A Quarter-Century of Research on Fredericksburg’s ‘Burial of the Dead’ Photographs, Part 2


Note: for magnifications, click photos or maps, then scroll down to right corner of dark-screen version, then click on “View full size” link.

from: Harrison

Part 1 of this post introduced the story of my long, trial-and-error research on one of the Civil War’s most poignant series of photographs—images of the creation of a temporary cemetery in Union-occupied Fredericksburg in May 1864.

A quick review: workmen interred at this burial ground some of the 26,000 Overland Campaign casualties who had been dispatched that month to Fredericksburg for medical treatment. (Have a listen here to John Hennessy’s presentation on the City of Hospitals that resulted.) William A. Frassanito’s Grant and Lee: the Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865 (1983) would publish seven different images made by at least two different photographers at the temporary cemetery on May 19 or May 20, 1864. Here are four of the seven, from the collections of the Library of Congress and the National Archives:

Frassanito’s inspirational book offered a challenge: find the temporary cemetery’s still-unlocated site on the modern landscape in or around Fredericksburg. My effort to do that came to rely upon one of the seven photographs, now in the collection of the National Archives, and offering an especially clear view of a large home in the background (detail below). If I could locate the house, I could locate the site of the cemetery, as he had suggested. Note the pair of slender chimneys with steep shoulders tapering just above the second-story windows, and the one-story dependency, or wing, connected to the main building:

My inquiry eventually focused on a home (inset above) situated between Princess Anne and Charles Streets, in the northern part of old town, and property of Douglas K. Gordon during the Civil War. The Gordon House sports slender, twin chimneys at each end and tapering just above the second-story windows. And judging from antebellum insurance policies, a wing or dependency—vanished by the time of my initial research in the late 1980’s—had once adjoined the south end.

If the Gordon House and a southerly extending dependency indeed appeared in the background of the photographs of 1864, then the site of the temporary cemetery, I reasoned, had to be somewhere near or along the edge of Charles Street, parallel to it, not far to the southwest of the house. Such an alignment would place the tripods of the photographers of 1864 at places near—or directly in front of—one of the town’s earliest tourist attractions: the last home of Mary Washington, mother of George.

Here’s a map of the houses and other landmarks mentioned in this blog post and its predecessor (a second map appears further below, narrowing the focus as the geographic discussion narrows):

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A Quarter Century of Researching Fredericksburg’s Burial-of-the-Dead Photographs, pt. 1


from: Harrison

It’s one of the Civil War’s most poignant series of images: photographs of a burial crew in Union-occupied Fredericksburg in May 1864. The men they inter are casualties of the battle of the Wilderness and, possibly, of Spotsylvania Court House as well. I can’t imagine a more powerful visual accompaniment for reflecting upon the war during the final weeks of its sesquicentennial. And I can’t imagine a more compelling mystery: in Grant and Lee: the Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865 (1983), historian William A. Frassanito noted that identifying the location of the series remained to be accomplished.

Here’s one of its images (with my slight cropping for clarity)—the photo that I relied upon most extensively during the trial-and-error research described below:

Courtesy Library of Congress.

Courtesy Library of Congress.

I’ve studied the set of photos intermittently but closely since 1989, and shared interpretations of it in 1995 in a book and, three years later, in an article in the November-December 1998 issue of Military Images magazine. Although I still believe that the site that I identified and published in 1998 is the correct location for the series, much of my experience in reaching that conclusion (and in discarding the theory I had published in 1995) illustrates the limited shelf-life of my own historical interpretations.

During a three-week period beginning on May 8, 1864, Fredericksburg housed more than 26,000 wounded and sick soldiers—the ghastly harvest carried in from battlefields to the west and southwest. Many of these men never left the town; images of some of their shrouded bodies were made by cameramen at a temporary cemetery someplace on the edge of a Fredericksburg neighborhood. Frassanito’s book discussed seven photographs of the cemetery, images that he found in the collections of the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Here are four more of the seven (also cropped for the purposes of this blog post):

group blog
At least two rows of new graves and headboards are shown, as well as bodies awaiting interment. Frassanito attributed the camera work to Andrew J. Russell and at least two photographers employed by Brady & Company, and dated the seven images to May 19 or 20, 1864. Early prints bore the caption “Burying the Dead,” or variations on those words (and on the army-affiliation of the soldiers being interred); the series would occasionally be misdated to December 1862 when its component photos appeared in books predating Frassanito’s.

