From the PBS News Hour.
Part of working at a Civil War battlefield is being a steward of history. Not only are we stewards of the battlefields themselves, the monuments and historic buildings, but we also are stewards of the memory of those who participated in the events that the battlefields seek to interpret and commemorate. At the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSP), perhaps there is no one place within the park where that memorialization is more evident than in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. On this Memorial Day, we thought we’d share with you an event that for many on the park staff brought home this notion of stewardship of the battlefields and the memory of the men who fell upon them.
On September 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel came ashore in North Carolina, passed through Virginia, and left a path of destruction in its wake. FRSP was hit hard by the heavy winds and rain. Fortunately, the historic buildings, such as Chatham and Ellwood, escaped with only very minor wind damage. Most of Isabel’s impact was felt in over a thousand downed and uprooted trees throughout the park.
In the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, a large tree blew down and the root throw opened a three-foot deep hole over Graves #1650 and #1651. Park staff was unsure whether the burials in those graves had been disturbed. We called our National Park Service archaeologists. Fredericksburg was not the only park dealing with potential disturbance of archaeological sites, as the regional support office fielded calls from many parks in Virginia and North Carolina. Since no human bones were visible at the two graves, park staff was instructed to use hoses to wash the dirt off the tree’s root mass, thus exposing any bones, if they were present. If bones were discovered, we were to stop and immediately call the archaeologist and he would drive down from Philadelphia as soon as he could.
The process of examining the root mass began with sweeping a metal detector over thecompacted earth and roots. Six large (3”) cut nails and one unidentified iron fragment were found. If the remains of the two soldiers had been interred in coffins or boxes, the nails suggested that the burials had indeed been disturbed.
Washing a root mass, compacted with rocky Virginia clay, using a garden hose is not an easy task. As the day wore on, we began shaking the roots to help loosen the clay. I reached for a root, shook it and immediately realized I was not holding something made of wood. I was holding a tibia, a bone that forms part of the human leg. All work immediately stopped. A call was placed to Philadelphia and our regional archaeologist said he would be at the cemetery the following day.
From John Hennessy, for Memorial Day weekend (Eric is working on special post fitting for Memorial Day, but until then, we offer this):
Somewhere among the 12,000 unknown graves in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery probably lie the remains of a young Union soldier, James R. Woodworth, from Varick, New York. Woodworth served in the 44th New York Infantry of the Fifth Corps. “Ellsworth’s Avengers,” the regiment was called, and they gained fame by virtue of steady service on many battlefields, including Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Woodworth joined the 44th in the late summer of 1862, leaving behind his farm, young wife–Phebe Burroughs Woodworth–and baby Frankie.
Woodworth’s letters and diaries record his toils in the army as so many thousands of others do–the blessings of life, the curses of war, and the desire to go home mingling (and sometimes conflicting) with the commitment to do one’s duty. In many ways they are unremarkable. Except for one passage.
James Woodworth died on May 8, 1864 in the fighting at Laurel, a the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Months before, inside the cover of his diary, he had written a note to his wife, bidding her (and all of us) not to forget in case he fell. It is, I think, one of the most beautiful pieces of writing to emerge from the Civil War.
Should it be my lot to die in the present struggle, let the thought that I die in defense of my country console you. And when peace with its happy train of attendants shall once more visit this land, let it be your greatest joy to teach my child that I was one who loved my country more than life. This is the only legacy I can bequeath to him, but it is one that a prince might well be proud of.
In 1864, Union burial crews interred at least 103 Union dead on the grounds of Kenmore, the elegant plantation home of Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis–George Washington’s sister. By then, Kenmore amounted only to a handful of acres, and exactly where on the grounds the dead were buried is not entirely clear. But, research by Noel Harrison (we’ll post on this in the future) has confirmed that the famous series of images taken of Fredericksburg burials in May 1864 was taken only a few hundred feet from Kenmore’s back door. It is highly likely that the graves in that series of images (one of which is below) constitute some of the dead recorded to have been buried at Kenmore.
