Posted by: The staff | January 23, 2014

“If these signatures could talk…”: Banks’ Ford Arborglyphs

From Eric Mink:

An ongoing feature of this blog looks at surviving Civil War graffiti in the Fredericksburg area. More than simply evidence of wartime vandalism, these inscriptions are surviving elements that both represent and document the battlefields and landscapes of conflict. They also speak to us with stories of the men who defaced these places. So far, previous posts have examined carvings and writings found on buildings, but soldiers marked all types of surfaces, including trees.

In this May 1864 photograph of Brompton on Marye's Heights (left), tree carvings and graffiti are visible when magnified (right).

In this May 1864 photograph of Brompton on Marye’s Heights (left), tree carvings and graffiti are visible when magnified (right).

Known as arborglyphs, tree carvings are gaining attention among anthropologists, scholars and researchers. From graffiti left by Basque shepherds in Nevada and California, to carvings made by soldiers fighting in Europe during the two World Wars, “culturally-modified trees” are being documented and studied. When it comes to locating surviving examples of American Civil War arborglyphs, however, it is difficult, if not impossible. Tree carvings fade with time, as the trees continue to grow and heal their scars. With the passage of 150 years, it is doubtful that many, if any, Civil War arborglyphs survive on living trees. In the Fredericksburg area, however, we do have some impressive examples of Civil War tree graffiti that were discovered in 1935.

A tree found by honey hunters at Banks' Ford in 1935. Civil War arborglyphs are visible on the bark.

A tree found by honey hunters at Banks’ Ford in 1935. Civil War arborglyphs are visible on the bark.

In November 1935, a group of men hunting for honey near Banks’ Ford along the Rappahannock River followed a swarm of bees to a large beech tree. Upon examination of the tree, they discovered it was covered with graffiti made by Confederate soldiers. The hunters thought the carvings of some significance or at the very least an interesting curiosity, and contacted the offices of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Superintendent Branch Spalding worked out an arrangement with the landowner, William Butzner, whereby the tree was cut down and the bark bearing the carvings was given to the local park.

After having cut down the tree, two men demonstrate the size of the tree by wrapping their arms around the stump.

After having cut down the tree, two men demonstrate the size of the tree by wrapping their arms around the stump.

The graffiti consisted of initials and a couple regimental designations. All of them could be attributed to Alabama soldiers from Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox’s Brigade. Wilcox’s men spent the majority of the winter of 1862-1863 guarding the Rappahannock River crossings above Fredericksburg near Banks’s Ford. The men built strong defenses for sheltering both infantry and artillery, while keeping an eye on Union pickets and movements across the river. It was a quiet time with little aggression from either side. One Alabama officer summed up the monotony of picket duty this way:

“We stand on our side of the river and look at the Yanks. They stand on their side and look at us.” John G. Barrett, ed. Yankee Rebel: The Civil War Journal of Edmund DeWitt Patterson (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1966) p. 93

The boredom certainly led to distractions. It’s not surprising the soldiers filled some their time by applying pocketknives to the surrounding trees.

Once cut down, the National Park Service obtained possession of the bark from the tree found in 1935. An internal park service note provides an accounting of the carvings.

“Junior Historian Taylor and Ralph Happel located a beech tree on the Rappahannock River west of Fredericksburg with the following names and company designations in the bark: J.H.R., 14th Alabama; C.W.B., 10th Alabama; W.B.H.; T.A.S., 10th Alabama; N.J. Smith, 10th Alabama, J.J.W. The owner of the property kindly allowed us to have that portion of the tree for the museum.” – “Monthly Report of the Historical-Educational Staff for November [1935],” Copy in FRSP files.

After having been removed from the tree, three section of bark bearing the arborglyps are displayed.

After having been removed from the tree, three section of bark bearing the arborglyps are displayed.

With access to rosters and service records, it is possible to identify the men responsible for the carvings. They were:

J.H.R., 14th Alabama – John H. Richards served as a private in Company E, 14th Alabama Infantry. He enlisted for the war on July 1, 1861 at Lafayette, Alabama. Richards fell wounded in the arm and was captured May 3, 1863 at the Battle of Salem Church, Virginia. Union authorities committed him to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. on May 6, 1863, but paroled him four days later. Once returned to Virginia, he was admitted to General Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia on May 13, 1863 and returned to his regiment July 8, 1863. Richards surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. on April 9, 1865

C.W.B., 10th Alabama – Caleb W. Brewton enlisted for the war on June 4, 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama. He mustered into the regiment as 2nd Lieutenant of Company I, 10th Alabama Infantry and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on April 2, 1862. Brewton received promotion to captain on July 7, 1862, but ultimately resigned his commission on November 30, 1864 for lack of further advancement while in command of the regiment.

