The Quick and the Undead; or, A Secret Sharer Outbound

from: Harrison

On May 23, 1863, in the wake of defeat at Chancellorsville, Washington’s Daily National Republican conveyed some brief but vivid and mysterious tidings from the Army of the Potomac. The story, to the extent it was known, opened amidst the sprawling Federal camps and logistical facilities in Stafford County:

Day before yesterday morning the body of a soldier, exhumed for the purpose of being sent to Washington for embalment, was placed on board the John Brooks at Aquia Creek.

Union depot at Aquia Landing. Courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,

Continue reading

The Canal-Boat Bridge (part 3): a Rare Sketch by an Iron Brigade Soldier, and the Editorial Bombardment that Transformed It

from: Harrison

In the late fall of 1862, as the opposing armies converged on Fredericksburg, editors in distant offices scrambled for background material on the town. The staff of Harper’s Weekly dug into a small, unused archive of eyewitness sketches made during the previous spring and summer, and from those created a montage that appeared in the issue of December 6, 1862, five days prior to the opening of the battle and the artillery bombardment of the town:

While researching an earlier blog post, I had learned of the spring/summer origins of the December 6 montage, and that most of its component woodcuts were based on (presumably lost) sketches by Henry Didiot, a soldier in the Sixth Wisconsin Infantry of the famed Iron Brigade. Not long after his sketching at Fredericksburg, Didiot fell at the Battle of Brawner’s Farm on August 28, 1862.

The woodcut montage of his sketches published posthumously on December 6 included a fairly nondescript picture, below, of “Wrecks of Steamers burned by the Rebels.” The view looks east across the Rappahannock River where it widens into Fredericksburg’s small harbor, and from the town wharves towards Ferry Farm and its namesake ferry landing in Stafford County. (The Ferry Farm buildings at center-right horizon postdated and occupied the general area of the site of George Washington’s boyhood home, which was itself in ruins by the 1830’s.)

Until last night, when I spotted the sketch, below, on the website of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I was unaware that any of Didiot’s original drawings had survived. Equally important, the sketch offers a contrast that shows how Harper’s editors had subjected it to a fairly severe artistic bombardment when creating “Wrecks of Steamers”–the woodcut version. Although unattributed on the Museum’s website, the sketch’s original caption—“Canal Boat Bridge across the Rappahannock,” “Built by Co I 6th Reg. Wis. Vol./ in one day…Sketched by Henry [illegible]…”— and basic design clearly connect it to Didiot and, in turn, to the heavily modified woodcut.

In accordance with the Museum’s posted policy on fair-use of materials in educational, non-profit venues, I include the sketch here, at the same magnification made available by the Museum online:

Credit: WWW.MFA.ORG. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, 1800–1875. Accession number: 55.840.


Continue reading

“Listening” to a Sketch of Civil War Stafford County

from: Harrison

As we near the end of the sesquicentennial’s second year, I’m intrigued all the more by means of imagining the sensory experiences of the Civil War’s participants. John Hennessy has recently blogged about possibilities for recovering a sense of the motion of 1860’s Virginia. I looked at another trace of that motion here, and at one way to recover some of the literal color of the war’s local landscapes here (end of post). Eric Mink recently shared a striking sense of its literal sound, specifically the postwar voice of a key Federal officer here.

Today, I’d like to consider the possibility of recovering and re-experiencing—at least partially—another of the myriad sounds heard in the Fredericksburg area. You may have seen the black-and-white version of this picture of Union camp life, by Northern artist Edwin Forbes:

(Source for online jpeg here.)

Note the soldier’s fiddle, or violin …made from a cigar box. This picture and a companion scene by Forbes have been described as the earliest-known illustrations of the use of cigar-box instruments in the United States. In the years after the Civil War, those offered inexpensive means of playing music and were especially important in the rise of jug bands and the blues. The first instrument owned by future blues legend Big Bill Broonzy was a cigar-box fiddle that he made at the age of 10.

I have yet to find documentation for Forbes assigning a specific date or location to the scene, above, as he first encountered it. The picture and its etched companion may have originated as sketches of a Federal camp in Culpeper County during the winter of 1863-1864, or in Stafford County the winter previous.

