A Quarter-Century of Research on Fredericksburg’s ‘Burial of the Dead’ Photographs, Part 2

Note: for magnifications, click photos or maps, then scroll down to right corner of dark-screen version, then click on “View full size” link.

from: Harrison

Part 1 of this post introduced the story of my long, trial-and-error research on one of the Civil War’s most poignant series of photographs—images of the creation of a temporary cemetery in Union-occupied Fredericksburg in May 1864.

A quick review: workmen interred at this burial ground some of the 26,000 Overland Campaign casualties who had been dispatched that month to Fredericksburg for medical treatment. (Have a listen here to John Hennessy’s presentation on the City of Hospitals that resulted.) William A. Frassanito’s Grant and Lee: the Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865 (1983) would publish seven different images made by at least two different photographers at the temporary cemetery on May 19 or May 20, 1864. Here are four of the seven, from the collections of the Library of Congress and the National Archives:


Frassanito’s inspirational book offered a challenge: find the temporary cemetery’s still-unlocated site on the modern landscape in or around Fredericksburg. My effort to do that came to rely upon one of the seven photographs, now in the collection of the National Archives, and offering an especially clear view of a large home in the background (detail below). If I could locate the house, I could locate the site of the cemetery, as he had suggested. Note the pair of slender chimneys with steep shoulders tapering just above the second-story windows, and the one-story dependency, or wing, connected to the main building:


My inquiry eventually focused on a home (inset above) situated between Princess Anne and Charles Streets, in the northern part of old town, and property of Douglas K. Gordon during the Civil War. The Gordon House sports slender, twin chimneys at each end and tapering just above the second-story windows. And judging from antebellum insurance policies, a wing or dependency—vanished by the time of my initial research in the late 1980’s—had once adjoined the south end.

If the Gordon House and a southerly extending dependency indeed appeared in the background of the photographs of 1864, then the site of the temporary cemetery, I reasoned, had to be somewhere near or along the edge of Charles Street, parallel to it, not far to the southwest of the house. Such an alignment would place the tripods of the photographers of 1864 at places near—or directly in front of—one of the town’s earliest tourist attractions: the last home of Mary Washington, mother of George.

Here’s a map of the houses and other landmarks mentioned in this blog post and its predecessor (a second map appears further below, narrowing the focus as the geographic discussion narrows):


In 1995, I published Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, a two-volume set of place histories; a caption in Volume 2 identified the home in the burial-ground photos as the Gordon House. Yet, scarcely three years later, I opened The Civil War in Depth, historian Bob Zeller’s innovative presentation of the war’s three-dimensional photography, and realized that my theory was untenable. There on page 88 of Zeller’s book was an eighth image: a stereoview, not appearing in Grant and Lee. This photograph (one of its halves, below) had found its way to the collections of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Although the configuration of the soldiers’ bodies; the coffin; and the curving wheel-track made a clear connection to the cemetery series of May 1864, the stereoview looks in a direction generally opposite those of the other seven photographs:

Miler main

(Courtesy The Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland Ohio; image reproduced here with permission)

Although the Western Reserve stereoview did not bear any original caption specifying a particular location in Fredericksburg, I immediately recognized the largest building in the background (below) as the north façade of a still-extant structure (inset, below) on the south side of William Street. During the Civil War, that building’s most prominent occupant was Charles Miller’s store. For years I had passed it almost daily.



Any image that looked in the opposite direction of the group of seven photographs from 1864, towards the north façade of the Miller structure on William Street and from a burial-ground location that extended along Charles Street near the Gordon House, would have much of its foreground occupied by the Mary Washington House. Yet that house was absent from the scene of the Western Reserve stereoview, which instead offered a vista open all the way to the Miller building and adjacent structures in the middleground. What appears to be a lane—likely an early incarnation of Winchester Street—extends across the image, behind the photographer.

