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

Some new art–the fairgrounds and swale

From John Hennessy:

We have written about our use of new art in our exhibits here and here, and we have discussed at some length the nature of the fairgrounds and the bloody plain in front of the Sunken Road…and so I wanted to share with you the latest piece of art we have collaborated to create–an image of one of the earlier Union attacks in front of the Sunken Road, painted from an aerial viewpoint almost directly in front of Brompton. Directed by Frank O’Reilly and created by Mark Churms, this piece will be used in a wayside exhibit located just east of the Innis House. It will also be incorporated into our re-do of interior exhibits at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, a project now in design.

At some point artist Mark Churms will be making this image available for sale as a print.  We’ll let you know when that happens.

Bringing the Stories of Fredericksburg Area Residents to Life: 2011 Summer Programs

From Mink:

In previous posts on the development of living history programs at the park (found here, here, and here), I was remiss in not acknowledging a

Katie Logothetis as Mary Caldwell

couple programs were are offering as part of this summer’s schedule. These first-person programs are delivered by members of the park staff, donning 19th century attire, and highlight the stories of Fredericksburg area’s wartime residents.

Katie Logothetis, a veteran member of the park’s summer staff, is spending her weekends in a 19th century dress and providing dramatic presentations along Sunken Road on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. Katie’s persona for her programs is Mary Caldwell, a young woman who lived in Fredericksburg and maintained a diary, thus recording her observations and personal thoughts. Mary’s diary recently came to light and is currently being edited with an eye toward possible publication. The setting for visitors encountering “Mary” is 1866 and she is walking along Sunken Road on her way home. As she engages the public, she reminds them that before Fredericksburg became a battlefield it was a home for its residents, a home nearly destroyed by war. Katie conveys the experiences of those left to the mercy of the opposing armies during the summer 1862 occupation, the bombardment and battle of December 1862, and the resultant destruction. These experiences draw primarily from Mary Caldwell’s writings, but are supplemented by surviving accounts penned by several other Fredericksburg female residents – Lizzie Alsop, Betty Maury, Jane Beale, Fanny Bernard, Mamie Wells, and Fanny White. These personal stories have been combined to create a story that presents the broad aspect of Fredericksburg female refugees, as presented through Katie’s character of Mary Caldwell.

Katie, as Mary Caldwell, can be found on weekends this summer along Sunken Road.

“Driven” From Home: A Refugee From Fredericksburg Remembers” – 15-minute presentation; Saturdays and Sundays only at 11:15, 12:15, 2:15, and 3:15

Katie Logothetis, as Mary Caldwell, speaking with visitors along Sunken Road

Continue reading

Providing a More Personalized Portrayal of the Great Conflicts – Living History Moves Out of the Camp

From Mink:

Previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

Perhaps it was due to the park staff feeling that the Chancellorsville Living History Camp had run its course, or perhaps it was the budgetary concern about funding 4-5 summer positions focused on one location and one program, but 1977 was the camp’s final season. The park did not cancel living history altogether, it simply spread the program around to the other battlefields and sites.

The responsibility of living history was turned over to Park Technician Chris Calkins, newly arrived from Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Calkins envisioned four separate programs, at four separate locations, each utilizing one “soldier.” Each would provide scheduled first-person interpretation talks three times a day and informal talks the for the remainder of the daily shift. The programs were designed, according to Calkins, to “bring to the visitor a more personalized portrayal of the great conflicts at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania.”

Terry Winschel as a member of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry on the front lawn of Chatham - 1978

 Beginning the summer of 1978, the living history stations were located at Prospect Hill on the Fredericksburg Battlefield, the former camp at Chancellorsville, the newly acquired and opened Chatham, and the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. With the exception of Spotsylvania, little site preparation was needed for the programs. At Spotsylvania, the park rehabilitated the 1930s reconstructed earthworks behind the Bloody Angle to provide a setting for the living history station at that site (see previous post about these earthworks here).

John Heiser as a Confederate soldier at Prospect Hill - 1978

The park advertised the three times a day that each soldier would deliver a structured 15-minute first-person program. The rest of the day, the soldiers engaged visitors that happened to stop at their locations. The concept of first-person interpretation involved the soldiers talking to the visitors as if it were 1862, 1863 or 1864. The soldier’s knowledge only extended to the time period they represented. This caused a little concern among the park staff, who tried to prep visitors for their encounters with the living historians. “We try to warn them about it,” said Park Historian Will Greene, “but the day is bound to comewhen some guy comes in with his car steaming, nine kids yelling and asks where he can get his car fixed and Terry [Winschel] will turn around and say ‘what’s a car?’ I’m afraid that man isn’t going to be too pleased about how his tax dollars are being spent.”

