It’s one of the Civil War’s most poignant series of images: photographs of a burial crew in Union-occupied Fredericksburg in May 1864. The men they inter are casualties of the battle of the Wilderness and, possibly, of Spotsylvania Court House as well. I can’t imagine a more powerful visual accompaniment for reflecting upon the war during the final weeks of its sesquicentennial. And I can’t imagine a more compelling mystery: in Grant and Lee: the Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865 (1983), historian William A. Frassanito noted that identifying the location of the series remained to be accomplished.
Here’s one of its images (with my slight cropping for clarity)—the photo that I relied upon most extensively during the trial-and-error research described below:
I’ve studied the set of photos intermittently but closely since 1989, and shared interpretations of it in 1995 in a book and, three years later, in an article in the November-December 1998 issue of Military Images magazine. Although I still believe that the site that I identified and published in 1998 is the correct location for the series, much of my experience in reaching that conclusion (and in discarding the theory I had published in 1995) illustrates the limited shelf-life of my own historical interpretations.
During a three-week period beginning on May 8, 1864, Fredericksburg housed more than 26,000 wounded and sick soldiers—the ghastly harvest carried in from battlefields to the west and southwest. Many of these men never left the town; images of some of their shrouded bodies were made by cameramen at a temporary cemetery someplace on the edge of a Fredericksburg neighborhood. Frassanito’s book discussed seven photographs of the cemetery, images that he found in the collections of the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Here are four more of the seven (also cropped for the purposes of this blog post):
At least two rows of new graves and headboards are shown, as well as bodies awaiting interment. Frassanito attributed the camera work to Andrew J. Russell and at least two photographers employed by Brady & Company, and dated the seven images to May 19 or 20, 1864. Early prints bore the caption “Burying the Dead,” or variations on those words (and on the army-affiliation of the soldiers being interred); the series would occasionally be misdated to December 1862 when its component photos appeared in books predating Frassanito’s.
Frassanito was unable to locate the site of the temporary cemetery but noted that the large house that appears in the background could be essential to the search. He speculated that it may have been demolished sometime after the war. Inspired by Grant and Lee’s challenge, and more hopeful of the survival of the house, I eventually developed some ideas about its identity and thus about the location of the burial photos.
Here’s the clearest depiction of the house in the 1864 series—a detail from the first photo in this blog post. Note in particular the pair of slender chimneys, the shuttered second-story window immediately to the left of one chimney, and the small dependency structure connected via a passageway:
Frassanito, it turns out, had at least one forerunner in publicizing an effort to find the location of the house. Early in the 20th century, Fredericksburg printer, bookseller, and historian Robert A. Kishpaugh colorized one of the 1864 burial-images and marketed it as a postcard, identifying the house in the background as the Sentry Box. Since the 1700’s, that elegant home had overlooked the Rappahannock River in the southern part of the town:
Unfortunately for Kishpaugh’s theory, the Sentry Box (whose Civil War- and photographic history is fascinating in its own right) sports only a single chimney at each of its ends.
I devised a theory of my own while walking to and from work, in the late 1980’s, through a neighborhood at the opposite end of Fredericksburg from the Sentry Box. My attention began focusing on one of the Civil War-era homes of Douglas H. Gordon, which still stands between Princess Anne and Charles Streets in the northern part of old town. The Gordon House has slender, twin chimneys at each end:
I noticed seams in the weatherboards indicating a now covered second-story window to the left of the left-hand chimney. And judging from antebellum insurance policies for the Gordon House, a dependency, or wing, was attached to its south end, although any such structure had vanished by the 1980’s.
If the Gordon House indeed appeared in the left background of the 1864 photos, then the location of the temporary cemetery had to be somewhere not far to the southwest and along the edge of Charles Street. The cameramen would have positioned their tripods at several locations very near or directly in front of one of the town’s earliest tourist attractions: the last home of Mary Washington, mother of George.
Plotted on today’s landscape, this scenario for the 1864 photos would be:
The theory made sense to me at the time. In 1995, I published the photo at the top of this post in volume two of a collection of mini-histories titled Fredericksburg Civil War Sites. My caption identified the house in the background of the military cemetery as the Gordon House.
Yet this interpretation would turn out to have resale value for no more than two years.
Noel G. Harrison
Next: a newly published photograph requires a replacement for my theory of 1995
Special thanks to Jennifer Gross for photographic assistance, and The Center for Civil War Photography for an opportunity to revisit and think more on this subject, for a program at their annual symposium last year.
Source for time period and number of men treated in Fredericksburg in May 1864: Report of Thomas A. McParlin, OR 36, pt. 1: 236.