Centennial to Sesquicentennial: A Quickie Case Study

FCentennial coverrom Hennessy:  The other day I came across the brochure publicizing the events associated with the Centennial of the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1962.  As a quick and vivid measure of how things have evolved since then (both thematically and methodologically), I thought I would post both the 1962 program and the program we distributed for the 150th in December 2012.  I suspect what took place at Fredericksburg is largely typical of most Civil War parks, both during the Centennial and Sesquicentennial (perhaps with the exception of Manassas, which was a BIG deal in July 1961–unlike anything we have seen since).

Bear in mind that in 2012, the battle anniversary was just a single part of a much larger series of events spanning the year that addressed the civilian experience, slavery, freedom, emancipation, and the political context of the war.

What strikes me most:  we have this vision of the Civil War and its centennial as being central to American culture in 1962–the “heyday” of American interest in the war. We often hear the lament that the Sesquicentennial was not the event the Centennial was. That’s certainly true. But ponder the question this way:  if we tried to do in 2012 what was done in 1962, we would have been shouted out of business as being token and insufficient in every respect.

The heft of the respective programs–each intended to meet latent public demand–would suggest that the public had far greater expectations and the NPS had far greater aspirations in 2012 than in 1962.

By the way, the events at Fredericksburg for the 150th attracted somewhere near 23,000 people. I am not aware that any statistics exist for 1962, but I suspect (given the nature of the programs) attendance probably amounted to a fraction of that.

Click on the various pages to view the respective programs.  Once in the gallery, you can click on a button to get the images at full size.

Here is the Centennial.

Here is the Sesquicentennial program.  Click on each page that interests you.


“If these signatures could talk…” Fredericksburg Graffiti

From Eric Mink:

This blog has featured Fredericksburg’s Farmers’ Bank (aka National Bank of Fredericksburg) more than once in its posts (found here and here). Located at the intersection of Princess Anne and George Streets, the structure sits at what was essentially the center of the town. A prominent building, it saw tremendous activity during the war, as occupying Union troops commandeered use of the building as a headquarters and hospital both during and after the Civil War. It is also quite possible that Confederate forces also used the bank, although no sources have come to light pointing to its use by southern soldiers. It should come as no surprise that the marks of war survive on the building.

Farmers Bank East

Farmers’ Bank (1820)

Numerous bricks on both the Princess Anne and George Streets facades of Farmers’ Bank bear the scratching and carvings of vandals. Most of it appears to be of fairly modern origin, but some of the graffiti is without question from the 19th century. Only two are legible enough to be deciphered and attributed to soldiers who passed through Fredericksburg during the Civil War. Both are the work of Confederate privates from Virginia cavalry units.

One of the two names carved into a brick is located on the George Street side of the bank, beneath a window to the left of the entrance that historically accessed the residence portion of the building.

Ellis Graffiti

Confederate soldier’s graffiti is located on the George Street facade of Farmers’ Bank

The inscription consists of a name and partial unit affiliation carved into the stretcher of a single brick. It reads: LB ELLIS – CO A

Ellis Graffiti2.jpg

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Remembering, and the Choices a Nation Makes

From John Hennessy:

Click hereDSC00481 for the Free Lance-Star’s coverage of yesterday’s events marking the 153d anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg.  I expect someone will be publishing Scott Hartwig’s excellent keynote address soon, and when they do we will publish the link.

In the meantime, here are my remarks.


* * * * * *

We are, as I often say,  a remembering people….

153 years ago to at this minute, what were then the open fields around us swarmed with men struggling against death. Alternately terrified and determined, they struggled amidst a world none of who have not been in it can ever really know.

They struggled with that timeless conflict between the commitment to principle and duty and the universal desire to be home and safe.

As the battle raged, back on the edge of town one man—a strong, powerful man–approached his captain and announced simply,

“I can’t go, Captain.”

 “Why not? Are you sick?”

 “No. But I can’t go. I have a family at home, and I must support them. If I go over there I will be killed.”

And then the strong man commenced to cry….

Perhaps more so than any battle of the Civil War, the men who stood on the precipice of battle here at Fredericksburg understood the grim, even hopeless horrors that awaited them.

They knew this, and still they came…..

We are awed by that.

We are a remembering people, and we also remember that 153 years ago tomorrow, Richard Kirkland, a young man from South Carolina, decided to climb over this stone wall to help the wounded that lay all around us. Union wounded.

We remember as well that nine months later, this man died in battle at Chickamauga, giving his life for a cause he clearly believed in deeply.

We are a remembering people. We remember as an expression of respect to those who confronted struggles, horrors, and deprivation that we can only imagine.

We remember too so that we might be inspired.   We remember so that we can emulate them, so that we can incorporate into our own lives the virtues we see in theirs.

We find great comfort in the virtues of our forebears.

We are a remembering people….

But while are a remembering people, we are often a forgetful nation.

We often choose to see the deeds of our forebears merely as examples of our national character.

Instead, they were actors in our national journey.

At every moment, a nation faces choices. Sometimes they are mundane…changing course by a few, almost imperceptible degrees. At other times, the choices are momentous—they define us a people, as a nation.

