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.


The military features that would make the sketch especially interesting to historically minded folk of the future—the prominently flagged Union gunboat at right and the fortified, canal-boat pontoon bridge at left—were doubtless earmarked for omission from the woodcut version because of being specific only to the time of Didiot’s proximity: spring-summer 1862. The actual bridge and gunboat were gone by September 1862 and would have obstructed the intent of the Harper’s editors to illustrate the very different, no-man’s-land aspect of the Fredericksburg harbor in early December. (When next the harbor hosted a Union military bridge, at what became famous as the “Middle Pontoon Crossing” during the battle in mid-December, the span would be composed of conventional pontoons.)

In reviewing his regiment’s activities during the first half of May 1862, another soldier in the Sixth Wisconsin had written proudly of constructing railroad bridges at and near Fredericksburg, along with “one pontoon bridge, and…another of canal boats so that every thing is nearly ready for our army to push on again.” Soldiers of his regiment assembled the canal-boat bridge on May 1 or 2, 1862; even Fredericksburg resident Jane Beale, no friend of the Union cause, marveled in a May 7 diary entry at “the bridge of boats built in a day…. [T]his is a wonderful people whom we have to contend.” As shown at left in Didiot’s sketch, the bridge work also included erecting a blockhouse and what appears to be a wedge-shaped stockade, to guard the Fredericksburg approaches to the span.

Didiot’s sketch perhaps dates from late May 1862, since the Federals were still cutting timber for blockhouse-construction on May 6 and, evidently, did not have a gunboat on extended station in the harbor until the period of President Abraham Lincoln’s visit, during the final week of May. Didiot’s caption specifies that the gunboat at right is the USS Thomas Freeborn, a veteran of ship-to-shore combats along the Potomac in 1861, off Aquia Creek Landing in Stafford County and Mathias Point in King George County.

Here’s a closeup photograph of Freeborn at another time:

Credit: Dept. of the Navy, Naval Historical Center, Photo #: NH 60990.

(Incidentally, the Naval Historical Center suggests that this image was made at the Washington Navy Yard during a “demonstration” of the mortal wounding of Potomac Flotilla Commander James H. Ward while sighting Freeborn’s gun off Mathias Point in 1861. This scenario for the photo might, in turn, give a Fredericksburg-region combat the distinction of being one of the first to inspire a Civil War naval reenactment on the same general waterway–the Potomac and its tidal tributaries–where the event had originally occurred…and of inspiring one of the earliest Civil War reenactments, or proto-reenactments, of any kind to be photographed.)  

In the first posts of our series on Fredericksburg’s canal-boat pontoon bridge, here and here, John Hennessy conducted detailed explorations of a photograph made of the span as repaired in the wake of a flood in early June 1862, and of its important users and historical context. The Federals had dismantled the canal-boat bridge by August 31.

Beyond the additional documentation of the spring-summer occupation of Fredericksburg by Union forces—additional documentation supplied by the features of Didiot’s original sketch–the removal of those features by an editorial staff attempting to adapt to future events is no less fascinating. Obviously, the Harper’s editors could not foresee the new campaign ending as it actually did. As businessmen, they sought in the late fall of 1862 to capitalize on public interest in a new movement southward. The same Harper’s issue that carried the montage balanced its desolate harbor, wrecked railroad bridge, and generally pessimistic tone by also carrying this optimistic cartoon showing Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac advancing relentlessly, unhampered by factors such as missing bridging equipment:

Likewise eager to capitalize on a new military campaign and an accompanying spike in public interest were the staff at Edward Sachse & Co. of Baltimore, who from their own distant vantage-point would convey a more ominous view of what awaited Burnside’s men. In November 1862, they dusted-off the firm’s peacetime, chromlithographic panorama of Fredericksburg:

Credit: digital copy in collection of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Nat. Military Park.

…and then added war

Credit: Library of Congress.

…with a figurative, artistic bombardment that destroyed the town’s bridges, emptied its busy harbor, and on the hills beyond prompted the sprouting of Confederate fortifications in abundance:

Noel G. Harrison

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

  1. Noel, I really appreciate the work you are doing and sharing with us neophytes…I hope your health is good….Frank Trent/Locust Grove, VA

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