Hard scenes from the courthouse cupola


From John Hennessy:

[Note:  Edited by Greg Acken and published as part of the University of Tennessee’s excellent Voices of the Civil War series, Fortescue’s Service with the Signal Corps ought to become a standard source on the Army of the Potomac through Gettysburg (he was captured on July 5).   For a post that looks at 1864 images taken of the courhouse, click here.]

Rarely do primary sources give us a completely different view of an event, but Louis Fortescue’s account of his time in the cupola of the Circuit Courthouse in Fredericksburg is an exception.  In our last post, Fortescue narrated his ascension to the fourth level of the cupola.  Arriving there, he described how the signalmen who had preceded him had knocked out the covers and (probably) the blinds that filled four circular openings in the cupola.

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A screen grab from Micheal Spencer’s video of a recent visit to the cupola, showing one of the large circular openings used by Union signalmen.  For the whole video, click here.  

Through this opening, Fortescue had a panoramic view of the battlefield. His view matched the vantage point for this sketch by Alfred Waud, almost certainly done from the cupola on December 13.  Click the sketch to enlarge it.

Waud Fredericksburg sketch with labels.jpgFortescue wrote of watching the distant lines of battle virtually stuck in the bloody plain before the Sunken Road on the afternoon of December 14:

About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, two companies of infantry became tired of lying in the mud, and concluded to make a break for the town, regardless of the fact that retreat was more dangerous than to remain. At a signal they arose and started pell-mell for the city. Scarcely had they risen when a line of fire opened on them from along the stone wall. The running of this gauntlet of hundreds of mots would have been ludicrous but for the mortal suffering inflicted upon many of them. One after another could be seen pitching headlong from a shot, and until night closed down upon us we could see many of them writhing in agony with no possible chance to afford them relief. It was sad to witness their terrible plight….

Later, Fortescue watched a much more personal struggle to evacuate a wounded soldier from the bloody plain.

Just after this fusillade had died away my attention was called to two men on the left of the plain, who while lying down were endeavoring to place a wounded man on a stretcher near them. After much labor they succeeded in getting the helpless man comfortably placed, and summoning courage, they each rose, grasped a handle, and started for the rear, trustfully hoping that the nature of their errand would shield them from the deadly aim of the sharpshooters. But flushed with victory, and careless of the humanitarian boldness of the two men in an effort to succor a comrade, the shots from the wall rang out and soon brought down the leading carrier. The other dropped a moment afterward and we thought him mortally hurt but in a few minutes [we] observed him creeping slowly away until about fifty feet had been covered, when he started at full speed and reached the houses safely.

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Evacuating Union wounded to Fredericksburg.

In our next and last look at Fortescue’s memoir: chaos erupts in the courthouse cupola.

 

Inside the Courthouse cupola–a short video visit


From Hennessy:

As a followup to our last, Professor Michael Spencer of the University of Mary Washington sent along a video he recently took of the highest level of the cupola–the compartment where signalman Louis Fortescue spent his time on December 14 and December 15, 1862.  Click here to see or revisit that post, which describes his ascent of the cupola.

The video is short–just 29 seconds.  Our profound thanks to Michael Spencer for sharing this, which gives a vivid sense of the closeness (and height!) of the space.  You can see the round openings mentioned by Fortescue that the signalmen used to both observe the enemy and signal their observations back to the Phillips House.

 

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The courthouse cupola, showing the circular openings used by signalmen in 1862.

Up the courthouse cupola with a Union signal officer, December 14, 1862


From John Hennessy:  It constantly amazes how, still, the source material flows.  Last year, Greg Acken, who has a great eye for important primary sources, edited and published the memoirs of Louis Fortescue, a signal officer with the Army of the Potomac. Fortescue’s memoir is outstanding throughout, but no section is better than his account of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

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The Circuit Courthouse in 1864.  The round openings in the upper level (Fortescue mistook them as openings for a clock never installed) are clearly visible, and remain today.

Late on December 13 and again on December 14, Fortescue ascended the cupola of the Circuit Courthouse on Princess Anne Street to, on the one hand, monitor developments to the west, on the battlefield itself and, on the other, signal anything significant back to another signal station at Burnside’s headquarters at the Phillips house.  Fortescue’s account is full of detail about the courthouse itself. Since the Civil War, the cupola has been refashioned some on the outside, but its interior remains largely unchanged.

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The passageway to the cupola’s second level, looking much as it did when Fortescue passed upward on December 14, 1862.  Image courtesy of Michael Spencer, University of Mary Washington.  

We found Fuller occupying a space octagonal in form and some sixty feet above the ground. The steeple stood to the left of the structure which was built with its side to the street, the entrance to it being immediately underneath us on a level with the pavement, the whole being enclosed by an iron spiked railing. Our space was on the top or fifth floor and about four feet in diameter. To reach the first floor above the street a long ladder was required.

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The passageway to the third level of the cupola, with the bell visible, in 2016. Fortescue mentions having to squeeze by the bell during his ascent. Photograph by the City of Fredericksburg.

