Battlefield Guide Services

Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Ounce of History

Around the time the Civilian Conservation Corps was constructing their version of the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg, Park Historian Ralph Happel (1911-2002), declared to his coworkers that he’d pay a dollar for any bullet found in the vicinity. Ralph was confident that nearly seventy-five years after the hostilities there, nothing would or could remain in such a well traversed spot. If not already swept clean by souvenir hunters in the early days then certainly the local poor had scavenged them up to sell as scrap, a common practice soon after the war’s end. Journalist John Trowbridge witnessed women and children doing just that in June 1865 when he visited the war torn region. Fredericksburg had been one of his stops in Virginia, and he wrote about it vividly in his volume, “The South: A Tour of its Battlefields and Ruined Cities.”

Despite his confidence Ralph was met one day in the fall of 1937 by Beau Purvis, who gladly claimed that dollar. In those days a dollar was indeed a welcome reward! A gallon of gas cost 10 cents. Today, with inflation, that one dollar would be worth fifteen.

When Happel passed away in November of 2002, his estate was handled by respected area antique dealers and long time friends of Ralph and his wife Louise. Among his compiled archives and books were some items of material culture he had collected in his long career. Within that trove, tied with wire to a yellowing 4”X6” card, was the bullet Purvis found along with Happel’s type written notation:

“Lost & Found – Minie ball found by Beau Purvis near south end of Sunken Road, Autumn, 1937, and bought by Ralph Happel for the dollar he said he’d give for any bullet there picked up (thinking that none was left in such an accessible spot)”

Three close-up views of the bullet found by Beau Pervis.
Note the holes drilled through the lead projectile,
securing it with thin wire to the card. Though mangled,
it appears to be of .54 caliber, a size and type
used by both sides during the war.

A "linen" postcard from the era the bullet was found,
depicting the south end of Sunken Road and the
entrance gates to the National Cemetery.

Park Historian Ralph Happel (at left) in 1957 with a visiting group
of the Civil War Round Table from Franklin, Virginia.
The picture was taken at the Bloody Angle, Spotsylvania,
on November 10. Image from the collection of F&SNMP.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Say What You Will About Gods and Generals... but this is one heck of a powerful seven minutes.

A very moving dramatization of the December 13 Union assault on the Sunken Road and Mayre's Heights at Fredericksburg.
Devoid of the oft implied partisan posturing critics have bemoaned about this film, this segment simply lays it out for what it was, and says it like it is.
Here, waves of men hurl themselves at a stationary foe. They walk into torrents of lead and iron.
When visiting the battlefield at Fredericksburg, keep these visuals in mind, for an expanding city has taken shape over the once open fields portrayed here. When you stop for gas and a snack at the 7-11 on Lafayette Boulevard, just a few blocks from the NPS Visitor Center, consider that you are finding your convenience on the very ground men hugged to save their lives. Does it humble you?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Sunken Road and Captain Russell's Photograph

The 2004 NPS led rehabilitation of Fredericksburg's famous Sunken Road and the Stone Wall, proved to be a vital element in understanding one of the Civil War's most famous photographic images. The wall had served as a ready-made breastwork for Confederate forces in both the 1862 and 1863 battles, but had over time disappeared from the landscape in the places where it had stood above grade. There had long existed a story that purports the wall was dismantled and the stones used to build the National Cemetery's caretaker residence, but that is now said to be false. The actual fate of the wartime wall is still undetermined.


Archaeological surveys located the footings for the original wall and period images helped determine the size and shape of what was once there. Master stone masons were employed to build the approximate facsimile. Modern engineering requirements necessitated an additional four inches be added to the base width of the wall and a supplemental "cover course" of stone was added to the top as a desirable protection from the elements. All in all the new wall serves as a satisfactory visual to enhance today's visitor experience.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, having the wall return to the landscape was a tremendous tool for determining where the May 3, 1863 image by military photographer Russell was taken. In early October 2004, I began to take test images during pedestrian surveys, gradually finding that the presumed position was far off the mark. Having the great benefit of learning 19th century camera optics from modern day wet plate photographer Robert Szabo, I returned on several occasions to re-shoot and measure until I had found the perfect fit between today's landscape and that recorded just minutes after the Federal success that routed Confederate forces from the scene. In early December 2004, Bob Szabo joined me on location to record a 8 1/2" X 6 1/2" ferrotype image with his period equipment. The resulting image was dead-on and reaffirmed that we had indeed located Russell's camera position. Writing in a 2005 issue of North South Trader's Civil War Magazine, the Park's Chief Historian John Hennessy credits our work for "determining that the location was about 220' farther north than traditionally believed. Based on their meticulous work, the site exhibit that includes the photograph was relocated."
Today's visitor can easily stand in Russell's position by facing southward, standing between the Cobb and Stephens markers, stepping slightly to the left, off center. The first body closest to the viewer lay a mere 20' or so in front of the camera. The current edge of the grass line also approximates the vicinity of the wartime "ditch" which was not feasible to recreate in the modern setting.

