Upton’s Attack at Spotsylvania: Giving Credit (Part 1)


Brigadier General Emory Upton.

From Eric Mink:

A previous two-part post (beginning here) took a look at the promotion of Emory Upton to the rank of brigadier general following his actions near Spotsylvania Court House. The legend of Upton and his May 10, 1864 attack goes beyond the recognition he received in the form of elevation of rank. The 6th Corps’ assault that afternoon has universally become known as “Upton’s Attack” and historians and battlefield guides have gone so far as to credit Upton with nearly every aspect of the attack’s planning. But just how much involvement did Upton really have in the conception and development of the assault that bears his name?

Assault Column – Whose Idea?

A commonly held interpretation surrounding the May 10, 1864 attack of the 6th Corps is that Colonel Upton developed the idea of attacking in a compact assault column – in other words, a reduction of the attacking formation’s front and stacking its regiments to create depth and power from behind. As the “Upton as lobbyist” interpretation goes, the young colonel had for some time recognized the folly of using linear formations for attacks against strong defensive positions and therefore advocated for the use of the assault column. This traditional interpretation implies that his views were so well-known, even to Army of the Potomac Headquarters, that on May 10 Generals George G. Meade and Ulysses S. Grant gave Upton the chance to prove himself. Although this interpretation establishes Upton as an easy protagonist in the attack story, it’s difficult to trace the origins of the storyline. A look through the writings of staff officers at the headquarters of both the Army of the Potomac and the 6th Corps fails to uncover any mention of Upton’s opinions on the matter. Postwar accounts of the fight by participants also don’t indicate that Upton had any influence on the decisions surrounding May 10. The first mention of Upton as a lobbyist for the assault column that could be located is in Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, the third volume in the author’s The Army of the Potomac trilogy and the recipient of the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Catton introduced Upton with a brief biographical sketch, in which he quotes a letter from the young colonel to his sister. The letter is critical of Union generalship and what Upton perceived as incompetency in ordering assaults against an entrenched enemy. This, along with a description of Upton’s successful November 1863 attack against a Confederate fortification at Rappahannock Station, helped set up the decision on May 10. On the Confederate position at the “Mule Shoe” of Spotsylvania, Catton wrote:

“Upton, in short, felt that he knew how to break through those Rebel entrenchments, and he spoke up about it, and on the afternoon of May 10 they gave him twelve picked infantry regiments, his own 121st New York among them, and told him to go ahead.” Catton, p 112

Furthermore, Catton inferred that not only did the idea of the attack originate with Upton, but the compact formation was also his idea.

“The obvious fact here – at least it was obvious to Upton – was that an assaulting column’s only hope was to get a solid mass of riflemen right on the parapet as quickly as possible…So Upton formed his men in four lines, three regiments side by side in each line…” Catton, p 113

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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

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The Spotsylvania Court wrestles with the reality of emancipation


From John Hennessy:

Few places more vividly demonstrate the impact of emancipation on a region’s ability to support the Confederate war effort than Spotsylvania. One suspects that the effect in Spotsylvania was precisely what Lincoln hoped it would be when he pondered the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.

Slaves coming in.

Slaves coming in.

While  this day we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the freedom it conveyed, during the war local authorities saw things rather differently. The exodus of slaves from Spotsylvania County had a devastating effect on the local economy–a fact made clear by the records of he County Court.

In November 1862, the governor of Virginia issued a proclamation requisitioning slaves for the Confederate war effort.  By then–five weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation–freedom already seized had radically reduced the available labor force in Spotsylvania County. The County Court (the modern equivalent to the Board of Supervisors), sought exemption from the requisition.

Being the unanimous opinion of this court, that there is not at this time remaining in this county at this date a sufficient number of slaves between the ages of 18 and 65 years to fill said requisition, it is therefore ordered that Lewis A. Boggs, Esq, the presiding justice of this court be requisitioned and authorized to proceed at once to Richmond and confer with the governor upon that subject, and apprise him of the condition of this county in regard to slave labor and explain to him fully the grounds upon which the above opinion of the court is founded. *

The court later declared that “The public enemy have carried off two thirds of the available blacks labor of the county,” and that by 1864 half of the county’s lands were no longer in cultivation.