Frassanito was unable to locate the site of the temporary cemetery but noted that the large house that appears in the background could be essential to the search. He speculated that it may have been demolished sometime after the war. Inspired by Grant and Lee’s challenge, and more hopeful of the survival of the house, I eventually developed some ideas about its identity and thus about the location of the burial photos.
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Alonzo Gambel and Union Camp Servants – Summer 1862


From Eric Mink:

The summer 1862 occupation of Fredericksburg and Stafford County is a period in the region’s history that receives little attention when compared to the battles and events that followed a few months later. For many of the Union soldiers stationed along the Rappahannock River, the summer occupation proved to be their first real exposure to the South and the institution of slavery. It has been estimated that perhaps as many as 10,000 slaves passed through the military frontier around Fredericksburg to take refuge within Union lines. Termed “contraband,” most of the escaped slaves continued their journey to the District of Columbia and perhaps even points farther north. Others chose to stay with the Union army and secured work and employment in support of the thousands of soldiers that made up the Union’s Department of the Rappahannock. This interaction developed into a working relationship that most certainly left impressions upon the soldiers.

In this photo taken July 1862, Fredericksburg is visible across the Rappahannock River.

In this photo taken July 1862, Fredericksburg is visible across the Rappahannock River.

Union authorities set to work using the refugees in a variety of roles. Many found work at Stafford County’s Aquia Landing on the Potomac River, loading and unloading the supply ships that docked there. Still others received employment as drivers for artillery forges and transportation wagons. Compensation for this work varied and as one Union officer stated “the lowest price was one ration and 25 cents per day, and the highest one ration and 40 cents.” Perhaps the largest source of employment found within the army was that of a servant to the army’s officers and men.

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A new and stunning image


From John Hennessy:

No, it’s not a period photograph, but rather an aerial view taken in 1933. It came to us today, thanks to one of our regional landscape architects, Eliot Foulds, who was poking around the National Archives and came across a collection titled “Airscapes.” This was a project of the Army Air Corps that produced low-level aerial views of important places.  This image offers a view of the Fredericksburg region–one that shows the landscape beyond town virtually unchanged since the Civil War.  The image includes the only comprehensive view of the south end of the battlefield we have ever seen. Beyond that, there are hundreds of details worth noting.  We’ll get to just a few of them today.1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128 smaller

The picture was taken over the Rappahannock River looking a few degrees east of south. Fredericksburg is to the right, Chatham is at lower left. There are lots of details in the view of Chatham that we’ll talk about in another post. But look beyond, to the south. If you have ever wanted a vision of what the south end of the battlefield looked like in 1862, this is likely as close as you’ll get.  We have included a hi-res scan of the image at the end of this post, which you can download and explore yourself. In the meantime, here are the first things that came to our eyes. Click on other images to enlarge them.

1933 image below town labeled

Here is some detail on the lower crossing site.  As many of you who have been there with us in the last few years know, this is now a virtually impenetrable jungle. In this view, you can see clearly why the spot was so attractive to Union engineers–a wide, flat area with an easy ascent to the surrounding bluffs.

1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128 cropped on lower crossing

Also in this image is the field much as Pelham saw it when he opened fire from the corner of what is today Route 2 (the historic Bowling Green Road) and Benchmark Road.  Pelham’s corner is at the left edge of the photo, the postwar buildings on Slaughter Pen farm at the right edge.

1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128 pelham's field of fire

One part of this landscape had changed dramatically by 1933. Here’s an enlargement of the city dock–the middle crossing site. As you can see, it was a vastly different place then, covered with tanks and other infrastructure. The tanks in this view were swept away in the flood of 1942–clearing the way (literally) for a transformation of the area (and, surely, a dramatic rise in real estate values on lower Caroline Street, today perhaps the nicest streetscape in town).

1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128 cropped on city dock

There is much more in this image, including Ferry Farm and numbers of buildings in town that are now gone and for which we have no other photographic record.  It’s a boon, whether you are interested in battlefield landscapes, the changing landscape at Chatham, or the evolution of a town whose downtown was, in 1933, the shopping mecca for the entire region. We’ll be offering more about it as we get a chance.

In the meantime, go ahead and explore the image yourself (a hi-res version is included below). If you spot something interesting, shout it out in the comments.  We have only had this image for a few hours, so we’re sure there is much there we’ve not yet noticed.

