Rice Bull’s Legacy of War


From Beth Parnicza

When we prepare special programs, exhibits, or even blog posts, we often pull soldiers’ letters and diary accounts written immediately following the action. Untainted by the warm glow of nostalgia, such accounts have an authenticity that draws us in as historians.

With so much of our interpretation and research focusing on a battle or its immediate aftermath, we are sometimes guilty of forgetting that these moments are brief touchstones in the lives of soldiers, which, if they were lucky, stretched far beyond the few days that command our attention. One such account that we draw on to the point of canon is Rice Bull’s spectacular recollections of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Bull served with the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, and it was both his and his regiment’s first major battle. Bull completed the memoirs of his wartime experience in 1913, fifty years after the Battle of Chancellorsville, but his clarity and descriptive ability speak to a clear mind and a sharp memory of these transformative events.

Image of Rice Bull, 123rd New York, in uniform

Rice Bull volunteered with the 123rd New York Infantry in the spring of 1862, explaining, “it was our sense of duty; …if our country was to endure as a way of life as planned by our fathers, it rested with us children to finish the work they had begun.”

After describing a collective effort to overcome the fear of battle, Bull described being wounded as his regiment confronted Confederates attacking in the woods west of Fairview: “I had just fired my gun and was lowering it from my shoulder when I felt a sharp sting in my face as though I had been struck with something that caused no pain. Blood began to flow down my face and neck and I knew that I had been wounded.” As he moved toward the left and rear, “…when back of Company K felt another stinging pain, this time in my left side just above the hip. Everything went black. My knapsack and gun dropped from my hands and I went down in a heap on the ground.”

Bull’s account is particularly remarkable for his account of lying wounded on the field for nine days at a makeshift field hospital near the Fairview house. Beyond the agony of his wounds and the suffering cries of his comrades, Bull noted the weather, which took a turn for the worse a few days after the battle. A thunderstorm, followed by a cold, steady rain, made the unsheltered miserable and caused two men to drown. Bull wrote, “It is now fifty years since that day, but in my memory, I can yet see those wounded men as they lay on the ground half covered with the yellow mud and water.” Decades later, the horrible sights he witnessed were seared into Bull’s memory.

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“A deepened pride in our nation’s history “: Crafting Exhibits in a Modern Park


From Beth Parnicza:

This post continues the story of park infrastructure expansion during the Mission 66 period, introduced here.

Two movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s captured Americans on a global and local level: the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. As tensions mounted at home and abroad, the National Park Service prepared to turn 50 years old. As part of the NPS anniversary “Mission 66” initiative, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP seized the opportunity to craft new exhibits in the old museum space at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building (now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center), and at the new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center.

The challenge was high. The park’s small staff of historians faced the greatest expansion of interpretation since the park’s creation. Staff had to balance their understanding of the past with the conflicts and societal understandings of the present. Our past defines us and provides us with an identity, but we can only understand the past through our own experiences. In this sense, the past becomes another layer of the present that manifests in history books, exhibits, and storytelling. To help visitors connect with the war, the new exhibits needed to fit a modern generation’s understanding of the Civil War as the conflict neared its centennial anniversary.

1937 view of Fredericksburg Battlefield museum and administrative building exhibits. Two chairs, a diorama of destruction downtown, four exhibit cases, and a large map.

The exhibit space in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building in 1937, shortly after it opened. This room looked much the same 20 years later, as the park prepared for new exhibits to occupy this space.

Looking around the existing gallery space, the park’s historian staff must have been both dazzled by the possibilities and alarmed at the open-ended questions they confronted. How broad in scope should the new exhibits be? How do we fit such a vast and compelling story into a compact space? How do we teach visitors with an increasingly distant view of the war? Which stories of the Civil War should we tell? Continue reading

“To so develop and staff these priceless possessions of the American people”: Building a Modern Park


From Beth Parnicza:

Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center Today

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center stands today as the park’s best model of the wave of modernism that swept the National Park Service in preparation for its 50th anniversary in 1966.

It’s with a touch of nostalgia and a great desire to better understand previous park historians that park staff recently spent several days dismantling the last large-scale vestiges of a critical period in the park’s history: the “Mission 66” exhibits at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. If you have set foot in the park over the last 50 years, your experience has been primarily shaped by two dramatic efforts to mold the park: the War Department and Civilian Conservation Corps period and the Mission 66 initiative. As a new park in the 1930s, much of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP’s lasting infrastructure—roads, trails, and several buildings—dates back to War Department planning and the CCC’s extensive work. With the dissolution of the CCC and the end of World War II, however, increased visitation demands and a changing society soon rendered the park’s facilities outdated, and parks across the country looked to forge themselves anew for the post-World War II, modern age.