Helpfully, though, the Miller Store’s presence and position in the stereoview made clear that the temporary cemetery had indeed been situated someplace in the north end of Fredericksburg…but further west than my 1995 theory—someplace on the town’s outskirts west of the Gordon House, Charles Street, and the Mary Washington House. Returning to the key question of the identity of the home photographed in 1864, with its twin, slender chimneys that tapered just above the second story windows, I thought of a still-standing house: a very attractive and evocative, private residence on Prince Edward Street today. Fredericksburg Hustings Court clerk John J. Chew had owned the property during the Civil War:


The Chew House had been constructed by 1796 on Prince Edward Street—one thoroughfare west of Charles Street—and just north of the corner of Prince Edward and Lewis Streets. By the time of the Civil War, the property also hosted an extensive garden extending westward; the house of a tenant; and at least two houses of enslaved people. Dramatic if limited combat occurred on the grounds in December 1862. In May 1864, Union troops arrested John J. Chew and transported him to Washington, D. C. on suspicion of being among the Fredericksburg civilians who had captured Federal wounded and stragglers on May 8, 1864 and delivered them “into the rebel hands at Richmond.” (On May 23, President Abraham Lincoln endorsed an order for Chew’s release, determining that he had “actually ministered, to the extent of his ability, to the relief of our wounded in Fredericksburg.”)

Several decades later, the Fredericksburg College acquired the former Chew building and constructed a large, rear addition. By mentally subtracting that, and consulting a c. 1908 image of the building’s least-altered Prince Edward Street façade, I realized that the pre-addition Chew House had possessed not only twin chimneys that tapered above the second-story windows but also a general configuration and location consistent with the additional evidence of the Western Reserve stereoview:


(source: Sylvanus J. Quinn, The History of the City of Fredericksburg, Virginia, p. 172)

Meantime, a review of the antebellum insurance policies showed that, by 1850, a large dependency, or wing, indeed extended from the south end of the house, towards the corner of Prince Edward and Lewis.

After the Civil War, the Chew House underwent modifications, beyond the Fredericksburg College-addition, that would obscure further the visual connection of its south and west facades to 1864: the twin chimneys were slightly reduced in height, a vent added, and the southerly extending wing/dependency removed and an unattached brick structure built atop its site. (The college addition enabled the Chew House after the college’s closing to take on new life as one of the town’s largest and most beloved historical-museums, itself now closed.)

A second home visible in the background of some of the 1864 photographs provided strong, supporting evidence for a Chew House Theory. Here (top, below) is a detail showing that second background-home. Note the prominent, single chimney on the end nearest the twin-chimney house, and what appears to be a flat roof on the first story. This single-end-chimney house of 1864 seems a certain match for the Civil War-era home of Robert Duerson, which still stands today—150 feet south of the Chew House and aligned with it along Prince Edward Street—indeed with a single chimney on the north façade, facing the Chew House. And here, also (bottom, below), is a modern comparison-view of the same rear, or west, façade of the Duerson House that would have been photographed in 1864, now using a perspective that shifts slightly northward to avoid the visual obstruction of adjacent, postwar homes:


The clincher for me was learning that most of the open ground in the Western Reserve stereoview, stretching all the way to Charles Miller’s store, consisted of a half dozen vacant, contiguous lots owned by Miller on the opposite side of William Street and adjoining the Duerson property. An interment register shows that, sometime between 1866 and 1868, workmen transferred the remains of 328 Federal soldiers from “Charles Miller’s lot” to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Obviously, the burial work documented in the images had continued after the photographers departed, adding graves to one or more of Miller’s lots before the Federals abandoned the town on May 28, 1864. And the National Cemetery interment register records no names for any of the 328 relocated sets of remains–all or nearly all of the headboards photographed in 1864 had vanished by 1866.

(Research by my colleague, Donald C. Pfanz, subsequently uncovered a November 1865 letter sent by a bereaved father to the United States War Department. The man wrote of visiting Fredericksburg that year to locate the grave of his son, who had died in one of the town’s hospitals in May 1864, only to find “about 400 [soldiers] buried in one lot and but 2 or 3 graves marked,” and his son’s not among the latter. Pfanz’s historical research would also show that such postwar accounts—especially a Federal officer’s January 1866 report estimating that identification survived at less than ten per cent of the Union soldiers’ graves established in the town at any time during the war—convinced the War Department to order the creation of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.)

I published my Chew House Theory in Military Images magazine’s November-December 1998 issue—in an article analyzing a dozen of Fredericksburg’s 1864 photographs not included or site-identified in Grant and Lee—along with a locations map and a black-and-white, modern image taken from about the same location and angle as the twin-chimney-home image. Here’s a map of the general locations of the cemetery (red bar), the camera-position from which the image was made (red hexagon), the Chew House, Miller’s Store, and the Duerson House:


To make the picture that in 1864 included the Chew House (top, below), I estimate that the photographer used something close to this angle (bottom, below) but positioned his camera at a point between the future sites of these two postwar buildings on Winchester Street, and someplace down along what is now an evergreen-bordered, private sidewalk…towards the rear/east facades of the two postwar structures. He aimed his camera northeast to portray the temporary cemetery and a picket fence along the rear or southwest side of the Duerson property. In right-background he included the Duerson House itself, and in left background–on the far side of Lewis Street–the Chew House.



