A little perspective: the value of a view from above

From Hennessy:

This is a repost from a couple years back, germane to today’s 150th anniversary of the fighting at Fairview.

Over at Fredericksburg Remembered, I have also posted more reflective things, including my remarks at the opening ceremony for the Chancellorsville 150th: A Remembering People.  

I have also posted “Icons, the merely famous, and us”–my thoughts on Jackson on the anniversary of his wounding. 

Working on these fields, we are of course pretty familiar with them. But closeness doesn’t always make for clarity. No resource on our fields is more obscured by closeness than earthworks. At ground level it’s impossible to see them as anything but vertical features–now slowly fading mounds of earth. But with the advent of readily available high-resolution aerial photography from Google Earth or Virtual Earth, you can see these earthworks in a whole new way: as they relate to each other horizontally.

A case in point:  Fairview, on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. With all apologies to Jackson aficionados, I have always felt that if visitors can make one stop at Chancellorsville to get a general grasp of the battle, Fairview should be it. It was the fulcrum upon which the battle of Chancellorsville turned. That becomes apparent looking at an aerial view of the site (these views are from Google Earth).

I have labeled on the image the six artillery lunettes built by the Union army on May 2, 1863, when its attention was focused eastward and southward. But the aerial view shows the tangible impact of Jackson’s flank attack on the battle, as it crashed down on the army from the west (to the left). The new line of works built overnight May 2-3 is oriented westward, not south, to better defend against what changed front required by Jackson’s assault. Note too that the artillery here on May 2 was paltry compared to the extensive line constructed prior to the fighting on the morning of May 3–as many as 34 tightly packed Union guns fought along this line that morning. Fairview became the focal point of massive, life-eating attacks–some of the heaviest sustained combat of the war (no hyperbole there). For five hours, a man fell every second in the woods and fields around Fairview, more than 18,000 in all.

This change in the works and the relative scale of the lines can be seen clearly in this aerial view, but is much harder to grasp on the ground.

One other little observation.

In Eric Mink’s recent posts, Are Those Trenches Real?, he included an image of the CCC at work “restoring” a lunette at Fairview. On the map above, I have labeled the lunette they worked on as #5. On the ground today, that lunette does not appear to be radically different from its adjacent partners. But look at it from above: you can see that the CCC work radically enlarged it, compared to the others. I had never noticed it before looking at the aerial image.

Here’s another example, at Spotsylvania. We know the Muleshoe Salient as a Confederate construction, and of course it was the focal point of fighting for two days: May 10 and, most famously, May 12, 1864. If your meanderings take you to the east face of the salient, walk around and take a shot at making sense of the jumble of works there. Good luck.

But take a look at this aerial view, showing the East Angle at the upper left and the east face of the salient (the Bloody Angle is about 400 yards off the left edge of this photograph).

While the origin or use of the double set of works at top remains obscure (at least to me), it’s clear that the original Confederate stretch of works at right, along the east face of the Salient, was re-faced by the Union army, with the best and most extensive traverses that survive anywhere in the park. While the aerial doesn’t bring clarity on everything, it’s certainly an important point of departure for figuring these things out.  More than that, it demonstrates that the construction of the lines at Spotsylvania was anything but haphazard. They were carefully engineered, geometric undertakings whose complexity and precision is almost impossible to grasp from ground level.

The aerial imagery is an important new tool that helps understand the resources we manage, and it offers great potential for public interpretation as well–something we will be exploring more as we move forward. In the meantime, explore yourself. You might spot some things you (or we) never noticed before.


20 thoughts on “A little perspective: the value of a view from above

  1. John – can you provide a lat/long for the Bloody Angle photo?

    Also – hasn’t the road been removed and converted to walking path?

    • 38 13’26 N 77 35’45” W

      Larry, you are correct. The road was removed a couple of years ago. In that respect, and only in that respect, we are ahead of Google….

  2. we walked the fields at the Muleshoe today… along the treelines since there have been and are continuing to be 3 impressive-size tractor/bush hogs removing the vegetation.

    some of the trenches are just inside the treeline but if one walks the edge, can see them.

