“A deepened pride in our nation’s history “: Crafting Exhibits in a Modern Park


From Beth Parnicza:

This post continues the story of park infrastructure expansion during the Mission 66 period, introduced here.

Two movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s captured Americans on a global and local level: the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. As tensions mounted at home and abroad, the National Park Service prepared to turn 50 years old. As part of the NPS anniversary “Mission 66” initiative, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP seized the opportunity to craft new exhibits in the old museum space at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building (now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center), and at the new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center.

The challenge was high. The park’s small staff of historians faced the greatest expansion of interpretation since the park’s creation. Staff had to balance their understanding of the past with the conflicts and societal understandings of the present. Our past defines us and provides us with an identity, but we can only understand the past through our own experiences. In this sense, the past becomes another layer of the present that manifests in history books, exhibits, and storytelling. To help visitors connect with the war, the new exhibits needed to fit a modern generation’s understanding of the Civil War as the conflict neared its centennial anniversary.

1937 view of Fredericksburg Battlefield museum and administrative building exhibits. Two chairs, a diorama of destruction downtown, four exhibit cases, and a large map.

The exhibit space in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building in 1937, shortly after it opened. This room looked much the same 20 years later, as the park prepared for new exhibits to occupy this space.

Looking around the existing gallery space, the park’s historian staff must have been both dazzled by the possibilities and alarmed at the open-ended questions they confronted. How broad in scope should the new exhibits be? How do we fit such a vast and compelling story into a compact space? How do we teach visitors with an increasingly distant view of the war? Which stories of the Civil War should we tell? Continue reading

Morris Schaff’s Wilderness, pt. 2: Spirits, Ghosts, and Talking Plants on the Battlefield


from: Harrison

My previous post introduced Union veteran Morris Schaff and his authoring of The Battle of the Wilderness, the first book on its subject. That post also began considering why Schaff’s goal of writing careful, conventional battle history remains virtually unknown today. When we compare his ambition to the same ambition embodied in John Bigelow’s book, The Campaign of Chancellorsville, published the same year, 1910, and destined to garner wide respect for evaluating the tactics and grand tactics of another local battle, the obscurity that befell Schaff’s project is all the more striking.

This post explores the principal, ironic impediment to Schaff’s hope of being remembered for his conventional history: his book’s parallel, unconventional goal of understanding the battle and its participants as affected by activist spirits and ghosts, and intelligent, even compassionate, vegetation. As I noted earlier, a critic who reviewed Schaff’s book in 1911 marveled at an author “who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” A second reviewer, commenting on his book in The Dial in 1912, worried that the pairing of very different interpretive methods was “a stumbling-block” for many readers. The Dial critic went on to relate the response of a “distinguished fellow-soldier” to Schaff: “When you get done with your poetry and get down to history you will write a valuable book.”

Marginalia and an inscription in this copy of Morris Schaff’s book indicate that 49-year-old Franklin J. Roth read it over the course of three weeks in the fall of 1912. A 1920’s newspaper article described Roth as president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School Board and “a collector of old documents and historical data.” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park library.

Marginalia and an inscription in this copy of Morris Schaff’s book indicate that 49-year-old Franklin J. Roth read it over the course of three weeks in the fall of 1912. A 1920’s newspaper article described Roth as president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School Board and “a collector of old documents and historical data.” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park library.

If Schaff’s diversions into the supernatural had been less prominent, readers might have understood those as efforts to enliven the book with analogy and allegory, or to achieve other purposes common among writers of his era. For instance, some of Schaff’s passages reflect the view, shared by many of the Civil War generation, that battlefield death could bring nobility, individual peace in the Christian afterlife, and North-South reconciliation. His book at one point has the allegory of Death encountering the mortally wounded Lieutenant Colonel Alford Chapman of the 57th New York Infantry; likely at no other place in the Wilderness had Death “met more steady eyes than those of this dying, family-remembering young man.” At another juncture, the spirits of dead soldiers, from both armies, rise “above the tree tops…a great flight of them towards Heaven’s gate…. [T]wo by two they lock arms like college boys and pass in together; and so it may be for all of us at last.”

