Visual evidence of learning–the Fairgrounds by O’Reilly

From John Hennessy:

Last May, we did a two-part series on the Fredericksburg Fairgrounds (often called Mercer Square), which consumed much of what we now know as the Bloody Plain.  Take a look at those posts here and here. Included in the second is a conjectural sketch done by Frank O’Reilly that included his best estimate, then, of the Fairgrounds.  Here is the image as published back in May (click to enlarge).

You will recall that this image was created as a reference for an original piece of art that is still in development. Since then, we have learned more about the Fairgrounds, most notably in the form of a sketch done by a visitor during the Confederate encampment there in 1861, published in the Library of Virginia’s magazine, Broadside. Here is that image (the original is at the Huntington Library). 

The Fairgrounds in April 1861, by a member of the 21st Virginia. The view looks south, from above the Stratton House.

This by far is the best image we have of the Fairgrounds, and it has further refined our understanding of the Fairgrounds complex as it existed in 1861. Frank, a skilled sketch artist, has gone ahead and embodied all that we now know in a new sketch, which we share here.

Looking southeast from above Brompton. Click to enlarge.

Such is the progression of our learning and understanding, in this instance fortuitously embodied in art for all to see.

A Key Landmark Vanishes from the Fredericksburg Battlefield…Too Soon for Photographing but Not for Sketching

from:  Harrison

I always savor the irony of a Civil War-era “outsider,” whether a soldier or a civilian, a writer, sketch-artist, or photographer, creating what turns out to be the most detailed of all the known portrayals of a building destined to vanish from the landscape.

The war was extraordinary in part for bringing national and enduring fame—even international renown—to countless, ordinary sites and structures that would otherwise have received little if any notice, even on the local level.  In peacetime such places gained, at most, only fragmentary documentation in census- and legal records, insurance policies, or the occasional notice in a diary or newspaper.  The events of 1861-1865, however, brought scrutiny by strangers with fresh eyes, sharpened still more by the awareness that a particular building could mark the boundary between life and death, or even success and failure of national import.

And a further irony presents itself:  the very Civil War events that brought the attentions of strangers and their heightened sensitivity often destroyed the places they documented vividly…soon after that documenting was achieved.

Working from John Keyser’s eyewitness, black-and-white sketch, a Philadelphia lithographer produced a vivid, color depiction of Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop complex—its principal building shown with dark roof at upper center in this detail from “Charge of Kimball’s Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg.”  Yet a comparison with the sketch and other contemporary pictures, below, reveals artistic license and distortions in the color version.  (Note Brompton at upper right and the millrace at bottom for orientation.)  Courtesy Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

Working from John Keyser’s eyewitness, black-and-white sketch, a Philadelphia lithographer produced a vivid, color depiction of Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop complex—the large building with dark roof at upper center in this detail from “Charge of Kimball’s Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg.” Yet a comparison with the sketch and other contemporary pictures discussed below reveals major distortions in the color version. (Note Brompton at upper right and the millrace at bottom for orientation.) Courtesy Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

Such was the case with Allen Stratton’s wheelwright shop, situated on what in December 1862 became the Bloody Plain at the outskirts of Fredericksburg.  Stratton’s enterprise consisted of two principal, wooden structures likely housing a blacksmith’s forge, a carpentry shop, and a stable/storage area, and perhaps linked together by a smaller connector-structure.  (I will refer to the shop in the singular for the purposes of this discussion.)  Of these two principal components, one fronted Fair Street, and one fronted both Fair and a stretch of Telegraph Road also known as the “Court House Road” (modern-day Kirkland Street in that vicinity) opposite Sisson’s Grocery Store.

