Stafford’s big day: the Lincoln review of April 8, 1863–where it happened and what of the places today?

From Hennessy:

On the eve of the 150th Anniversary of this event, we repost this from a couple years back.

Regulars of the Fifth Corps pass in review on the Sthreshley farm in Stafford County, April 8, 1863.

It was the greatest gathering of American military might ever displayed before the 1865 Grand Review in Washington, D.C. On April 8, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln reviewed about two-thirds of the Army of the Potomac–as many as 70,00o men–in the Union camps in Stafford County, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg. This spectacle was seen by few spectators, and the tortuous logistics that left soldiers standing in wait for hours peeved more than a few. But, the display had a profound affect on the army, for armies rarely get to see themselves. This day they did, and the soldiers were impressed. A few days later an officer of the 12th Corps mused, “after such an opportunity of seeing our army as I have had this last week, I cannot help” but conclude “that the Army of the Potomac is a collection of as fine troops…as there are in te world. I believe he day will come when it will be a proud thing for anyone to say he belonged to it.”

Click to enlarge

The huge April 8 review in Stafford (one of five held during Lincoln’s visit to the army) received national coverage in the press, attracting scribblers and artists from dozens of newspapers and magazines. Hundreds of descriptions written by soldiers survive–the vast majority including either grumbling at the wait or descriptions of  a “careworn” President (Lincoln may have thought he was reviewing the army, but the army emphatically was reviewing him).  The Union 2nd Corps, 5th Corps, 3rd Corps, and 6th Corps were all reviewed that day–three of them together on the Sthreshley Farm (called “Grafton”) and the 6th Corps on the fields in front of Boscobel, the home of Henrietta Fitzhugh. What of these sites today? Where are they?  What do they look like?

The location of these reviews is given to us by a map generated within the Army of the Potomac that specifically documenting the review sites and the routes taken by the various corps to reach those sites. You can see a copy of the map here.  I have gone ahead and overlaid the key data onto a modern aerial from Google Earth (above). The roads and house sites are derived from our Virtual Fredericksburg project.

The camps of the Army of the Potomac, with the April 8 review site highlighted in red.

The farmhouse of James Sthreshley and his family stood at the south end of what is today Scott Drive in the midst of Grafton Village subdivision. So far as I know, no trace of the house remains. Sthreshley (whose name is more frequently misspelled and mispronounced than perhaps any in this region–it is pronounced Thrashley) was one of the more prosperous farmers in Stafford County. In 1860, he and his wife Helen owned land worth $12,000 and personal property of $30,000, including 25 slaves–sixteen of them under the age of 16. No image of his home is known to survive, but it was impressive enough to attract a procession of Union generals to use it as headquarters. Before and after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Samuel Sturgis of the Ninth Corps took up here, and he was joined by Clara Barton, who made Sthreshley her base of operations before and after her service in Fredericksburg.

On April 6, Lincoln reviewed the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac on the Sthreshley farm. Spectacular as that display was, it was dwarfed by the events of April 8. Today the open fields that Lincoln rode and that soldiers of the Second, Third, and Fifth Corps marched upon are a subdivision–indeed a dense, 1960s-era subdivision called Grafton Village.  If you want to take a close look, go to Google Earth; the coordinates are 38 19-24 and 77 25-38.  Here are a couple of shots of the review fields today.

Looking south on Grafton Street.

Looking north on Edwards Drive.

The review of the Union Sixth Corps and the army’s reserve artillery brigade that day took place just a short distance to the east, on the fields in front of Boscobel. Boscobel was one of Stafford’s oldest homesteads, and with the arrival of the Union army that winter it became the headquarters for corps commander Daniel Sickles. It was here on April 7 that Sickles hosted a party for the president.  During that party, Princess Salm-Salm (the American wife of a Prussion prince) led a procession of women offering Lincoln kisses–gestures that outraged the first lady.

Boscobel, Sickles’s Headquarters

Boscobel no longer stands. Around the house site, which features a modern ranch house and a nearby cemetery, is a large-lot subdivision of expansive homes (named Boscobel Farms).

The headstones in front of the site of Boscobel

The fields upon which the review was held have not been entirely obliterated–the lots are large enough to get a sense of the lay of the land.

Looking south from King Georges Grant.

Lincoln conducted three other reviews of troops during his stay in Stafford: the First Corps near Belle Plain–the precise location is not known. The Eleventh Corps near Brooke Station, and the Twelfth Corps between Stafford Court House and Aquia Creek. Again, the specific locations of these reviews are not known (at least not by me). If you are interested in the reviews and Lincoln’s various visits to Stafford County, we recommend you read Jane Conner’s very nice Lincoln in Stafford, which is privately published, but available for sale at Chatham.

10 thoughts on “Stafford’s big day: the Lincoln review of April 8, 1863–where it happened and what of the places today?

  1. A well done post! Often, I think the histories of the presidential reviews of armies and corps–whether they be Union or Confederate–get left behind in the greater narrative of the Civil War. Undoubtedly, the soldiers and newspaper correspondents considered these grand events important to the shaping of discipline, morale, comradeship, and nationalism. In what ways can these events be made significant to NPS visitors and history students? Can the presidential reviews at Stafford take center stage, even for a short time? If so, how? Any ideas?