W.B.H. – William B. Hendricks served as a private in Company F, 10th Alabama Infantry. He enlisted for the war on March 11, 1862 in Cropwell, Alabama. After reaching Virginia, Hendricks was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia with diarrhea on May 4, 1862, but was transferred to Lynchburg on June 1, 1862. Hendricks spent a good deal of time in hospitals, but was admitted for the final time on October 15, 1864 for an undisclosed wound. He was granted a furlough to travel to St. Clair County, Alabama and may have never returned to the regiment. Union forces captured Hendricks on April 21, 1865 at the Coosa River in Alabama.

T.A.S., 10th Alabama – Thomas A. Smith served as a private in Company H, 10th Alabama Infantry Smith enlisted for the war on May 14, 1862 in Calhoun County, Alabama. He was wounded June 30, 1862 at Glendale, Virginia. Having contracted the flu, Chimborazo Hospital No. 3 admitted Smith on August 11, 1862, but sent him to the General Hospital in Danville, Virginia six days later. He returned to duty on September 10, 1862. Union forces paroled Smith at Burkeville Junction, Virginia in April 1865.

N.J. Smith., 10th Alabama – N.J. Smith was a private in Company G, 10th Alabama Infantry. Smith enlisted for the war on March 1, 1862 at Lewis House, Alabama. He was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital No. 4 for catarrh on February 23, 1863, but returned to duty on March 24, 1863. Although wounded on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Smith did not fall into enemy hands made it back to Virginia where was admitted to Wayside Hospital in Richmond on July 24, 1863. Discharged from Alabama Hospital in Richmond Va. July 29, 1863 for a forty-day furlough to Goshen, Alabama, Smith may not have returned for Union forces paroled him on March 29, 1865 in Talladega, Alabama.

J.J.W. – J.J. Wardman may be the soldier behind these initials. Confederate records show a soldier by that name as a private in Company K, 10th Alabama Infantry. The only source for this man is a Union list of reported prisoners taken July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. No other information is known about Wardman.

It stands to reason that if one tree with soldier graffiti existed, perhaps there might be more. Just a few weeks later, park staff located another “culturally-modified tree” in the same area. A photo of this second specimen is all that survives to document the arborglyphs, as those involved made the decision not to cut this tree down.

Additional graffiti found on a second tree. Offcials made the decision not to cut this tree down.

Additional graffiti found on a second tree. Offcials made the decision not to cut this tree down.

While there are a handful of obvious carvings on this tree, only two are legible enough to lead to soldier identifications.

JL Broyles – No soldier with the last name Broyles and initials “JL” can be located. There are two possibilities, however, for this soldier in Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade. John C. Broyles served as a private in Company I, 10th Alabama Infantry. He enlisted for the war on March 1, 1862 in Gadsen, Alabama. Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia admitted John Broyles for fever in August 1862. In May 1863, he appeared on a hospital roll in Staunton, Virginia for diarrhea, an illness for which Howard’s Grove Hospital in Richmond admitted him in August 1863. He was later transferred to Danville, Virginia. Private John Broyles was captured on October 27, 1864 near Petersburg, Virginia. Union authorities exchanged John Broyles on March 28, 1865. The other candidate for the carving is Jacob T. Broyles who also served as a private in Company I, 10th Alabama Infantry. Jacob Broyles enlisted for the war on June 1, 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama. He remained with the regiment until he July 15, 1863 when he deserted to the enemy near Martinsburg, West Virginia and took the Oath of Allegiance.

GW Taylor capt Co K 14 Alabama – George W. Taylor mustered into Company K, 14th Alabama Infantry as 1st Lieutenant. He received a promotion to captain and command of the company on May 25, 1862. Taylor was slightly wounded on June 30, 1862 at the Battle of Glendale, Virginia. He received a promotion to the rank of major on August 25 1863. Taylor fell wounded on May 12, 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Major Taylor retired to the Invalid Corps on November 10, 1864.