In 1864 the court reported that despite the efforts of  “an intelligent and energetic agent of this court to procure the necessary food for the soldiers’ families and in the indigent poor of this county, it has been found that it cannot be procured either in this our the adjoining counties, it is simply because the food does not exist in this region of country—as an illustration of the pressing need, it may be cited that the fact in one of the magisterial districts of this county there are forty families of soldiers now in the Confederate service dependent on the aid of the court for food, and that there is not food enough now under the control of the county agent to feed these families for one month and that in two other magisterial districts the supply is still scantier. Real destitution and distress exists in this county even among that part of its people who are not indigent but who have not the necessary supply of  [food] to feed them.**

Amidst the chaos that attended emancipation, some slaves remained. We know only a few of their stories. Hester Tuckson of Fall Hill clearly stayed because of her own precarious health and the presence of two small children. Eric Mink uncovered Hester’s story here.

Fanny Lee of Santee in Caroline County made a clear calculation to wait for freedom, rather than to go looking for it herself, with all the attendant risks. Her decision resided in her confidence in the Union army’s ability to gain ultimate victory. I wrote about Fanny’s decision over at Fredericksburg Remembered.  

*  Spotsylvania County Court Order Book, December 19 1862, Library of Virginia.

** Spotsylvania County Court Order Book, April 4, 1864, Library of Virginia.  Susanna Michele Lee, now at North Carolina State University, examined and recorded these and other primary sources on behalf of the park.

A Rare Photograph of USCT’s, and a Case of Conflicting Identification


From:  Harrison 

Note:  for the sequel, or counterpoint, to the pre-Overland Campaign dating of this photograph in one prominent collection, see the comment below by our sharp-eyed reader, Will Hickox, pointing out the post-Overland Campaign identification in another.

On Saturday February 25th, please join park Chief Historian John Hennessy for Bridging the Chasm: A Public Conversation about Freedom, the Civil War, and its Complicated Legacy, a keynote program in the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum’s programming for Black History Month.  See the museum’s website for details and directions.      

I’d also like to mark Black History Month by sharing some thoughts on a unique image.  Recently, I came across this photograph in the digitized collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University: 

Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The image, part of the Library’s Mathew B. Brady and Levin Corbin Handy Photographic Studios Collection, bears the penciled caption “near Brandy Station Va 1864 staff 39th Colored Infantry.”  (The photograph appears here in accordance with the Beinecke Library’s policy on noncommercial use of public domain materials.  Additional information about the image accompanies its online version.)

Assuming the accuracy of the caption, this is likely the earliest-known photograph of United States Colored Troops (USCT’s) in the field in northern Virginia—part of the forces that Ulysses S. Grant had concentrated there against Robert E. Lee’s in the spring of 1864.

Detail from photograph above, courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

In a perfect historical world, of course, enlisted men would be present in the foreground as well as the background of the photograph.  Yet I’m very grateful for this rare picture; to my knowledge, it’s also the only known outdoor Virginia photograph that shows, at any date prior to the onset of the Overland Campaign, personnel of any of the six full USCT infantry regiments (plus a detachment from a Connecticut “colored” infantry regiment) who would march across the Fredericksburg area battlefields with Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division of the Ninth Army Corps.
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Franklin’s Crossing, June 1863: Gettysburg Act One or Third Fredericksburg?


From: Noel Harrison

In June 1863, Federal troops staged an assault crossing and bridge laying at Franklin’s Crossing on the Rappahannock River, just downstream from Fredericksburg. In later years, the June event would often be classified directly or indirectly as the curtain-raiser of the Gettysburg campaign, including by the compilers of the three-part volume 27 of The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

A Gettysburg context makes perfect sense to people who know the future. Union forces indeed abandoned the Franklin’s bridgehead, occupied from June 5 until June 14, 1863, before it could host or become the springboard to a battle. After Chancellorsville, which had occurred one month before, the next battle to involve the majority of the units of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia was indeed at Gettysburg, in early July. (The opposing mounted forces, with some infantry involvement, fought at Brandy Station on June 9, and a Confederate corps engaged and routed a Union division at and near Winchester on June 13-15.)