    • Timothy: We do certainly talk about Lincoln’s visits at Chatham, but admittedly do little on the 1863 reviews, largely because we don’t own the places where they happened. But, I will say that as part of the 150th observance, we are planning a major event focused on the 1863 reviews. It’s a bit too early to say precisely what form those will take, but it’s certainly on our radar screen.

      The larger point here–and what I think you’re getting at–is how to convey to the public today the public perception of the armies during the war, a critical aspect of the war effort on both sides. This is especially important with respect to the 1864 Overland campaign, upon which in some measure hinged the election that year. We are doing a new movie on Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and this will be a major thematic element within that.

      We will also incorporate the review sites into Virtual Fredericksburg, which will allow us to develop podcasts and video resources for them.

      The bottom line: I agree it’s a story well worth having the public understand. We’re working toward that end, but we’re also open to ideas on how it ought to be done. John Hennessy

  2. There are currently tentative plans to place a Civil War Trails Marker describing the review at Grafton Elementary School (located on Deacon Road to the right of the Third Corps position on the map above) sometime this year. Date of installation yet to be determined.

  3. There is a photograph of the Grand Review in April, 1863. It can be seen on page 114 of volume 2 of the Photographic History of the Civil War published in 1912. It is an image of the 3rd Corps of General Sickles. It is so big it had to be split to fit on the page.
    It was never published again unfortunately and the negative is lost.
    It is possible Egbert Faux and Captain Andrew J Russell who photographed the image.

    • I have a copyof the book. Following is my great, great grandfather (Horace Goodman Hurd Tarr), a soldier who is later life wrote of this experience in his autobiography, The Story of My Life – It was while we were encamped at Stafford Court House, before the Chancellorsville Campaign, that President Lincoln came to visit and review the Army of the Potomac and this was the only time that I ever saw the great man. I have woven into this personal narrative my impressions of the famous men I have seen, but in no other case have I spoken of them as the Great of this Earth. There have been few great men as we use this adjective to describe Moses, King David, Caesar, Cromwell, or Abraham Lincoln. These of course, are not all of the great, but you will search history thoroughly for very many more.

      There were men who were leaders in their time, and made history. Some changed greatly the geography of the world, as Hannibal and Napoleon, but was it not because they were greatly ambitious, and regardless of every human consideration they rode into power and have been marshaled among the great?

      Abraham Lincoln was truly great. I am not sure as time condenses the history of the world, and the motives and results of the leaders and makers are assessed their real value, he will not be considered the very greatest.

      After Burnside’s defeat at Fredericksburg, he in his turn retired from the command of the Army of the Potomac. His failure, following the long inactivity of McClellan, Pope’s fiasco in Virginia, and the absences of any decided victories in the West (for, on the whole, we were hardly holding our own our there) cast a gloom over the country and a terrible load on the Administration. The spirit of dissatisfaction in the North threatened open rebellion and this was greatly fostered by England’s pronounced sympathy with the South because of our blockage of the southern ports which had cut off their supply of cotton – this was before Egypt or India competed with us.

      In the midst of all this, Louis Napoleon was conspiring to enter our back door, which he did by placing Maximillan on the throne of Mexico, in 1864.

      The burden of this was on one man’s shoulders, and these were indeed the dark days of the Union cause. In the light of history we cannot see how Lincoln could endure it and live; but in his greatness he carried all to the end, and overcame every obstacle.

      The review of an Army permits a mere glance at the Commander-in-Chief but that two minutes in which he came in view, passed before us disappeared along the line is the most cherished measure of time of my life. His personality has been described more than any man who ever lived. Every aspect of his youth early manhood and maturity has been recounted over and over again and yet, never have I read one that told of Lincoln as he impressed me.

      He was unlike any man I have ever seen, or any human being I could imagine, so much so that he left a feeling of awe and wonder. This was not because he was President, or because of his exalted position, but it was his personally that left a curious impression of me which I cannot describe. There was no suggestion of a commander or of authority, hardly of strength, but that conveyed to me, was as though he were crying aloud to his commanders and soldiers – “Won’t you help me, each and every one? Won’t you bring victory to our cause – or we die!! After he had passed from view and we were marched back to camp, there came a new aspect to the camp as though a Prophet from God had come among us, commanding more endeavors, from a higher motive in our fight for the preservation of the Union. For further information email me at

  4. I just found this post. Here is another clue to the location of the First Corps Review at Bell Plain. From a typescript of Sam Webster’s diary/memoirs (13th Mass.) :

    Thursday, April 9th, 1863.
    First Army Corps reviewed by President Lincoln. Had notice at reveille, and less than an hour to march in. Regt moved down below Belle Plaine Landing towards the Potomac, and formed line on a large plain or meadow, skirting the river. Other Brigades – Divisions came after, and while waiting for the “reviewing officers,” we visited the banks of the river, had a game of ball, and plenty of time to get hungry. However, all things have an end, and they came at last. As the 13th had the right of the Corps, it was first off the field. I was one of the spectators and can truly say they looked very well. As soon as convenient, after getting to camp, they were sent on out to the picquet line – their luck.

  5. My grandmother was Sarah (Sadie) Virginia Sthreshley so I find this article to be fascinating. My father was born and raised in D.C. and often spoke about his mother’s side of the family and their land being involved with the civil war.

    • Another Sthreshley family member here. I understand my grandmother’s great bitterness about the war much more now—her grandfather’s home was basically destroyed.

      What a pointless mess the whole ordeal was, and how many lives ground out resisting the inevitable.

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