1933 Aerial FRSP RG 18AA BOX 128

For those of you who were with us, here is an approximation of the ground we covered during our 2011 tour of the lower crossing site.

For those of you who were with us, here is an approximation of the ground we covered during our 2011 tour of the lower crossing site.

“Third Fredericksburg,” pt. 2: Brandy Station Repurposed and Rare Pictures Considered


from: Harrison

In part 1 of this post, I offered a preliminary take on the Army of the Potomac’s Rappahannock River bridgehead established June 5, 1863 at Franklin’s Crossing, a short distance downstream from Fredericksburg. Although the intermittent fighting there on June 5 and the week following is typically interpreted as the opening combat of the Gettysburg campaign, my earlier post made a case for “Third Fredericksburg” as an alternate designation (one that I’ll continue to use here).

The protracted occupation and safety of the Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in June 1863, relative to its previous Union occupations, encouraged detailed artistic and written description by Northerners. Alfred Waud made this panoramic sketch of a fortification protecting Battery D (Williston’s Battery), 2nd U.S. Artillery inside the bridgehead sometime June 8-13. Waud’s sketch, likely appearing here for the first time with full identification, looks southeast with the river and bridges just outside the view to the left and left-rear. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The protracted occupation and safety of the Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in June 1863, relative to its previous Union occupations, encouraged detailed artistic and written description by Northerners. Alfred Waud made this panoramic sketch of a fortification protecting Battery D (Williston’s), 2nd U.S. Artillery inside the bridgehead sometime June 8-13. Waud’s sketch, likely appearing here for the first time with full identification, looks southeast with the river and bridges just outside the view to the left and left-rear. Courtesy Library of Congress.

That earlier blog post also offered an interpretation that was critical of Hooker. Since we’ve just closed-out the sesquicentennial summer for the bridgehead (abandoned after nine days, in the early morning hours of June 14, 1863), I’d like to balance my previous take with one that’s friendlier towards the Union commander. Once again, I’ll focus on what was known to Hooker (or imagined by him) and inspired the creation and holding of the bridgehead, as opposed what was known to his opponent. Equally important, comparing the planning for Hooker’s June operations at and near Fredericksburg—whether implemented or cancelled—with that for his Chancellorsville moves helps us better understand both.

Some quick review: on June 5 Hooker concluded that Lee was likely leaving the Fredericksburg lines intending to either interpose his troops between Hooker’s army and Washington or cross the upper Potomac. Hooker ordered his engineers, supported by infantry of John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps, to establish pontoon spans and a bridgehead at Franklin’s Crossing as a “demonstration,” albeit one with a fact-finding goal that initially made it more of a reconnaissance-in-force.

Franklin’s Crossing, June 1863, mapped by a member of the 15th N.J. Infantry (at “D” until June 9). Another Federal recorded that around 1,000 men from various regiments had spent the night of June 7-8 “digging rifle-pits, and breastworks for the artillery,” with dawn on June 8 revealing a new fortification “a mile long” (longest double line). This map errs in noting only one bridge, and places what is probably Battery D (location “B” at lower right) slightly too close to the ruins of Mannsfield but is useful for depicting the variety of earthworks, including what appears to be an earlier, “First” rifle pit (“M”). Detail of copy of map in collection of Fredericksburg & Spot. NMP.

Franklin’s Crossing, June 1863, mapped by a member of the 15th N.J. Infantry (at “D” until June 9). Another Federal recorded that around 1,000 men from various regiments had spent the night of June 7-8 “digging rifle-pits, and breastworks for the artillery,” with dawn on June 8 revealing a new fortification “a mile long” (longest double line). This map errs in noting only one bridge, and places what is probably Battery D (“B” at lower right) slightly too close to the ruins of Mannsfield but is useful for depicting the variety of earthworks, including what appears to be an earlier, “First” rifle pit (“M”). Detail of copy of map in collection of Fredericksburg & Spot. NMP.

By late morning that same day, however, Hooker had expanded his plan for the Franklin’s operation into a major attack that would see the Federals, in Hooker’s words, “pitch into” the rear of Lee’s possibly strung-out, departing army at or near Fredericksburg. Planning for the attack was soon cancelled; Lincoln and Halleck quashed the scheme in responses received by Hooker around 4 p.m. Meanwhile, Hooker received news from the bridgehead that Confederates were assembling in the Prospect Hill-Deep Run line “from all quarters…and still arriving.” Around nightfall on June 5, he notified the President that he had come to doubt the likelihood of a Confederate departure from Fredericksburg and vicinity, and that he now intended to maintain the bridgehead for only “a few days.”

