Battlefield Guide Services

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Placing Some of the Dead at Widow Alsop's

     Note: All images can be clicked for larger viewing.

     Certainly, any battlefield photograph that shows the dead in situ has intrigued the public ever since Mathew Brady first displayed images of the dead of Antietam at his New York gallery in October 1862.
     The May 20, 1864 images of Confederate dead on the Susan Alsop farm in Spotsylvania are a prime example, and have been most engrossing. For the twelve years I have lived near the site, and have studied Timothy O'Sullivan's series, I have been hopeful that I could make some solid determination as to where at least some of the images were made. The first obstacle in doing so was the uncertainty as to the precise location of the Alsop farmhouse. National Park Service Historian Noel Harrison and I have pondered this over the years  and together have become fairly comfortable with an approximate location. Only one image in the series had clearly specified that it showed the house and a small barn/stable, nearby. Using the official government map produced in 1867 by Nathanial Michler, I compared the terrain features depicted and found what seems to be the most logical match against a modern topographic map. Working with the Michler map, one has to be aware of the potential for distortions which occur when an individual surveyor's notes are married to a fellow surveyor's set. As an illustration, sometimes a farm field would be included by both men in their individual surveys, and instead of overlapping, the area is mistakenly plotted twice on the compiled map. One area of clear distortion is unfortunately within the sector of the Alsop and neighboring Peyton farms, making a simple overlaying of period and modern maps impossible. Fortunately, once the pattern of the distortion is recognized, one can compensate for the problem and adjust as needed. This has allowed for a reasonable placement of the house upon the modern landscape, one which we will examine later in this post.

     Another image in the series, taken prior to the one above, depicts two of the Confederate dead nearby on the property. The soldier immediately behind the pile of fence rails is clearly the same body as the one on the stretcher as was indicated by William Frassanito in his 1983 book, Grant and Lee, The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865.
     A long overlooked yet vital clue as to the relationship of this image and the one of the Alsop house, is seen in the upper right of the horizon line. There, though not in sharp focus, appears to be the west exposure of the Alsop house, along with the surrounding trees that are readily discernible from the full house image.
An enlarged detail of that portion of the photograph shows the
open window at right, and the surrounding trees of the home's western
 face, making this approximately 80 yards to the east of these bodies.
In the detail below, note the window and row of fanlike trees within the
 fence, as well as the larger trees inside the field. The tree on the left edge
 below is the tree at right of center in the above detail.

Below is my hypothetical interpretation of these images placed on the landscape.
The tree line to the north of the property is most likely where the original
 image caption, "Scene at Mrs. Allsop's Pine Forest", was derived. When
viewed in stereo, there appears to be a sunken lane between the fence and
the woods, but I have opted to leave this possible feature out of my drawing.

Based on this hypothesis, here are "then and now" comparisons.
Set One: Looking East From "A"

Set Two: Looking North East From "B"

Over at the F&SNMP's "unofficial" blog Mysteries and Conundrums, Chief Historian John Hennessy has recently weighed in on his interpretation of the Alsop Farm images. You can read that here, at this link.

A satellite image of the area involved as it looked in 2009.
Note: The roads seen in this view are modern driveways with no historical significance,
and have no correlation with the farm lanes I have indicated in my diagram.

BE AWARE: all of this property is privately owned.
Please respect the owner's right to privacy.


Xbox OneGuide said...

Excellent post. Thank you very much,I have been interested in the Alsop Farm pictures since I stumbled on them around the web, but was un able to find much information out there about the Alsop Farm other than the photos.

A while back you provide me with the location of the Alsop Farm now, but I could not visit because of it being on private property. Thanks again.

By the way, is Alsop Town road named after said Alsop Family?

Xbox OneGuide said...

Hate to be a pain, but I just posted a comment that may have been posted under the wrong article.

The post went something like:

I just have to ask a few questions.
1. Are the dead buried under what is now a subdivision or were they moved to one of the many cemeteries around the area like the more famous battles?

2. Was anything of interest or historical value unearthed during construction of the subdivision?

David Lowe said...

John, nice detective work, particularly the open window detail. Why do you think they carried the bodies so far to bury them?

Todd Berkoff said...

John -- Excellent work as usual. Any chance you can add icons on your map showing camera angles for some of the shots? Also, where do you place the camera in the shot that shows the row of CS dead, with two structures in the background (looks to the barn)? The two structures in that photo seem to be in line with each other and the bodies.

Todd Berkoff said...

It is my assessment that the Confederate dead in these photos probably are skirmishers or the van of Ramseur’s brigade killed early in the battle because the main Confederate line later in the fight would have been a few hundred yards west of the Alsop House site.

The 4th New York Heavy Artillery occupied the Alsop farm buildings early in the battle, and according to Gordon Rhea’s book, the early fighting between the 4th NYHA and Ramseur’s men took place at the house site and at the fence line just west of the buildings, with the Rebels even using some of the outbuildings as cover. After the 4th NYHA secured the Alsop Farm, with the help of reinforcements from the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, the battle shifted west and the Alsop Farm became the rear of the Union battle line.

John - do you concur?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, John. Great stuff. John Hennessy

John Cummings said...

Thank you Mr. Hennessy, I appreciate your comment.

John Cummings said...

