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—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.)