Yet Schaff’s supernatural characters appear even more dramatically, across some 25 per cent of his book, in repeated interventions that alter battle outcomes and soldier experiences. For starters, there’s “The Spirit of the Wilderness,” which in turn has the capacity to conjure The Spirit of Slavery. Schaff at several points describes The Spirit of Slavery as a single being and at another as “a resurrected procession of dim faces” moving “in “ghostly silence.” The Spirit of the Wilderness is determined to punish the Confederacy for the miseries suffered in the same forest a century earlier by those people while alive and enslaved on Alexander Spottswood’s vast local landholdings (and more generally by all slaves since then).

Even media not typically hospitable to supernatural interpretation conveyed the view that Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville was an eerie, extraordinary event. Detail from Benjamin Lewis Blackford, "Part of Spotsylvania County," Gilmer Civil War Maps Collection, University of North Carolina.

Even media not typically hospitable to supernatural interpretation conveyed the view that Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville was an eerie, extraordinary event. Detail from Benjamin Lewis Blackford, “Part of Spotsylvania County,” Gilmer Civil War Maps Collection, University of North Carolina.

(Click here for hi-rez version.)

First, The Spirit of the Wilderness in 1863 takes the life of Stonewall Jackson, who finds himself transformed into yet another specter haunting its depths. Then, a year later, the Spirit strikes down James Longstreet, “just as victory was in his [Robert E. Lee’s] grasp,” and in a battle where success was “absolutely necessary to save the life of the Confederacy.” Schaff’s very next paragraph describes the underlying forces at work, with “miraculous” by no means synonymous with “benevolent”: 

Reader, if the Spirit of the Wilderness be unreal to you, not so is it to me. Bear in mind that the natural realm of the spirit of man is nature’s kingdom, that there he has made all of his discoveries, and yet what a vast region is unexplored, that region among whose misty coast Imagination wings her way bringing one suggestion after another of miraculous transformations….

Continue reading

Is this the most important Civil War-era building in the Fredericksburg region?


From Hennessy:  Update, February 10, 2015:  On November 21, 2014, PNC Bank ceased operations in the former Farmer’s Bank building, bringing its continuous use as a bank to a close after 194 years.  The building is now on the market.

From Hennessy: Update:  On July 31, 2014, PNC Bank announced that the former National Bank Building on Princess Anne Street was up for sale, bringing its continuous use as a bank since 1820 into question (certainly no building in town has been subject to the same commercial use for as long).  This post, done originally in 2011, seems pertinent anew, so we post it again.

I spent the day today with a National Geographic film crew and the great-great-grandaughter and g-g-great grandson of John Washington, retracing with them the Fredericksburg world of John Washington, a slave who came of age in the years before the Civil War, and who left behind an astonishingly good memoir. We spent a fair amount of time at the Farmer’s Bank Building at the corner of Princess Anne and George Streets. The experience–profound in many ways–got me wondering whether or not we were standing before the most important Civil War-era building in the Fredericksburg region. Some, like Chatham and Brompton, are surely more famous. But for association with important events, people, and themes of American history, is there anyplace hereabouts with greater association with famous people, events, and major themes of American history than this?

William Lewis Herndon, commander of the doomed steamer Central America, spent part of his childhood living in the Bank building. Herndon, VA, is named in his honor.

Built as a bank in 1820, it continues as a bank in 2010. But it’s always been more than a bank. The side entrance to the building leads to spacious and beautiful living quarters that were traditionally home of the bank’s cashier or head teller. The first to live here was Dabney Herndon, whose offspring were several and famous. Ann Hull Herndon married Matthew Fontaine Maury. Lt. William Lewis Herndon gained fame as an explorer of the Amazon, but died famously in 1857 when his steamship bearing both mail and gold went down in a storm off Hatteras. Herndon was hailed a hero for helping to save more than 150 souls. In appreciation, the people of New York purchased a home in New York City for his wife and daughter, Ellen Lewis Herndon. While in New York before the war, Ellen Herndon met young Chester Arthur, whom she would soon marry. Dr. Brodie S. Herndon, a prominent Fredericksburg physician and reportedly the first American doctor to perform a cesarean section, also spent part of his  youth in the Bank building. Later, the Ware family took over management of the Bank and its residential space. One of the family’s slaves was John Washington, who spent most of his first 24 years living in this building, tending to the needs and wants of his owner, Catherine Ware, later Taliaferro. Washington’s memories of slavery in Fredericksburg, and especially in this house, are a powerful testament to a life striving toward freedom. Standing outside the building today, we read Washington’s description of his separation from his mother and siblings, when they were hired out to a farm in Staunton. The room he describes is likely that directly over the side entrance–the third window from the left. Continue reading