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:
Captioned “A breakdown in the wagoner’s camp,” the sketch also depicts a fiddle that bears writing on its side, clearly another cigar-box homebuild:
Equally important for our purposes, the sketch is dated: May 6, 1863. That identification, the final day of the Chancellorsville campaign—documented by Forbes in numerous eyewitness drawings—places the scene unquestionably in the Fredericksburg area. And the absence of tents or huts indicative of a permanent camp suggests that Forbes encountered the scene in some wagon park along the Federals’ retreat-route in southern Stafford County, someplace between United States Ford and, say, the area of the Stoneman’s Switch depot on the RF&P Railroad.
So as a first effort at turning our ears towards the sound of this particular Civil War artwork, I give you the strains of a reproduction cigar-box fiddle of the period:
…and those of “Money Musk,” on a regular fiddle. That tune was published in the United States as early as 1796 and known to have been played as a breakdown in Civil War Virginia (by a member of the 12th Alabama Infantry, who fought at Chancellorsville and had camped in Caroline County during the winter after Fredericksburg):
Noel G. Harrison