Detail from Waud’s sketch, with the ruins of Mannsfield’s fire-gutted, central section partially visible through the trees at center, and the mansion’s relatively intact, smaller north-wing appearing clearly at right. The trees’ leaf-out shows that the “1862” date penciled on Waud’s drawing (possibly in a different hand from that part of the inscription identifying the battery as “Willistons”) is erroneous, since the only sojourn of Battery D in 1862 had occurred in December.

Detail from Waud’s sketch, with the ruins of Mannsfield’s fire-gutted, central section partially visible through the trees at center, and the mansion’s relatively intact, smaller north-wing appearing clearly at right. The trees’ leaf-out shows that the “1862” date penciled on Waud’s drawing (possibly in a different hand from that part of the inscription identifying the battery as “Willistons”) is erroneous, since the only sojourn of Battery D in 1862 had occurred in December.

Yet the prospect of striking the rear of a departing or dramatically weakened enemy someplace near Fredericksburg continued to intrigue the Union commander. Less than a day later, on June 6, cross-river observations of an apparent Confederate evacuation of positions north of Deep Run and northwest of the bridgehead prompted Hooker to order Sedgwick to make a “reconnaissance.” Sedgwick was authorized to commit his “entire corps, if necessary.” As it turned out, he needed only until midmorning on the 6th, and the services of the single division already present in the bridgehead (Albion Howe’s), to determine that, “The enemy are strong in our front,” and that “I cannot move 200 yards without bringing on a general engagement…. It is not safe to mass the troops on this side.”

The Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in 2013, from a viewpoint not far from that used by Alfred Waud in June 1863, and from an similar angle. The estimated site of Mannsfield is hidden in this perspective by the modern house and trees at right; the site is around the bend of the street in far background, center, then up that same street two or three houses. Photo by Noel Harrison.

The Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in 2013, from a viewpoint not far from that used by Alfred Waud in June 1863, and from an similar angle. The estimated site of Mannsfield is hidden in this perspective by the modern house and trees in right-middleground; the site is around the bend of the street in far background, center, then up that same street two or three houses. Photo by Noel Harrison.

Hooker again proposed a major thrust near Fredericksburg on the evening of June 10, with the bridgehead now occupied by John Newton’s division of the Sixth Corps. The army commander telegraphed Lincoln with a more elaborate scheme for an attack: “throw a sufficient force over the river to compel the enemy to abandon his present position” around Fredericksburg and then undertake a “rapid advance on Richmond.” Hooker characterized his plan as “the most speedy and certain mode of giving the rebellion a mortal blow.”
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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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Beyond the slave crossing image: the rest of the scene at Rappahannock Bridge–an army in motion amidst dust, August 19, 1862


From John Hennessy:

We have spent a fair number of pixels looking (deservedly) at the two great images taken by Timothy O’Sullivan of fugitive slaves crossing the Rappahannock River at Cow Ford on August 19, 1862. (Go here for discussion, and here for follow-up.). Often overlooked is that O’Sullivan took at least three other images that day, as John Pope’s Army of Virginia streamed eastward through Culpeper County, retreating before Robert E. Lee’s army. That day, nearly half the army–two full corps–crossed the river on the railroad bridge visible in the background of the slave crossing image. O’Sullivan captured at least part of this historic event in an overlooked but remarkable set of images. Taken together, these images and the slave crossing images clearly demonstrate the nexus between the Union army and freedom in 1862

The three images taken by O’Sullivan appear (from shadows) to be taken at midday. We cannot be certain of the order, but there are hints. Two of the images are taken from the eastern end, looking westward into Culpeper County. Of these, I would guess the image above was taken first. The traffic in the image is fairly light, the background free of ominous dust clouds. It seems to me that this image might capture the initial approach of the army to the bridge–Nathaniel Banks’s Second Corps (later the Twelfth).

To the right, a number of soldiers loiter unaware in timeless poses for young men. On the bridge are the blurred images of wagons.

Based on their profile, they appear to be ambulances (click here for image of ambulances). That would make some sense–the army would likely have sent the sick and wounded back first, and Pope’s army had many in the wake of the Battle of Cedar Mountain, fought ten days before.

The second image shows a bridge busy with traffic.

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