Walt Whitman’s Battles of Chancellorsville: Horrific Wounds, Night Fighting, and Other “Strange and Fearful Pictures”


from: Harrison

This year’s sesquicentennial commemorations of the Battle of Chancellorsville will build upon long traditions of eyewitness, published narrative and non-eyewitness scholarship.  Yet I’ve been fascinated lately to realize that Chancellorsville inspired Walt Whitman to make, forcefully, a contrarian forecast for writing about the conflict, a forecast that he seems to have reworded and later reissued in the now-famous sentence, “The real war will never get in the books.”

Walt Whitman in 1863. Library of Congress.

Walt Whitman in 1863. Library of Congress.

Whitman’s longest-known rumination on Chancellorsville, dated May 12, 1863, asked

Of scenes like these, I say, who writes—who e’er can write, the story?  Of many a score—aye, thousands, North and South, of unwritten heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations—who tells?  No history, ever—No poem sings, no music sounds, those bravest men of all—those deeds.  Nor formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.

(If the recording below indeed turns out to capture Walt Whitman’s voice in 1889 or 1890 and shortly before his death in 1892, as has been suggested, it’s one of the few spoken traces of a witness to Chancellorsville, or at least to the ordeals of the battle’s survivors.  The voice reads the first four lines of Whitman’s 1888 poem, “America”:)


Ironically, Whitman penned assertions of the Civil War resisting accurate representation at the same time that he was creating representations of it vividly and in abundance, drawing special inspiration from his interactions with hospitalized soldiers.  At one point, he acknowledged harboring an ideal of a “many-threaded drama,” which would include everything from the war’s political context to its national financial burdens and grief.  But above all, he envisioned portrayals of the “nobility of the people:  the essential soundness of the common man” in 1861-1865.

Whitman remained in Washington during the entire period of Chancellorsville but in an important sense became an eyewitness to it.  He recorded his initial responses to the battle in at least four formats in prose:  diary entries, letters, notebook jottings about wounded soldiers whom he encountered in hospitals, and longer reflections in his notebooks.  These together underscored his view that a battle that other writers would portray as one event in a discreet place, albeit a broad one, was in his words actually “many conflicts” and “first-class desperations,” in many places.

“No formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.” An officer of the 30th United States Colored Infantry ponders a skull at Chancellorsville, along or near Bullock Road a year after the fighting. Freeman S. Bowley, The Boy Lieutenant, p. 65.

“No formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.” An officer of the 30th United States Colored Infantry ponders a skull at Chancellorsville, along or near Bullock Road a year after the fighting. Freeman S. Bowley, The Boy Lieutenant, p. 65.

Whitman’s Chancellorsvilles proliferated and spread outward from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, engulfing him via the casualties who reached Washington—their ongoing sufferings, hopes, stories, scars, and rearranged and shifted locations.  (For some thoughts on how Chancellorsville continued to acquire new meanings after the war, see my post on our sister blog here.)

Bodies as well as land composed these numerous battlefields.  Whitman sought to convey through words the “strange and fearful pictures.” And at virtually the same time that he was doing that, medical staff were making literal pictures of and even curating the bodily landscapes of Chancellorsville. The results can be difficult to look at, and even 150 years later are one of the least-discussed facets of the Civil War’s visual record (although certainly not ignored altogether).  Beyond exploring Whitman’s multiple meanings and written pictures, then, my post asks whether the literal pictures of bodies torn and marked by Chancellorsville should be discussed and interpreted more often, or best left in the veiling moonlight of obscurity.

(Graphic images of soldiers’ wounds and remains appear after this page-break.)

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Landscaping the Rappahannock Region: Spotsylvania’s Hopewell Nurseries


From Eric Mink:

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that we frequently reference the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC). Located in Fredericksburg, the CRHC is a non-profit repository and research facility that preserves and archives historic documents and photographs related to the Rappahannock region. It is a must for anyone conducting research in the Fredericksburg area. One of the gems in the CRHC’s collection is the subject of this post. In 2005, the CRHC received a business ledger maintained by Hopewell Nurseries, an agricultural business that operated in Spotsylvania County during the mid-19th century. The ledger contains the names of customers who did business with the nursery. The ledger also lists the date and purchases for each customer. This document proves to be a very useful tool with which to examine the antebellum landscape in the Fredericksburg area.

Robey's farm and the Hopewell Nursery as it appears on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey’s farm and Hopewell Nurseries. as they appear on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey owned and operated Hopewell Nurseries on his 700-acre farm. Robey’s farm and nursery occupied land sandwiched between the Orange Plank Road and the unfinished Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad, about six miles west of Fredericksburg and roughly one-half mile south of Zoan Baptist Church. Today, the Robey land is part of the Smoketree and Red Rose Village residential subdivisions.

It’s difficult to say exactly when Robey opened his nursery business. Notices in the local newspapers show that he worked as a grocer and dry goods merchant in Fredericksburg until at least 1838. The first advertisement found for Hopewell Nurseries appeared in 1847. The advertisement boasted that the nursery had on hand 17,000 apple trees, consisting of 65 varieties. Cherries, plums, walnuts, along with flowering plants such as roses and dahlias were all mentioned as part of the available stock.

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nursery - Alexandria Gazette

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nurseries – Alexandria Gazette

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Scandal in Fredericksburg!


From Russ Smith:

I first encountered the following story while transcribing the diary of Mary Gray Caldwell of Fredericksburg.  On September 17, 1864, she recorded, “Day before yesterday, our city was astonished by the news that the son of one of our most respected citizens (Mr. Knox) had stolen $1,500 and, in company with another man who had stolen $800,000, had gone to the Yankees.”  Further information was found in the Richmond Daily Dispatch and the Richmond Enquirer. Thanks to Beth Daly of the Central Rappahannock Regional Heritage Center who is a font of information on the Knoxes through her work with the Knox Family Papers. The Knox Papers will be published this spring by the Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

The Knox House at Princess Anne & Lewis Streets.

