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Friday, July 8, 2011

A New Look at a Fredericksburg Burial Trench

While recently examining the two Brady & Company images that together make an extraordinary panorama of the "open plain" battleground of Fredericksburg, I began to consider numerous points of interest that fall within the confines of its cone of vision. It is both sad and remarkable that in the post Civil War years, Fredericksburg, the town, began to expand into a sizable city and consume, perhaps cathartically, the landscape that became one of the most horrifying places in American memory. To stand on the ground today, amidst the residential and commercial structures that now fill the former vastness, it can be difficult for visitors to visualize just how suicidal and ill-conceived the frontal assaults were that December day. Coupled with the fabled stories of urban street fighting, it is hard to decipher where the 1862 town ended and the open ground to the west began, at least in the mind's eye. With the help of these images, and the scattered landmark structures that have survived to this day, we can walk the modern streets, like trying to conquer a labyrinth, and gain some perspective of a once near desolate landscape.

To create the panorama, the two images must be placed to overlap.
The left edge of the brick structure's roof provides a focal point.
The horizon line will come together where the Marye mansion sits.
Click images to enlarge for greater detail.

Some of the most poignant scars the war left on the terrain have been erased, if only to be redrawn in a more fitting location on Willis Hill. I refer to the original burial trenches that contained Union dead from the December 1862 battle and later those who did not survive wounds received during the Spring Campaign of 1864. I will discuss the latter in a future post. Here I will focus on what I believe is visible within these images.

In his now classic two-volume work, Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, National Park Service historian Noel G. Harrison presented documentation as to the nature and the location of these grim features. In referring to the "easternmost north burial trench", Noel provides a post-war recollection, quoted from a Confederate officer, Captain C. H. Andrews, who had witnessed the site first hand in January 1863:

"A short distance nearer the city and where the open field made a sudden dip or step, was a line of earth-works, thrown up hastily as a protection against the bullets of the Confederates, and in this earth-work defense dead horses were placed, and with them had been laid the bodies of dead Federals, for here and there the legs of horses and arms and legs of soldiers were thrust out, and overall loose dirt was piled up, intended to cover and bury them. It shocked us greatly -- the inhumanity to brave, dead and now helpless comrades."

The "sudden dip or step" is a strong clue toward identifying this position on the ground. The only place along the plain that best fits that description is on the south side of Hanover Street, and east of Weedon Street. Reinforcing this belief is what I believe is photographic proof, seen in the panorama images. Seen atop the edge of the hill that is today above Lee Avenue, there appears to be a dark line, a berm, that runs between Hanover and the location of modern Mercer Street. Basically it looks as if it hugs the lip of where west bound waves of Union soldiers would have topped the hill and sought to achieve cover from the gunfire raining down on them from nearly 375 yards away, well within the effective killing distance of the rifled muskets of the era. The ground behind (coming back toward the camera position) has been terraced and manicured as residential property today. Looking up at it from the Hanover Street intersection with Kenmore Avenue, one can imagine the desperate struggle all along the battlefront. Another 187 yards to their slight left oblique, stood the lone Stratton House, behind which other wounded and desperate men had begun to huddle for safety. A white line running from in front of the Sisson Store, running southerly toward Stratton, is a road that follows present day Littlepage Street, roughly 182 yards ahead of the trench.

From the left hand glass negative, the detail of the likely burial trench is
indicated by the white brackets placed at either end. Click image to enlarge. 

The horizontal white line between Weedon Street
and Lee Avenue indicates the approximate
location of the burial trench, based on the 1864 photographs.
The yellow horizontal line indicates a previously suggested location.
Click to enlarge for greater detail.

The "sudden dip or step" as seen from the intersection of Hanover Street
and Kenmore Avenue, the location of the "old mill race" or "power canal".
Lee Avenue runs on a diagonal toward the left, below the step.

Supplement Please review the comments section of this post and read the message sent by NPS historian Noel Harrison, and my reply. Find below the map drawn by the Pennsylvania soldier that Noel refers to. Click the image to enlarge.


John Banks said...

john: another outstanding post. this is really interesting...i hope to be able to pull off this type of photographic research.

Anonymous said...