To adapt to this changing environment, park planners confronted questions that define the NPS even today: How should a park balance access to resources and grounds with the need to preserve that ground? How can a park best educate and inspire an increasingly consumerist society? For a Civil War park, how could historians best appeal to audiences during the tumultuous era of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement? To address these conundrums, calls to fund a national movement to update park facilities for the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966 set in motion a massive overhaul aimed at modernizing parks from top to bottom, aptly called “Mission 66.”

Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center with Mission 66 sign

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, shown here under construction, was Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania’s highest-profile Mission 66 project, but signs like this one could be seen in parks across the country, heralding the new age of the NPS.

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Lee in 1863–more symbolic than real?


From John Hennessy:

Lee at Chancellorsville.1020One of the great benefits of milestones is this: preparing for them requires you to focus on the essentials, to articulate broad and big ideas efficiently and powerfully. We are currently at work on the Chancellorsville 150th (schedule coming soon). Chancellorsville has always been the most difficult of our four battles to convey. While it features giant personalities on both sides, and while Lee and Jackson produced unarguably an immense military achievement, the battle lacks the texture or landscapes of Fredericksburg (with its varied environments and participants) or the high drama of Wilderness and Spotsylvania (as the first clash of Lee and Grant and the evolution of a truly different way of waging war). 

The recitation of why Chancellorsville matters is familiar: Lee seizes the intiative that carries him to Gettysburg, Jackson dies, Confederate faith in the Army of Northern Virginia intensifies (among the public AND Lee), while yet another Union commander suffers failure in the face of a smaller foe. Lincoln wails, “My God! What will the country say!”

All dramatic stuff, all important. But, let’s go to the last item on the list: what DID the country say about Chancellorsville?

Not much.

Which leads me to my point: maybe the greatest signfiicance of Chancellorsville resides in what it tells us about the war at large. By 1863, the Civil War had become so large and so complex that even a singular, dramatic, decisive victory by R.E. Lee moved the needle of public sentiment or the tides of war very little indeed. The most  unlikely, one-sided victory of the war, born of incredible risk, yielded almost nothing for the Confederate cause.

That in turn begs the question:  by 1863, had the scope of the war rendered Robert E. Lee’s talents more symbolic than real?  Was he the equivalent of Bobby Orr having to play for the 1972 New York Islanders (what a horrifc thought)–an immense talent trapped in a place where he might make some spectacular plays, but with little hope of affecting the larger outcome?  The war, it seems to me, had become a grinding effort to accumulate or degrade, and Lee could accumulate no longer. 

Authors and historians are forever trying to elevate the significance of their subjects. Maybe this is an instance where the larger importance of an event lies not in the impact it had, but in the impact it didn’t have and what that tells us.

Spotsylvania Burning


From John Hennessy:

Fire in the woods behind the new McGowan Brigade monument at Spotsylvania

You would be amazed how much time, energy, and money we–the NPS, an agency devoted to critters and plants (and other things)–commit to battling nature. Nearly half our park budget goes to beating back nature–cutting grass, managing earthworks, keeping healthy forests. We use a lot of methods to do this (most of them run-of-the-mill), but in the last few years have experimented with fire at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield.

Most of our efforts there are focused on the fields, using fire to help re-establish native grasses that are ecologically healthier and need less maintenance than the stuff we grow in our backyards (well, your back yard, not mine, where nothing seems to grow).  We are still assessing the results of several years of burning the fields at Spotsylvania, but a close comparison suggests that fire is helping–encouraging stronger grasses and less woody growth.

The view from the Confederate works looking through the thinned out timber between the Angle and the McCoull house, visible in the distance. Notice the heavy damage to the trees by bullets. As with all things Spotsylvania, John Cummings worked to identify the specific location of this photo

One of our ongoing conundrums is the management of historic landscapes that fall in between sustainable conditions. Continue reading

A Survivor Threatened


From John Hennessy:

The Free Lance-Star carries the news of a request to demolish a wartime building on Fredericksburg’s waterfront.

401 Sophia Street in 1863

The building appears in a number of wartime images of Fredericksburg taken from across the river.  Built in 1843, it was in 1862 owned by John L. Marye Sr., owner of the adjacent Excelsior Mill.  We do not know who lived in the house during the war–tenants are often unrecorded. The very modesty of this house in many ways heightens its value, for it is an uncommon survivor of the sort of then-common, lower- and middle-class housing that most Fredericksburg residents occupied.