Over the next few years, the investment in the living history program was reduced, so that by 1983 only the Chatham and Chancellorsville stations were staffed with summer employees in Civil War attire. The park continued to use staff in living history roles to supplement the other park summer programs through the early 1990s, by which point the programs had been reduced even more, to one lone Confederate soldier stationed at Chancellorsville on weekends, when staffing levels permitted.

Continue reading

Breaking Camp – Confederate Living History at Chancellorsville

From Mink:

The first post in this series on living history at Chancellorsville Battlefield can be found here.

Bill Meuse, under whose direction and supervision the experimental camp was organized and run, left Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSP) near the end of 1973. He departed to take a job at Harpers Ferry Center, which might explain why no analysis or formal review of the experimental camp can be located. Regardless, the camp was considered a success by park staff and was scheduled to reopen in 1974.

The second year at the Chancellorsville living history camp was a bit different than the first. With the transfer of Bill Meuse, Jim Kirkpatrick, a summer employee and member of the camp staff, was placed in charge of the program. A whole new roster of summer employees, with the exception of Kirkpatrick, were hired and along with volunteers the camp staff numbered around a dozen members. The camp’s persona changed from representing an ordnance detachment scavenging the battlefield to that of a picket detachment camp from the 2nd North Carolina Infantry. Additionally, the camp follower impression disappeared. The camp still remained open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Staff of the 1974 Chancellorsville Living History Camp – Standing (L-R): Jim Kirkpatrick, Charlie Graham, Dave Jurgella, Stu Vogt. Sitting (L-R): Jim Linger, Charlie Childs. Reclining: Vance Sheffer.

Along the trail leading to the camp, visitors might have found themselves challenged by a soldier, as a Confederate picket might have when confronted by an unknown party. Once inside the camp, the staff engaged the visitors and described Confederate camp life. “Our real satisfaction comes when we can really reach someone,” explained Dave Jurgella, “make them relax and have them view us as being real.” Local news reporter, and both friend of the park and frequent reader of this blog, Larry Evans spent a day as an “embedded” journalist with the picket detachment. His article and report appeared in the July 22, 1974 edition of the Free Lance-Star and can be viewed here. The camp, still considered a novelty and unique interpretive tool, continued to garner press coverage and a photo spread of the program even appeared in National Geographic.

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Living the Life of a Soldier – The Experimental Camp at Chancellorsville

From Mink:

Living history, or costumed interpretation, has been a popular program on National Park Service (NPS) battlefield and military sites for the past forty years. Antietam National Battlefield Site and Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park conducted historic weapons programs as early as 1961, while Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas is considered the first NPS site to put interpreters in period uniforms in 1965. NPS Director George Hartzog was a proponent of living history farms and period programs, claiming he would “not to have another dead and embalmed historical area.”

At Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSP), living history arrived in 1973 in the form of a Confederate “camp” established on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. The camp represented a Confederate ordnance detachment tasked with salvaging and cleaning up the battlefield. According to the interpretive prospectus, the camp was intended to represent a post-battle scene, in which Confederate soldiers would interpre the daily routine of Confederate soldiers and provide an opportunity to reflect upon the battle.

“Our goal for the coming season is to develop a scene rather than a demonstration – smoething that will go on continuously and quite naturally of its own accord and with no ‘script.’ It will be a slice of mid-19th century American military life – and the visitor can see as much of it or as little of it as he likes. He can walk through the ‘scene’ for the flavor of it, or he can stay and get totally involved. It will be very much alive, because the participants will be actually living it.” – Bill Meuse, “Thoughts on the Presentation of the Living History Program at Fredericksburg – Spotsylvania N.M.P. for the 1973 Season,” Copy in FRSP files.

Staff of the 1973 Chancellorsville Living History Camp – Standing (L-R): Rob Alley, Jim Kirkpatrick, Charlotte Yoakum, Bill Meuse, Dave Ruth. Reclining: Mike Craighead

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Can’t See the Battlefield for the Trees: Lost Viewshed from Lee’s Command Post

From Mink:

Lee’s Hill is Stop #3 on the Fredericksburg Battlefield self-guided driving tour. Historically, it was known as Telegraph Hill for the Telegraph Road (present-day Lafayette Boulevard and Business US Route 1) ran across its crest. The hill derives its current name from the fact that Confederate General Robert E. Lee established his command post here during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Its eastern slope was cleared of trees, although covered with brush. At 243 feet above sea level, Lee’s Hill provided a commanding view the Rappahannock River plain from beyond Marye’s Heights to Hamilton’s Crossing. From here, Lee watched the Battle of Fredericksburg unfold below him.

Sketch made by Frank Vizetelly, artist for the Illustrated London News. The sketch is looking from Lee's Hill towards Marye's Heights. Note the unobstructed view.


