Morris Schaff’s Wilderness: Anticipating Future Battlefield Interpretation, 1910


from: Harrison

With the park having concluded sesquicentennial observances of the four battles within its historical bailiwick, I’d like to consider how those engaged the imagination once the guns fell silent. Readers of this blog may recall my interest in the literary aspects of early commentary on the fighting. What follows is adapted from a History at Sunset program I presented recently on supernatural imagery, used by some chroniclers of the Civil War generation in describing Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and the vast tract of woodland encompassing both. 

I drew inspiration from Union veteran Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness, published in 1910.  It’s the most unique history I’ve read of a Civil War battle. It’s also the first book to be devoted solely to the two-day clash of May 1864, not to be supplemented in that category until Edward Steere published The Wilderness Campaign half a century after Schaff’s volume appeared.

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Houghton-Mifflin’s advertising for the serialized version of Schaff’s book, Atlantic Monthly, March 1909.

Schaff’s publisher, Houghton-Mifflin of Boston and New York, had serialized the book in their magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, beginning in June 1909. Schaff’s study was thus distributed widely and essentially twice. (The publishers seemed delighted with its reception, inviting him to write an article-length sequel and running that in Atlantic in 1911.)

Readers across the country had this first-ever, book-length encounter with the Battle of the Wilderness in a profoundly strange atmosphere. Schaff’s text swerved back and forth from the conventional to the unconventional, from straightforward terrain- and tactics analysis to supernatural interventions. In 1911, a reviewer for The Nation spent several column-inches trying to finalize his thoughts about Schaff and concluded, “We applaud the writer who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” In this blog post, let’s consider the conventional and even “cutting-edge” aspects of The Battle of the Wilderness. These highlight, through contrast, the weird aspects (next post), as strange now as in 1910.

At the battle of the Wilderness, the 23-year-old Schaff served on the staff of Fifth Corps Commander Gouveneur K. Warren. Some of Schaff’s detailed descriptions of what he saw would become popular among later historians, especially his detailed, vivid recollection of Warren meeting with other staffers in the Lacy House, “Ellwood,” and urging them to reduce the casualty return for his corps.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished postwar structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

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Confederates on the Railroad Bridge: 150 Years Later, an Identification


From Eric Mink:

This post is adapted from an article I authored for Volume 10 (2011) of Fredericksburg History & Biography, an annual publication of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

It is nearly impossible to open a book about Civil War Fredericksburg without seeing the photo of Confederate soldiers posing on the ruined railroad trestle along the Rappahannock River. The photo represents one of only two instances in which a Northern artist photographed as his subjects non-captive Confederate soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia in the field. (The other instance involved Confederates marching through Frederick, Maryland.) That alone makes it an unusual image, yet the ability to identify the previously anonymous soldiers makes this photo even more remarkable.

Landscape

The Union photographer captured this scene from the north bank of the Rappahannock River. The Confederate soldiers stand on the south bank with the river flowing between the artist and his subjects. They are on the literal front line of the war. This is a location that should be hostile, yet the Confederates don’t appear to pose a threat. Their casual pose and the absence of visible weapons suggest an almost friendly demeanor. We know that the site of the ruined railroad bridge was a place where the opposing pickets and outposts gathered to fraternize, exchanging newspapers as well as insults. (For an earlier discussion of this location, see John Hennessy’s post here.) When the photographer appeared at the bridge, we can assume some communication must have taken place between the cameraman and the Confederates. The relaxed gathering at the far end of the bridge suggests cooperation between the man behind the camera and his subjects.

Many of us have studied this image in great detail. We know its location. We can see in the distance the buildings, Willis Hill cemetery and defenses upon Marye’s Heights. We even know the name of the photographer – Captain Andrew J. Russell of the United States Military Railroads. (At least one historian has suggested that the photographer may have been Egbert Fowx, Russell’s mentor). What we have not known, however, are the identities of the figures on the far side of the river. We can’t help but wonder who these men are that posed so calmly for a Yankee cameraman along a boundary between the warring armies? To date, no diary or letter has been found, by either a Union or a Confederate soldier, that recalls what must have been an event worth chronicling, or at the very least worth mentioning.

