Gettysburg: Confederate imaginings, American realities, and the Army of the Potomac

From John Hennessy:

On this the anniversary of Gettysburg, I hope you’ll pardon a departure from our normal Fredericksburg-centric fare.

I wish I could say that Gettysburg doesn’t interest me, largely because it interests just about everyone else (I confess it irks me no end that the most popular post in this blog’s existence remains a post about a bullet found in a tree at Gettysburg). Historical revelations about the battle dwell in the deep details that, in a historical sense, often really don’t much add to our understanding of why Gettysburg matters so much to Americans. If anyplace illustrates how Americans’ traditional quest for knowledge about the Civil War trumps our desire to understand, Gettysburg is it. We know the details cold and increasingly; we understand why they matter only vaguely.

July 1, 2013--the march to McPherson's Ridge attended by hundreds.

July 1, 2013–the march to McPherson’s Ridge attended by hundreds. NPS photo.

Yet, the place, the event, and the culture that surrounds Gettysburg fascinates me. I probably know (or at least knew) as much about Gettysburg as I do about anyplace other than Manassas (including our own four battlefields in Fredericksburg’s environs), but in many ways it’s knowledge put to no good use–it’s amusement or self-reflection largely. So it is for most of us. That in itself is not a bad thing. For me, the story of Gettysburg, told by MacKinlay Kantor and American Heritage in all its human detail, spurred an interest in history that shaped my life.

Gettysburg is America’s simplistic case-study in civil war: the place where all that Americans feared or hoped for was realized or dashed amid a tumult of human struggle. On no event in our history have we imposed more than on Gettysburg. It is the Confederacy’s “high tide.” It alone is America’s “new” birthplace of freedom.

On the ground, no event seems more pregnant with possibilities than Gettysburg. Faulkner’s “every Southern boy” lives perpetually on the cusp of Pickett’s charge. Generations have reveled in the rumination, “if only Jackson had been at Cemetery Hill as the sun set on July 1….” William C. Oates and Joshua Chamberlain battled for nothing less than the fate of the Republic on the slopes of Little Round Top on July 2.

Americans thrive in the world of the possible but unprovable–the world just beyond truth, just beyond our reach. We cannot resist filling that intellectual and emotional space with high drama. Might-have-beens enthrall us, spur us to imagine. No single place in America has been the subject of such vivid imaginings as Gettysburg.

That we imagine so fervently at Gettysburg suggests to me that we pay far too little attention to the rest of the war, for the rest of the war gives us plenty with which to quell fantastic speculation. What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg?  Jackson was at Chancellorsville and engineered a stunningly successful demolition of the Union flank–an attack that achieved all that might have been hoped. The result: a won battle, unchanged war.

What if William C. Oates had vanquished  Joshua Chamberlain and took Little Round Top? The Confederate army had been there before too: Longstreet overwhelmed the Union flank at Second Manassas on a far greater scale.  The result: a decisive victory, but war unrelenting.

What if Lee had won at Gettysburg?  Would the Union army have collapsed like a broken camp stool? Lee had won in front of Richmond, at Manassas, at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. None of those Union armies had collapsed. It seems to me that the Union army’s presence on Northern soil makes it even less likely it might have done so in July 1863.

Our mania about Gettysburg, and Gettysburg alone, compels us to see it as a petri-dish of immense and immediate possibilities rather than as part of a grinding, consumptive war that by 1863 was little affected by the outcome of a single battle.

Having said all that, there is no denying Gettysburg’s singular place in American culture and in the lives of most Americans who have an interest in the Civil War.

Gettysburg is the biggest. We love big.

Gettysburg is the place where Lincoln chose to connect the sacrifice and purpose of war. His was a speech about the war at large, and it could have been given appropriately at a dozen places. But he chose Gettysburg (not only was it the war’s deadliest battle, but also, in 1863, its most accessible battlefield), and so Gettysburg is seen by many through the lens of Lincoln’s address. Other places, like Antietam and even Fredericksburg or Fort Monroe, may lay claim to a more immediate and intrinsic connection between freedom, Union, and war. But Lincoln chose Gettysburg, and so do we.

But there is something else, something both important to the war and Gettysburg’s place in American culture.  Continue reading

Ruminations at the crossing of the canal ditch

From John Hennessy:

I wrote this for the 150th Anniversary observance back in December, as part of the procession that moved from the river through town to the Sunken Road. The procession stopped near the site of the canal ditch–where Hanover Street crossed it–and Frank O’Reilly delivered these words to about 1,500 people. Today the canal ditch runs under Kenmore Avenue. Thousands pass the spot every day, unmindful of what happened here. That’s okay, but it’s well once in a while to stop and remember this powerful story of fear and courage intermingled (as they invariably are).