No event in our history more vividly reflects one of those moments of choice than the Civil War.

Some would say we stand at such a critical moment today. Time and events will tell.  I will say this:  If ever there was a time when Americans needed a clear understanding of history now is it.

Be it then or now, at such times, fear, morality, courage, ignorance, wisdom, self interest, and national interest swirl together, tumultuously–in the case of the Civil War, violently.  In the end, our nation chooses.

Messy though it is, it’s a process that translates the sentiment of the people into the path for a nation—the constitution, laws, policies, and traditions that define our nation and its course into the future.

These men on this field knew well—far better than we give them credit for—the choices at stake that winter of 1862:  that they by their actions would help set the nation’s path.

And so we gather here today.


Rice Bull’s Legacy of War

From Beth Parnicza

When we prepare special programs, exhibits, or even blog posts, we often pull soldiers’ letters and diary accounts written immediately following the action. Untainted by the warm glow of nostalgia, such accounts have an authenticity that draws us in as historians.

With so much of our interpretation and research focusing on a battle or its immediate aftermath, we are sometimes guilty of forgetting that these moments are brief touchstones in the lives of soldiers, which, if they were lucky, stretched far beyond the few days that command our attention. One such account that we draw on to the point of canon is Rice Bull’s spectacular recollections of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Bull served with the 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, and it was both his and his regiment’s first major battle. Bull completed the memoirs of his wartime experience in 1913, fifty years after the Battle of Chancellorsville, but his clarity and descriptive ability speak to a clear mind and a sharp memory of these transformative events.

Image of Rice Bull, 123rd New York, in uniform

Rice Bull volunteered with the 123rd New York Infantry in the spring of 1862, explaining, “it was our sense of duty; …if our country was to endure as a way of life as planned by our fathers, it rested with us children to finish the work they had begun.”

After describing a collective effort to overcome the fear of battle, Bull described being wounded as his regiment confronted Confederates attacking in the woods west of Fairview: “I had just fired my gun and was lowering it from my shoulder when I felt a sharp sting in my face as though I had been struck with something that caused no pain. Blood began to flow down my face and neck and I knew that I had been wounded.” As he moved toward the left and rear, “…when back of Company K felt another stinging pain, this time in my left side just above the hip. Everything went black. My knapsack and gun dropped from my hands and I went down in a heap on the ground.”

Bull’s account is particularly remarkable for his account of lying wounded on the field for nine days at a makeshift field hospital near the Fairview house. Beyond the agony of his wounds and the suffering cries of his comrades, Bull noted the weather, which took a turn for the worse a few days after the battle. A thunderstorm, followed by a cold, steady rain, made the unsheltered miserable and caused two men to drown. Bull wrote, “It is now fifty years since that day, but in my memory, I can yet see those wounded men as they lay on the ground half covered with the yellow mud and water.” Decades later, the horrible sights he witnessed were seared into Bull’s memory.

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The steps of Abraham Lincoln and John Washington–the Farmer’s Bank Building

From John Hennessy [we wrote about Lincoln’s visit to Fredericksburg and the bank building here.  We wrote about the bank building more broadly here, and Lincoln’s visit generally here.]:

steps AL JWAbraham Lincoln spent an afternoon in Fredericksburg, on May 23, 1862.  We know his route through town, we know what he saw, we know some of the people he met.

But at only one spot we can place him in our mind’s eye with certainty: the former Farmer’s Bank/National Bank building, at the corner of George and Princess Anne Streets.  More specifically, it’s easy to imagine him on these steps–the steps to the George Street entrance (which led to the portion of the building used a residence, and likely as offices by the Union occupiers.)

Prior to his ride out George Street to Marye’s Heights that day, Lincoln very likely walked down these steps, and then hoisted himself into a carriage pointed west on George Street to continue his journey.

Bank steps3Five weeks before, on Good Friday, Fredericksburg slave John Washington also walked  down these steps, though he had done so probably thousands of times, for he lived in the bank building with his owner. Washington’s trek down the steps that Good Friday was, for him, momentous. The Union army had arrived across the river that day; Washington had returned to his mistress’s house; she urged him to flee to the south, “so as to keep away from the Yankees.”

John Washington replied, “Yes Madam.”  He then opened the door to the spring day outside and walked down these steps. In so doing he passed from slavery to freedom–the exercise of his own free will. He walked down the hill to the Rappahannock River and soon passed across into Union lines, to freedom.

Fredericksburg is full of small, common places with immense associations.  

Upton Gets His Star…Eventually – Part 2

From Eric Mink:

In a previous post, found here, I looked at the sources of the long accepted story that Union Colonel Emory Upton received a battlefield promotion following his May 10, 1864 attack at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Also, I considered the efforts made before the battle to secure for Upton the promotion to the rank of brigadier general. In this post, I will examine the timeline and circumstances surrounding that promotion.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

The attack for which Upton has gained much notoriety occurred in the early evening of May 10. He led twelve regiments, organized in an assault column, across open ground and briefly penetrated the strong Confederate entrenchments along the western face of the “Mule Shoe” line. Although ultimately forced to withdraw, Upton’s success has been credited with giving Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant the idea for a larger attack two days later. Grant later wrote that he immediately promoted Upton to the rank of brigadier general for leading this May 10 attack. Grant claimed he received this authority before leaving Washington, D.C. two months earlier, but contrary to this assertion he does not appear to have had the liberty to make battlefield promotions on the night of May 10. In fact, he did not receive that latitude until six days later.

