The Quick and the Undead; or, A Secret Sharer Outbound

from: Harrison

On May 23, 1863, in the wake of defeat at Chancellorsville, Washington’s Daily National Republican conveyed some brief but vivid and mysterious tidings from the Army of the Potomac. The story, to the extent it was known, opened amidst the sprawling Federal camps and logistical facilities in Stafford County:

Day before yesterday morning the body of a soldier, exhumed for the purpose of being sent to Washington for embalment, was placed on board the John Brooks at Aquia Creek.

Union depot at Aquia Landing. Courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,

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The Canal-Boat Bridge (part 3): a Rare Sketch by an Iron Brigade Soldier, and the Editorial Bombardment that Transformed It

from: Harrison

In the late fall of 1862, as the opposing armies converged on Fredericksburg, editors in distant offices scrambled for background material on the town. The staff of Harper’s Weekly dug into a small, unused archive of eyewitness sketches made during the previous spring and summer, and from those created a montage that appeared in the issue of December 6, 1862, five days prior to the opening of the battle and the artillery bombardment of the town:

While researching an earlier blog post, I had learned of the spring/summer origins of the December 6 montage, and that most of its component woodcuts were based on (presumably lost) sketches by Henry Didiot, a soldier in the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry of the famed Iron Brigade. Not long after his sketching at Fredericksburg, Didiot fell at the Battle of Brawner’s Farm on August 28, 1862.

The woodcut montage of his sketches published posthumously on December 6 included a fairly nondescript picture, below, of “Wrecks of Steamers burned by the Rebels.” The view looks east across the Rappahannock River where it widens into Fredericksburg’s small harbor, and from the town wharves towards Ferry Farm and its namesake ferry landing in Stafford County. (The Ferry Farm buildings at center-right horizon postdated and occupied the general area of the site of George Washington’s boyhood home, which was itself in ruins by the 1830’s.)

Until last night, when I spotted the sketch, below, on the website of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I was unaware that any of Didiot’s original drawings had survived. Equally important, the sketch offers a contrast that shows how Harper’s editors had subjected it to a fairly severe artistic bombardment when creating “Wrecks of Steamers”–the woodcut version. Although unattributed on the Museum’s website, the sketch’s original caption—“Canal Boat Bridge across the Rappahannock,” “Built by Co I 6th Reg. Wis. Vol./ in one day…Sketched by Henry [illegible]…”— and basic design clearly connect it to Didiot and, in turn, to the heavily modified woodcut.

In accordance with the Museum’s posted policy on fair-use of materials in educational, non-profit venues, I include the sketch here, at the same magnification made available by the Museum online:

Credit: WWW.MFA.ORG. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, 1800–1875. Accession number: 55.840.


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The Decline of Clover Hill

From John Hennessy:

Rare is the Virginia house that has its own Wikipedia entry. Clover Hill does. The house sits a three hundred yards north of Route 3 a few miles east of Culpeper, alone amongst the farm fields its owners once commanded. It’s distinctive–classically Gothic, though it was not at its origins, said to have been about 1775, long before Gothicism took root.

During the Civil War, Clover Hill gained fame for two things. In the aftermath of the Battle at Brandy Station, Lt. Col. Frank Hampton of the 2d South Carolina Cavalry died in the house–in the front-right first-floor room–after being wounded in fighting on nearby Hansborough’s Ridge (a fabulously evocative place).

Custer and his new bride Libbie.

Later, it was the scene of the wartime honeymoon for George A. Custer and his new wife Libbie, who would spend about a month there with her new husband in early 1864. He named the place “Camp Libbie” in her honor. Our friend Bud Hall has written about Custer and Clover Hill here.

After decades of relative prosperity, Clover Hill has in recent decades suffered a steady decline. Bud Hall (the only cover boy among Civil War historians, in 1991), who knows and watches over Culpeper’s Civil War landscape like no one else I know, has sent along a series of images that shows Clover Hill over the years. We’re grateful to Bud for sharing, though we lament the apparent fate of his photographic subject.

Here is Clover Hill as it appeared in March 1864.

Custer and his staff in front of Clover Hill, March 1864.

Clover Hill in 1986.

June 1986

In 1991.

And in 2012.

Clover Hill, 2012

“Listening” to a Sketch of Civil War Stafford County

from: Harrison

As we near the end of the sesquicentennial’s second year, I’m intrigued all the more by means of imagining the sensory experiences of the Civil War’s participants. John Hennessy has recently blogged about possibilities for recovering a sense of the motion of 1860’s Virginia. I looked at another trace of that motion here, and at one way to recover some of the literal color of the war’s local landscapes here (end of post). Eric Mink recently shared a striking sense of its literal sound, specifically the postwar voice of a key Federal officer here.

Today, I’d like to consider the possibility of recovering and re-experiencing—at least partially—another of the myriad sounds heard in the Fredericksburg area. You may have seen the black-and-white version of this picture of Union camp life, by Northern artist Edwin Forbes:

(Source for online jpeg here.)

Note the soldier’s fiddle, or violin …made from a cigar box. This picture and a companion scene by Forbes have been described as the earliest-known illustrations of the use of cigar-box instruments in the United States. In the years after the Civil War, those offered inexpensive means of playing music and were especially important in the rise of jug bands and the blues. The first instrument owned by future blues legend Big Bill Broonzy was a cigar-box fiddle that he made at the age of 10.

I have yet to find documentation for Forbes assigning a specific date or location to the scene, above, as he first encountered it. The picture and its etched companion may have originated as sketches of a Federal camp in Culpeper County during the winter of 1863-1864, or in Stafford County the winter previous.

But there’s another relevant Forbes picture, a sketch now in the collections of the Library of Congress. In historical discussions of cigar-box instruments, this artwork is rarely associated with the two others I’ve just referenced:

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Beyond the slave crossing image: the rest of the scene at Rappahannock Bridge–an army in motion amidst dust, August 19, 1862

From John Hennessy:

We have spent a fair number of pixels looking (deservedly) at the two great images taken by Timothy O’Sullivan of fugitive slaves crossing the Rappahannock River at Cow Ford on August 19, 1862. (Go here for discussion, and here for follow-up.). Often overlooked is that O’Sullivan took at least three other images that day, as John Pope’s Army of Virginia streamed eastward through Culpeper County, retreating before Robert E. Lee’s army. That day, nearly half the army–two full corps–crossed the river on the railroad bridge visible in the background of the slave crossing image. O’Sullivan captured at least part of this historic event in an overlooked but remarkable set of images. Taken together, these images and the slave crossing images clearly demonstrate the nexus between the Union army and freedom in 1862

The three images taken by O’Sullivan appear (from shadows) to be taken at midday. We cannot be certain of the order, but there are hints. Two of the images are taken from the eastern end, looking westward into Culpeper County. Of these, I would guess the image above was taken first. The traffic in the image is fairly light, the background free of ominous dust clouds. It seems to me that this image might capture the initial approach of the army to the bridge–Nathaniel Banks’s Second Corps (later the Twelfth).

To the right, a number of soldiers loiter unaware in timeless poses for young men. On the bridge are the blurred images of wagons.

Based on their profile, they appear to be ambulances (click here for image of ambulances). That would make some sense–the army would likely have sent the sick and wounded back first, and Pope’s army had many in the wake of the Battle of Cedar Mountain, fought ten days before.

The second image shows a bridge busy with traffic.

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