The rarely seen image at left (courtesy of the New York Public Library, http://www.nypl.org, in accordance with its policy on non-commercial use of low-rez files) shows the Franklin’s Crossing bridgehead in June 1863, and looks north in a “Confederate’s-eye view” across the site of the June 5 pontoon-borne assault. I based the “June” date on the tree leaf-out that distinguishes the photographs of that month from those made during the Second Fredericksburg operations here a month before, as noted in the work of historian John Kelley. At right, from the collection of the Library of Congress, is a better-known companion view that looks in the opposite direction, an image that Kelly dates specifically to June 7.

(A high-resolution version of the New York Public Library photograph—entitled “View of the Rappahannock, showing pontoon and the enemy’s lines” Image ID: 1150134, in the Library’s Digital Gallery—may be ordered via section 2 of the “Use of Content” guidelines here.)

Yet Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker in June 1863 ordered the operation at Franklin’s Crossing not knowing the future but attempting to predict and influence it. As described in this blog post and its second part, he maintained the bridgehead for more than a week as part of successive plans to move the Army of the Potomac southwest or south to fight in east-central Virginia, not north or northwest to fight above the Potomac. (In August 1862 and prior to the Battle of Second Manassas, Union Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter had similarly suggested threatening the lines of supply and communication of enemy troops as they moved northwards, specifically with a Union push from Fredericksburg “toward Hanover, or with a larger force to strike at Orange Court-House.”)

At Franklin’s Crossing in June 1863, the Rappahannock was passed, and combat did occur, unlike the similarly difficult-to-classify “Mud March” of the previous January. Again, a Gettysburg context for the June events at Franklin’s makes sense to some degree, and I certainly don’t reject it, but I seek companion- or alternate interpretation not grounded in hindsight. My offering of another designation, “Third Fredericksburg,” in the title above, emphasizes the perspective of the man whose orders created the bridgehead and formulated an evolving scheme, oriented away from Gettysburg, for the bridgehead’s exploitation. I avoid a parallel discussion of what was known to and planned by his opponent, other than my use of a single quotation from a secondary source, below.

This map by John Hennessy shows the three-bridge configuration at Franklin’s Crossing at the onset of the Second Fredericksburg operations on April 29, 1863, and provides a good orientation to the modern landscape there. The Union pontoon bridges completed on June 6, 1863—just two, though—were situated in the same general location occupied by the three spans a month before.

I have no more desire to inflate Hooker’s plan into a conceptual masterpiece than I do the resulting, intermittently brisk engagement of June 5-14 at Franklin’s Crossing into anything approaching the intensity of the “Second Fredericksburg” component of the Chancellorsville campaign, in late April and early May, much less that of the First Fredericksburg fighting of December 1862. As I suggest below, Hooker’s motivations for establishing the bridgehead in June 1863 may have included adjusting in the present his military reputation of the future. Yet the story of the events of early June 1863 offers an opportunity—surprisingly neglected thus far in historical writing—to better understand the man who had planned and managed Chancellorsville. Hooker, after all, chose Franklin’s for his opening infantry move in June, just as he had done in late April at the outset of Second Fredericksburg.

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A sad and brutal end to Widow Alsop’s house


From John Hennessy:

As so often happens, one post on here begets another–and thanks to our readers, we continue to learn. (You can read more about the photos of Confederate dead at the Alsop place here and here.)

Susan Alsop’s house, which burned in 1901.

Yesterday I received a call from a former Spotsylvania resident, Jose Brown, who grew up near the site of widow Sue Alsop’s house. He pointed me in the direction of a brief article in the Fredericksburg Free Lance that chronicled the horrible fire there that left a young boy dead and destroyed Sue Alsop’s farm.  The boy’s name was Eddy Scott, the son of Edmund Scott, who Jose always understood to have been one of Susan Alsop’s slaves.  The slave census for Spotsylvania does indeed show that Susan Alsop owned a young boy slave, age 3 at the time of the census in 1860.  The Spotsylvania census for 1900 shows that Edmund V. Scott was born in 1858, and his son Eddy in 1891–still living within a stone’s throw of Susan Alsop’s house (indeed the article says that young Eddy lived WITH Sue Alsop).  He was one of four children in the household.

This is from the Free Lance of May 1, 1901.

