Alonzo Gambel and Union Camp Servants – Summer 1862

From Eric Mink:

The summer 1862 occupation of Fredericksburg and Stafford County is a period in the region’s history that receives little attention when compared to the battles and events that followed a few months later. For many of the Union soldiers stationed along the Rappahannock River, the summer occupation proved to be their first real exposure to the South and the institution of slavery. It has been estimated that perhaps as many as 10,000 slaves passed through the military frontier around Fredericksburg to take refuge within Union lines. Termed “contraband,” most of the escaped slaves continued their journey to the District of Columbia and perhaps even points farther north. Others chose to stay with the Union army and secured work and employment in support of the thousands of soldiers that made up the Union’s Department of the Rappahannock. This interaction developed into a working relationship that most certainly left impressions upon the soldiers.

In this photo taken July 1862, Fredericksburg is visible across the Rappahannock River.

In this photo taken July 1862, Fredericksburg is visible across the Rappahannock River.

Union authorities set to work using the refugees in a variety of roles. Many found work at Stafford County’s Aquia Landing on the Potomac River, loading and unloading the supply ships that docked there. Still others received employment as drivers for artillery forges and transportation wagons. Compensation for this work varied and as one Union officer stated “the lowest price was one ration and 25 cents per day, and the highest one ration and 40 cents.” Perhaps the largest source of employment found within the army was that of a servant to the army’s officers and men.

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A favorite place: the “back path” at Chatham

From John Hennessy:

[A new occasional feature, “Favorite Places.”  If you have one in the park, let us know–either in the comments or through email–and we’ll pass it along.]

Few people know of it (until now), and fewer still use it (it’s just as well), but it is one of my favorite places in the Fredericksburg region: the so-called “back path” at Chatham, just south of the Big House.  It is cloaked in what a soldier might have called “a dark, close wood,” and descends Stafford Heights to River Road by ancient steps haphazardly and occasionally dug into the hillside. In my hundreds of passages of the back path, I have never–not once–passed another person.

We know little of its origins, but both logic and appearance suggest it’s been used a very long time. Local legend is that Chatham’s last private owner, John Lee Pratt, used the path for his walks into town every day.  It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of others used it, too, for it is the easiest way from Chatham down to River Road, and thence into Fredericksburg across the Chatham Bridge.

If you have such a favorite place, let us know…..

A Chatham Casualty

From John Hennessy:

As most of you likely know, the Fredericksburg region suffered a serious weather event last Friday night, leaving a trail of vegetative wreckage and human discomfort rarely seen in these parts (it was not as bad as Isabel in 2003, but neither was it your standard summer thunderboomer).  As of this writing, Spotsylvania Battlefield remains closed entirely, as the park’s maintenance staff works to clear trees from roads and trails. Don’t fuss too much if the grass starts looking a bit scraggly elsewhere in the park; the staff will be using chainsaws rather than lawnmowers for the foreseeable future.

Amidst the common casualties of nature is one tree worth noting. On the front lawn of Chatham, about 30 yards south of the famous Catalpas, are two Locust trees, which also bore witness to the 1862 battle.  One of them suffered what will likely be, over time, a mortal blow Friday night. 

The tree is clearly visible in one of the 1863 photographs of Chatham.  Its adjacent twin stands undamaged, though a bit bedraggled. 

Mr. Lincoln’s Fredericksburg–May 23, 1862

From John Hennessy:

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s visit to Fredericksburg, we refer you to a post we did nearly two years ago that documents pretty strongly that Lincoln visited the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights in May 1862. You can find that post–one of our most popular ever–here.

Union General Rufus King (center) on the front steps at Chatham in the spring of 1862. That’s future Union general Judson Kilpatrick at right, already looking the daredevil. Lincoln marched up these steps and into the front door on May 23, 1862 to meet with King, McDowell, Gibbon, and others.

Lincoln’s May 23 visit came at a critical time for the Union army, as McDowell’s troops at Fredericksburg made final preparations for their advance south on Richmond, set for May 25. But while Lincoln was here, bad things were afoot in the Shenandoah that would completely disrupt the grand scheme, for on May 23, Jackson’s men struck at Banks’s forces at Strasburg and Front Royal. The climactic phase fo the Valley campaign had begun.

Lincoln’s visit to Chatham and Fredericksburg was akin to President Obama’s recent journey to Afghanistan–very few in the army or the press knew he was coming. Consequently, the visit received little notice in the press, and indeed is scantily recorded by men in the army either. Still, there are some worthwhile nuggets and impressions that have come down to us.

Union General John Gibbon left the best description of Lincoln’s morning visit to Chatham in a letter to his wife (Gibbon had written an artillery manual before the war that the government had refused to adopt, something the general pointed out to the president):

The dining room at Chatham, where Lincoln had dinner on May 23, 1862. A photo from the 1920s.

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“If these signatures could talk…”: Chatham Graffiti, Part 4

From Eric Mink:

For other posts on Civil War soldier graffiti left in the Fredericksburg area, check out these links here.

