Walt Whitman’s Battles of Chancellorsville: Horrific Wounds, Night Fighting, and Other “Strange and Fearful Pictures”

from: Harrison

This year’s sesquicentennial commemorations of the Battle of Chancellorsville will build upon long traditions of eyewitness, published narrative and non-eyewitness scholarship.  Yet I’ve been fascinated lately to realize that Chancellorsville inspired Walt Whitman to make, forcefully, one of his earliest contrarian forecasts for writing about the Civil War, a view that he later expressed in the now-famous sentence, “The real war will never get in the books.”

Walt Whitman in 1863. Library of Congress.

Walt Whitman in 1863. Library of Congress.

Whitman’s longest-known rumination on Chancellorsville, dated May 12, 1863, asked

Of scenes like these, I say, who writes—who e’er can write, the story?  Of many a score—aye, thousands, North and South, of unwritten heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations—who tells?  No history, ever—No poem sings, no music sounds, those bravest men of all—those deeds.  Nor formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.

(If the recording below indeed turns out to capture Walt Whitman’s voice in 1889 or 1890 and shortly before his death in 1892, as has been suggested, it’s one of the few spoken traces of a witness to Chancellorsville, or at least to the ordeals of the battle’s survivors.  The voice reads the first four lines of Whitman’s 1888 poem, “America”:)

In a March 1863 letter to friends, describing the real-life scenes and people he encountered in Washington’s military hospitals, Whitman had ventured an early version of this theme, writing, “To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and the tearfulest?”

Ironically, he penned assertions of the Civil War resisting accurate representation at the same time that he was creating representations of it vividly and in abundance, drawing special inspiration from his interactions with sick and wounded soldiers.  At one point, he acknowledged harboring an ideal of a “many-threaded drama,” which would include everything from the war’s political context to its national financial burdens and grief.  But above all, he envisioned portrayals of the “nobility of the people:  the essential soundness of the common man” in 1861-1865.

Whitman remained in Washington during the entire period of Chancellorsville but in an important sense became an eyewitness to it.  He recorded his initial responses to the battle in at least four formats in prose:  diary entries, letters, notebook jottings about wounded soldiers whom he encountered in hospitals, and longer reflections in his notebooks.  These together underscored his view that a battle that other writers would portray as one event in a discreet place, albeit a broad one, was in his words actually “many conflicts” and “first-class desperations,” in many places.

“No formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.” An officer of the 30th United States Colored Infantry ponders a skull at Chancellorsville, along or near Bullock Road a year after the fighting. Freeman S. Bowley, The Boy Lieutenant, p. 65.

“No formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.” An officer of the 30th United States Colored Infantry ponders a skull at Chancellorsville, along or near Bullock Road a year after the fighting. Freeman S. Bowley, The Boy Lieutenant, p. 65.

Whitman’s Chancellorsvilles proliferated and spread outward from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, engulfing him via the casualties who reached Washington—their ongoing sufferings, hopes, stories, scars, and rearranged and shifted locations.  (For some thoughts on how Chancellorsville continued to acquire new meanings after the war, see my post on our sister blog here.)

Bodies as well as land composed these numerous battlefields.  Whitman sought to convey through words the “strange and fearful pictures.” And at virtually the same time that he was doing that, medical staff were making literal pictures of and even curating the bodily landscapes of Chancellorsville. The results can be difficult to look at, and even 150 years later are one of the least-discussed facets of the Civil War’s visual record (although certainly not ignored altogether).  Beyond exploring Whitman’s multiple meanings and written pictures, then, my post asks whether the literal pictures of bodies torn and marked by Chancellorsville should be discussed and interpreted more often, or best left in the veiling moonlight of obscurity.

(Graphic images of soldiers’ wounds and remains appear after this page-break.)

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The specter of black troops opens a door for Maine relief workers–literally

From Hennessy:

Our apologies for quietude of late, but as you might guess, preparations for the Fredericksburg 150th haven’t left a lot of time for Mysteries and Conundrums.  We have lots in the pipeline, just no time to put the posts together. We will.

Backyard of U.S. Sanitary Commission depot.439.cropped 3 womenHere’s a quickie, something I came across this morning.

