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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Morris Schaff’s Wilderness: Anticipating Future Battlefield Interpretation, 1910


from: Harrison

With the park having concluded sesquicentennial observances of the four battles within its historical bailiwick, I’d like to consider how those engaged the imagination once the guns fell silent. Readers of this blog may recall my interest in the literary aspects of early commentary on the fighting. What follows is adapted from a History at Sunset program I presented recently on supernatural imagery, used by some chroniclers of the Civil War generation in describing Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and the vast tract of woodland encompassing both. 

I drew inspiration from Union veteran Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness, published in 1910.  It’s the most unique history I’ve read of a Civil War battle. It’s also the first book to be devoted solely to the two-day clash of May 1864, not to be supplemented in that category until Edward Steere published The Wilderness Campaign half a century after Schaff’s volume appeared.

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Houghton-Mifflin’s advertising for the serialized version of Schaff’s book, Atlantic Monthly, March 1909.

Schaff’s publisher, Houghton-Mifflin of Boston and New York, had serialized the book in their magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, beginning in June 1909. Schaff’s study was thus distributed widely and essentially twice. (The publishers seemed delighted with its reception, inviting him to write an article-length sequel and running that in Atlantic in 1911.)

Readers across the country had this first-ever, book-length encounter with the Battle of the Wilderness in a profoundly strange atmosphere. Schaff’s text swerved back and forth from the conventional to the unconventional, from straightforward terrain- and tactics analysis to supernatural interventions. In 1911, a reviewer for The Nation spent several column-inches trying to finalize his thoughts about Schaff and concluded, “We applaud the writer who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” In this blog post, let’s consider the conventional and even “cutting-edge” aspects of The Battle of the Wilderness. These highlight, through contrast, the weird aspects (next post), as strange now as in 1910.

At the battle of the Wilderness, the 23-year-old Schaff served on the staff of Fifth Corps Commander Gouveneur K. Warren. Some of Schaff’s detailed descriptions of what he saw would become popular among later historians, especially his detailed, vivid recollection of Warren meeting with other staffers in the Lacy House, “Ellwood,” and urging them to reduce the casualty return for his corps.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished postwar structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

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Capturing the Wilderness’s signature horror: fire


From John Hennessy. We did this post a few years ago, but it’s worth remembering this week, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness.

On May 7, 1864, Alfred Waud recorded this simple, compelling set of sketches, entitled “Escaping from the fire in the woods–‘Wilderness.'” It shows four separate scenes, each of struggle. So far as I can tell, they were never incorporated into the images Waud did of the Battle of the Wilderness. Instead, they have been largely ignored. But look at them closely. They bespeak of the battle’s signature horror: fear associated with fire.

In the public mind, many battles are remembered for a signature moment or phenomenon. At First Manassas, it’s the civilians. At Gettysburg it’s Pickett’s Charge. At Petersburg, the Crater. At the Wilderness, it’s fire.  Over the decades many of these rather simple associations have been challenged in some form. The civilians weren’t nearly as integral to Union defeat at Manassas as many believe. Historians have revised our view of Pickett’s Charge sufficiently that its traditional name has barely survived. And the Crater, we know, is a story that goes well beyond the bold efforts of Pennsylvania miners and drunken commanders. But what of the fires in the Wilderness?

Waud’s compelling visual chronicle of the fires in the Wilderness

Beyond the anecdotal, we know little with certainty. But, some digging into what we do have leaves little room to challenge or doubt the traditional view that fire and human suffering were closely intertwined in the Wilderness in May 1864. Fire is, in the public’s mind, the signature horror of the Wilderness, and by all accounts it should be.

The Army of the Potomac’s Medical Director, Thomas McParlin, said of the fighting and fires:

The hostile lines swayed back and forth over a strip of ground from 200 yards to a mile in width on which the severely wounded of both sides were scattered. This strip of woods was on fire in many places, and some wounded, unable to escape, were thus either suffocated or burned to death. The number who thus perished is unknown, but it is supposed to have been about 200.

If McParlin’s estimate is right, then nearly 10% of Union deaths at the Wilderness resulted from fire–a staggering number.  Continue reading

Landscaping the Rappahannock Region: Spotsylvania’s Hopewell Nurseries


From Eric Mink:

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that we frequently reference the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC). Located in Fredericksburg, the CRHC is a non-profit repository and research facility that preserves and archives historic documents and photographs related to the Rappahannock region. It is a must for anyone conducting research in the Fredericksburg area. One of the gems in the CRHC’s collection is the subject of this post. In 2005, the CRHC received a business ledger maintained by Hopewell Nurseries, an agricultural business that operated in Spotsylvania County during the mid-19th century. The ledger contains the names of customers who did business with the nursery. The ledger also lists the date and purchases for each customer. This document proves to be a very useful tool with which to examine the antebellum landscape in the Fredericksburg area.

Robey's farm and the Hopewell Nursery as it appears on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey’s farm and Hopewell Nurseries. as they appear on an 1867 map.