John, Great eye, and great detail on that linear feature, as always the case with your work. I’m grateful, too, for your kind words. The location given in my book for the easternmost burial trench is only an “about” estimation, but it’s based on one of the maps given in my mini-bibliography: a sketch map by a member of the 53rd Pennsylvania, which both fought-over the ground and after the battle supplied unarmed workers to dig the burial trench. I’m emailing you the map as a scan—it clearly shows, at least to my eye, the easternmost burial-trench being located between the Rowe House and Sisson’s Store (yellow line area), not between the Rowe House and the millrace (white line area). The yellow-line location might dovetail, too, with the research, by O’Reilly and Hennessy, on what appears to be a stone wall along or closely parallel to Weedon Street—a wall mentioned in at least two Federal accounts (and long enough to shelter a Federal regiment) that are quoted in the Mysteries and Conundrums blog post of July 29, 2010. If there was indeed such a wall already existing along Weedon, than it strikes me that Union troops might not have needed to dig a rifle pit slightly in advance of Weedon. But the 53rd Pennsylvania sketch map would be the main item for you to incorporate into your ongoing work on this: the map doesn’t label the Rowe House by name, but the map shows it as first dwelling west of the millrace and the largest dwelling on Hanover’s north side…pretty clear signifiers for Rowe. Another possibility to consider is that additional burial trenches, besides the two mentioned in my book, were dug in December 1862. Thanks as always for allowing me add my 2 cents. Noel

patt said...

john some very nice detective work here.i truely enjoy reading your posts. i notice from the enlarged view of the plate that the earth has been "worked" almosted graded .would this have been done by hand or did they have a mechanical means to do this ,just wonderin. thanks patt

Xbox OneGuide said...

This is one of the better posts yet. I'm currently interested in what happens right after the battles in the area, and this is golden.

Can't wait to read more about the aftermath and unfortunate disposal of the fallen brave.

John Cummings said...


I appreciate your sending along the scan of the 53rd Pennsylvania member's map. My hesitance in taking it at face value is due to the overall schematic nature with which it is drawn. It does seem to take great pains at depicting the nature of the fork at the Sisson Store intersection, but it also compresses many other details leaving it in my mind unreliable as far as depicting scale and anything more than approximate distances and placement of landmarks. I agree that the large house drawn was intended to represent Rowe's but the other limitations such as the straightening of the mill race/canal and, again, compression of everything else, thinking the intend was to provide as much information as possible as to general relation to each other and not a surveyor's quality rendering.
I will attach a link at the end of the post for this map. As for the O'Reilly and Hennessy research and the Weedon Street stone wall, I will be interested in coming by Chatham and taking a look at their file. Going back to John Hennessy's large map project I see where as you indicate, it does dovetail with what the photograph shows, although whatever wall may have existed in December 1862, the May 1864 image suggestes it was taken down.
My only regret with the 1864 image is the way the 175 yards between the possible burial feature/ditch and the line of modern Littlepage is foreshortened.
John Cummings

John Cummings said...


Thank you for the comment. As for the appearance of grading work on the, I assume, inline coming up from the canal, I might think it is a combination of causes. First, I think there was a heavy degree of horse drawn traffic that has gone over the area, and in wet weather, this would assure a churning of the soil and a rutting action. Combined with that disruption, there would have been most certainly a good deal of erosion going on. The individual plates, when examined, show a great amount of water pooling and erosion "rivulets" across the landscape. These photographs were taken after six or seven days of periodic heavy rain.

Todd Berkoff said...

Any chance the "sudden dip" described in that account is the famous "Swale"?

Does Noel disagree with John Hennessy's map that was posted on the Mysteries and Conundrums in April 2010 that places the trench with 609 bodies between the Rowe House and the millrace (closer to the white line)? See

John Cummings said...

Todd, I don't think the swale could ever be viewed as a step. Although it provided a small degree of shelter, it was and is very subtle.
As for Noel's thoughts on the burial tench position, he places a great deal of faith in the map drawn by the member of the 53rd Pennsylvania which I have attached at the end of the post. As always, clicking on the image will allow for larger viewing.
My thoughts on that map, as I explain in my reply to Noel's comment, are that it depicts generalized areas and not precise ones in relation to landmarks as the Rowe house.


Todd Berkoff said...

Thanks John. If we are using Hennessy's map as a guide, I would place the white line closer to Weedon Street--nearly on top of the modern homes--rather than in the backyard of the homes, as you have it on your map.