St. Patrick’s Day 1863–“The wildest ride I ever took”


From John Hennessy:

It was perhaps the most raucous day in the history of the Army of the Potomac, chronicled by many, widely covered in the press. St. Patrick’s Day 1863 came three months after the disaster at Fredericksburg and in the midst of a winter of re-emergence from the army. If the fresh bread, clean water, and improved medical care rehabilitated the army’s collective body, St. Patrick’s Day gave life anew to its addled mind.

St. Patrick's Day races smaller The highlight of the day was the grand steeplechase, a wild, even deadly affair that drew more than 20,000 spectators from all parts of the army. We can’t say precisely where the great race took place, but it was likely somewhere north of what is today Exit 133 on I-95, the junction with Route 17. What follows is a description by a man, Samuel S. Partridge of the 13th New York, who decided to first witness and then join the race. Partridge was a great writer of letters, conveying vivid details and sharp observations. This is perhaps the best description there is of the steeplechase. Copies of Partridge’s letters are in the park files. Some of them (though I don’t believe this one) were published decades ago in Rochester Historical Society Publications XXII, 1944

To night I am going to tell you about the great steeple chase in the Irish Brigade on St. Patricks day.

It beat Donnybrook fair all to the mischief. A race course—elliptical—of a mile was laid out. Guidons and such things were stuck in the ground to point out the course to the riders. There were four hurdles and three ditches…There were more than 20,000 spectators, soldiers and officers. Everybody who could get a pass from camp was there, some even walking a dozen miles through the mud to get there. The track was slippery blue clay and about half hoof deep. Continue reading

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

Continue reading

The value and limits of online research–a quickie case study


From John Hennessy:

As any of you who have the historical hound dog’s desire to hunt know, the world of online research is expanding before our eyes. It’s an exciting time in some ways, as the source material available to us grows every day. I confess I have reveled in the chance to plow through the dozens of now-online newspapers from the Civil War period–papers that I have never seen before.  I have learned a few things along the way–most notably that it’s not long before you strike a point of diminishing returns: the source material pours forth, but what it tells us that’s new narrows (the entire field of military history as it relates to the Civil War suffers so). I have found thousands of wartime letters in the last few months, and while some are highly quotable, it’s a rare day that I find something that really goes beyond the interesting to tell us something new or important. Still, I realize that sometimes the significant emerges from the assemblage of tiny pieces.

There have been some spirited debates about the limits of online research.  We all know researchers and writers for whom the research world begins and ends at their keyboards. If something doesn’t exist online, then they’re not going to see it. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that we have a whole generation of historical thinkers who will be conditioned to find their material online, and largely only online.  What does that mean to our historical work?  I have been pondering a way to gauge just how important online resources have become, and I offer this little tidbit.  Definitive? No. But maybe a useful reminder.

I went through the footnotes in seven of the 25 chapters of my book Return to Bull Run, which I finished writing in 1992 on the eve of the digital age. I looked at every citation in every footnote to calculate what percentage of them could be had online today. Going in, I guessed about 25% of the citations I included in the book would be available online today (by that I mean available on a permanent website; I did not include ebooks in the calculation, unless they were available for free use at Google Books or other archival site).  I was wrong. Continue reading

Grappling with war at its depths


From John Hennessy: 

Update:  We have added another example of this sort of musing at the end, from a Delaware soldier, sent along by the park’s superintendent Russ Smith–who hails from Delaware and has immersed himself in things Delawarian.  If any of you have other examples–North or South–pass them along and we’d be glad to include them here. 

I have spent much of the week plowing through source material, looking for new tidbits or lyrical quotes. In doing so, I came across this one, which expresses better than most anything I have seen how at least some soldiers viewed the evolution of the war.

The letter was written on November 21, 1863,  by William Mackenzie Thompson of the 11th New Jersey, and appears in Dominick Mazzagetti’s”True Jersey Blues”:  The Civil War Letters of Lucien A. Voorhess and William Mackenzie Thompson, 1th Regiment, New Jersey Volunteers (Fairleigh Dickenson Press, 2011), a smartly assembled volume you probably haven’t seen yet, but should. These letters are of a genre that Civil War historians have increasingly embraced over the decades–one of I think special value. While we may treasure the quaintness and personality of letters written for consumption by those at the hearth, I have found that letters written expressly for publication in the local newspaper are often many times more useful.Thompson’s and Voorhees missives  are perfect examples, surpassed by few (most notably George’s Breck’s monumental correspondence with the Rochester Union and Advertiser, which I have transcribed, but just haven’t gotten around to getting published yet).  Thompson and Voorhees observed so they could write, and they wrote purely to describe–and they did so within a political environment (a newspaper) that begged of a perspective, and so they touch on most of the major issues of the day.  Here’s the passage.   Continue reading