Henry R. Robey owned and operated Hopewell Nurseries on his 700-acre farm. Robey’s farm and nursery occupied land sandwiched between the Orange Plank Road and the unfinished Fredericksburg and Gordonsville Railroad, about six miles west of Fredericksburg and roughly one-half mile south of Zoan Baptist Church. Today, the Robey land is part of the Smoketree and Red Rose Village residential subdivisions.

It’s difficult to say exactly when Robey opened his nursery business. Notices in the local newspapers show that he worked as a grocer and dry goods merchant in Fredericksburg until at least 1838. The first advertisement found for Hopewell Nurseries appeared in 1847. The advertisement boasted that the nursery had on hand 17,000 apple trees, consisting of 65 varieties. Cherries, plums, walnuts, along with flowering plants such as roses and dahlias were all mentioned as part of the available stock.

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nursery - Alexandria Gazette

An 1855 advertisement for the Hopewell Nurseries – Alexandria Gazette

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“If these signatures could talk…”: Aquia Church Graffiti, Part 1a


From Eric Mink:

After the previous post (here) focusing on Confederate graffiti at Aquia Church, a closer look revealed yet another carving. The work of this vandal can also be attributed to a member of the 5th Texas Infantry.

“GJR Co A 5Tex-------“

George Julian Robinson was a rather unique soldier in the 5th Texas. Robinson was in fact a native of Delaware. Born in 1838, young George lived in Georgetown, Delaware with his parents and siblings. According to one source, Robinson spent the 1850s working as an engineer on the Delaware Railroad. The 1860 Census, however, lists his occupation at that time as “Student of Dentistry.” (Photos identified as Robinson can be found here)

Why Robinson chose to support the Confederacy is a bit of mystery. Delaware historian Dr. John A. Munroe, in an undated sketch of Robinson, claims that George and a relative were determined to join the Confederates. They slipped through the front lines and traveled to Virginia’s Eastern Shore in the fall of 1861, eventually making their way to Yorktown. Picked up as northern spies, the two men were sent to Richmond. Through the assistance of friends, they obtained their release.

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Gettysburg battlefield photographer visits Spotsylvania County – 1887


From Eric Mink:

Students, historians, and collectors of Civil War battlefield photography are quite familiar with the name William H. Tipton. He was one of the most prolific postwar photographers in Gettysburg, Penn. and his landscape images are quite sought after, as they are wonderful documents in helping understand the sites of that battlefield. Little known, however, is the fact that he lugged his camera to historic sites outside of South Central Penn., including an 1887 visit to the battlefields around Fredericksburg.

On May 5, 1887, a train from Richmond arrived at the Fredericksburg station. Among its passengers were approximately one hundred Union veterans on an excursion to visit Virginia’s battlefields. Most of these men were veterans of the 57th and 59th Massachusetts regiments and they had, prior to their arrival in Fredericksburg, visited the battlefields around Petersburg and Richmond. Their trip brought them to the Fredericksburg area for the same purpose. They spent two days touring the local battlefields and revisiting sites that many of them had not seen since the war. The Fredericksburg Free Lance covered their visit, describing the places they went and even listing the members of the party. Included in that list was “W.H. Tipton, photographer from Gettysburg.” Fortunately for us 125 years later, Tipton wasn’t merely sightseeing, but was capturing on glass those sites that he saw.

Upon arrival in Fredericksburg, the group immediately headed to Spotsylvania Court House. The first site they chose to visit was the “Bloody Angle” at the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. (This photo complements one that John Hennessy posted a couple weeks ago and can be found here.)

"Bloody Angle Spottsylvania May 5th 1887. Near the stump of tree shot down by bullets; the but of the tree, 15 inches in diameter is in the National Museum in Washington." Typed label pasted on photo mount.

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The obscure Carpenter farm, and a soldier’s grave


From John Hennessy:

It is an evocative though rarely used photograph: a man standing before an unkempt line of graves, the markers askew and unadorned. The image is known to have been taken on the farm of James and Elizabeth Carpenter (an elderly couple whose son Solon served in the Fredericksburg Artillery) on the Wilderness Battlefield, a now-forgotten area well behind the Union lines, about midway between NPS holdings at Wilderness and Chancellorsville.

Today the site of the Carpenter farm is home to the local chapter of the Isaac Walton League.  Nobody that I know of has been able to identify the specific location on the farm of this view (or another less interesting image apparently from the same series). These don’t appear to be fresh burials, for the ground seems covered with a season’s worth of leaves and nature’s refuse–something consistent with its 1866 date (our friend John Cummings will have much more to say about this series of postwar images in an upcoming book).

The scene shows at least twenty-one graves, all but one of them seemingly marked by a stake or pole rather than a headboard. The method of marking the graves suggests this work was done in the aftermath of battle, rather than by the Union burial corps that came through the area in 1865. (We discussed and illustrated their method of marking graves in our post on Wilderness Cemetery #2, which you can find here.) No place else do I know of stakes being used to mark field burials, and the lone visible headboard in this view is radically different from the mass-produced, carefully painted boards carried and planted by the 1865 burial crews. Continue reading