The Knox House at Princess Anne & Lewis Streets.

Thomas Stuart Knox was the second-oldest of six sons of Thomas and Virginia Soutter Knox. Earlier in the war he had enlisted in the 30th Virginia Infantry, but later found work in Richmond.

On Saturday, September 10, 1864, Captain Thomas Stuart Knox traveled north from Richmond. On his arm, wearing dark goggles, was a supposedly blind brother who Knox was escorting home to Fredericksburg. Knox had obtained the necessary passes from the Provost Marshal in Richmond, so their travel was uninterrupted. However, the pair didn’t stop at Fredericksburg, but pressed on hurriedly to Union lines!

Captain Knox and his perfectly sighted partner, George W. Butler, were absconding with a large sum of money stolen from the Confederate treasury.  Knox, in his role as Commissary at Camp Jackson hospital, and Butler, who had been a Treasury Department pay clerk, had colluded to draw some $700,000 from the Treasury.*  They had then exchanged the Confederate currency in Richmond for gold, Federal greenbacks, jewelry and just about anything else that would hold its value. (At this time, twenty-three Confederate dollars equaled one dollar in gold, so their total take was about $30,000.)

Butler had good reasons to abscond.  Continue reading

US Marines Attack Fredericksburg – 1918


From Eric Mink:

The following is based upon material that I stumbled upon while researching the 1921 United States Marine Corps maneuvers on the Wilderness Battlefield. In my discussions of this event with colleagues and local historians, I was surprised that no one had heard of this event. A very obscure and unknown bit of Fredericksburg military history is worthy of a post. 

“Marines Take Fredericksburg” is how The Richmond-Times Dispatch of June 4, 1918 described the descent of nearly 1,000 United States Marines upon the small town of Fredericksburg, Va. For two days, men of the 10th Marine Regiment of Field Artillery camped at the fairgrounds and on June 5 staged an elaborate sham battle that raged from the riverfront, through the streets of Fredericksurg and all the way to crest of Marye’s Heights. It was an extremely unusual event and spectacle that impressed and fascinated the residents of the city, but has since passed from local memory.

On June 3, 1918, the 10th Marine Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. “Jumbo” Hill, left its home at the Marine Corps Barracks at

As a lieutenant colonel, Charles S. “Jumbo” Hill oversaw the 1918 Marine Corps exercises in Fredericksburg. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel and command of the 4th Marine Regiment. While stationed in China in 1927, Colonel Hill committed suicide.

As a lieutenant colonel, Charles S. “Jumbo” Hill oversaw the 1918 Marine Corps exercises in Fredericksburg. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel and command of the 4th Marine Regiment. While stationed in China in 1927, Colonel Hill committed suicide.

Quantico, Va. The barracks had opened the previous year with the expansion and rapid mobilization that followed the United States entry into World War I. Many Marines on their way to France passed through Quantico. The 10th Marine Regiment hoped for deployment to Europe and stepped up its preparedness, and the trip to Fredericksburg was undoubtedly part of its increased activity and training.

The Free Lance described the column that left Quantico as consisting of “800 men, 42 officers, 18 trucks, 10 rolling kitchens, 2 ambulances, and 16 horses.” Missing from this list were the large guns, the artillery that the men also brought with them. The first day consisted of a twenty-mile march, bringing the column to Garrisonville, where it camped for the night. The following day the Marines made for Fredericksburg, stopping for their noon meal on the farm of Judge Richard H.L. Chichester, near Falmouth. The column entered Fredericksburg with the men crossing the river by the Falmouth Bridge, while the vehicles crossed on the Free Bridge (today Chatham Bridge). Tents were erected at the fairgrounds, and after the men consumed their supper they were given their liberty. Many visited the city before returning to camp by 10 p.m.

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What’s in a Name?


Depiction of the role of the Freedman’s Bureau, Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868.

Depiction of the role of the Freedman’s Bureau, Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868.

From Russ Smith:

A commonly held belief, one that has been challenged recently, is that newly freed slaves, having no surnames of their own, adopted the surnames of their final master. One explanation given in the classroom and elsewhere is that “Carter’s William” easily became “William Carter.” luckily, there are now some local records easily accessible on-line to test whether slaves in one area actually did adopt their final master’s name.

On March 19, 1866 Col. Orlando Brown, the assistant commissioner in Virginia of what is commonly called the Freedman’s Bureau, ordered that a register be created of the names of freedmen “cohabitating together as man and wife.” The register contains not only the surnames of each individual, but also the names of the former masters of each. There are some 1,756 freedmen’s names (if I counted correctly.)

The results of reviewing the names in the register were revealing. Not only did freedmen not usually take the name of their former master, they almost never did. Of the 1,756 names reviewed, only 27 or 1.5% are the same as the final master. If some of the matches are only coincidental, that lowers the number further yet.

This raises the question that, if the names didn’t come from the final master, where did they come from? A great number of the freemen’s names are the same as those of local white residents. Did the freemen choose these names when they became free or are these surnames that they carried before freedom came? Although official records seem to have only recognized one name for slaves, did they actually have first and last names? This practice is not unknown and may have been more common than we assume. Only further research will tell.

Note: The volume relating to Caroline County survives in the archives of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center. That part of the register relating to couples is entitled: Register of Colored Persons of Caroline County, State of Virginia, cohabitating together and husband and wife on 27th February, 1866. A transcription of the register is available on the University of Mary Washington’s Department of Historic Preservation’s excellent website.