Bob Szabo and I on location, December 2004.

Bob's ferrotype version of the Russell image. The pile of dirt seen at
left is from the then ongoing NPS rehabilitation work.

One issue that this detailed study also helps determine, in my opinion, is that the "trench" dug approximately five feet behind the wall, is more likely to have served as a drainage ditch rather than a military instrument. The strongest support of this notion rests in the fact that it appears to have continued, outside of the camera's view, in front of the then standing structures of Martha Stephens' modest dwelling. Additionally, there had been a very obvious effort at removing all the resulting earth turned up in creating the ditch, something that just seems out of place if created for military purposes, and its depth and width are negligible if they were intended as a means of additional shelter, even for a second rank of men. Standing soldiers behind a front rank against the wall would not have attempted firing their weapons at that great a spacing.

Of note is the visible home of James Hall, seen just over the wall in Russell's image, at left of center. Hall's house was totally dismantled by soldiers (for its burnable wood) by the time of the next image taken in this vicinity the following year.

The areial image above shows Russell's camera position marked
 by a red X and the location of the Hall house is indicated near the
 modern day visitor center.
All images posted are clickable to provide a larger view.

A detail from an 1864 photograph, showing the foundation
remains of the James Hall house surrounded by a cluster of trees.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Battle Damage - The visible effects of shot and shell

Today's post is a follow up on the previous. The attached photograph is a detail from one made, in all likelihood, one hundred and forty-four years ago to this day, April 14, 1866. It was part of a series made under direction of a U. S. Army Surgeon, Dr. Reed Bontecou. The doctor and an entourage traveled the battlefields around Fredericksburg during the week of the one year anniversary of the end of the war. Their journey, and the series of images they made, one hundred and twenty-one in all, are the subject of a book I am preparing for the publisher, with expectations of finishing within the next few months. My research into this subject began nearly six years ago, and in that time many assumptions have been overturned.

This particular image, negative number 114, shows the brick house referenced in the discussion yesterday of Waud's sketch of an assault on the village at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 9, 1864. This close up view of the brick house shows clearly, repaired damage to the front wall, particularly in the upper left corner. It is rare to see images of obvious repair made to buildings during this period. In the span of nearly two years since the fighting that had caused it, the owners were able to reclaim their property and get back to what would hopefully be a better life than they had experienced during the war. The viewer can see (especially when enlarged) the unpainted brick patches, contrasting sharply with the surrounding area. The damage would have easily been done by Union field artillery, Parrott Rifles and/or 3-Inch Ordinance Rifles, placed around 1,200 to 1,300 yards to the east of the house. Based on the location of known artillery lunettes, the trajectory would bear out this premise. Damage known to have been inflicted on the Courthouse building itself (across the street on a diagonal), puts both structures in the same line of fire. Additional, unrepaired damage can be seen on the whitewashed wall at bottom of this view. This brick wall surrounded the Courthouse lawn, but was removed around 1900.
This supplemental image is a detail from a photograph of this house circa 1905. The same areas of damage and patching are still clearly visible, nearly forty years later. Sadly, this structure was burned down on July 13, 1930.

The reader may want to check the back issue of "Civil War Times" magazine, April 2009, to find an additional article I wrote on the journey of Dr. Bontecou. It provides further preview material of my forthcoming book.

Copyright 2010 by John F. Cummings III

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Landscape of War - Spotsylvania Courthouse

Note: the pictures in these blog posts are clickable which provides a larger view.

