Morris Schaff’s Wilderness, pt. 2: Spirits, Ghosts, and Talking Plants on the Battlefield


from: Harrison

My previous post introduced Union veteran Morris Schaff and his authoring of The Battle of the Wilderness, the first book on its subject. That post also began considering why Schaff’s goal of writing careful, conventional battle history remains virtually unknown today. When we compare his ambition to the same ambition embodied in John Bigelow’s book, The Campaign of Chancellorsville, published the same year, 1910, and destined to garner wide respect for evaluating the tactics and grand tactics of another local battle, the obscurity that befell Schaff’s project is all the more striking.

This post explores the principal, ironic impediment to Schaff’s hope of being remembered for his conventional history: his book’s parallel, unconventional goal of understanding the battle and its participants as affected by activist spirits and ghosts, and intelligent, even compassionate, vegetation. As I noted earlier, a critic who reviewed Schaff’s book in 1911 marveled at an author “who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” A second reviewer, commenting on his book in The Dial in 1912, worried that the pairing of very different interpretive methods was “a stumbling-block” for many readers. The Dial critic went on to relate the response of a “distinguished fellow-soldier” to Schaff: “When you get done with your poetry and get down to history you will write a valuable book.”

Marginalia and an inscription in this copy of Morris Schaff’s book indicate that 49-year-old Franklin J. Roth read it over the course of three weeks in the fall of 1912. A 1920’s newspaper article described Roth as president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School Board and “a collector of old documents and historical data.” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park library.

Marginalia and an inscription in this copy of Morris Schaff’s book indicate that 49-year-old Franklin J. Roth read it over the course of three weeks in the fall of 1912. A 1920’s newspaper article described Roth as president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania School Board and “a collector of old documents and historical data.” Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park library.

If Schaff’s diversions into the supernatural had been less prominent, readers might have understood those as efforts to enliven the book with analogy and allegory, or to achieve other purposes common among writers of his era. For instance, some of Schaff’s passages reflect the view, shared by many of the Civil War generation, that battlefield death could bring nobility, individual peace in the Christian afterlife, and North-South reconciliation. His book at one point has the allegory of Death encountering the mortally wounded Lieutenant Colonel Alford Chapman of the 57th New York Infantry; likely at no other place in the Wilderness had Death “met more steady eyes than those of this dying, family-remembering young man.” At another juncture, the spirits of dead soldiers, from both armies, rise “above the tree tops…a great flight of them towards Heaven’s gate…. [T]wo by two they lock arms like college boys and pass in together; and so it may be for all of us at last.”

Yet Schaff’s supernatural characters appear even more dramatically, across some 25 per cent of his book, in repeated interventions that alter battle outcomes and soldier experiences. For starters, there’s “The Spirit of the Wilderness,” which in turn has the capacity to conjure The Spirit of Slavery. Schaff at several points describes The Spirit of Slavery as a single being and at another as “a resurrected procession of dim faces” moving “in “ghostly silence.” The Spirit of the Wilderness is determined to punish the Confederacy for the miseries suffered in the same forest a century earlier by those people while alive and enslaved on Alexander Spottswood’s vast local landholdings (and more generally by all slaves since then).

Even media not typically hospitable to supernatural interpretation conveyed the view that Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville was an eerie, extraordinary event. Detail from Benjamin Lewis Blackford, "Part of Spotsylvania County," Gilmer Civil War Maps Collection, University of North Carolina.

Even media not typically hospitable to supernatural interpretation conveyed the view that Stonewall Jackson’s mortal wounding in the Wilderness at Chancellorsville was an eerie, extraordinary event. Detail from Benjamin Lewis Blackford, “Part of Spotsylvania County,” Gilmer Civil War Maps Collection, University of North Carolina.

(Click here for hi-rez version.)

First, The Spirit of the Wilderness in 1863 takes the life of Stonewall Jackson, who finds himself transformed into yet another specter haunting its depths. Then, a year later, the Spirit strikes down James Longstreet, “just as victory was in his [Robert E. Lee’s] grasp,” and in a battle where success was “absolutely necessary to save the life of the Confederacy.” Schaff’s very next paragraph describes the underlying forces at work, with “miraculous” by no means synonymous with “benevolent”: 

Reader, if the Spirit of the Wilderness be unreal to you, not so is it to me. Bear in mind that the natural realm of the spirit of man is nature’s kingdom, that there he has made all of his discoveries, and yet what a vast region is unexplored, that region among whose misty coast Imagination wings her way bringing one suggestion after another of miraculous transformations….

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“If these signatures could talk…”: Banks’ Ford Arborglyphs


From Eric Mink:

An ongoing feature of this blog looks at surviving Civil War graffiti in the Fredericksburg area. More than simply evidence of wartime vandalism, these inscriptions are surviving elements that both represent and document the battlefields and landscapes of conflict. They also speak to us with stories of the men who defaced these places. So far, previous posts have examined carvings and writings found on buildings, but soldiers marked all types of surfaces, including trees.