As Union soldiers descended into this valley and prepared to cross a mill race that ran just off to your left, they encountered dreadful sounds and sights—the full cacophony of battle, a panorama of suffering, the “Valley of Death.”

 Once here, there was no time for reflection.  Men and their commanders could only act. 

Fredericksburg panorama cropped on Canal ditch crossingHere they struggled with the great dilemma that confronts every soldier—the competing forces of fear and duty. Narratives of the Civil War—be they modern studies or eyewitness accounts—invariably discuss courage at length and fear very little. Not at Fredericksburg. 

Fear was omnipresent among Union soldiers on this field, and they freely admitted it. 

  Continue reading

A town atwitter, bridges abuilding: the Yankees move in, 1862

From John Hennessy (the links herein are generally to posts we have done about whatever topic is in hypertext.  Explore):

One hundred and fifty years ago, Fredericksburg was in the midst of a painful, annoying (at least to white residents) tumult, as the Union army took firm possession of the town.  The army spent the three weeks between the Battle of Arby’s and May 9 restoring the railroad line between Aquia Landing and Fredericksburg and preparing for McDowell’s advance south on Richmond.  The biggest task was the reconstruction of the massive Potomac Creek Bridge, which like everything else had been destroyed by the retreating Confederates.

The ruins of the bridge over Potomac Creek. The bridge would be reconstructed by May 15. Lincoln would christen it the “beanpole and cornstalks” bridge. For photos of the site today, click here.

Elsewhere, the army was busy building bridges into town, establishing camps on Stafford Heights (and farther back from the river), and cautiously feeling for hovering Confederates west and south of Fredericksburg. The first of the bridges to be completed was the canal boat bridge spanning Ferry Farm to the town docks in Fredericksburg.  On May 5, Union engineers completed a more traditional pontoon bridge from the Stafford shore to the base of Hawke Street–just above Chatham.  The army would reuse this site in December 1862, labeling it the Upper Crossing.

The pontoon bridge into Fredericksburg, May 1862.

By mid-May, as many as 400 soldiers had been assigned to help re-build the burned bridge of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad into Fredericksburg–75 feet high and 600 feet long. Continue reading

The exodus begins: John Washington’s greatest journey

From John Hennessy:

[First, a prelude:  In light of the topic of this post, a couple of reminders about this weekend’s To Freedomevent.  Join us on Saturday night at 6:30 for “Bearing the Stones,” a community procession down

Bearing of Stones, 6:30 Saturday.

Sophia Street from Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) to the middle crossing site below city dock, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of slaves crossed in 1862. Then, at 7:30, we will present “10,000 Lights to Freedom,” an interpretive program of music, the words of those who were there, readings, and of course, the illumination of 10,000 lights on the Stafford shore.  For more information on the weekend, click here.

Also, on Sunday at 1:30, I will be tracing a tour along the Trail to Freedom, from the Rappahannock to Aquia Landing–including the site of John Washington’s crossing, described below. This program is being sponsored by Eastern National. There is a fee ($20, to help with the bus), and the tour will last three hours.  You can reserve a seat by calling 540 654-5543.

On Saturday on the hour from 11 till 3, we will be doing walking tours, “A Slave’s World and Beyond,” which includes many sites associated with John Washington.  Meet at Market Square.  These are free, presented by myself, Steward Henderson, and Donald Pfanz of the park staff.]

* * * * * * * *

Chances are, if you have spent much time here or on Fredericksburg Remembered, you have heard a bit about John Washington (see here). Washington was a slave who spent most of his life in bondage in Fredericksburg, and seven years after the war wrote a truly compelling memoir of his experience.  His is an important voice–one of two complete memoirs from a Fredericksburg slave, and by far the best.

Of all the moments narrated in Washington’s remembrance, by far the most vivid–for him and for us his readers–is his passage across the Rappahannock to freedom in April 1862. Washington crossed just hours after the arrival of the Union army at Falmouth; indeed, he may have been the first to do so, the first of more than 10,000 to follow. Because his is one of just two accounts from a slave’s hand that narrates this passage (see the other here), his assumes immense historical significance. He conveys to us what must have been the sentiments of thousands of others.

Washington began his day that Good Friday tending bar at the Shakespeare House hotel on Caroline Street, where today’s Soup and Taco stands (with the best tortilla soup in town).  With the arrival of the Union army (we wrote of Washington’s perception of that here), and while white residents rushed to flee or hide, Washington took to the streets.