On the eve of the Civil War, Fair Street extended a short distance beyond and south of the wheelwright shop, and past Allen Stratton’s brick dwelling, to or near the Fredericksburg fairgrounds’ north gate.  (Fair Street, modern Littlepage Street, now extends south entirely through the densely-subdivided site of the former fairgrounds to an intersection with modern Lafayette Boulevard.)  I’ve annotated a survey map, dating from 1856, to show the street- and building locations on the eve of the war (with north pointing right):
Stratton’s Wheelwright Shop was definitely standing by 1856.  It appears as a hazy, two-component building on the Sachse chromolithographed panorama of Fredericksburg (below), which also dates to that year.  The shop is largely interchangeable with dozens of other white structures appearing elsewhere on the chromolithograph.  (Note that Stratton’s brick dwelling, built around 1858, has not yet appeared on the landscape.)

Continue reading

Rare views of the Bloody Plain–Part I

From Hennessy:

How ironic is it that the most important battlefield landscape in Virginia that’s been virtually lost is also the one that’s the best documented photographically?  I suppose there’s some consolation in that.

These images are nearly 150 years old, but they’ve rarely been seen or published. At first glance they look to be fairly common images of Fredericksburg during the Civil War, offering little that hasn’t been noted before. But a closer look into the background in fact reveals an entirely new perspective on the fields beyond town–the Bloody Plain. These images, together with the Federal Hill panorama  surely make Fredericksburg’s Bloody Plain the best photographically documented battlefield landscape anywhere (at least in terms of wartime images). 

There are three images, two of which we share here today. Both by A.J. Russell; both 1863. The first shows a familiar foreground–John Marye’s Excelsior Mill, just below the ruined railroad bridge, and beyond it Alexander and Gibbs’s Tobacco Factory, where the slave John Washington worked in 1860.

Original at the Wes. Res. Hist. Soc.

The second image takes in ground a bit farther downstream and focuses on an industrial part of town that is today largely consumed with parking lots associated with the train station.

Original at the West. Res. Hist. Soc.

We will look at all these things eventually, but for today let’s look into the distant background of these images, for together they offer a view of the Bloody Plain and Marye’s Heights beyond Fredericksburg that is exceeded only by the famous Federal Hill panorama (which we have explored extensively here, here, and here). Continue reading

The other stone wall?

From Hennessy:

It may be the most overlooked of all the features on the Bloody Plain–a forgotten survivor that thousands pass daily without a thought. Union soldiers sought its cover; our own Frank O’Reilly identified and documented it: a low stone wall that offered fleeting shelter to desperate Union troops struggling to and across the Bloody Plain.

Looking SW, along Weedon Street--is this the remnant of the stone wall that sheltered Union troops and Hazard's Battery on December 13, 1862?

It’s “the other” stone wall, first identified by Frank O’Reilly in his extensive work on the attacks on Marye’s Heights. His work generated several references to the wall. A man in the 14th Connecticut remembered that his regiment went across the causeway they took position “near a stone wall, behind which a number of wounded lay.” A man in the 131st Pennsylvania of Humphreys’s division likewise declared that his regiment “formed behind a stone wall, just under the brow of a hill, occupied by a battery.”

That battery was Hazard’s Rhode Island Battery, which was one of just two Union batteries to cross the canal ditch that day, sent there, as O.O. Howard remembered, to “encourage the infantry.” Howard’s chief of artillery protested the order to Hazard: “General, a battery could not live out there.” Said Howard, “Then it must die out there.” Continue reading

Fredericksburg’s first suburb: survivors (some forgotten)

From Hennessy:

In our last post on the community along the Sunken Road and Hanover Street that constituted Fredericksburg’s lone suburb in 1860, we focused on what is by far the most famous survivor from the eleven homes and two businesses that made up neighborhood: the Stratton House.  Since the war, the area has filled almost completely–the only open space that remains is on the Sunken Road proper–but still a few other surviving homes dot the landscape.