But there’s another relevant Forbes picture, a sketch now in the collections of the Library of Congress. In historical discussions of cigar-box instruments, this artwork is rarely associated with the two others I’ve just referenced:

Continue reading

Independence Day 1862: Fredericksburg’s Stark Contrast and Some Fireworks

From John Hennessy:

Fredericksburg under Union occupation in May 1862, before the repair of the railroad bridge into town. Looking NW.

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow, the Fourth of July dawned in Fredericksburg–a beautiful, clear, breezy day. For eight decades the town had celebrated the nation’s independence; but in 1862, residents in the town passed the day quietly, without notice, their attention drawn more by the news of the massive fighting around Richmond and hopes for their own independence from the now-hated Union. It was a “week of intense anxiety,” wrote Jane Beale. Though buoyed by word of victory, she, like many others in Fredericksburg, feared that death’s tendrils would once again touch the town (Mrs. Beale had lost a son in the Battle of Williamsburg).

A Union officer rode through the streets that morning. He noted there was none of the customary protests from the citizenry. Rather, he said, “Young Virginia was in the dumps,” and he wished to have none of dreariness. “I hurried across the river,” he wrote, “lest I also should be infected with the painful gloom.”

Fredericksburg from the camps of Gibbon’s brigade, in what is today Pratt Park. Many of the events held on July 4 probably took place in this field.

Across that river in Stafford County, the Union army suffered anything but gloom, intent on celebrating the “86th birthday of this great and once happy Republic.” In John Gibbon’s brigade of western troops (later known as the Iron Brigade), men and officers started the day by swapping roles–the officers taking the ranks as privates, and select enlisted men acting as officers. The men rejoiced at the sight of colonels and “other big shoulder straps” policing the camp, “picking up old bones and trash.”

In Marsena Patrick’s brigade of New York soldiers, the day featured a concert, speeches given upon a platform adorned with cedar boughs–purposely reminiscent of Northern forests–and the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Virtually all the batteries with each brigade fired a salute that day–the climax coming at noon, when Monroe’s Rhode Island battery, near the Phillips House, fired a salute of 84 guns. All of this was clearly audible in Fredericksburg, and that of course was partly the point.

Company I of the 7th Wisconsin in what is today Pratt Park, with Fredericksburg beyond. Eric Mink will have much more to say about this and other images of the 7th Wisconsin taken that summer in a future post.

But the day’s most notable events came in the afternoon, when games and races broke out all over Stafford Heights. Gibbon’s brigade held a mule race, probably in what is today Pratt Park.

Continue reading

Soldiers’ Huts to Luxury Homes – Bell-Air Today

From Eric Mink:

A previous post, found here, looked at Stafford County Unionist Abraham Primmer. With the compensation he received from the U.S. government after the war, Primmer successfully returned to farming and lived out his final years as a respected member of his Stafford County community.

“Bell-Air,” the house and property, remained a prominent landmark in the neighborhood that became known as Leeland after the war. The home and property remained in the hands of Primmer’s daughters until 1926. The house remained in good shape and was at its finest when a researcher from the Works Progress Administration visited the farm in 1937. By 1942, however, the county land assessment noted “building burned,” indicating that the house was gone.

Bell-Air – 1937

The farm, which became known locally as “Walnut Farm,” went through a number of owners in the last half of the 20th century. Most of them apparently purchased the property as an investment, as its location along the railroad made it an attractive piece of ground with much potential. The Virginia Railway Express stop at Leeland Station, just off the northern boundary of the property, made the land ripe for residential development.

Modern aerial view of the Bell-Air and Camp Pitcher sites

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

“All my sympathies were for the cause of the union and its supporters…” – Abraham Primmer of Stafford County

From Eric Mink:

Park staff has recently been engaged in looking at Fredericksburg area’s Unionist families and the role they played in the Civil War hereabouts. Staff Historian Don Pfanz recently authored an article on this subject in the locally published Fredericksburg History & Biography (Volume 10). A two-part post on this blog last year, which can be found here, looked at the activity of perhaps the most active Unionist in Spotsylvania County, Isaac Silver. Today’s post seeks to introduce our readers to another of the local Unionist community who made hard choices about his involvement in the war, resisted Confederate authority and ultimately survived within a hostile environment.