From his command post atop the hill, Lee made one of his most famous and oft-quoted observations of the war, as he watched the doomed Union assaults recoil against his defenses – “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”

During the May 1863 Second Battle of Fredericksburg, a depleted Confederate force yielded Lee’s Hill to attacking Union troops who fought and scrambled their way to the crest. A sketch made by a Union soldier in that attack clearly shows an eastern slope devoid of trees.

Sketch made by Albert A. Carter of the 4th Vermont Infantry. The scene depicted is the successful Union attack against Lee's Hill on May 3, 1863.

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A historic change

From John Hennessy:

A typical exhibit at Fredericksburg.

We have written a great deal on Mysteries and Conundrums about the evolution of the park since its founding in 1927 (click here for some of the posts). You may have heard by now that the park has received funding to re-do the exhibits at both the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville visitor centers. To help put this into perspective:

– The existing exhibits were installed during the Centennial of the Civil War, nearly fifty years ago.

– Since then, the park has only once received a comparable amount of funding for any single project intended to enhance the visitor experience–the Sunken Road restoration, completed in 2005.  Indeed, the amount of funding for these exhibits probably exceeds ALL of the combined funding available for the development of interpretive media in the last fifty years.

The Fredericksburg exhibits are classic examples of media from what the NPS called Mission 66–the 50th anniversary of the NPS in the 1960s.

The importance of media–exhibits, films, publications, digital stuff–is often dramatically underestimated. Fewer than 20% of the park’s visitors ever take a guided tour. While that’s still a fair number of people, the fact remains that 80% of our visitors are entirely dependent on media for getting our story, for understanding the significance of what otherwise might appear to be typical Virginia landscapes. As it is, visitors get Civil War History 1960s style–in terms of both design and content.  We hope that every one of our visitors who enter one of our buildings will get something out of the new exhibits–at least if we do them well.

The fabulous diorama at Fredericksburg, which will be incorporated into the new exhibit.

[For more on the famous Fredericksburg diorama, click here.]

These exhibits will be the face of the park for probably several decades (we hope not fifty years this time, but it’s reasonable to expect they’ll be there for at least 20). Continue reading

The evolving park landscape: when to go formal

From John Hennessy (this post falls under the category of managerial rather than historical conundrums; for a related post, check out this one over at Fredericksburg Remembered):

The 15th New Jersey Monument at the Bloody Angle, with the informal path in front of it--a mudhole on many days.

The business of creating a park takes generations. At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, hundreds of acres included in the boundary expansion of 1989 remain unaquired. When money is tight (as it is now) we might be able to manage the acquisition of a parcel or two a year, and we are more reliant on privates-sector entities like the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and Civil War Trust. Even when money is available to us (as it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s), the park can only acquire what people are willing to sell. Often, the going is slow.  There will be plenty still to do long after I and the rest of the current staff are on to other lives.

One of the new exhibits on Marye's Heights installed "naturally." Note the ugly, worn area in front of the exhibit.

The park is also continually evolving in terms of media and public facilities. Back in the day, cast aluminum signs were the best that could be done, and so the park had dozens of them, beautifully written by former staff historian Ralph Happel (who, by the way, laid the historiographical foundation for the modern park with his work over 36 years here, ending in 1972). Over the last nine years, we have been transitioning to smaller, low-profile exhibits–less intrusive, more graphic-rich.  (We are leaving a few of Ralph’s signs in the park–those that are accessible only by car, like those along Jackson Trail.)  In fact, we are now in the final phase of wayside exhibits parkwide. We hope to have the final package of new exhibits in at Spotsylvania this spring.

One of the toughest questions we have faced over the years is when to formalize our landscapes. Continue reading

Battlefield Landmark for Sale (1892 style)

From John Hennessy:

Much of the land in this aerial view belonged to Neill McCoull in 1864.

One of the things that has always intrigued me is how modern residents feel about living on or near places of battle. When a young lad, I remember wondering what those people who lived on the Bloody Plain at Fredericksburg knew about the history of their land. Was the violence that took place there a discomfort to them?  Did they even know what happened there?

What today we know as Doles's Salient was once part of the McCoull farm--and for sale, touted as "a famous field living in history as the field upon which conspicuous acts of gallantry evinced to the world that for courage the American soldier stands unexcelled."

Since those days, I have come to know many people who live on these lands. A few seem genuinely affected by the spiritual lineage of their property.  But most, while generally aware of what happened, seem to give little thought to history as they live out their daily lives. This detachment is aided, certainly, by the fact that places like the Bloody Plain have been so thoroughly changed by modern development. The transformation of the land surely provides a barrier of time, space, and aura that makes it easy to forget. I get that. The omnipresence of imagined death and destruction would make life hard to bear.

The McCoull House, Spotsylvania

Today, while developers routinely advertise the benefits of (and charge extra for) subdivision lots that border the park, I have never seen one tout the idea that you can buy and live on a piece of battlefield–that would likely not play well in some circles. It was not always so. Continue reading