The Farmer's Bank building--home of John Washington's owner.He stopped first at his owner’s residence in the Farmer’s Bank building on Princess Anne Street.  Washington is the classic example of a slave who humored those in authority, always taking care that they thought him willing and compliant. In his final act as a slave, he did so again. When he walked in the front door of the bank, his owner, Catherine Taliaffero, was busy packing to head to the country.   “Child,” she said to this 24-year-old man, “you better come and go out in the country With me So as to keep away from the yankees.” Washington replied, “Yes madam,” but asserted that he needed to return the keys to the hotel to the hotelier’s wife. “I will come right back directly,” he said, and then walked out the door never to return as a slave.

From the National Bank building Washington proceeded to the river, likely up to what we know today as the upper crossing site, at the base of Hawke Street.   Continue reading

Looming Yankees: The Union Army Hovers Opposite Fredericksburg–Some Images and Incidents.

From John Hennessy:

After their rebuke at the Battle of Arby’s, the Union army recoiled long enough along the Warrenton Road for the Confederates in Falmouth to both prepare to leave and to burn the bridges in their wake. Soon after dawn, as the Union columns swept down the hill into Falmouth, the Confederates put their plan into action. The Falmouth Bridge went up in flames, as did the Chatham Bridge and the R,F&P bridge farther down. Fredericksburg had never seen such a day.  Some white residents scattered, fearful of the looming Yankees. Some slaves rejoiced at the Yankees’ coming. And a few people ventured out to watch, including diarist Betty Herndon Maury, who left a vivid description of the destruction that day.

I went down to the river, and shall never forget the scene there.  Above were our three bridges, all in a bright blaze from one end to the other, and every few minutes the beams and timbers would splash into the water with a great noise.  Below were two large steamboats, the Virginia and the St. Nicholas, and ten or twelve vessels, all wrapt in flames.  There were two or three rafts dodging in between the burning vessels, containing families coming over to this side with their negroes and horses.

Here are a couple of images that show some of the damage described by Mrs. Maury. The first shows the destroyed ships opposite city dock–drawn in May 1862.

The burned hulks of ships burned by the Confederates on April 1862. The distinctive barn in the background appears in sketches of Washington’s Ferry Farm, which in turn locates this scene as just a few yards downstream from Fredericksburg’s city dock.

This is the only known image that shows the destroyed Falmouth Bridge, burned by the Confederates on April 18. Lumber from the bridge was taken by Union engineer Washington Roebling, who in June built a wire suspension bridge on the abutments of the Chatham Bridge (we wrote about Roebling’s bridge here). Continue reading

Good Friday 1862

From John Hennessy:

One Hundred and Fifty years ago today, the Union army arrived opposite Fredericksburg for the first time.  It was Good Friday.

Of the many narratives of that day, two stand out for both their quality and their contrast.  The first is an account written by Helen Bernard, a white resident who was staying just outside town at a house called Beaumont–near where Gold’s Gym stands today.  (The following is from Rebecca Campbell Light’s excellent War at Our Doors. For a great history of Helen’s primary home at Gay Mont in Port Royal, click here.)

Helen Struan Bernard, from Rebecca Campbell Light’s War at Our Doors.

Beaumont, Spotsylvania County.  Good Friday, 1862. I write while the smoke of the burning bridges, depot, & boats, is resting like a heavy cloud all around the horizons towards Fredcksbg. The enemy are in possession of Falmouth, our force on this side too weak to resist them…. We are not at all frightened but stunned & bewildered waiting for the end. Will they shell Fbg., will our homes on the river be all destroyed? …. It is heartsickening to think of having our beautiful valley that we have so loved and admired all overrun & desolated by our bitter enemies, whose sole object is to subjugate & plunder the South…..

This is a powerful description of what the arrival of the Union army meant to most white residents in Fredericksburg.  It also reflects what has over the decades been our traditional understanding of the event hereabouts.

But here’s another description of precisely the same moment in time, written by another Fredericksburger, the slave John Washington.

John WashingtonApril 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quiet…until every body Was Startled by Several reports of [Yankee] cannon…. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. [But] every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees, for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen.   I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt…like I Was certain of My freedom now.

Same event, powerfully described, but with a totally different meaning to each writer.

 We’ll have more about the onset of the Union occupation in the next couple days.  Don’t forget Years of Anguish:  Slavery and Emancipation this weekend, with David Blight and Thavolia Glymph.  The Fredericksburg Baptist Church on Princess Anne Street, from 1-5.