg and its outskirts, and what is drawing the attention of the three soldiers at the Phillips ruins.  The haze in the background of the photograph could be battle smoke; or lingering campfire-smoke, wafted townward by a sudden shift in the breeze, from the fires that Confederates had kindled during the night of May 2-3 to exaggerate their strength; or just mist.

For Mulberry Hill and Chatham on the morning of May 3, non-photographic documentation would record extraordinary activity, much of it playing out in panoramic fashion.  Written accounts of the events of May 3 relate how units of the Sixth Corps unsuccessfully assaulted Marye’s Heights at dawn.  Meanwhile, John Gibbon’s division of the Second Corps concentrated around Chatham and then headed down the bluff to a newly assembled pontoon bridge.  Overlooking most of this action, Mulberry Hill hosted a signal-corps communications hub under the direction of Lieut. Peter A. Taylor, to which other signalers were soon dispatching reports from the steeples of the Baptist Church and Circuit Court House in Fredericksburg.  Besides Signal Corps personnel, wires, and poles, Mulberry Hill evidently hosted a large, tripod-mounted telescope.

Around 8:30, with Gibbon in motion towards what he had hoped would be the lightly defended, northern sector of the heights beyond the town, Peter Taylor’s signalers dispatched from Mulberry Hill a pair of messages presaging the impending failure of Gibbon’s maneuver:

Enemy’s infantry coming down the road and filing right into their trenches under woods opposite Falmouth.

Two guns of the enemy have taken position in woods opposite Falmouth.

That none of this activity found clear reflection in the photograph is not surprising, given the medium’s inability to capture most motion.  Ironically, and in the specific case of the May 1863 image of Mulberry Hill, it’s as if photography afforded the peacetime landscape a small measure of revenge upon the Civil War soldiers who had ravaged it, by removing most of them from one component of one point on the historical record, along with the drama of their operations then underway.

Noel G. Harrison

Special thanks to Eric J. Mink.  And yet again I’ve made use of the great online and offline programming of the Center for Civil War Photography.  Thanks also to Bradley M. Forbush and the other folks at 13th Massachusetts Volunteers for their precise dating of Edwin Forbes’ sketch of the May 1862 review.

11 thoughts on “A Little-Known-but-Well-Known Photograph of the Second Battle of Fredericksburg

  1. Very good work, as always. I never ceased to be impressed how folks like you and John Cummings can spot and interpret the finest details in these photographs. I guess it is safe to assume that there are no known pre-battle photos or drawings of these lost houses.

    • Thank you, Pat. My own, happy sense is “never say never” on pre-destruction pictures of buildings lost or extensively damaged during the Civil War. Woodcuts, published in the illustrated newspapers, exist for both Mannsfield and Mulberry Hill and may be viewed via the “proud reign” and “Mannsfield” hotlinks in my post above. The Chancellorsville tavern is another structure that comes to mind, thanks to sketches by Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes. There’s also an antebellum photograph of Forest Hall (at U.S. Ford), which lost its full second story during the war. And who knows what folks will discover in fabulous family archives like the one you are sharing on your blog. Noel

  2. Noel,
    Once again, your expertise on Second Fredericksburg yields historical dividends. What continually strikes me about the CW landscape around Fredericksburg is the dearth of trees. There is no way to recreate these views today. The great panoramic photos and drawings from the spring of 1863 depict battlefields long forgotten.

    • Great point, Erik. And made me wonder if the area’s ecology—erosion, stream-scour, soil fertility, biodiversity, etc.—fared better or worse, in the short term, from the sporadic, unevenly distributed encampments of large numbers of troops at various times over the course of four years, as compared with the uninterrupted agriculture and timbering of peacetime civilians. Noel

  3. It appears to me that the long dark line in the middle of the photo beyond the trees and in the field appear to be a long line of soldiers in various sitting, crouching and standing positions…am I wrong in this assessment and/or is it just obvious, which is why it wasn’t brought up?

    • Thanks, A.P. I’m not seeing what you’re seeing, but this blog is intended as a collaboration to extract as much information as possible from the documents in question, so the more eyes the better. “Hidden in plain sight” is certainly a common, happy outcome with examining and reexamining wartime photos and sketches. Noel H.

  4. If you look closely at the first photo, you can see the same telegraph pole to far right of the house in ruins. Counting trees in both photos, one behind the pole, and three to left of pole, and looking to the left at the side of the house, you see an evergreen close to the structure. In the second photo, the bit of dark branch in the left upper corner might be branches of that evergreen. In addition, there is a whitish square shape with a canvas in front of it in photo one, which can be seen in close-up view in photo 2. Photo two appears to be a close-up view of the soldiers and scene near the house, but not including the house.

  5. Forgot to mention that even the two men on horseback in the left hand side of photo 1 are still in approximately the same position in photo 2. These photos were likely taken within minutes of each other, no longer than the amount of time for the photographer to move and set up his camera for each view.

    • Ken, Thank you for reading and for such a close and careful look. I hope I didnt confuse things.By scene at “top” I meant photo 1 in the post, at the very beginning–showing Fredericksburg in the hazy distance, and taken at a time when the Phillips House remnant had lost its 2nd story of ruins. And yes: photo 3 is a cropped/magnified detail of photo 2, itself a stereo-half made when that second story of ruins was sill standing. Noel H.

  6. My wife and I visited the Fredericksburg and surrounding areas quite often and always found something different to peak our interest. I stumbled across this site and am so very glad I did. Spending only 8 years in the southern Maryland area, we used the time to do as much touring of Civil War and Revolutionary War site, as well as other historic sites. I have always fount the NPS to be very knowledgable and helpful, all the while making sure to protect and preserve the site. Keep up the excellent work you do. It is much appreciated.

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