401 is clearly visible at left in this blowup of one of the 1863 panoramas of Fredericksburg. Excelsior Mill is at right. The two-story house between the mill and 401 no longer stands.

Of course, anyone can ask for anything–and so in itself the request by the owners to tear the house down may mean little. But, two things sustain the fabric of historic communities, and foremost among them is the commitment of those who live in the community to preserve and nurture it. When someone decides to act in favor of demolition rather than preservation, it’s not a hopeful beacon for a building’s future.

The house at 401 Sophia was much enalrged after the war. The original wartime section is at right.

Fredericksburg has been fortunate in having a high percentage of residents who care deeply about the historic fabric of the community, especially when they own a part of it.  But, in the face of this request to demolish 401 Sophia Street, it’s hard not to be a little alarmed. Last week an 1840s warehouse came down as part of the removal of the Hardware store complex on William Street.  Last month, 1407 Caroline Street vanished from the landscape. Over the last few years, several other historic buildings have come down, all of them victims of neglect.

The greatest threat to historic places–be they battlefields or downtowns–is not the big stuff like malls and theme parks (they invariably attract great attention), but the steady chipping away in increments, death by a thousand cuts: a building gone in Fredericksburg, “just” another store near Salem Church, a new lane through Chancellorsville. Each cut may seem minor in itself–and thus spur meager public outcry–but over time, the accumulation of such things can transform a place. It is the seemingly small things that are so difficult to manage–and then suddenly it’s often too late.

Martha Stevens redeemed: pariah to heroine–a matter of faith or history?


From John Hennessy (for part 1 of this post, click here):

The case of Martha Stephens presents many of the challenges that surround the story of Richard Kirkland, though perhaps in even starker form. Conventional wisdom holds that she, to use David Gregg McIntosh’s 1910 reminiscence of a visit to the battlefield (where he heard about Martha),

…remained at her house during the battle, and after it was over rendered great service to the troops of both sides, and when bandages were wanted at the Field Hospital she supplied every piece of cloth which she had, and finally tore her skirts into strips and gave them for that purpose.

The Stevens house in 1911, two years before it was destroyed by fire.

But beyond conventional wisdom what do we really know?

In fact, very little. As with Kirkland, there are no wartime accounts that reference Martha Stevens by name or make any suggestion that she was present as McIntosh describes.  Like Kirkland, her person does not emerge in connection with the battle until many years later. The first known reference to Martha Stevens by name (or even intimation) in connection with the battle appeared in the mid-1880s, when former Confederate staff officer (and Fredericksburg resident) W. Roy Mason wrote a short article that would eventually appear in Vol. 3 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. While it is clear that Mason did not witness what he described, he passed along what by then (at least in Fredericksburg) was the standard rendition of Martha Stevens’s deeds, gotten, he says, from her own lips.

I went out with a party of gentlemen friends who were visitors in Fredericksburg to inquire of her….This woman, the Molly Pitcher of the war, attended the wounded and the dying fearless of consequences, and refused to leave her house, although…the position was one of great danger. It is said that after using all the materials for bandages at her command, she tore from her person most of her garments, even on that bitter cold day, in her anxiety to administer to necessities greater than her own.

The Sunken Road in front of the Stevens House. Cobb monument at left.

Mason’s account helps highlight a major difference between the origins of the Kirkland and Stevens stories. Kirkland died at Chickamauga in 1863, and so the subsequent telling of his story was left to others who claimed  to have witnessed it. For Martha Stevens, the only accounts of her activities that day derive not from witnesses to the event, but from witnesses to her telling of the events or of those people who got the story from those who had spent time listening to her tell her story (got it?). Martha’s December 22, 1888 obituary is interesting:

“Mrs. Stephens was a genial spirit, and hundreds of ex-Confederate and ex-Union soldiers have called upon her since the war to hear her relate many of the incidents with which she was familiar as an eye-witness…” 

The paper helped enshrine the legend:

“She was a very kind hearted and generous soul, and will be greatly missed by many. She was particularly kind to the wounded soldiers here of both armies, whose ministrations to these will never be forgotten by those who survive, and companies of those who died will ever cherish her memory.”

The Stevens family cemetery today, next to the Stevens house site. Martha's is one of about eight graves in the cemetery. None are marked individually.

In 1911, local judge John T. Goolrick–the same man who 13 years later would question the authenticity of the slave auction block and lead an unsuccessful effort to have it removed from Fredericksburg’s streets–begot an effort to put a monument over Martha Stevens’s unmarked grave (he failed in this endeavor as well, and the grave remains unmarked to this day). Continue reading