I have been collecting a huge amount of material on the use of Fredericksburg as an evacuation hospital in May 1864, and the related effort by Northern civilians to come to Fredericksburg to help. We have written about this before.  Among those who came were an energetic group of four from the Maine State Relief Agency, including a woman named Sarah Smith Sampson. As the wounded from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania poured into town from the west, hundreds of volunteers from relief agencies, the Sanitary Commission, and the Christian Commission, poured into town from the landing at Belle Plain. Mrs. Sampson and her cohort Ruth S. Mayhew faced a common problem in town for relief workers: finding lodging. The locals, as might be imagined, were disinclined to give up their homes to anything remotely Yankee.  As this passage from Sampson’s report makes clear, the Maine delegation used the looming specter of the arrival of wounded from the Union army’s new division of USCTs to convince them to open their house willingly now rather than unwillingly later.

Sarah Smith Sampson.  Used by permission from www.maine.gov.

Sarah Smith Sampson. Used by permission from http://www.maine.gov.

Mrs. Mayhew and myself tried to obtain lodging of the family who were in the other part of the house we occupied, but were peremptorily refused; but after a time they were glad to cook our rations that we drew from the commissary that they might have something for themselves to eat. The Provost Marshal afterwards gave us permission to take two of the largest houses in Fredericksburg for hospital purposes. At first the ladies of the premises seriously objected, (the men, at this time, were in the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, having been arrested and sent there, for driving the wounded of our army, who were making their escape through the city, back into the enemy’s lines,) but on being told that Burnside’s wounded were yet to come in, and their houses might then be taken without regard to their wishes for the colored troops of his command, they yielded: and both houses were filled with our patients, that we took from floors of other buildings, or from army wagons as they were coming in. The Provost Marshal also detailed four men to make bunks for these buildings; the ladies supplied us with bedding so far as they were able, and two surgeons of Maine were placed in charge of the patients, much to the gratification of all parties. 

[A copy of Sarah Sampson’s report is in the bound volumes at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP–the original is likely in the Maine State Archives (our copy does not indicate the original source].  Her description of her time in Fredericksburg in 1864 is powerful, and we’ll share it at a future date.]  Photo of Sampson used by permission from http://www.maine.gov.

The Quick and the Undead; or, A Secret Sharer Outbound

from: Harrison

On May 23, 1863, in the wake of defeat at Chancellorsville, Washington’s Daily National Republican conveyed some brief but vivid and mysterious tidings from the Army of the Potomac. The story, to the extent it was known, opened amidst the sprawling Federal camps and logistical facilities in Stafford County:

Day before yesterday morning the body of a soldier, exhumed for the purpose of being sent to Washington for embalment, was placed on board the John Brooks at Aquia Creek.

Union depot at Aquia Landing. Courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, http://www.mfa.org.

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Indians at Brompton

From Eric Mink:

No single site in the Fredericksburg area received more attention from Civil War photographers than “Brompton,” the John L. Marye plantation. Between May 19 and 20, 1864, no fewer than three photographers took nearly a dozen photographs at Brompton. What attracted the photographers were the scenes in the yard, where Union casualties lay waiting for medical attention. Brompton served at that time as a military hospital caring for the wounded and sick of the Union’s 9th Army Corps.

Personally, of all the photographs from this Brompton series, the image that has always intrigued me is one that depicts a small group of wounded soldiers lying beneath a small tree. A member of photographer Matthew Brady’s firm took the photo and it bears the original caption of “Wounded Indians.”

Union wounded at Brompton

“Wounded Indians”

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A Confederate Hospital in Fredericksburg, and the women mobilize–1861

From John Hennessy:

A tobacco factory would seem an unlikely place for a military hospital, but during the exceedingly polite Confederate presence in Fredericksburg during the first year of the war there were few other options. (The Union army used churches, stores, hotels, homes, and the courthouse–none of which were accessible to those bent on politeness in 1861). We don’t know the circumstances that led the Confederate army to take over the tobacco factory of Alexander Gibbs and his partner John F. Alexander (there is no record, for example, of the Confederates leasing the building or of their commandeering it), but by late June of 1861, as the landscape around Fredericksburg filled with spanking new Confederate troops (including some from Tennessee and Arkansas), Gibbs’s and Alexander’s tobacco factory on Prussia street held upwards of 150 sick Confederate soldiers.  Betty Herndon Maury recorded on June 26:

Betty Herndon Maury

The sick suffer a great deal for want of proper medical attendance and good nursing.  Many of the soldiers are laid on the floor when brought in, and are not touched, or their cases looked into, for twenty-four hours.  One or two died when no one was near them; they were found cold and stiff several hours afterwards.  The other night at ten o’clock, when one of the ladies left, there was not a soul in the house besides the sick men.  Every one in town has been interested in them.

