Battlefield Guide Services

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gross! What Are They Doing? Latrine at the Fredericksburg Power Canal? A Not So Pleasant Consideration.

Early this morning, while looking through a digital collection of Civil War images from the National Archives, I found a curious detail that I don't recall noticing before. The NA images are scanned at only 300dpi, far less than the Library of Congress Collection, but being originally 8 X 10 glass negatives, there is still a good bit of detail to ponder when enlarged. The particular photograph I examined is the left half of a well known panoramic pair (taken in May 1864), showing the notorious open plain at Fredericksburg. Looking along the left middle ground I traced the water power canal that had served as an obstacle in the Union's December 13, 1862 assault of Marye's Heights. Near the left side of the image there appear to be at least seven and perhaps up to nine or ten soldiers (one has to assume), most in shirt sleeves, probably attending to the call of nature or are about to. It seems like a rather remote location, some 180 yards distance from the camera, which was in the yard of the house known as Federal Hill on Hanover Street. Please, click directly on the image to enlarge for greater detail. I have placed markers over the seven most possible figures.

We can not know if these are wounded men from a nearby hospital or if they are simply men stationed in town, but they do appear to be there. I could be wrong in suggesting they are at toilet, but one figure, sixth from the left, looks to be squatting in the recesses of the ditch. In fact, three in the image appear to be squatting while two others at least look like they are about to or are standing back up. Their random positions make it very curious. The fourth and possibly fifth figure from the left look as if they are standing, looking at the camera, possibly.  The fifth figure looks also to be wearing a jacket, or a dark shirt. If this is indeed depicting a toilet area, with such random positioning of those using it, it must have been a horrible place to venture to, full of sickening potential for missteps. The full image is seen below. Please click directly on the image to enlarge.

I'd like to credit National Park Service historian Noel Harrison for providing the link to this collection of National Archives scans. It is available to examine at the link provided here.


Eric Mink said...

I am going to posit the interpretation that these men are bathing. Soldiers, afterall, seized any available opportunity to clean themselves, and the canal certainly seems like a good one.

- Eric Mink

John Cummings said...

Good thought Mr. Mink. That is certainly a better visual. If they are bathers though, they are being rather modest as compaired to other images of a similar nature taken at North Anna etc. I just wonder about the quality of the water in the power canal. I will have to look into it, but I was under the impression that it had a good deal of waste material thrown into it by locals. In post war years, when it fell out of use, it became a dump and was filling up before being officially filled in. So I heard.

John Banks said...

Definitely Civil War post of the day!

Xbox OneGuide said...

When you gotta go you gotta go. Interesting thoughts as to what these brave men are doing.