Up the courthouse cupola with a Union signal officer, December 14, 1862


From John Hennessy:  It constantly amazes how, still, the source material flows.  Last year, Greg Acken, who has a great eye for important primary sources, edited and published the memoirs of Louis Fortescue, a signal officer with the Army of the Potomac. Fortescue’s memoir is outstanding throughout, but no section is better than his account of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Fredericksburg Courthouse.2427.jpg

The Circuit Courthouse in 1864.  The round openings in the upper level (Fortescue mistook them as openings for a clock never installed) are clearly visible, and remain today.

Late on December 13 and again on December 14, Fortescue ascended the cupola of the Circuit Courthouse on Princess Anne Street to, on the one hand, monitor developments to the west, on the battlefield itself and, on the other, signal anything significant back to another signal station at Burnside’s headquarters at the Phillips house.  Fortescue’s account is full of detail about the courthouse itself. Since the Civil War, the cupola has been refashioned some on the outside, but its interior remains largely unchanged.

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The passageway to the cupola’s second level, looking much as it did when Fortescue passed upward on December 14, 1862.  Image courtesy of Michael Spencer, University of Mary Washington.  

We found Fuller occupying a space octagonal in form and some sixty feet above the ground. The steeple stood to the left of the structure which was built with its side to the street, the entrance to it being immediately underneath us on a level with the pavement, the whole being enclosed by an iron spiked railing. Our space was on the top or fifth floor and about four feet in diameter. To reach the first floor above the street a long ladder was required.

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The passageway to the third level of the cupola, with the bell visible, in 2016. Fortescue mentions having to squeeze by the bell during his ascent. Photograph by the City of Fredericksburg.

This led to a trap door over which hung a large bell that, with its supports, filled nearly the entire space. Above the bell was a heavy upright [support] that extended to the top of the steeple, and was apparently the main support, the outer brick-work being but a mere shell.

On four sides of our apartment were round openings for clock dials, some two feet in diameter, but as the dials had never been placed there, in consequence of the poverty of the county, the spaces answered excellently for the purposes of observation, care being taken that the enemy did not observe us moving past the opening looking towards their works. The opposite one, toward our lines, was used for flagging.

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This sketch is from the summer of 1862, when the Union army used the Courthouse cupola in quieter times. Fortescue wrote that during the battle, he did not use the circular openings facing the Confederate lines, for fear of the Confederates intercepting his messages.  That was not a concern during the summertime occupation.

For this purpose a small flag was used, two feet only, with a short pole that prevented the flag being seen when waving it on either side of the steeple, and yet [it] permitted the messages being easily read at the Phillips House by the signal officer with Burnside across the river.

Here in this coop seven of us, three officers and four flagmen, watched carefully every movement visible within their lines and reported it promptly to Burnside, the rumor having reached us that he intended again assaulting the works during the day.

In our next: the view from the cupola during the battle, and Fortescue under fire.

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