From Eric Mink:
This past week, the park was alerted to a very interesting piece of media documenting an event in Fredericksburg’s history. Bill Jenney of the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation (VDHP) contacted the park requesting information about President Calvin Coolidge’s visit to Fredericksburg in 1928. VDHP is involved in exhibit planning for the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth, Vermont and one of the displays might discuss the president’s keen interest in the American Civil War. During an exchange of e-mails, Bill provided us with a link to what may be the first film footage of Fredericksburg. The raw outtakes are from a newsreel made during Coolidge’s 1928 visit to dedicate the local military park.
It was appropriate for Coolidge receive an invitation to the park’s dedication, as he had signed the bill that created the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on February 14, 1927. The National Battlefield Park Association, which was comprised of influential local citizens and had been instrumental in lobbying for the park, contacted the White House. The president accepted and agreed to deliver the keynote address at the celebration on October 19, 1928.
Coolidge and his entourage arrived in Fredericksburg on a special 2:35pm train. A large crowd greeted them at the station where the Fredericksburg Elks Band played “To the Colors” and the local National Guard unit fired off a 21-gun salute with their French 75-millimeter field guns. The president and first lady climbed into a convertible Lincoln touring car, driven by manager of the Fredericksburg Motor Company Emmett R. Colbert, and made their way up Main (Caroline) Street. Preceded by state motorcycle policemen and flanked by secret servicemen, the motorcade turned onto Amelia Street and then again onto Princess Anne Street, making its way south to the Fredericksburg Country Club. Click the image below to watch the silent raw footage of President Coolidge’s visit to Fredericksburg. The first eight seconds of the footage shows the president’s car traveling through the 900 block of Main Street. Huwill Stores (919 Main Street) and John F. Scott’s hardware store (today the site of River Run Antiques) are clearly visible in the background. The film then cuts to a twelve second clip of the president’s motorcade heading south on Princess Anne Street and through the intersection with National (Lafayette) Boulevard. James T. Horton’s filling station is visible on the corner.
The remainder of film hows the president delivering his speech from from the Fredericksburg County Club at “Mannsfiled Hall,” known during the Civil War as “Smithfield.” A special stage had been constructed stage on the rear of the building, while the crowd spread out on the back lawn. In front of the president are a few microphones, one of which served to carry the ceremony live over WRC, out of Washington, D.C., along with a network of other stations throughout the country. While this footage lacks audio you can read a transcript of Coolidge’s address by clicking here. The president’s remarks reflected the popular rhetoric of that time by remembering the Civil War in terms of reconciliation and reunification. Coolidge also spoke to the strength of the country since the war and its emergence as an international power. Ironically, he also spoke to the United States’ economic strength and progress, these words coming just one year before the crash of the stock market.
Beginning at the 1:18 mark on the film, two young women unveil a large bronze plaque. The ladies are Miss Lillian Anita Clem, granddaughter of Battlefield Park Commission member General John L. Clem, and Miss Rebecca Mason Lee, grandniece of General Fitzhugh Lee. To the left of the plaque, and partially hidden behind a pillar, stands the legendary Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General John A. Lejeune. Also present in the final seconds of the footage is Admiral Charles F. Hughes, Chief of Naval Operations.
The plaque, thus dedicated by Coolidge, has been on display at the Fredericksburg Battlefield for the last eighty-five years. Sometime after the ceremonies, the plaque was affixed to a large boulder. The “Coolidge Monument,” as it has come to be known, has stood at the entrance to Lee Drive, the primary park tour route and one of the first park development projects. Thousands of people pass by that plaque every day. It’s doubtful few know what it commemorates or even stop to read it.
At 2:21 in length, this brief bit of film is a great little historical document. It provides us with moving images of the establishment of the military park. It’s most likely the earliest film footage showing Frederickbsurg and it documents the visit of a United States President to the town. These are just outtakes. The finished Fox Movietone newsreel, which apparently runs 8:07 and has sound, also resides in the collection owned by the University of South Carolina. According to local newspaper coverage of the dedication, all of the major newsreel companies were present: M.G.M, Paramount, Pathe, Kinograms News, and International Newsreel. If all of the newsreel companies produced comparable footage, how much of it may still survive and what else might it show?
Thanks to Bill Jenney of the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation for sharing a link to the film footage. Also, thanks to Sean Maroney of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc. for making available HFFI’s files and offering thoughts on locations that appear in the film.
Eric J. Mink