With the Civil War’s post-sesquicentennial era nearly at hand, and the centennial of the National Park Service coming next year, I’ve been considering the origins of public history at the sites of, or involved with, the Fredericksburg-area battles. “Public history” of course is variously defined. My understanding for the purposes of this blog post is a broad one: publicly funded, historical engagement with places that would eventually compose Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and undertaken outside of commercial, private, or civilian-academic endeavors. That leaves in play a wide range of both motivations and interpreters, eyewitnesses or otherwise.
In between, for instance, the official reports of Civil War officers and current National Park Service tours and exhibits stretches a long chain of governmental endeavor—whether undertaken on or away from the sites of the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House—embodied in documents or events ranging from courts martial evidence; medical and surgical case-histories; damage/requisition claims submitted by civilians before and after 1865; soldiers’ pension- and service affidavits; United States Army staff rides beginning locally around 1911; federal legislative action beginning in 1898 towards creation of the park in 1927; and NPS living history programs of the 1970s’ and 1980’s.
Besides Confederate and Federal, national authorities, state governments participated as well. During the war New York soldiers contributed artifacts found in the combat zones to a “collection of relics” maintained by their state’s Bureau of Military Statistics. In 1898, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill incorporating the Fredericksburg and Adjacent National Battlefields Memorial Park Association of Virginia. A decade later, the New Jersey Legislature appropriated $6,000 for a monument to the 23rd New Jersey Infantry, dedicated on the grounds of Salem Church in 1907 to mark the regiment’s farthest advance there on May 3, 1863.
At almost any given moment, then, from the onset of the Civil War through the time that I write this, historical engagement with some aspect of one of the four battles (or with the collective legacy of all four) occurred, and occurs, as a function of government, including of the armed forces. Moreover, the recording or interpretation of civilians’ perspectives that I note above and below shows that much of this activity involved aspects of what we now call “social history.”
(Full map and citation are here.)
This month brings the sesquicentennial of some of the first instances of historical touring of the Fredericksburg-area battlefields during peacetime in Virginia (even if not yet during peacetime nationwide), by military personnel other than members of the units who had fought at those places.
The intermittent touring of mid-May 1865, ranging from the informal or self-guided to the planned and guided, was among the secondary activities of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and some units of a four-corps army group that he accompanied through the Fredericksburg area. Although a majority of the regiments in one of the four corps had fought at Chancellorsville with the Army of the Potomac, they were strangers to the sites of the local battles that had come after Chancellorsville. Most of the men in the other three corps were seeing the Virginia combat zones for the first time. My blog post today samples impressions of the four battlefields penned by soldiers of three of the corps: the Fifteenth, the Seventeenth, and the Twentieth.