If these signatures could talk…”: Braehead Graffiti

From Eric Mink:

Braehead Post

Most visitors to the Fredericksburg Battlefield pass “Braehead” when driving the park auto tour. The antebellum home sits along Lee Drive, between Tour Stops 3 and 4. The majority of travelers along this stretch of the tour road probably don’t notice the house, as it is screened by trees and lacks any markers or interpretive signs. Braehead is, however, a significant battlefield landmark and is one that still bears scars from the intrusion of war in the 1860s.

John Howison built Braehead in 1859 as the home for his family, which included his wife Ann and seven children. The home is built of brick with a raised basement and a unique plan comprised of two two-story sections connected by a single-story central structure. Howison used salvaged brick from buildings already standing on his property to reduce construction costs, which totaled $15,000 when finished. During the Civil War, Braehead became a refuge for locals during various Union occupations of Fredericksburg. The house and property sat in the middle of the Confederate defenses for both the first and second battles of Fredericksburg. Rising south and west of Braehead is Howison Hill, upon which Confederate artillery shelled advancing Federal troops. During the May 1863 battle the Union lines swept across the Howison farm on their way to the crest of the heights behind the house. Other notable events that occurred at Braehead during the war included Robert E. Lee’s having breakfast at the house prior to the December 1862 battle, Confederate use of the building to conduct courts-martial, as well as the housing of wounded following fighting in the area.

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. Braehead can be seen to the left of the advancing battle lines.

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. Braehead can be seen to the left of the advancing battle lines.

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Goodbye Rappahannock: The Yankees Abandon Sherwood Forest (and the Wounded too)

From John Hennessy:

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the Confederate capture of Union wounded at Sherwood Forest in southern Stafford County. The moment prompts a post on this compelling place. 

Sherwood 6In the last ten years, as the threats that would consume it intensify, Sherwood Forest has assumed a majestic aura wrapped in melancholy. Atop a rounded hill a mile from the Rappahannock (near what we know as Fitzhugh’s Crossing), the former home of Henry Fitzhugh and his wife Jane Downman Fitzhugh peers out between massive trees over a landscape that was for two centuries formed and managed by slaves. Today, the “big house” is boarded and mouldering. The adjacent kitchen quarters (an impressive building) is likewise sinking, while a nearby slave cabin (which we have written about here) is near collapse. The prospects for Sherwood Forest are not bright. A development company owns the house and surrounding acres. No plan is in place to preserve it. No one has stepped forward offering to do so. Thus the melancholy aspect of Sherwood Forest.

The kitchen quarters at Sherwood Forest

The kitchen quarters at Sherwood Forest

Though the house is commonly dated to 1810, it’s more likely the Fitzhughs built Sherwood Forest just after their marriage in 1837. In the years before the war, Henry Fitzhugh established himself as one of the best farmers in the region. He also developed a reputation for hard drinking and  hard dealing, especially as his slaves saw it (we have written about that here).  During the war, two sons entered the Confederate army and the elder Fitzhugh left for more southern environs, leaving the house to the care of his wife and daughter.

The entire Union bridgehead, from Fitzhugh's Crossing to Franklin's Crossing

The entire Union bridgehead, from Fitzhugh’s Crossing to Franklin’s Crossing

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A Survivor Threatened

From John Hennessy:

The Free Lance-Star carries the news of a request to demolish a wartime building on Fredericksburg’s waterfront.

401 Sophia Street in 1863

The building appears in a number of wartime images of Fredericksburg taken from across the river.  Built in 1843, it was in 1862 owned by John L. Marye Sr., owner of the adjacent Excelsior Mill.  We do not know who lived in the house during the war–tenants are often unrecorded. The very modesty of this house in many ways heightens its value, for it is an uncommon survivor of the sort of then-common, lower- and middle-class housing that most Fredericksburg residents occupied.

401 is clearly visible at left in this blowup of one of the 1863 panoramas of Fredericksburg. Excelsior Mill is at right. The two-story house between the mill and 401 no longer stands.

Of course, anyone can ask for anything–and so in itself the request by the owners to tear the house down may mean little. But, two things sustain the fabric of historic communities, and foremost among them is the commitment of those who live in the community to preserve and nurture it. When someone decides to act in favor of demolition rather than preservation, it’s not a hopeful beacon for a building’s future.

The house at 401 Sophia was much enalrged after the war. The original wartime section is at right.

Fredericksburg has been fortunate in having a high percentage of residents who care deeply about the historic fabric of the community, especially when they own a part of it.  But, in the face of this request to demolish 401 Sophia Street, it’s hard not to be a little alarmed. Last week an 1840s warehouse came down as part of the removal of the Hardware store complex on William Street.  Last month, 1407 Caroline Street vanished from the landscape. Over the last few years, several other historic buildings have come down, all of them victims of neglect.