The National Cemetery’s 1866-1868 interments ledger notwithstanding, the bodies photographed awaiting burial in May 1864 obviously represent more than numbers, and the images more than mere research-inspiration. After the Civil War the photographs became nationally- and internationally recognized symbols, and accompanied many thoughtful reflections on the war.

For examples of writings focusing on the specific, temporary cemetery once situated—I remain certain—just west of Prince Edward Street and a short distance south and southwest of the Chew House, I recommend Frassanito’s consideration in Grant and Lee of the short lives of Sgt. Lester Baum and Pvt. Frederick Kronenberger (son of the bereaved father who penned the November 1865 letter); and John Banks’ recent, moving article on Sgt. Harvey Tucker, here. Banks also presents strong evidence for narrowing the date-range for at least some of the photographs from May 19-20, 1864 to May 20 specifically.

Noel G. Harrison

Important note on access: the buildings discussed above are private property. However, all may be viewed from public sidewalks and streets.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Fredericksburg historian and preservationist Jerry H. Brent, for his many years of friendship, generosity, and relentless good cheer.

Sources in order of first usage above—Gordon House Theory: Noel G. Harrison, Fredericksburg Civil War Sites 2: 260-261; Charles Miller’s store and lots: Harrison, Victims and Survivors: New Perspectives on Fredericksburg’s May 1864 Photographs, Military Images, Nov.-Dec. 1998: 12, 15; John Hennessy, Fredericksburg Battlefield Base Map: Fredericksburg and Falmouth 1860; Chew House: Harrison, Fredericksburg Civil War Sites 2: 39-42, 257; John J. Chew’s arrest and release: Abraham Lincoln, endorsement, May 23, 1864, of Robert S. Chew to Abraham Lincoln, May 23, 1864; Duerson House location: Hennessy, Fredericksburg Battlefield Base Map; the 328 disinterments on Miller’s property: U.S. Quartermaster General’s Office, Statement of the Disposition of Some of the Bodies of Deceased Union Soldiers and Prisoners of War Whose Remains have been Removed to National Cemeteries…4 Washington, 1869): 26; Fredericksburg headboards and identification rare by 1865-1866: Donald C. Pfanz, Where Valor Proudly Sleeps: A History of Fredericksburg National Cemetery, 1866-1933, unpublished MS., 2007, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park collection, pp. 50 (quotation), 52-53; Frassanito discussions of Baum and Kronenberger: William A. Frassanito, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865 (1983), pp. 28-36, 93-98.

Present-day photographs of Miller Store, Chew House, and Duerson House courtesy of Greg Chapman; present-day photograph of Gordon House courtesy of Jennifer Gross.

I extend special gratitude to historian Bob Zeller, President of the Center for Civil War Photography. Beyond the revelation of his pathbreaking book (now supplemented by The Civil War in Depth Volume II and The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography), Bob’s help was essential to my locating and ordering for this blog post the use-rights for the Western Reserve stereoview. Additionally, he and the other members of the Center invited me to give a presentation before their 2014 annual seminar, on research into this photographic series, and thus an opportunity to for further reflection.

Thanks, also, to Kevin Leahy, who as a park volunteer during preparation of the Military Images article in 1998, filled my research request and confirmed in Fredericksburg land-records the ownership and location of Charles Miller’s lots during the Civil War.

Gratitude is extended as well to Vicki Catozza, Reference Assistant, Research Center Reference Division, Western Reserve Historical Society Library Research Center.

For a filmed interview, from 2008, on my research-journey from the Gordon House Theory to the Chew House Theory, see this episode of Scott Eyestone’s History Scene series (beginning at the 11-minute/50-second mark).

For an extraordinary story that moves Charles Miller’s store from mere photographic background-landmark to setting for one of the most dramatic interactions between local civilians and Federal soldiers in the 1860’s, see Beth Parnicza’s four-part series of posts, beginning here.


4 thoughts on “A Quarter-Century of Research on Fredericksburg’s ‘Burial of the Dead’ Photographs, Part 2

  1. A wonderful piece of historical research. The image showing the photographer in the process of making the more frequently seen view is superb.

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