    I know a few years back… trees/forest was removed to much hooray among some but anyone know why they did not expose the trenches just inside the treeline?

    Is that the way they were back when the battle was fought – just inside the treeline?

    Ya’ll are doing magnificent work in the Spotsy battlefields with the new waist-high kiosks ( not sure what the proper name is) but there are more and more of them with really excellent interpretive panels on them.

    • Larry: I presume you are talking about the lunettes back beyond the Landram road, just inside the woodline. They’re impressive. When built, they were in the open. I was not privy to the decision of where to set the woodline back in the 1980s, but I think I am safe in saying that the decision to leave them in the woods was driven by the philosophy that the best way to treat earthworks is to do nothing to them. There can be little question that earthworks fare better in woods rather than in fields (excepting the risk of tree thows), where they have to be mowed or cut.

      If you found the second line of works behind the Bloody Angle, historically that area was thinly wooded–a condition that’s almost impossible to maintain today without running livestock. We have often discussed options for getting those woods to be more open than they are–fire is an obvious option–but we’re not sure we could sustain the openness over time. We’ll be doing some more posts on the area around the Bloody Angle in the near future. It’s one of the compelling places on the continent. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your kind words. John H.

  3. Earl Hess’s book on field fortifications is a real help in figuring out the trenchs, particularly at the East Angle.

  4. Since we should not be walking on these, if a foot bridge is not near by, is there a better way to explore the other side then enjoying a long walk?

    • Sam: there usually seem to be fairly convenient breaks in the works. If not, you’ll have to bushwhack around, something I recommend you hold off doing till the fall.

      John H.

  5. John,
    Your point about the fighting on May 3rd is well made. That level of combat intensity exceeds Antietam. It is gratifying that so much of that ground is within the National Park, but it is clearly exceptionally difficult to interpret. The aerials give a new dimension. Thanks.

  6. With an amazing list of family members that have served in the WBTS, to date numbering over three hundred and fifty, is it possible that I can recieve some suggestions on how to explore my local battlefields (Spotsylvania, Trevilians, Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and Mine Run, to name but a few) in a more user friendly capacity? I have been studying for many years and have come to the realization that I know only a little about a whole lot. Layman’s terms would be great.
    I was hoping to find a battlefield historian that might agree to go stop by stop, to paint me a picture of that area’s events. The park service always seems to have a great representative at a key location or two. The depictions for instance, at Bloody Angle, are worth hearing over and over.
    I seem to have limited time to study movements and strategy. With my first cousin, four times removed, living to be the oldest Confederate veteran of Virginia, I only have his memoirs to get an understanding of a soldier’s life, during the war. Would love to become more involved in my local family history hear in central Virginia. Any suggestions or direction would be most appreciated.

  7. John
    Although late to this party, I completely concur about the value of aerial photos as a tool to understanding the battles. The late William (Bill) Matter and I used them a great deal when he was helping me with my research on the Muleshoe. BTW: If you look at the area in front of Doles Salient you can see the trace of the lines running thru the woods there.

    As to the area along the eastern leg of the salient, knowing where the woodline was in 1864 would be a big help. But as far as the works – one of Pegrams men who had been in them and fought there all day on the 12th, said that when he returned thee days latter he couldnt recognize them the yanks had changed them so much.

  8. I think it would be FANTASTIC to be able to walk Bloody Angle with a GPS unit that superimposed over the geography the battlefield features….

    Your average visitor with that capability would likely immerse themselves in the “walk”….

    you might be able to do this quick n’ dirty (relatively) with google maps an perhaps some help from the CWPT folks who have electronic maps.

    Many people have car GPS units that can be used portably and with the battlefield “download” would be an awesome “app” also.

  9. Larry: Your imagined day is not far off. In fact, it’s possible already, though beyond our reach at the moment. Hand-held, GPS-activated interpretation will definitely be a feature of all NPS sites in 20 years, and will be common in ten, if not sooner. We are working on some of these systems now, with partners…. It’s very interesting stuff. Thanks for reading and commenting. John H.