Between what we can document on just two trees, we have eight soldiers who carved their initials or names. There are two different regiments and seven different companies represented. The presence of a company commander among the carvings is interesting, as graffiti from officers is rather rare. It’s not hard to imagine an Alabama picket standing his post in the woods at Banks’ Ford. Bored, he pulled his pocket knife out and carved the first set of initials on a tree. At the end of his shift, another company arrived and another soldier stood guard at the same place. This man saw the first set of initials and decided to add his own. As additional companies and even regiments from Wilcox’s Brigade rotated on and off the picket line more initials appeared until the trunk of the tree is nearly covered to arm’s length. We have only these examples of soldier arborglyphs, but it makes one wonder how many trees may have been carved upon at the various picket stations that winter. Were there more or are these two just isolated incidents? At this point, we can only wonder, as it is doubtful any graffiti trees still survive from the winter of 1862-1863.

Like all surviving graffiti, whatever the reason and circumstances under which these arborglyphs were made, they achieved their intended purpose. These men left their identifying marks to be found by others, thus documenting their presence. 150 years later, here we are providing sketches of their wartime service. Men and soldiers, whose names and service otherwise might go unnoticed.

All that remains of these arborglyphs is one section of the tree bark containing the initials of Private Thomas A. Smith. This artifact has been on display at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center for the past fifty years. Although the park removed it recently, the park does intend to return this slice of bark to display once the new exhibits are installed at the visitor in a couple months. What happened to the other sections of the tree bark is not known. No evidence can be found that the National Park Service took possession of all three sections that appear in the 1935 photo. If the park did accept them, no trace can be found of them or what happened to them.

The surviving bark from the Alabama graffiti tree just before being removed from display at Chancellorsville.

The surviving bark from the Alabama graffiti tree just before being removed from display at Chancellorsville.

If any of our readers are aware of other documented examples of Civil War soldier tree carvings, we’d love to hear about them.

Eric J. Mink

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  1. Outstanding Article. I wonder if any are still out there. Brad

  2. Fascinating. Great stuff, Eric.

  3. Eric. I am researching the 14th Alabama. I am very interested in finding the location where the trees were standing near Banks’ Ford, so I can identify the location of the regiment in the winter of 1863. Please email me with information about how I may contact you directly. Thank you. David White, Manassas, Virginia.

    • David – An e-mail was sent to you this morning. Unfortunately, I do not know the exact location where the trees were found.

      – Eric Mink

  4. At Mount Vernon, they have a large Greek Cross carving in an old tree that they at least claim is from when 6th Corps troops were there. Not sure whether the link will work: They showed me a 12th Corps star too. At least feasible.

    • Thanks for the link, Garry. That’s good to know about.
      – Eric Mink

  5. Great post!! Another image of the beech tree found by the honey hunters at Banks Ford in 1935 appears on page 156 of Stephen Sylvia and Mike O’Donnell’s Civil War Relics (Moss Publications, 1978). The tree seems to have stood on a slight slope and the Rappahannock (I think) can be seen through the trees in the background of the image.
    Keith Bohannon

    • Thanks Keith. I was aware of the photos in Sylvia and O’Donnell, which are credited as coming from the NPS. I was frustrated in my effort to locate the original prints, so I settled for scanning photocopies found in park files. The tree does appear to have been on a slope. I wish there was more info on the exact location of the trees. Perhaps that will turn up one day.

      – Eric Mink

      • Eric,
        If you send me the scan, I might be able to locate it.
        Erik Nelson

      • We have a beech tree on our property in Iva, sc with carvings from the civil war. It looks exactly like the tree in Alabama. It has Robert E Lee carved I. It along with Gen John. I will send a picture if you want. Carvings are still in good condition.

  6. In the winter of 1862-63, Col. Adolphus Buschbeck’s 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 11th Corps was stationed along the Rappahannock opposite Wilcox’s Brigade. My article “A Reflection of Their Own Image” (North & South, January 2000) discusses fraternization between members of the 154th New York and the Alabamians. I quoted Pvt. Marcellus W. Darling of Co. K: “This morning when I was on my post one of the Rebs forded the river to within about two rods of me . . . and threw over a large plug of tobacco. The water was nearly up to his waist. He said he belonged to the 14th Alabama Regt.” I can’t help but think that the Union soldiers left their own arborglyphs on their side of the river.

  7. Sections of these trees with initials carved on them were on display at the Fredericksburg NPS visitor center on Sunken Road. I don’t know if they still are there.

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