The wretched conditions at the hospital soon spurred the community to action.  Two days after Maury’s gloomy assessment, the Fredericksburg News reported: Continue reading

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

Around the watering hole: faces of war in Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy:

Sometimes we look deeply into images of the war in the Fredericksburg region because they tell us something important about the landscape. But sometimes a deeper look is just purely interesting. In May 1864, a photographer (or photographers–we can’t be certain they were taken by the same man) thought it interesting enough to stop and take three images of soldiers in the simple act of getting water at or near Fredericksburg. At one place, he took two images, at another only one.  But in each he captured common people doing an everyday thing, without pretense or pose (at least not much).

The first image a group of men gathered around what apparently is a well or watering station, filling their canteens. Continue reading

One week’s haul: Clara Barton, escaping slaves, and the Union occupation

From Hennessy:

In 1989, Congress expanded the park’s mandate by stipulating that in addition to interpreting the military aspects of the four battles, we will also interpret the war’s impact on civilians.  Fulfilling this mandate has made my job especially interesting–allowing us to look at sites through different thematic lenses and in the process generating a huge body of new source material that at least until Noel Harrison came along, no one paid much mind to.

Though I have been in my job for a very long time, I am constantly amazed at the rate we learn new things–the rate at which new material tumbles into our hands. Some of that material brings new light to well-known stories or places; sometimes something entirely new turns up. The historical record grows, and so does our understanding of the resources we manage and interpret.  Along the way, the scope of our interpretive programs has broadened (without, by the way, diminishing what we do in the realm of military history); the incoming source material has added immensely to the richness and variety of our programs.

This week is a perfect example of the flow of new stuff. This picture came from the files of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation

It demonstrates vividly that I have been wrong in my presumed location of the Maria Wolfe house on Princess Anne Street–one of four buildings in Fredericksburg definitively associated with Clara Barton. I had presumed the house still stood next to the Baptist Church–that it was was and is the place now occupied by Micah Ministries. Instead, this image clearly shows that Wolfe’s house once stood where the church offices are, and is gone. Here’s one of those awkward cases where not only does something add to your knowledge, but it shows you were WRONG.  But, we will be right henceforth. Here is a better picture of the now-vanished house, provided to us by Dennis Sacrey of the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.

The Maria Wolfe house on Princess Anne Street. Courtesy Dennis Sacrey and the Fredericksburg Baptist Church.

Poking around on footnote.com, Eric Mink turned up the claim filed by grocer John B. Alexander of Fredericksburg for four slaves who were “abducted, harbored, and carried off” by the Union army in July and December of 1862. We know, of course, that these slaves (Frances, Betty, George, and Horace) were probably not “abducted,” but rather opted for freedom within Union lines themselves–part of one of the park’s most powerful emerging stories. I wish I had found this before my Slavery and Slave Places tour a few weeks ago.

An item like this helps us illustrate several things: the exodus of slaves that attended the arrival of the Union army, the obvious struggle and challenges the end of slavery posed for local slaveowners, and–most vividly–the idea that slavery was far more than just the relationship between owner, overseer, and slave. As Alexander’s claim shows, slavery was (even before the founding of the Confederacy) sustained by the power of government. Alexander’s claim (click here to see a transcript) seeks reimbursement from the Confederate government for the value of these people (a total of $3,500, as attested by local slave trader George Aler).

(Eric also turned up a document reflecting on the Confederate field hospital where Jackson was treated at Chancellorsville, but that’s worth a separate post of its own.)

click to enlarge

And finally, I received yesterday from Breck O’Donnell, a high school student who is plowing through issues of the Richmond Examiner for Fredericksburg material, a copy of what is likely the best single Fredericksburg-written account of the Union occupation of 1862. It was originally published in the Virginia Herald of Fredericksburg in September 1862.  No copies of that paper survive from the war period, and so this find is especially useful. It is full of both new details and editorial commentary, much of it wonderful. Among the review of perceived Union atrocities: “The living were prohibited from visiting the dying, and that too when the houses were almost in sight’ the dead were not allowed the privilege of Christian sepulture, inasmuch as at least one coffin was refused the privilege of passing out from town for the corpse awaiting it in the country.”