This led to a trap door over which hung a large bell that, with its supports, filled nearly the entire space. Above the bell was a heavy upright [support] that extended to the top of the steeple, and was apparently the main support, the outer brick-work being but a mere shell.

On four sides of our apartment were round openings for clock dials, some two feet in diameter, but as the dials had never been placed there, in consequence of the poverty of the county, the spaces answered excellently for the purposes of observation, care being taken that the enemy did not observe us moving past the opening looking towards their works. The opposite one, toward our lines, was used for flagging.

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This sketch is from the summer of 1862, when the Union army used the Courthouse cupola in quieter times. Fortescue wrote that during the battle, he did not use the circular openings facing the Confederate lines, for fear of the Confederates intercepting his messages.  That was not a concern during the summertime occupation.

For this purpose a small flag was used, two feet only, with a short pole that prevented the flag being seen when waving it on either side of the steeple, and yet [it] permitted the messages being easily read at the Phillips House by the signal officer with Burnside across the river.

Here in this coop seven of us, three officers and four flagmen, watched carefully every movement visible within their lines and reported it promptly to Burnside, the rumor having reached us that he intended again assaulting the works during the day.

In our next: the view from the cupola during the battle, and Fortescue under fire.

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New evidence related to Richard Kirkland–a guest post from Mac Wyckoff


From Mac Wyckoff:

[Note:  Several years ago, we hosted a couple of guest posts from Mac Wyckoff about Richard Kirkland.  You can find the first of those posts here, with links to the others therein.  Mac is a former historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP, and is the author of several books related to the service of Kershaw’s brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Here, on the 154th anniversary of Kirkland’s deed, Mac shares some recently discovered evidence that bears on the Kirkland story.]DSC00481.JPGHistorians constantly face the issue of what is factual. Unable to question and cross examine participants and witnesses, we have to make decisions on the volume of specific information and whether that testimony is credible. In the case of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights,” several soldiers wrote about someone giving humanitarian aid to suffering Union soldiers in front of the stonewall at Fredericksburg. General Joseph Kershaw and others supplied the name of this hero, Richard Kirkland, 2nd South Carolina.

Interestingly, each of the stories left wiggle room for questioning details of the testimony. A recently discovered article in The Bamberg Herald, a South Carolina newspaper, includes the story of a soldier who assisted Kirkland in giving water. The story is told by Confederate veteran J.B. Hunter, a childhood friend of Isaac Washington Rentz, of the 2nd South Carolina.

Hunter summarizes the basic story and then adds additional details. After Kirkland received permission to carry water to wounded Union soldiers and went to administer the liquid, Hunter states, “Just then, Isaac Rentz, seeing it, filled several canteens and carried water to Kirkland and they gave water to every crying man and was not hurt.”

Hunter’s account contains two things that a lawyer in cross examination would question. Hunter admits that he does not recall which battle it was. He describes a big battle that “may have been Gettysburg.” However, the 2nd South Carolina retreated several hundred yards from the Union wounded at Gettysburg so it could not be that battle. Fredericksburg matches the details of his account.

A second point is that although Hunter and Rentz were close friends, they did not serve in the same unit. Hunter was in the 1st South Carolina (Hagood’s), Jenkins Brigade which during the fighting on the 13th held a position several hundred yards south of the stone wall, but after dawn on the 14th reinforced Kershaw’s South Carolinians behind the stone wall. Hunter, therefore, may have been an eyewitness to the Kirkland/Rentz incident and as life long friends, it is conceivable that Rentz and Hunter discussed the incident. Interestingly, Hunter’s brigade commander, James Hagood, is among the soldiers to tell the Kirkland story and his account closely matches Hunter’s except for the addition of Rentz’s role.

We will never know precisely all the details of what happened on that December day in Fredericksburg. Although the accounts each leave some details open to question, it is the number of accounts as well as the lack of any evidence to the contrary, that leads me to conclude that someone (most likely Kirkland and Rentz), gave humanitarian assistance to wounded Union soldiers at Fredericksburg.

“Worth Crossing the Atlantic to See” –The Windmill Point Hospital


From John Hennessy:

It was the largest single hospital the Fredericksburg area has ever seen–more than 400 tents and 4,000 patients perched on a windy flat on what we know today as Marlborough Point in Stafford County.  The Union army in 1863 called it Windmill Point Hospital.  Work on the hospital started three weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, but the purpose of the place was not to care for the wounded. Rather, the hospital became the destination for the sick of the Army of the Potomac–all of them emerging from the vast encampment in southern Stafford and western King George counties.  “The tents are in elevated ground,” wrote one hospital worker, “and it looks like an immense camp meeting; but, unhappily, it is composed of sick soldiers, and there is more crying than singing.” [Letter of O.P.  Case, Hartford Daily Courant, February 1, 1863.]

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A sketch that likely shows one of the division hospitals within the Windmill Point complex, from May 1863.