The following images illustrate an engagement on the approach to Spotsylvania Courthouse, today’s Route 208. The top sketch was drawn by renowned newspaper artist Alfred Waud and is dated May 9, 1864. It shows what is most likely an early afternoon encounter. In the foreground, Union infantrymen of the IX Corps advance across an open field toward a thicket of “drawf pine” where concealed Confederates fire on the blue line. The ground behind begins to rise toward the Courthouse and the main Confederate entrenchment.
Across the horizon line are five of the structures that constituted the bulk of the village at Spotsylvania Court House in 1864. Four still stand today. I have annotated the Waud sketch and the accompanying modern view to help orient the reader.
This encounter provided nothing of significance toward the final outcome of the campaign and it was a prime example of IX Corps commander Burnside’s inability to contribute effectively towards an operation’s objectives. At the time, the IX Corps was functioning as an independent command, moving in unison with the Army of the Potomac. It should be noted that the Confederate command was amazed that the Union forces did not exploit at this time their own admitted weakness along this point in their line.

Waud’s location from which he worked was on the south side of the road, approximately 670 yards from the Courthouse. He is looking southwest near 231 degrees. The Confederate skirmishers were positioned about 218 yards in his front, along a line that follows close to the same base as Confederate Cemetery Drive today. Directly south of Waud’s position is a dug pond which is not an historic feature of the property during the Civil War.

The aerial photograph below has been annotated to again identify the locations of the structures seen on the horizon of Waud’s on location sketch.
A: Christ Episcopal Church, which during the Civil War was rectangular. The cross section present today is a modern addition.
B: Berea Church: Now home of the Spotsylvania County Museum.
C: The original Spotsylvania Courthouse of the Civil War era.
D: Sanford Inn: Former tavern and hotel now used as law offices. The roofline is barely visible in this sketch but its location is unmistakable between the Courthouse and the Brick House to its right.
E: Brick House: The one structure that no longer stands from Waud’s sketch. In May 1864 this home was owned by Joseph Sanford, owner of the Inn. The home burned on July 13, 1930 while the residence of Commonwealth Attorney S. P. Powell. It had a distinct L shape which is clearly visible in the drawing.

Waud’s sketch is in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Interpretive Experiences – Then & Now… and an eye to the future.

Today’s post features two images taken at the Bloody Angle on April 30, 1938, along with present day comparisons. The 1938 photographs are from the files of the F&SNMP.

Several things have changed in seventy-two years as to how visitors experience their visit to the Spotsylvania unit. The initial design for the park roads allowed vehicles to drive completely around the inside of the Muleshoe Salient. Today, two thirds of that road have been removed, providing a much more pleasant and authentic pedestrian experience. Also, as seen in previous post, an on site ranger greeted visitors from a “Contact Station” very much like ones that could be found at other NPS sites up through the 1950s. The Contact Stations at F&SNMP were all of wood construction, whereas at Gettysburg they were made of stone. In the summer season ranger/historians still provide walking tours of the Bloody Angle stop at Spotsylvania. Check the Park’s website to confirm scheduled times:
In the top image from 1938, a visiting couple is seen with a Ranger examining a relief map that once stood on the approximate location of the orientation compass today. On the road to the left is the visitor’s car and behind them, the Contact Station. Visitors familiar with the area today will find it interesting to note there was no bridge crossing the trenches at the Bloody Angle then. This view was taken looking southwest from a point roughly thirty-five yards northeast of the Angle, just inside the Confederate side of the works. The New York and New Jersey monuments are just out of view to the right.

The second 1938 image, with modern comparison below it, shows the Ranger providing an orientation to the same couple in the first picture along with some other folks who have arrived and parked on the shoulder. Just out of view beyond the right edge of this photograph is the location of the McGowan monument dedication May 9, 2009.

New interpretive plans will be implemented as the Park prepares for the Sesquicentennial Commemoration. Among them is a new approach to the Bloody Angle from the Union perspective, leading visitors on a diagonal from the parking area toward the monuments and then along the northern face of the Confederate works. Eventually the trail will lead through an opening in the works and allow visitors to either go left toward the East Angle or right toward the Bloody Angle. Coupled with new interpretive signs with vivid graphics the visitor experience will be greatly enhanced.