The greatest threat to historic places–be they battlefields or downtowns–is not the big stuff like malls and theme parks (they invariably attract great attention), but the steady chipping away in increments, death by a thousand cuts: a building gone in Fredericksburg, “just” another store near Salem Church, a new lane through Chancellorsville. Each cut may seem minor in itself–and thus spur meager public outcry–but over time, the accumulation of such things can transform a place. It is the seemingly small things that are so difficult to manage–and then suddenly it’s often too late.

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

The legacy of misplaced assumptions

From John Hennessy:

Confederate trenches on the east face of the salient at Spotsylvania, in the 1930s. The wooden marker indicates where Confederate general Allegheny Johnson was captured.

It seemed like a good idea at the time–the government would own only tiny slivers of land, while the ever-present farmers would perpetually manage all else.  The underlying assumption: the farmers would be here always–the land preserved in partnership, the vistas always accessible to visitors.  In 1927, the year Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP was created, it seemed like a reasonable approach.

But, that assumption, made nearly 84 years ago, has dominated the management and evolution of the park ever since.

The park in 1936. Click to enlarge.

The original concept of the park focused almost entirely on the physical and visible remnants of battle–trench lines, house sites, and a few old road traces. It was the embodiment of what was known as the “Antietam Plan.”  With two notable exceptions, the park consisted entirely of historic roads and earthworks, or earthworks with new roads built along them (e.g. Lee Drive at Fredericksburg).

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Good old days at Salem Church

From Hennessy:


Looking east along Route 3 from the Salem Church ridge. The 15th New Jersey monument is visible in the distance. Salem Church itself is beyond the right edge of the image.


Two forces coincided to lead to the loss of the Salem Church Battlefield and the church’s virtual isolation today. First, an interchange on an interstate highway, built in the 1960s. The power of interchanges to transform the landscapes around them–especially in an aspiring urban area–is inexorable, demonstrated only over time.

Veterans at Salem Church, about 1900. On the gable end, one entrance was for men, the other for women. The entrance on the side led directly to the gallery. It was for slaves.

Second, in the 1960s and 1970s, no one, including the National Park Service, foresaw the transformative forces at work. Though the NPS could have acquired any land it deemed significant on the Salem Church battlefield prior to 1974, it did not have the funds to do so. Given that, and given the incredible economic forces that drive land development on roads leading to major interchanges, no additional land was preserved, and anything not preserved was slated for development. Today the NPS owns about two acres around Salem Church.

A windshield view from the early or mid-20th century, looking west at the Salem Church ridge.

The view westward toward Salem Church after the expansion of Route 3 to four lanes in the early 1960s.

The Salem Church battlefield today. The Confederate battle line extended above and below Salem Church. Union attacks passed from right to left.

The interior of Salem Church remains a powerful place.

The Moving Buildings of Fredericksurg

From Hennessy:

Preservation ethic commands that moving a building ought the last option, borne of desperation and the absence of any other solution. Since the 1950s, when the modern preservation movement in the Fredericksburg area began with the creation of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, preservationists in Fredericksburg have come to that unhappy place more than once. The result: a handful of Civil War-era buildings that have shuffled across the landscape, and a few that have vanished altogether.

The bank’s kitchen dependency in 1927, when Frances Benjamin Johnston photographed it.

HFFI had its birth in the wreckage of Matthew Fontaine Maury’s Charlotte Street home (from 1835-1842) when it was demolished in 1953 to make way for a prospective Chevy dealership on what is today the back lot of the Post Office. Two years later, the nascent organization faced its first crisis: the impending loss of the kitchen dependency (above) behind the National Bank building on Princess Anne Street, when the bank decided to put in what was probably the town’s first drive-through teller windows (the drive-through still stands). The kitchen quarters dated to 1820.  In 1953, though, no one in town recognized that it was also the workplace of the slave John Washington’s mother Sara, and perhaps the birthplace of John Washington himself (Fredericksburg or anyone else didn’t pay much attention to such things in 1955). The bank immediately offered the building to HFFI for relocation, but HFFI refused, choosing instead to fight for its preservation in place.

Undeterred, the bank sold the building materials to be recycled, and demolition began. Faced with the total loss of another downtown building. HFFI reconsidered and days later arranged to buy back the building materials from the very building it could have had for free weeks before. The demolished building was rebuilt  as a new visitor center at the corner of Princess Anne Street and the then-new Route 1 bypass. It remains today as an insurance office.

The workplace of John Washington’s mother, relocated and now an insurance office at the corner of Route 1 and Pricess Anne Street.

HFFI led a far more successful rescue of an otherwise doomed historic building in 1977, when the U.S. Post Office offered the George Gravatt House, along with funds enough to move it, to the organization. Continue reading