Photo by David Ellrod

To me, the most interesting among them is the home at what is today 919 Hanover Street–largely because it’s almost completely forgotten.  It was built about 1840 for a free black man named James Wilkins, who was a well-known and well-regarded barber in town who had been emancipated from slavery in 1824. Wilkins operated a thriving shop on Caroline Street. The local newspapers advertised him as “a professor of shaving, adept at hair coloring, and  a Connoisseur of Perfuming” (I daresay modern Fredericksburg possesses no one who would warrant both the titles “professor of shaving” and a “Connoisseur of Perfuming”.) It is one of only a handful of surviving structures in Fredericksburg that was once owned by a free black.  Mr. Wilkins owned the house until 1845. At the time of the Civil War, the place was owned by drayman Monroe Stevens (no relation so Martha, so far as we know), who lived there with his wife Elizabeth and two children.  The core of 919 Hanover (quite small) is a rare surviving example of an intact interior of a lower-middle class house in Fredericksburg (another is the Innis House, along the Sunken Road, just a couple hundred yards away).

A vast step up the socio-economic ladder is just east of the Wilkins/Stevens house: the elegant brick home of George Rowe, the central structure on a 400-acre farming operation.  Rowe was without question one of the Fredericksburg region’s most interesting figures.  His 1868 obituary says of him, “He came to Fredericksburg, nearly a half century ago, comparatively unknown, and without educational advantages, and with no capital but a clear head, honest heart, and an ambitious spirit.  He immediately identified himself with the businessmen and business interests of the city.  Animation by a stern resolve for self elevation and conquest of adverse circumstances, by which he was surrounded, he devoted himself to work…and swiftly commanded public confidence.”

The George Rowe House and surrounding outbuildings on Hanover Street.

Continue reading

Bloody Plain Panorama: Fredericksburg’s Suburb–a first look

From Hennessy (click on images to enlarge; for a later post on this subject, click here):

The visual impact of the Bloody Plain panorama derives from its seeming emptiness and what that implied for the thousands of Union soldiers struggling to reach the heights in the distance. But in fact, the image is the first that captured what might be described as Fredericksburg’s first suburb: the community along the Sunken Road and Hanover Street.

At the time of the Civil War, this area included about fourteen households, ranging in economic status from Marye’s palatial Brompton to the small, functional home that housed Henry and Sophia Ebert on Sunken Road–literally in Brompton’s afternoon shadow.   Of the fourteen or so homes that stood in the “suburb,” four survive today:  Brompton, Innis (its battle-damaged walls preserved by the NPS), Stratton, and Monroe Stephens along Hanover Street (not to be confused with Martha Stephens, whose famous house stood along Sunken Road, inside what is today the park).  The panorama and other images reveal this area in exceptional detail (see too our base map for Virtual Fredericksburg).

The most obvious building in the neighborhood is Allen Stratton’s brick home, which stood prominently just north of the Fairgrounds. Before the battle, it was not quite as lonely looking at appears in the panorama.  Stratton’s wheelright shop stood just to the right of the house, but was gone by the time this photograph was taken.  Here is another image of Stratton’s House, courtesy of our great friend and serious collector Jerry Brent.

Not to be reproduced

Continue reading

When Historical Conclusions Go Bad; or, What was I Thinking, and How Do I Fix It?

From Harrison:

In a recent interview I likened my historical conclusions to new cars.  Those begin depreciating in accuracy at the moment of publication, i.e., the moment of leaving the dealers’ lots.  At best, I can hope that the quality of the underlying historical research and interpretation proves sufficiently high to keep the rate of deprecation low.

What follows considers one such historical conclusion ultimately “gone bad;” the consequent mystery regarding a feature of The Bloody Plain in front of Fredericksburg’s Stone Wall and Sunken Road; and a broader conundrum regarding the degree to which our interpretive publications, signs, and other programming should be designed to “sunset,” or to accommodate—or even anticipate—revisions reflecting newly discovered information or more plausible interpretations.

Over the course of many examinations of this photograph of the Bloody Plain, viewed from atop Marye’s Heights in May 1864, I became fascinated by what appeared to be a berm-like feature.  For me this was defined by a white line bisecting two narrow zones of dark, freshly disturbed ground–darker strips that in turn bisected lighter patches of ground.  Here’s a detail from a digital copy of the image, in the collection of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park:

Continue reading