In a dispatch dated May 15, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote Grant: “If you deem it expedient to promote any officer on the field for gallant conduct, you are authorized to do so provisionally, and your appointment will be sanctioned by the President and sent to the Senate.” This message did not reach Grant until the following day. Two things about it are important. Until it reached his hands on May 16, Grant did not have the leeway to make battlefield promotions, and once he did have that authority, the promotions still needed to be confirmed by the Senate. So, Grant did not have the authority to promote Upton on the battlefield six days earlier.

Edwin Stanton's May 15 message to Grant. This authorized Grant to make battlefield promotions, something he did not do until June 1864.

Edwin Stanton’s May 15 message to Grant. This authorized Grant to make battlefield promotions, something he did not do until June 1864.

This is not to say that Grant did not recognize Upton. The lieutenant general did recommend the young colonel for promotion. It’s likely, however, that the recommendation actually originated with Army of the Potomac commander Major General George Meade. On May 12, while the battle raged along the Confederate “Mule Shoe,” Stanton fired off messages to both Grant and Meade in which he urged the two generals to forward nominations for promotions. To Grant, Stanton wrote” “Please furnish me with any nomination you desire to have.” To Meade, Stanton pleaded “The sad casualties that have befallen the officers of your army leave many vacancies to be filled, and if you will send me the names of the persons you desire to have appointed to the rank of brigadier, their nominations will be immediately sent to the Senate.” The following day, Meade sent a message to Grant’s headquarters in which he recommended certain officers for promotion. The dispatch requested Brigadier Generals Horatio G. Wright and John Gibbon receive promotions to the rank of major general. Colonels Samuel Carroll, Emory Upton, and William McCandless were recommended for the rank of brigadier general. Meade simply stated that the men deserved promotions “for distinguished services in the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court-House.” This same list of names appears in a dispatch from Grant to Edwin Stanton, also dated May 13, suggesting that Grant simply endorsed the recommendations made by Meade. Grant requested the promotions “to be made for gallant and distinguished services in the last eight days’ battles.” No specifics actions or reasons were provided for any of the men. Stanton replied the following day informing Grant that “The brigadiers in volunteer service you name shall be appointed.” The appointments still required confirmation by the Senate and that took time.

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Upton Gets His Star…Eventually – Part 1

From Eric Mink:

For last year’s (2014) 150th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, a colleague and I provided a tour that focused on the May 10, 1864 Union attack on the Confederate “Mule Shoe” defenses. We entitled the program “Upton Gets His Star: Revolutionizing Warfare,” a reference to Colonel Emory Upton, who we understood was promoted to the rank of brigadier general following the assault. A month later, while assisting with the Battle of Cold Harbor programs, a visitor who had been on the Spotsylvania tour asked me why the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery’s monument at Cold Harbor listed Upton, the regiment’s brigade commander, as a colonel if he had been promoted two weeks earlier at Spotsylvania. I questioned Bob Krick, my friend and colleague at Richmond NBP, who informed me that when the monument was being planned in 2001 he could not find any indication that Upton held the rank of brigadier general at Cold Harbor. This interpretation ran contrary to the story we told, and had been telling for years, at Spotsylvania. If Bob was right, then when did Upton receive his promotion?

Monument to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor Battlefield.

Monument to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor Battlefield.

The claim that Emory Upton received his promotion to brigadier general at Spotsylvania originates with an authoritative and seemingly indisputable source. Ulysses S. Grant claimed in his military memoirs that he promoted Upton on the field. In his own words:

“Before leaving Washington I had been authorized to promote officers on the field for special acts of gallantry. By this authority I conferred the rank of brigadier-general upon Upton on the spot, and this act confirmed by the President.” Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume II (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885) 224-225.

Another oft-cited source for Upton’s promotion on the field at Spotsylvania is the memoir of Dewitt Clinton Beckwith of the 121st New York Infantry, as quoted in Isaac O. Best’s 1921 history of that regiment, and available here. Best quotes Beckwith remembering “Colonel Upton had been made a brigadier general upon the field by General Grant.” Best takes it further and quotes Beckwith relating a conversation the latter had after the war with Martin T. McMahon, former Chief of Staff at Sixth Corps headquarters. Beckwith said, as quoted by Best, that McMahon made the following promise to Upton just prior to the attack on May 10:

“’Upton you are to lead those men upon the enemy’s works this afternoon, and if you do not carry them you are not expected to come back, but if you carry them I am authorized to say that you will get your stars.’” Isaac O. Best, History of the 121st New York State Infantry (Chicago: W.S. Conley Co., 1921) 135-136.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

Brigadier General Emory Upton.

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