From: Beth Parnicza
A hidden piece of the park’s past lies tucked away behind a false wall and a Union Sixth Corps flag in the basement of the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. Peering over the false wall, a dusty wooden floor, painted wood pattern, and painted fireplace are all that remain of what was once a much-desired Confederate officer’s hut display. Its existence and composition have passed out of easy park staff memory, provoking a small mystery begging to be solved. Had the exhibit ever been in use? If so, what did it originally look like? When was it dismantled, and why?
Both of the park’s visitor centers feature exhibits that primarily date to the “Mission 66” period of park development, part of a National Park Service-wide initiative to improve the infrastructure and interpretation of park sites for the NPS’s 50th Anniversary. The initiative happily coincided with the Civil War centennial, producing an increased sense of urgency for Civil War sites to expand their interpretation. Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center’s exhibits date to 1962, and looking around the Visitor Center, it is hard to imagine that much has changed in the ensuing years.
The original layout of the 1962 exhibits featured a room of Fredericksburg-specific and general Civil War exhibits on the main floor, and two basement exhibit rooms included a room filled with rows of firearms as a “study collection” and a room highlighting life in camp and social history elements like the roles of women, religion, and relief organizations. This layout featured a fascinating combination of subjects: modern Visitor Center elements upstairs, a nod to past museum styles with rows of barely interpreted relics downstairs, and the inclusion of social history, which rose to prominence during this period.
The centerpiece of the “camp life” exhibits in the basement was a recreated Confederate officer’s hut corner. When proposed, it was emphasized by the park as a favorite element, noted in one plan that its inclusion was something “the park greatly desires.”
To accurately recreate an officer’s quarters, exhibit planners relied heavily on Stonewall Jackson staff officer Sandie Pendleton’s description of his winter quarters shared with Dr. Hunter McGuire and Henry Kyd Douglas. In the marked passage, Pendleton described improvised writing arrangements, a camp stool, a tent stove salvaged from Union forces, and Douglas’ “pile of blankets” for a bed. Considering the wood pattern and fireplace painted on the wall (rather than Pendleton’s tent and stove setup), the exhibit was only loosely based on this depiction, but it clearly aimed to capture the makeshift nature of winter army life.
The actual contents of the exhibit revealed a desire to represent Pendleton’s tent life supplemented by a few other necessary items: a combination fork and spoon, a U.S. blanket used by Confederates, a Bible, a leather wallet, a writing case containing pens, pencils, and pen points, a Confederate uniform cape, a pair of scissors, a hair brush, a pair of gauntlets, a candle socket with partly melted candle, a folding cot, a folding camp table, a rug used as cover for the cot, a trunk, and a mattress roll.
Note: We do not have any extant photos of the exhibit in place. If you captured this exhibit on film, please pass your photos along! We’d love to see it.
Even before the exhibit’s installation, the security of these items was cited as a major concern for the park. Left largely unattended in the basement, they were more vulnerable to theft and damage than the multitude of other items firmly encased and behind glass. Proposals for the display ask for a glass cover, but it is unclear whether it was protected by glass or merely by a rail of some kind. In the 1970s, park records note losing some reproduction items from a basement display—suggesting they were not behind glass—and some items were removed from the exhibit as early as 1975 to be placed elsewhere in the park.
When hopes for exhibit renovations were dashed in 1975, the park revived plans for a visitor center update in 1980. The new plans aimed to alleviate congestion in the visitor center lobby due to the placement of bookstore sales items. The park proposed to remove the general Civil War exhibit cases to the basement, replacing the Confederate officer’s hut and opening up one full wall of space on the main floor for sales. Park employees Chris Calkins and Walter Snellings were tasked with removing the artifacts from the officer’s hut display at this time, but presumably because the bulky upstairs cases could not fit into the space occupied by the hut exhibit, the cases did not take the place of the officer’s quarters, which remained intact. Instead, the firearm study collection in the other basement exhibit room was reduced to one case of arms, and the general Civil War cases were arranged along the walls of this room, where they remain today.
Although the officer’s hut exhibit survived this round of exhibit changes, park staff remained dissatisfied with the exhibit’s security issues and its subsequent deterioration. Chief Historian Bob Krick wrote in a 1983 memo, “An exhibit in the north basement room has become completely obsolete as a result of changing security needs. Much has been pulled out of it and it’s moribund at best.”
Growing visitor center needs again prompted exhibit renovations in 1983-1984, when the bookstore sales area moved to a former office space near the front desk and left extra wall space among clearly outdated exhibits. Budgetary concerns curbed hopes for a full-scale alteration, however, and the park was advised to opt for “restraint instead of luxury.” The park therefore completed two primary modifications in 1984: the creation of a Soldier Art exhibit on the main floor in the former sales area and the replacement of the officer’s hut downstairs with the flag of the Union Sixth Corps and a panel about the battlefield identification of units.
As the park is in the midst of efforts to overhaul the exhibits in both visitor centers once again, it is important to consider how our treatment of the park’s story has shifted over the years and how those changes are evident in the exhibits we present to the public. Just as the age of rows of firearms displayed in a study collection has passed, so too has the age of bulky, simple Mission 66 exhibit cases. Although ultimately security and logistics doomed the Confederate officer’s hut exhibit, it is worth noting that every exhibit has a time stamp. The way we view the past shifts and so must our interpretation. Much of our work lately has been to struggle with how to represent a complex past to the public 150 years after the Civil War. What techniques should we utilize in our exhibits to engage a new generation?
As an aside, elements of the officer’s hut can still be found around the park. Here, the camp cot is seen on display at Ellwood Manor, now representing a Union officer’s quarters.
Many thanks to Eric Mink for posing the mystery and pointing me in the right direction to a number of useful park files.
Sources in order of use above—Mission 66 background: Ethan Carr, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma (Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007); Layout of exhibits: Feaser, Kent, Dillahunty, and Happel, “Fredericksburg V.C.” Visitor Center Exhibit Plan, sketches of planned exhibits, original in park files; Park opinion on Exhibit 21: “Fredericksburg V.C.” sketches, memo titled “Basement Exhibit Room”; Accurately recreating an officer’s quarters: W. G. Bean, Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton, pp. 82-83, excerpt in “Fredericksburg V.C.” sketches; Contents of exhibit: Memo, “Items taken to Washington March 22, 1962, to be treated for use in Exhibit 21, Officer’s Hut, Fredericksburg Visitor Center,” copy in FRSP files; Security concerns: FRSP accession and treatment files; Persistent dissatisfaction with exhibit: Memo, dated October 31, 1983, Robert K. Krick to Al Swift and Chet Harris, copy in FRSP files; 1983-1984 changes: 1983/1984 Museum file, FRSP; Memo, dated June 27, 1984, Robert K. Krick to Ann Rossilli, copy in FRSP files.