Donald Pfanz, who has written a book on the creation of the National Cemetery, learned of one more soldier from Kenmore, discovered in 1929. What follows is derived from his upcoming book:
From Noel Harrison:
For me, few eyewitness artworks better match the written accounts of the bleakness and tedium of Civil War life than this sketch by special artist Edwin Forbes:
His drawing depicts one and perhaps two brush shelters, and occupants, of a Federal picket station situated in Stafford County on Potomac Creek, somewhere upstream from its gorge crossed by the famous “Beanpoles and Cornstalks” railroad bridge.
It’s March 13, 1863. In a diary entry for that day, a soldier in one of the regimental camps guarded by the picket line noted, “A little snow this morning—some clouds—clear this evening.”
On the one hand, Forbes accurately captures the eternal, overarching reality of soldier life: the “wait” part of “hurry up and wait.” The sketch’s undistinguished setting, moreover, characterized the terrain along at least a third of the length of the picket line that surrounded the Army of the Potomac’s camps in southern Stafford in November 1862-June 1863. Much of the line extended between low, brushy hills north and west of the Rappahannock, far from the diverting vistas (and banter with enemy pickets) that duty along the river and its high bluffs afforded.
It is an evocative though rarely used photograph: a man standing before an unkempt line of graves, the markers askew and unadorned. The image is known to have been taken on the farm of James and Elizabeth Carpenter (an elderly couple whose son Solon served in the Fredericksburg Artillery) on the Wilderness Battlefield, a now-forgotten area well behind the Union lines, about midway between NPS holdings at Wilderness and Chancellorsville.
Today the site of the Carpenter farm is home to the local chapter of the Isaac Walton League.
Nobody that I know of has been able to identify the specific location on the farm of this view (or another less interesting image apparently from the same series). [Update: John Cummings believes he has located the site of these graves, and certainly the evidence on the ground supports his conclusions.] These don’t appear to be fresh burials, for the ground seems covered with a season’s worth of leaves and nature’s refuse–something consistent with its 1866 date (our friend John Cummings will have much more to say about this series of postwar images in an upcoming book).
The scene shows at least twenty-one graves, all but one of them seemingly marked by a stake or pole rather than a headboard. The method of marking the graves suggests this work was done in the aftermath of battle, rather than by the Union burial corps that came through the area in 1865. (We discussed and illustrated their method of marking graves in our post on Wilderness Cemetery #2, which you can find here.) No place else do I know of stakes being used to mark field burials, and the lone visible headboard in this view is radically different from the mass-produced, carefully painted boards carried and planted by the 1865 burial crews. Continue reading
From Donald Pfanz (for an earlier post on Wilderness Cemetery #2, click here):
[We are very happy to welcome Donald Pfanz to Mysteries and Conundrums. The following is the product of his extensive work on the creation of the National Cemetery, which we’ll soon be publishing as part of our publication series. ]
In June 1865, in response to clamorous complaints about the dead left unburied on the battlefields around Fredericksburg, the Federal government dispatched the 1st U.S. Veteran Volunteers to undertake reburial of the bodies. The 1st Volunteers reached Fredericksburg late on the afternoon of June 10 and pitched its tents on the south side of the Rappahannock River. Some wandered the streets of the shell-torn town; others walked across the plain leading to Marye’s Heights, where Union arms had suffered defeat on December 13, 1862. Unlike the Union soldiers who had perished in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House, most of those who had died at Fredericksburg had been buried immediately after the battle. William Landon, who had fought at Fredericksburg as a member of the 14th Indiana Infantry, took the opportunity to search the town for the graves of comrades who had fallen there. He found but one: Corporal John E. Hutchins of Company B, the “Old Post Guards.”
Landon and his comrades resumed their march the next morning, heading west along one of two roads: the Orange Turnpike or the Orange Plank Road. By noon, the First Regiment reached Chancellorsville. The charred remains of the Chancellor house and the scattered remnants of blankets, knapsacks, and other equipment bore silent witness to the fierce struggle that had been waged there. Passing on, the regiment reached the Wilderness Battlefield late that afternoon. The soldiers bivouacked on the northern end of the battlefield at an abandoned goldmine– possibly the Woodville Mine. No sooner had they arrived than “a crowd of half-starved women and children” and a few men in Confederate uniform flooded into the camp, hoping to trade garden vegetables for food that the soldiers carried in their wagons. “All the rations we could spare were freely given them,” wrote Landon, but the demand far exceeded the supply and many went away hungry.