A young colored boy, son of Edmund Scott, who lived with Mrs. Sue M. Alsop at her home “Clover Dale,” about eight miles from this city in Spotsylvania, was in a chaff pen looking for hens’ nests, Tuesday evening. He lighted a match to find the nests. A spark ignited a the chaff and he was burned to death. The flames quickly spread to the barns and other out-buildings, which were soon destroyed. Then the fire reached the residence and it, too, was burned to the ground. Some of the furniture was saved but in a badly broken condition.  Mrs. Alsop was not at home and there was no lady on the place except Miss, Ella Parker, a companion of Mrs. Alsop. 

The residence is insured with the companies represented by A.B. Botts & Co., for $2,300. The kitchen $200, and furniture $500, and the barns and outbuildings were insured with C.C. Rowlett & Co. for $600.  The loss is over $8,000.

My thanks to Jose Brown for sharing what he knows.

Follow-up: Miss Mary Scott revealed? And some notes on Widow Alsop


From John Hennessy:

We learn new things every day. 

In the wake of last week’s post on Clearview and the mysterious Miss Mary Scott, Norman Schools sent along this image, which we are happy to share.  Norman owns the house of Walker and Margaret Conway in Falmouth, the childhood home of Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway; Norman is a driving force behind the Moncure Conway Foundation. Few people are more devoted to both history and home than Norman and his wife Lenetta, and over the years he has organized the very popular Yankees in Falmouth event each September.

Is this Mary Scott?

He received this image from a man named Silleck, a visitor to Yankees in Falmouth one year.  The man’s ancestral family, the Wallace’s, owned Clearview after the Civil War, and Mr. Silleck brought along several images of Falmouth from his collection. They included this image, showing an older woman on the back porch of Clearview. The woman is not identified, and nor do we know the year it was taken. But given the style and the look of  the image, it seems likely it was prior to 1900.

Is it Mary Scott?  She died at Clearview in August 1891 at age 67.  Her younger sister Fanny was twenty years her junior–too young, it seems, to be the woman in the picture.

So, it very well could be Mary Scott, though we will never know for sure.  The possibility that it could be is intriguing.

Our thanks to Norman Schools for sharing this little piece. He asked that we cite the image as from the Silleck Collection.

Since our post on the Confederate dead at Widow Alsop’s farm–and the revelation that the widow was just 23 years old in 1864–I came across her obituary from the Daily Star, December 6, 1915. She never remarried and never moved–living out her remaining half-century on or near the farm where the pictures were taken. Continue reading

Medal of Honor Recipient Caught Straggling on the March


From Mink:

Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan pulled an impressive and enviable media coup on May 21, 1864. From the balcony of Massaponax Church in Spotsylvania County, O’Sullivan recorded three of the most famous images of the Civil War. This series of photographs focuses on Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George G. Meade during a rest along the march from the battlefield of Spotsylvania Court House to the North Anna River.

Pictured above are two of the three photographs taken by O’Sullivan that afternoon. Gathered in the pews outside the church are the two generals, members of their staffs and others traveling with army headquarters. (I have identified General Grant in each image by a red mark.) In the first photo he is seen leaning over a pew conferring with General Meade, while the second photo shows him seated and presumably drafting an order or dispatch. Visible in the background can be seen the blurred wagon train of the Fifth Army Corps, as it passes the church and continues south.

Many of those who encountered this gathering paused to gaze upon the army’s leaders. One passerby wrote:

“Under the shade of some noble trees in front of Massaponax church, I was permitted to look upon a number of our generals in council, consulting some maps of the region through which we were moving. A crowd of curious eyes gathered around to look upon the noted faces for a moment, while from the gallery windows of the church I observed a photographic instrument seizing the rare chance. I quietly studied the faces of those men, whom the generations will delight to honor, and having photographed them for private use, passed on, leaving the chiefs in council.” – Anonymous, “Notes of a Visit to the Army of the Potomac,” in The Huntingdon [Penn.] Globe, June 29, 1864

The third photo, below, presents the clearest image of the famous generals and prominent members of their staffs .

Identified in this photo are: 1) Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General United States Army; 2) Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana; 3) Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, Chief of Staff of General Headquarters United States Army; 4) Major General George G. Meade, Commanding General Army of the Potomac; 5) Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus B. Comstock, aide-de-camp to General Grant; 6) Lieutenant Colonel Adam Badeau, Military Secretary to General Grant.