Thank you for your comments and questions.
As for the Alsop Town Road, I would have to wager a guess that it is named for the family, but I don't know for certain how that location connects to them. There are quite a few locations within Spotsylvania that have been residences of Alsop's throughout history, but a good many of them are no longer standing and have been absorbed into other land holdings.
As to your question regarding the relocation of the dead, it is hoped that they were relocated shortly after the war, perhaps to the Confederate Cemetery near the Courthouse. They may be lost among the numerous "unknowns".
And as to the question of possible artifacts located during the construction of the subdivision, it has not been something I have seen reference to at Alsop's, but one would imagine that something may have turned up there as in any excavation in this county. The history is all around us. Unfortunately, not everything can be saved.

John Cummings said...

I believe that yours and Mr. Rhea's analysis of the fighting is very sound, and certainly bears out.

Xbox OneGuide said...

Thanks for the info Mr. Cummings. So true too many Battlefields have been or are being destroyed in the area.

Just one more question, well until I see your next post.

1. Driving around the area I notice the size of the trees. Most of them seem very small to be 150 or so years old even on the preserved battlefields. I was talking to a friend who has had family in the area since before the war and he stated that during the War period much of our landscape was treeless due to all the farming but mostly due to Catherine's Furnace (now located in runes in Chancellorsville) I guess that beast used tons of wood to keep her fires going.

In your research can you confirm this? If it is not the case why do most of the trees in the area and battlefields seem small?


and please please continue all that you do.

John Cummings said...

As for camera angles, the then and now pairs are explained in their captions as they relate to the letters in my drawing.
A. From the corner of the fence with the propped up body, the camera is looking almost directly to the east (right edge of the drawing), toward the house.
B. The camera is looking toward the north east, toward the house.
As for the location of the bodies gathered for burial in other photographs of this series, I can not say with certainty as the structures visible do not look like ones seen in these two photographs. They must be relatively close at hand, but for now they are still an unknown.

John Cummings said...

Thank you for your comment.
As to your question, I can only ask how far is far? We know from the other photographs in the series that the bodies were brought to at least one central location for a burial ditch. I would imagine that it was more common to do this than to simply bury them where they fell, although we know that did happen as well. I think a perfect example of the gathering process is illustrated by William Frassanito's analysis of the burials of Confederates on the Rose Farm at Gettysburg. That covers a very similar size field.

John Cummings said...

Thank you again for your continued interest, comments and questions.
As for the question regarding the size and age of trees, you heard correctly, a great deal of the area was open during the 1860's, and the iron industry did contribute to that in some part. So did plank roads and everyday utilization of wood as a fuel source and building material. Even today, people clear cut vast acres of their property to sell for lumber, and this happened many times over and over since the Civil War. One area near where I live was cleared for timber in the past couple years and I found a map from the late 1930s/early 1940s that indicates clear cutting had been done on the same parcel back then.
For a much more in depth look at these issues I would suggest a two part installment over at Mysteries and Conundrums, the F&SNMP blog:

Russ said...

Excellent work as always. That certainly is an important part of the puzzle.
To Gamepad: You may find interesting an article entitled: "Seven year Locusts: The deforestation of Spotsylvania County" It gives a valuable insight into a part of the war we very seldom if ever consider. As well as the absence of wildlife in this area following the battles. The link is

Todd Berkoff said...

Thanks John. I guess my camera angle question was related to the photo of the group of bodies waiting for burial. The 4th NYHA accounts of the battle talk about an "abandoned log house" on the property that one of the company commanders made as his command post during the early phase. The structure in the distanct in that "group burial" photo looks a lot like that log house.

John Cummings said...

As for the other images in the series, it will probably be near impossible to come up with their location as there are no visible clues (that I have noticed so far) that relate them to the two shown in this post. The only thing I could perhaps suggest is that the burial trenches were to the east side of the house and barn/stable. I say this first due to the direction of the burial crew with the body on the stretcher and secondly because of the lay of the land south and west of the house site. There is a broader, flatter plain as you continue east, toward today's Smith Station Road. Realistically though, I would not think it would be more than 45 or 50 yards beyond where they paused in the one image, if that.

Xbox OneGuide said...


Thanks for the great link. It was a good but long read. I never imagined that the battles in the area would cause so much havoc, the armies of that time are the equivalent to the Weapons of Mass Destruction of ours.

Sorry to bring these comments off topic.

Please Back on topic lol.

Anonymous said...

Thanks-have made a note in Frassanito's "Grant and Lee" that the place of Sullivan photos of
CS dead at Alsop house have been ID

Ironically on a map in his book his
"general Location" on the pictures in relation to Alsop House is almost exactly where your map showing location as well!

Anonymous said...

recently I inquired to NPS Spotslvania website if there were 900 CS Casualites at harris farm, O'Sullivan showed only about a dozen
CS Dead. August 15, 2011 received answear:

Dear Mr. Fazzini,

At the Harris Farm, the Union army suffered approximately 1,500 casualties,
the Confederates 900. These figures include soldiers killed, wounded,
missing, and captured. The number of soldiers actually killed on the
battlefield usually comprises something in the neighborhood of 12 percent
of the total casualty figure in any battle. Going by that figure, the
corpses of approximately 300 soldiers would have remained on the field
after the fighting. These would have been scattered over a broad
area--from the Harris farm in the south to the Alsop farm in the north.
O'Sullivan's photograph of burials at the Alsop farm records the burials of
just a few of those men. Others undoubtedly would have been buried nearby.


Donald Pfanz
Staff Historian

Anonymous said...

In 1985, I took my mother to visit the cemetery of the Berea Christian Church, where our great? grand father, Samuel Alsop was buried. He was my ancestor direct line. I cant remember now, he may have been my great uncle. My grandfather's name was changed I believe after he returned from France, circa 1918, WWI, to Alsup.