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Landscaping the Rappahannock Region: Spotsylvania’s Hopewell Nurseries


From Eric Mink:

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that we frequently reference the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC). Located in Fredericksburg, the CRHC is a non-profit repository and research facility that preserves and archives historic documents and photographs related to the Rappahannock region. It is a must for anyone conducting research in the Fredericksburg area. One of the gems in the CRHC’s collection is the subject of this post. In 2005, the CRHC received a business ledger maintained by Hopewell Nurseries, an agricultural business that operated in Spotsylvania County during the mid-19th century. The ledger contains the names of customers who did business with the nursery. The ledger also lists the date and purchases for each customer. This document proves to be a very useful tool with which to examine the antebellum landscape in the Fredericksburg area.

Robey's farm and the Hopewell Nursery as it appears on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey’s farm and Hopewell Nurseries. as they appear on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey owned and operated Hopewell Nurseries on his 700-acre farm. Robey’s farm and nursery occupied land sandwiched between the Orange Plank Road and the unfinished Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad, about six miles west of Fredericksburg and roughly one-half mile south of Zoan Baptist Church. Today, the Robey land is part of the Smoketree and Red Rose Village residential subdivisions.

It’s difficult to say exactly when Robey opened his nursery business. Notices in the local newspapers show that he worked as a grocer and dry goods merchant in Fredericksburg until at least 1838. The first advertisement found for Hopewell Nurseries appeared in 1847. The advertisement boasted that the nursery had on hand 17,000 apple trees, consisting of 65 varieties. Cherries, plums, walnuts, along with flowering plants such as roses and dahlias were all mentioned as part of the available stock.

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nursery - Alexandria Gazette

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nurseries – Alexandria Gazette

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Scandal in Fredericksburg!


From Russ Smith:

I first encountered the following story while transcribing the diary of Mary Gray Caldwell of Fredericksburg.  On September 17, 1864, she recorded, “Day before yesterday, our city was astonished by the news that the son of one of our most respected citizens (Mr. Knox) had stolen $1,500 and, in company with another man who had stolen $800,000, had gone to the Yankees.”  Further information was found in the Richmond Daily Dispatch and the Richmond Enquirer. Thanks to Beth Daly of the Central Rappahannock Regional Heritage Center who is a font of information on the Knoxes through her work with the Knox Family Papers. The Knox Papers will be published this spring by the Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

The Knox House at Princess Anne & Lewis Streets.

The Knox House at Princess Anne & Lewis Streets.

Thomas Stuart Knox was the second-oldest of six sons of Thomas and Virginia Soutter Knox. Earlier in the war he had enlisted in the 30th Virginia Infantry, but later found work in Richmond.

On Saturday, September 10, 1864, Captain Thomas Stuart Knox traveled north from Richmond. On his arm, wearing dark goggles, was a supposedly blind brother who Knox was escorting home to Fredericksburg. Knox had obtained the necessary passes from the Provost Marshal in Richmond, so their travel was uninterrupted. However, the pair didn’t stop at Fredericksburg, but pressed on hurriedly to Union lines!

Captain Knox and his perfectly sighted partner, George W. Butler, were absconding with a large sum of money stolen from the Confederate treasury.  Knox, in his role as Commissary at Camp Jackson hospital, and Butler, who had been a Treasury Department pay clerk, had colluded to draw some $700,000 from the Treasury.*  They had then exchanged the Confederate currency in Richmond for gold, Federal greenbacks, jewelry and just about anything else that would hold its value. (At this time, twenty-three Confederate dollars equaled one dollar in gold, so their total take was about $30,000.)

Butler had good reasons to abscond.  Continue reading

The Decline of Clover Hill


From John Hennessy:

Rare is the Virginia house that has its own Wikipedia entry. Clover Hill does. The house sits a three hundred yards north of Route 3 a few miles east of Culpeper, alone amongst the farm fields its owners once commanded. It’s distinctive–classically Gothic, though it was not at its origins, said to have been about 1775, long before Gothicism took root.