Abraham Primmer moved his family to Stafford County, Virginia in 1853, purchasing a 360-acre estate, known as “Bell-Air.” The property sat along the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad about 1.5 miles northeast of Falmouth. Abraham hailed from New York and spent his early adult life in Chemung County, serving as a Supervisor and Justice of the Peace for the town of Catlin, as well as an assemblyman for Chemung. The family included Abraham and his wife Elizabeth, along with their four daughters and three sons.

An 1867 map showing Abraham Primmer’s “Bell-Air” in relation to other landmark residences in southern Stafford County.

On the subject of secession, the Primmers stood solidly behind the Union. Abraham later claimed that he “never drew a disloyal breath from beginning to end.” On May 23, 1861, Virginians gathered at polling places throughout the state to cast their vote on whether or not to adopt the Ordinance of Secession. Abraham remembered that at his polling location, militiamen were on hand, intent on making sure the ordinance received overwhelming support.

“Every influence was employed to intimidate—–any who were suspected of the crime of being a union man. Up to this time I had determined to vote against secession and had spoken against it on several occasions, and was a marked man; where the vote was taken I was warned of my danger. I had two sons that I wanted to save if the state seceded and to save myself and family from the fury of these outlaws and the persecutions of the inflamed secesh.” – Testimony of Abraham Primmer, Southern Claims Commission

Continue reading

The Battle of Arby’s–A Bloody Barricade Saves the Bridge at Falmouth

From John Hennessy:

We try not to tend toward the minute in this space. Rather, we try to focus on revelation with meaning, especially things that have never quite been understood well.  But today we’ll combine minute and revelation a bit and look at an event most of you have likely never heard of, but which in April 1862 reverberated loudly across the American landscape.

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, as we have noted previously (here and here), the Union army arrived on the shores of the Rappahannock in Stafford County, opposite Fredericksburg.  Their arrival was tumultuous, heralded by a chaotic, deadly skirmish in the middle of the night that I have taken to calling the Battle of Arby’s, in honor of the culinary presence very near the site of the clash.  As we wrote in a post the other day, the Union army clashed with the Confederate rearguard near Berea Church on the afternoon of April 17. That was not enough for Christopher Augur, commander of the Union troops in the area.  He wanted to get to the crossings of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg before the Confederates still lingering on the Stafford side of the river could destroy the bridges. To do that, he decided to do something a more experienced commander might not have dared–a nighttime raid into Falmouth.

As the soon as the Union army reached Stafford County, citizens inclined toward the Union stepped forth to help. On this evening of April 17, a Connecticut-born local named Horace B. Hewitt–a farmer who owned 152 acres near Hartwood Church–came into the Union camp near Berea Church.

Berea Church today.

Hewitt had just come from Fredericksburg and had seen that the Confederates had placed a barricade across the Warrenton Road about a mile northwest of Falmouth.  Hewitt promised Augur that he could lead the Union cavalry around the barricade, clearing the way for a dash to capture the Falmouth Bridge before the Confederates could burn it.  Augur accepted Hewitt’s word and his services, and just before midnight ordered parts of the 2d New York Cavalry (Lt. Col. Judson Kilpatrick at the reins) and 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry (Col. George Bayard) to horse. The happily bedizened 14th Brooklyn infantry–with their red pants and kepis–joined in as support, and illuminated by a half moon, the column of 1,500 men and horses started out from Berea.

The Union route from Berea to the Confederate barricade near Arby's.

Mr. Hewitt led them not directly down the Warrenton Road, but rather to the north–along what is today Berea Church Road to Truslow Road. Eastward along Truslow the Yankees rode. Just beyond where today Truslow crosses Interstate 95, Hewitt led the column onto a farm road to the right–a now-vanished path that led back to the Warrenton Road (Route 17). Continue reading

The Blue Tide Descends 150 years ago

From John Hennessy:

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow, April 17, the first wave of Union troops began its move toward Fredericksburg.  From camps around Warrenton Junction (modern-day Calverton) and Catlett Station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, the division commanded by General Rufus King started south.  His lead brigade, commanded by General Christopher Columbus Augur, consisted of four New York regiments and the 2d US Sharpshooters.  They followed what is today Elk Run Road (Route 806) to the crossroads at Bristersburg, and then south on Bristersburg Road (Route 616) into Stafford County.  While these roads would become familiar routes for the Union army as it moved into and out of the Fredericksburg region over the next two years, no Union troops had passed that way prior to April 1862.