Wrote another, “It was such an hospital as never before nor since was seen in the Army of the Potomac. On a broad level plain, not long since a cultivated field, was a city of tents, regularly laid out in immense diamond-shaped inclosures. Eight army corps, each with its three divisions, were represented here.” [United States Christian Commission for the Army and Navy:  Work and Incidents, Second Annual Report.  1864. p. 35.]

Harriet Eaton, a relief worker from Maine, found the place objectionable in its early weeks of existence.  To reach the hospital, she and everyone else had to take the train to Aquia Landing, then a ferry three miles down the Potomac to the hospital landing.  When she departed the ferry, she first had to negotiate her way through 2,000 head of cattle, awaiting slaughter.  In the hospital, she found conditions shocking: “Nothing but hard tack and salt pork for 4,000 poor sick men! …No kettles to cook with, not even wash basins for washing, nothing, nothing, nothing, but indifference.”  She saw tragic significance in the neglect: “When a man is sick, no longer effective as a soldier, what does the government care for him!”  [Jane Schultz, ed., The Birthplace of Souls: The Civil War Nursing Journal of Harriet Eaton, p. 110, entry for January 24].

One man wrote that in the first weeks of its operation, the hospital “was the worst place I ever witnessed.  Sick men landing there by thousands—placed in tents—in those terrible cold nights, with no wood for days. Many had their feet frozen, all suffered intensely; 23 men were laid in their shallow graves in a single day.”

Union camps and review sites 1863.jpgWith the ascension of Hooker to army command and the hand of Jonathan Letterman in control of all things medical in the army, the chaos of those cold January weeks soon yielded to order and efficiency.  Windmill Point Hospital would in its six months of existence provide care for thousands of sick soldiers (and after Chancellorsville, many wounded ones).  A Connecticut officer who visited the hospital in late February found it a marvel.

“The Hospital at Aquia Landing [Windmill Point] is worth crossing the Atlantic to see. It has been started and completed within four week, and is the place where now the sick of the Army of the Potomac are sent. A “hospital tent’ is a tent like an officers’ or wall tent, only more than three times as large. The space within it is equal to a good sized drawing room. More than [400] of these tents, white as the driven snow, pitched in long streets of more than a quarter of a mile, and supplied with every convenience and comfort, compose this hospital. From the hill which I was descending to reach it, it presented in the evening twilight one of the most beautiful of sights. You will form some estimate of its size, when I tell you that between nine and ten thousand people occupy it.  It lies on the table land of a promontory, called Windmill Point, jutting out into the Potomac, where there is a fine view of a beach of the river, and is bounded behind and on the sides by high wooded hills. As I went along through the streets…one gets lost quicker than in an unfamiliar city from the perfect sameness of everything…  Everything was in perfect order—stables in tents for the horses, out-houses in tents, kitchens, store rooms, parlors and surgeries in tents—and it seemed like a huge camp of Bedouins.  For the first time in a long time, I saw ladies flitting about, nurses belonging to the sanitary commission, who come and go as occasion requires.”  [Hartford Daily Courant, March 3, 1863.]

The hospital remained in operation until the army evacuated the Fredericksburg area in early June 1863.

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The precise location of the hospital is certain based on maps and images.  All land in the area of the hospital is privately owned.

 

 

Crassness Unsurpassed


I came across this rather stunning ad from the Steuben Courier (Bath, NY), January 7, 1863.

The Union army butchered at Fredericksburg?  No problem. Shop at Perines!

The administration and war effort under siege by critics?  Well, at least Perines has the “cheapest stock of goods!”

Beset by the nation’s “vale of tears?”  No problem.  Rush to Perines!

Perine was the preeminent retailer in Bath, NY, through the second half of the 19th century.

If you are looking for a case study in Yankee crassness (I say as a Yankee), this is the mother of all of them.

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Rationalizing Destruction, December 1862


From John Hennessy:        I have been working through sources related to the bombardment and looting of Fredericksburg. It’s been an interesting journey that’s carried me to some surprising conclusions (none flattering to anyone). I have come across many accounts that offer explanations or justifications for the looting of the town, and I wanted to share one of the most vivid of those. For those who think the Civil War was a war devoid of bitterness, read this. And imagine too the reaction of Southern civilians to such destruction.
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This letter is from Chaplain John Morris of the 8th Connecticut. Most importantly, it was written on December 12, 1862, as the looters did their work.
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The scene at the intersection of Caroline and William Streets.

“Just retribution has really been meted out to Fredericksburg. The property of notorious and pernicious rebels has really been destroyed or used up for the advantage of the Union. Rebel houses from which white flags have been displayed one week and the next have been freely thrown open to shelter rebels for the murder of pickets, have really been demolished and burned….I do not regret that the rebels lose, but that value so immense has been wasted….I trust that this punishment will prove salutary to [the] people of Fredericksburg and of many other places where equal duplicity, treachery and barbarity have been displayed—so salutary that it will not need to be repeated.”
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Chaplain Morris’s outstanding letter appeared in the December 20, 1862 issue of the New Haven Palladium. If  you are interested in reading the whole thing, you can find it here.