During the Civil War, Clover Hill gained fame for two things. In the aftermath of the Battle at Brandy Station, Lt. Col. Frank Hampton of the 2d South Carolina Cavalry died in the house–in the front-right first-floor room–after being wounded in fighting on nearby Hansborough’s Ridge (a fabulously evocative place).

Custer and his new bride Libbie.

Later, it was the scene of the wartime honeymoon for George A. Custer and his new wife Libbie, who would spend about a month there with her new husband in early 1864. He named the place “Camp Libbie” in her honor. Our friend Bud Hall has written about Custer and Clover Hill here.

After decades of relative prosperity, Clover Hill has in recent decades suffered a steady decline. Bud Hall (the only cover boy among Civil War historians, in 1991), who knows and watches over Culpeper’s Civil War landscape like no one else I know, has sent along a series of images that shows Clover Hill over the years. We’re grateful to Bud for sharing, though we lament the apparent fate of his photographic subject.

Here is Clover Hill as it appeared in March 1864.

Custer and his staff in front of Clover Hill, March 1864.

Clover Hill in 1986.

June 1986

In 1991.

And in 2012.

Clover Hill, 2012

Soldiers’ Huts to Luxury Homes – Bell-Air Today


From Eric Mink:

A previous post, found here, looked at Stafford County Unionist Abraham Primmer. With the compensation he received from the U.S. government after the war, Primmer successfully returned to farming and lived out his final years as a respected member of his Stafford County community.

“Bell-Air,” the house and property, remained a prominent landmark in the neighborhood that became known as Leeland after the war. The home and property remained in the hands of Primmer’s daughters until 1926. The house remained in good shape and was at its finest when a researcher from the Works Progress Administration visited the farm in 1937. By 1942, however, the county land assessment noted “building burned,” indicating that the house was gone.

Bell-Air – 1937

The farm, which became known locally as “Walnut Farm,” went through a number of owners in the last half of the 20th century. Most of them apparently purchased the property as an investment, as its location along the railroad made it an attractive piece of ground with much potential. The Virginia Railway Express stop at Leeland Station, just off the northern boundary of the property, made the land ripe for residential development.

Modern aerial view of the Bell-Air and Camp Pitcher sites

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“All my sympathies were for the cause of the union and its supporters…” – Abraham Primmer of Stafford County


From Eric Mink:

Park staff has recently been engaged in looking at Fredericksburg area’s Unionist families and the role they played in the Civil War hereabouts. Staff Historian Don Pfanz recently authored an article on this subject in the locally published Fredericksburg History & Biography (Volume 10). A two-part post on this blog last year, which can be found here, looked at the activity of perhaps the most active Unionist in Spotsylvania County, Isaac Silver. Today’s post seeks to introduce our readers to another of the local Unionist community who made hard choices about his involvement in the war, resisted Confederate authority and ultimately survived within a hostile environment.

Abraham Primmer moved his family to Stafford County, Virginia in 1853, purchasing a 360-acre estate, known as “Bell-Air.” The property sat along the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad about 1.5 miles northeast of Falmouth. Abraham hailed from New York and spent his early adult life in Chemung County, serving as a Supervisor and Justice of the Peace for the town of Catlin, as well as an assemblyman for Chemung. The family included Abraham and his wife Elizabeth, along with their four daughters and three sons.

An 1867 map showing Abraham Primmer’s “Bell-Air” in relation to other landmark residences in southern Stafford County.

On the subject of secession, the Primmers stood solidly behind the Union. Abraham later claimed that he “never drew a disloyal breath from beginning to end.” On May 23, 1861, Virginians gathered at polling places throughout the state to cast their vote on whether or not to adopt the Ordinance of Secession. Abraham remembered that at his polling location, militiamen were on hand, intent on making sure the ordinance received overwhelming support.

“Every influence was employed to intimidate—–any who were suspected of the crime of being a union man. Up to this time I had determined to vote against secession and had spoken against it on several occasions, and was a marked man; where the vote was taken I was warned of my danger. I had two sons that I wanted to save if the state seceded and to save myself and family from the fury of these outlaws and the persecutions of the inflamed secesh.” – Testimony of Abraham Primmer, Southern Claims Commission

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