By 1862 standards, the landscape these troops passed through was nondescript.  It would seem so today as well, except that the area is little changed since the war–the roads still narrow and winding, often closed in by roadside forests.  In April 1862, the route’s most notable characteristic was the people the soldiers encountered along the way:  slaves.  As one New Yorker noted, it was the first and only time during the war the soldiers saw slavery undisturbed.  And that status would remain intact for only moments after the arrival of the Union army.

Click to enlarge.

Other troops followed much the same route in the coming days and weeks.  One of them remembered,

The road was constantly thronged with contrabands who…were making their way on “double quick,” for the land of peace and freedom.  I saw the tears stream down the dark faces of those too old to leave, as those in the prime of life bid them a long adieu, and with hurried step started from the house of bondage.  The attachment that exists between the slave and the master, is like the attachment between oil and water…  The very institution itself hardens the heart and callouses all feelings of humanity. 

At midday on April 17th, the Union columns approached the junction of Bristersburg Road, Hartwood Road (Route 612) and Poplar Road (Route 616).  There it likely split, taking both roads south to the Warrenton Road, today’s Route 17.  Once on Route 17 (today four lanes rather than 2 and considerably straightened by our friends at VDOT), the column turned left toward Berea Church and Fredericksburg. Continue reading

A Little-Known-but-Well-Known Photograph of the Second Battle of Fredericksburg

from: Harrison

Note:  For an opportunity to vividly imagine Civil War events at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church, mentioned below—and at other local places of worship as well—I invite you to attend The Churches Remember, a multi-component, free event this Saturday commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Note that dramatic readings will occur in the Baptist Church at 7:00 p.m., and that historian George Rable, who has written in-depth about wartime destruction in the Fredericksburg area—the general subject of my post here—with speak earlier in the day: 10:45 at St. George’s Church.

I’d like to take a moment at lunchtime to share the results of some research accomplished over the past two weekends.  Recently, I happened to linger over this familiar view of the ruins of “Mulberry Hill,” the Stafford County home of the Phillips family.  The building had also housed the headquarters of General Ambrose Burnside during the First Battle of Fredericksburg.  The photograph looks southwest from Mulberry Hill across the Chatham estate and across the town.  I could not recall seeing a precise date for this picture in the many books and articles that have carried it:

Courtesy National Archives.

The Phillips House was gutted by fire on February 14, 1863, while the Federals occupied Stafford Heights.  Thus ended the brief but proud reign of what was perhaps the most elaborate example of the Gothic Revival style in residential architecture in antebellum Fredericksburg and immediate environs.  A grim symmetry on the casualty list of local culture was achieved two months later when “Mannsfield,” the most elaborate local example of the Georgian style in residential building, was gutted by fire while in Confederate hands.  (“Idlewild,” just outside town on the opposite side of the river, was Mulberry Hill’s principal antebellum rival among large Gothic homes.)

Army of the Potomac Provost Marshal General Marsena Patrick had known the Phillips House as a picturesque feature on the backdrop of his rides, visits, and camps the previous spring and summer.  The house may be the structure with tall, crossed gables and gable-end windows that appears in the left background of this Edwin Forbes sketch of “Review of Gen. Ord’s division, opposite Fredericksburg, by Maj. Gen. McDow[e]ll and staff” on May 20, 1862:

Courtesy Library of Congress.

(High-rez versions of the sketch are here.)

Marsena Patrick’s diary describes the February 14, 1863 blaze as “quite a sad affair” and repeats a story that some of Maj. Gen. George Stoneman’s staffers had been “trying to get a Sibley Stove to work in the Attic.”  A Northern photographer showed up, possibly on February 15 or 16, 1863, to record the still-smoking ruins, in a destined-to-be-famous stereograph.  Here’s the left-hand view:

Courtesy Library of Congress.

(Standing modestly among the wooden items rescued from the flames, and among the blue-clad gawkers, a telegraph pole attests to the military value of the commanding vista from Mulberry Hill.)

Given that the towering gables and second story of the brick shell visible in the smoking-ruins image had vanished by the time of the photograph I post at the top, I assumed that a considerable period had elapsed between the taking of the two images.  So when was the scene at top photographed?
Continue reading