There is yet another man of note in this photo. He was neither a general, nor a member of the headquarters entourage. A mere teenage private lurking in the background, he undoubtedly elicited no notice. He was destined, however, to become a highly respected soldier and recipient of the country’s highest military honor. Continue reading

Slaves of Fall Hill: Abraham and Hester Tuckson


From Mink:

One of the gems recently uncovered in the pension files of the 23rd United States Colored Troops (USCT) pertains to a family that lived on a plantation known to many in the local area. In the years prior to the Civil War, Hester and Abraham Tuckson were slaves owned by Dr. John R. Taylor of “Fall Hill,” located in Spotsylvania County along the bend of the Rappahannock River northwest of Fredericksburg. Abraham was one of  many slaves from the Fredericksburg region who escaped to freedom during the war and enlisted in the Union Army. He was killed on July 30, 1864 at the Battle of the Crater outside Petersburg, Va. Hester remained at Fall Hill through the end of the war and began drawing a widow’s pension in 1873. Due to confusion over her first name, Hester’s claim was reexamined in 1902. At that time, depositions were provided by Hester, Dr. Taylor’s son, Robert Innes Taylor, Dr. Taylor’s brother-in-law, Frank Forbes, and Reverend George L. Dixon.  The following information, gleaned from these depositions, provides both insights and clues for further investigation into the lives of these two former Spotsylvania slaves.

According to Hester, she and Abraham Tuckson were married at Fall Hill in December 1857. More than likely the marriage occurred around Christmas. The union was a slave marriage, which lacked any legal standing or protection, but the couple managed to remain together and raise a family before Abraham’s departure during the war. Hester and Abraham had four children together: a daughter Emma born May 1856 and prior to their marriage, another daughter Nancy born September 1858, and a third child who died.  Their fourth child, Leonia was born in August 1862.

Early in the war, Abraham escaped from Fall Hill, leaving behind his wife and children. Exactly when he left the plantation is a little uncertain, as Hester’s claim does not correspond with that of either R. Innes Taylor or Frank Forbes. In her deposition, Hester states that Abraham ran away in 1862, while engaged in hauling commissary stores for the Confederate authorities. Documents in the files of Confederate Citizens and Business Firms, located at the National Archives, do show that during the period August 1861 through March 1862 Dr. Taylor hired out wagons and drivers to the Confederate Army encamped across the river in Stafford County. So, it is possible that Abraham made his way into Union lines at that time, although it would certainly have been difficult to pass through the Confederate held territory of northern Virginia. Dr. Taylor claimed compensation for losses of a mule and damage to wagons, but did not mention the loss of a driver. Innes Taylor and Frank Forbes, on the other hand, claim that Abraham made his escape when the Union army arrived opposite Fredericksburg in the spring of 1862. This seems much more likely as the time for Abrham’s departure.

Of the documents found in Hester’s pension file, the most intriguing is the deposition of Robert Innes Taylor, who was sixteen years old in 1862. What appears here is a direct transcription of Innes’s deposition:

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Escape to Spotsylvania and beyond: the geography of Fredericksburg’s refugees


From John Hennessy:

On December 12, 1862, the roads leading into Spotsylvania were crowded with civilians seeking escape from looming battle. There was no system to this exodus. People headed to friends’ homes, to churches, and to the homes of strangers, seeking shelter. There are many affecting descriptions of civilians finding their way across the early winter landscape of Spotsylvania (read one of the best in this post over at Fredericksburg Remembered), but our purpose today is to look at least at a few of the sites that help define the geography of the exodus so far as we know it.

By far the most famous of Fredericksburg’s refugees on December 11 and 12, 1862, was Jane Beale and her family. They lived on Lewis Street and endured most of December 11 in their basement, under fire. As the Union army battled its way across the river and into Fredericksburg’s streets, Beale, assisted by Rev. Beverley Tucker Lacy, fled in a wagon brought by Confederate soldiers.

The family’s path out of town is clear: over to Hanover Street, westward to what is today Kirkland Street, left on the Sunken Road, and then to a temporary camp established by refugees on the back side of Willis Hill–today’s National Cemetery. She wrote vividly about the place.

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