    • John

      I would be interested in learning how the reconstructions helped in the understanding of the battles of May 10 and 12 at Spotsy.

      Also, as many times as I have been over the field, stumbling over things, I have never had a good feel for the roads within the Muleshoe. Particularly the route by which Page’s guns returned to the Muleshoe on the morning of the 12th. Are there any surviving clues? Any help would be appreciated.

      Russ Edwards

      • Russ: We have some excellent mapping that’s been done over the years. Next week I’ll put a couple of the maps up in pdf form. I think we have a pretty good feel for the location of roads and earthworks. What sometimes is harder is what happened ON those landscapes. I’ll try to get the maps up Monday or Tuesday.

      • Mr. Edwards,
        In 1938 the Park was considering a proposed “re-opening of old roads within the Confederate Salient” as reported by Hubert A. Gurney, a Junior Research Technician for the F&SNMP. In his introduction to “A Study of the McCoull House and Farm”, Gurney states, “The restoration of the McCoull House, coupled with the proposed re-opening of old roads within the Confederate Salient, will also, it is believed, permit a more exact reproduction of the wartime scene in this important area.”
        Lack of funding and the Second World War took a toll on many of the proposals to improve the F&SNMP in that period. It is unfortunate that the roads aren’t so readily defined. One road remnant I am particularly fond of is the “McCoull Farm Road” that connected McCoull to the Landram Farm field west of the Bloody Angle and then north to hook up with the Landram Lane. A remnant further extends from the Park, along the edge of the modern Stuart’s Crossing subdivision and the Brown Farm toward the Shelton house. Sadly, the trace that crosses the earthworks near the corner of Grant Drive and Anderson Drive had been intergrated into the drainage culvert running under the former Bloody Angle Drive. Well before the establishment of the Park, the McCoull Farm Road was the main connecting road from Gordon Road onto the battlefield.
        Another road, connected Brock Road to the Harrison Farm. Its trace is still easily followed and in my opinion is the best candidate for bringing the guns back in from the Trigg Farm on the morning of May 12, at least as far as Harrison. From there up to the east face is a good question. I am curious if you and Mr. Matter ever walked this Brock to Harrison trance and discussed it?
        John Cummings

  10. I walk most of the trails in the park including some of the vestige trails and such (that can be well recognized after a light snowfall)… there are, as I’m sure the historians are aware… trenches and other earthworks in the woods and many seem to extend from the open fields. There’s at least one old road down to the Ni River. There are several locations which look like they used to be structures…. and access paths …

    I often use a GPS to keep my bearings and wish I had a way as I walk and explore to better understand how all these artifacts “fit together” in the context of those awful days that so many got maimed and killed.

    p.s. – I’m aware of the private property and park service boundaries as I walk… the PS has done a good job marking the boundaries even in deep woods.

  11. I look forward to seeing the information on the road network within the Salient. While I have a large quantity of the various map, both wartime and postwar I have never had a good feel for the various paths. Partly because I’m confident that there were temporary military roads cut during the several days time that the Confederates occupied the Salient.
    As many people know I have been working on the actions of the Confederate Artillery in and around the Salient for quite some time and those roads are key pieces of the puzzle.

  12. John. Aerial views and Google earth allow us to make much sense of what we see on the ground. Both the pics shown today give us the ability to at least make some sense of the different accounts we have.
    At Spotsylvania, the turn in the works which created the “East Angle” the creation of which McHenry Howard explains to us, while also creating the “quadrilateral” which is extensively described by the Col. of the 49th Va.

  13. May I use this vehicle to ask the staff a topographical question: Which is the higher elevation, Hazel Grove or Fairview? When standing at HG, I have always thought I was looking slightly “down” at Fairview, but when I gave that as a reason in an online discussion I got pummeled for being stupid. Of course, there is a degree of variance within each location, particularly at HG.

    Thanks in advance.

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