In this May 1864 photograph of Brompton on Marye's Heights (left), tree carvings and graffiti are visible when magnified (right).

In this May 1864 photograph of Brompton on Marye’s Heights (left), tree carvings and graffiti are visible when magnified (right).

Known as arborglyphs, tree carvings are gaining attention among anthropologists, scholars and researchers. From graffiti left by Basque shepherds in Nevada and California, to carvings made by soldiers fighting in Europe during the two World Wars, “culturally-modified trees” are being documented and studied. When it comes to locating surviving examples of American Civil War arborglyphs, however, it is difficult, if not impossible. Tree carvings fade with time, as the trees continue to grow and heal their scars. With the passage of 150 years, it is doubtful that many, if any, Civil War arborglyphs survive on living trees. In the Fredericksburg area, however, we do have some impressive examples of Civil War tree graffiti that were discovered in 1935.
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Exploring Culpeper and Orange–Somerville and Raccoon Fords


From John Hennessy:

Last weekend I had the great pleasure to be invited to explore some great sites along the Rapidan in both Culpeper and Orange Counties. Brett Johnson, who lives near Rapidan, and Walker Somerville, scion of the family that has owned land at Somerville Ford for three centuries, were the hosts. My thanks to them for a memorable day–they know the ground as only locals can, and many of the specifics included here were conveyed by them.

Union pickets at Somerville Ford on September 14, 1863.

Union pickets at Somerville Ford on September 14, 1863. Note the Confederate lunettes on the distant heights.  The two barns on the right of this image also appear in the sketch shared below.

The purpose of this post is simply to provide a visual record of what we saw, without too much elaboration. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments.  If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

Bear in mind that every site mentioned in this post is private property and generally not accessible to the public.

IMG_0370We started at Somerville Ford on the Rapidan River. Here, on August 20, 1862, the entirety of Jackson’s wing of Lee’s Army crossed to commence the Second Manassas campaign.  Samuel Buck of the 13th VA crossed here that day:

This washed-out cut is on the site of Somerville Ford on the Orange side, and may well be the remnant of the road to the ford used by Jackson's men.

This washed-out cut is on the site of Somerville Ford on the Orange side, and may well be the remnant of the road to the ford used by Jackson’s men.

The water was pretty deep but very pleasant to our warm bodies. As soon as we could get our trousers off we waded in, yelling like a lot of school boys. It is an interesting sight to see so many men crossing a river and most amusing to hear their witty remarks.  Men under such circumstances are only grown children.

The old road leading up from the ford on the Culpeper side. The left bank of the road cut is clearly visible.

The old road leading up from the ford on the Culpeper side. The left bank of the road cut is clearly visible.

On September 14, 1863, Union and Confederate artillery engaged in fairly robust counter-battery fire here.  Charles Furlow of the 4th Georgia (his diary is at Yale University) left a fair description. [More images beyond the jump.] Continue reading

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.

A visit to Sherwood Forest, 2013


 

[A note before we get to our main topic: when you get a chance, jump over to Fredericksburg Remembered for a post about a new volume of Fredericksburg letters debuting to the public on Sunday, October 27. You’re invited. Good reading for a good cause.]

Today we had the chance to revisit Sherwood Forest, one of the great houses in the region–and certainly one of the greatest house sites anywhere, perched atop a hill overlooking the broad Rappahannock plains at what was  known as Fitzhugh’s Crossing (written about here and here).  As many of you know from our previous visits to Sherwood Forest, the site is slated for development. The house and immediate grounds are planned to be preserved (about 40 acres), while the surrounding 1,100 acres will be turned into housing. The developer, the Walton Group, plans to retain the historic core of the property and is doing stabilization work on the big house and kitchen now. They offered us the chance to take a look–the first chance we have had to go inside the big house and the adjacent kitchen, and so we share some photos. Our thanks to Kevin Crown of Walton for inviting us over.

Sherwood Forest Front 2013

The place was built about 1838 and retains a good deal of integrity, though years of abandonment have taken its toll. Still, the interior is impressive. Beyond the addition of a kitchen and bathroom, little has changed since Henry and Jane Fitzhugh built the house after their marriage in 1837.  Water and termites have been destroyers, but the house, while not livable, is certainly salvageable.

[A historical note:  Brad Forbush, who maintains an outstanding site on the 13th Massachusetts, has posted some wonderful material about Sherwood Forest.  Click here and scroll down for the story of John Fay and Sherwood Forest.]

The entrance foyer.

Sherwood Forest Foyer 2013

The SE room downstairs, with its pocket doors.

Sherwood Forest SE first floor 2013

Stabilization work is also going on in the kitchen. Continue reading

“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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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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