We’ll be publishing it in the upcoming CVBT journal, Fredericksburg History and Biography.  It’s a wonderful piece.

A vivid image of an 1864 hospital–the Washington Woolen Mill

From Hennessy (as with all things industrial in Fredericksburg, credit must be given to Noel Harrison for blazing the trail):

Most of you are familiar with the famous 1864 images of wounded taken in the back yards of Fredericksburg on Charles Street (you can read about the images here). But there is probably no image that better conveys the scale and detail of one of Fredericksburg’s 1864 hospitals than this one, of the Washington Woolen Mill.  It is, perhaps, the most interesting overlooked Fredericksburg photograph of the war.

Wounded hanging from the windows

Taken in May 1864, at the height of Fredericksburg’s use as the main evacuation hospital for the Army of the Potomac, the image gives us by far the best visual evidence of the scene so often described by witnesses: wounded soldiers, civilian aid workers, and medical personnel taking over virtually every available building, spilling onto sidewalks and empty lots, transforming Fredericksburg into a “City of Hospitals.” More than 26,000 wounded soldiers passed through Fredericksburg between May 9 and May 27 (there were likely never more than 7,000 in town at any given time). The effort to care for them was a logistical and human achievement that has not been particularly well documented by historians (we are working on that).

A wounded soldier on the steps, apparently with a head wound.

The Washington Woolen Mill stood about a quarter-mile above town, between what is today Princess Anne and Caroline Streets, across  from the lower reaches of Old Mill Park. On the eve of the Civil War, the mill was brand new, a corporate undertaking (fairly rare for Fredericksburg, where most businesses were proprietorships) that had shown great promise before its looms were stilled by war in 1862. It was without question Fredericksburg’s largest employer of female workers, with 35. During the first Union occupation in the summer of 1862, the Union army turned it into a hospital; in fact, Clara Barton witnessed her first amputation there in August. In 1864, during Wilderness and Spotsylvania, the mill was designated the hospital for men of the Fifth Corps. On May 19 or 20, photographer Timothy O’Sullivan took this image–full of detail and humanity.

The image embodies many small vignettes that speak to Fredericksburg’s ordeal during the war. Wounded soldiers hang or peer out of the window openings, from which all the glass has been removed or destroyed, replaced in a few instances by blankets. A burned out building stands next to the mill, a residence or office likely associated with the mill, perhaps destroyed during the 1862 bombardment (though the mill itself doesn’t show much damage from bombardment). Soldiers stand before furniture cast into the road in front of the mill. Rows of shelter tents stand in the yard on either side of the mill.

In the foreground the canal that brought water to the mill is visible, crossed by a bridge. In the background is Stafford Heights, entirely devoid of trees (this view looks directly into the heart of what is today Pratt Park).

At the left end of the building you can see the structure that housed the wheel pit.

What of the site today?

Click to enlarge

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Mystery undone (and some mythbending too): Clara Barton’s Fredericksburg hospitals

From Hennessy:

There are few more common assertions on Fredericksburg’s historical landscape than this:  “Clara Barton was at the Presbyterian Church.”  A plaque outside the church says as much, and it has become conventional wisdom.

Problem is, beyond the legend, there’s no hard evidence to confirm she was there. Which leads to the inevitable: what Fredericksburg buildings really do have an association with Clara Barton?

The woolen mill just north of town, visited by Clara Barton in 1862, before her service during the Second Manassas campaign.. It was here that she saw her first-ever amputation.

Donald Pfanz of the park’s staff has done exhaustive work on Clara Barton’s various visits to Fredericksburg, and he has found that in fact, not all is always as it seems with Clara.  Barton was in Fredericksburg five times during the war (twice in May 1864), and as it turns out, much of what we know about her is derived from her own memories, assiduoulsy and repeatedly written down. One certainly wishes there were more corroboration for her various accounts–something I expect Don will explore in a book on Clara in Fredericksburg someday. But in fact, despite her constant presence here, we have turned up only a single soldier who mentions seeing her at the time (she of course appears in many memoirs–just like Martha Stephens and Richard Kirkland). Still, we know enough about her movements to identify with certainty four buildings in town that she visited (a fifth, the Woolen Mill, above, stood just north of town–we have looked closely at some photos of the Woolen Mill here).  Two of them still stand. Can you name the buildings in town with a solid association with Clara?  It’s one of the toughest Fredericksburg trivia questions.  Answers after the jump….

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