Over time, we become familiar with our surroundings. Often this familiarity is to the extent that we don’t even notice our surroundings. For forty years, park staff have worked inside Chatham, the 18th century plantation house that serves as the headquarters for the National Park Service in the Fredericksburg area. A few rooms are open to the public on the first floor. One of these, the dining room, utlizies exposed plaster around a window as an exhibit. Civil War soldier have scrawled their names and regiments across the plaster. A good amount of the graffiti is too faint to read or the handwriting is too difficult to decipher. Although exposed for forty years with thousands of eyes gazing upon it, we were able to decipher yet another name last week written upon the wall.

Perhaps the sunlight hit it just right in the later afternoon, but the regimental designation popped right out. It took a couple of us to figure out the signature.

There is no doubt, however, that the graffiti reads:

C McKenna/Co C 2d R—/NYSM/May 6th 18—

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A salvo at Clara Barton

From John Hennessy:

Our apologies for the pace of posts lately, but we have all been involved in some form in the Manassas 150th, and so things have been a bit hectic. For another post that speaks to Clara Barton’s service in Fredericksurg, click here.

Plain sight is often the worst place for something to be, for in our ardor to dig deep in our search for interesting and new things, we often miss that which is before us.  We are grateful to th park’s former Chief Historian, Bob Krick, for pointing out a passage that we have had for years, but missed.

J. Franklin Dyer’s The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon (edited by Michael B. Chesson) is flat-out one of the best chronicles of its kind. Dyer worked extensively at Chatham after the Battle of Fredericksburg, and his is by far the most detailed account we have of the use of the place as a hospital.

His diary does not mention Clara Barton, but in the introduction, Mr. Chesson quoted a letter Dyer wrote after Gettysburg. In it, Dyer offers harsh commentary on volunteer nurses male and female, and reserves especial criticism for Clara Barton. In so doing, he gives us some more information about Barton’s work at Chatham, and also reveals a great deal about the unprogressive attitude of many Union surgeons toward the civilian volunteers that came forward to help them.  Continue reading

A tiny witness grown grand

From John Hennessy:

If I might speak personally for a moment: one of the great joys of my job is looking out my office window every day and seeing the great sycamore that towers over both Chatham and me. Every spring I watch its leaves straggle into bloom, faithfully two weeks later than every other tree around, always waiting long enough to make me wonder if, finally, this year is it–the year it will not leaf out–but then it does.  I see it sway scarily in summer storms, watch its leaves turn and drop each fall, and behold the steady procession of its broken branches that get hung up in their fall…and then teeter, sometimes for month or two, before just the right wind blows them to the ground.

This computer and that sycamore are the two of constants of my worklife.

A couple years ago, our friend and pre-eminent Fredericksburg collector Jerry Brent discovered a postwar image of the east facade of Chatham–by far the earliest image we have of the land-side of the house. Continue reading

Building research into media: Virtual Chatham

From John Hennessy:

While we generally enjoy the process of research and writing about the landscapes we manage, we ultimately do it to inform the public. We continue to search for ways to deliver important and interesting things to park visitors and those who engage the park online (be it here, on our website, or on the park’s Facebook page, which our staff is fast turning into a very interesting resource–check it out). As we have mentioned before, we are developing a number of digital projects. Our latest uses the accumulation of decades of knowledge about Chatham and its landscape, including Eric’s Mink’s work on Chatham’s slave cabins, first presented on Mysteries and Conundrums a few months ago (you can see his work  here and here).  It is a digital re-creation of Chatham over the decades, showing its evolution from classic Georgian mansion to the still-beautiful-but-altered vision of Chatham we have today (for a post on Chatham and its modern setting, click here).  This fly-around will soon go on permanent display at Chatham (and elsewhere), but we present here publicly for the first time.  The silky voice of the narrator you might recognize as Donald Pfanz’s.

Bear in mind that this vision of Chatham shows only what we can reasonably deduce from the evidence. It does not show everything–there were at times more than 25 outbuildings on the site. 

A long life ending, and a dilemma

From John Hennessy (for an earlier post on the Chatham catalpas, click here):

The Chatham catalpas are among the most famous trees in Virginia, likely mentioned by Walt Whitman in his remembrance of his time at Chatham in December 1862. He described the scene outside “the surgery”–the room we today use to show our A/V program:

The catalpas in front of Chatham, 1863

At the foot of a tree, immediately in front, a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening–in the garden near, a row of graves.

By then, Chatham’s catalpas were probably 40 years old. Today, they are famous, old and gnarled. Their decrepitness conveys a sense of nobility.  (If only it were so with people).

Last summer a regular walker at Chatham came in to tell us she thought one of the trees was leaning precariously. Continue reading

The view from (and of) Chatham–a conundrum

From John Hennessy:

The view from the terraces at Chatham. Photo by Donald Pfanz.

It is perhaps the most famous, photographed view in the Fredericksburg region: from Chatham’s middle terrace, looking over the cannons, across the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg, with its skyline featuring the three dominant elements that have marked it since 1855–the Baptist Church, St. George’s Episcopal Church, and the Circuit Courthouse. But, while it’s pleasing and useful, it’s not the most important view related to Chatham.

The view from the slopes in front of Chatham, 1863--devoid of trees.

Think for a moment about the great antebellum plantations. Most of them have a signature element that bespeaks the owners’ wealth and power. Kenmore has its stunning plaster work inside. Mannsfield was an elaborate, elegant place built of a material (sandstone) almost unheard of it major construction in the Fredericksburg region. Shirley has its exquisite woodwork.

But what about Chatham? What’s its signature? Continue reading