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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Death of General Thomas Stevenson. Identifying the ground where he fell.


The following is the culmination of a project I began over sixteen years ago, brought out again currently by the expressed desire of others to place a historical marker pertaining to the death site of Brigadier General Thomas Greeley Stevenson. Since early 2004 I have studied the terrain around which he was killed and the documentation that exists detailing the incident. Many thanks to historian Eric Mink of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for providing access to copy documents within their holdings. Also, in remembrance of the late historian Greg Coco, I want to acknowledge his kind generosity in fielding my questions back in 2007, and his providing copied pages from his book, Through Blood and Fire. They served as the first strong clue supporting my assertions herein.

All images can be tapped for enlarged viewing.


Around 8:30 on the morning of May 10, 1864, Brigadier Thomas Greely Stevenson was relaxing under a tree behind an advanced defensive position on the south side of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Courthouse Road, modern Route 208. The general and some fellow officers had just finished breakfast and he was reclined on his right elbow, smoking his pipe. Several eyewitness accounts of the details behind this incident exist. Some are confusing, others contradictory and easily dismissed, leaning toward hearsay, while others, taken together, paint the scene vividly. Numerous pedestrian terrain surveys, accompanied by the maps of  topographical engineers Nathaniel Michler and James Duane, as well as a vivid, on-location sketch of the landscape by newspaper Special Artist, Alfred Waud, helped to verify, for me, the vicinity in relation to the written accounts.

Stevenson's Arrival On The Field

At the conclusion of the costly two-day fight in the Wilderness, the Union Army started its way toward the Spotsylvania Courthouse during the evening of May 7, 1864. In the morning hours of May 8, the 5th and 6th Corps arrived northwest of the village on the edge of the Spindle Farm, while the 2nd Corps made an a extension of the Union right, nearly three miles to the west, crossing the Po River. Over May 8 and 9, the 9th Corps approached along the Fredericksburg Road, heading southwest, having made a circuitous route, part of a plan desiring to trap Lee's army in a bag, but this was ultimately due to fail as delays along the path curtailed the left wing's part of the action. 

The 9th Corps' had established a foothold south of the Ni River (spelled Ny in 1864, and the cause of some confusion, with erroneous speculation that it stood for the "New York" River). The Third Division, under General Willcox, had engaged Confederates on the Beverly Farm, known as Whig Hill, in the morning hours of May 9, along with scattering units atop the rise coming out of the Ni River valley on the Couthouse Road. The Confederates withdrew after a strenuous firefight. Near noon, the First Division, under General Stevenson, arrived, pressing forward, beyond Whig Hill, to an advanced position within a half mile of the entrenched Confederates on the rise around Spotsylvania Courthouse. For the remainder of the day skirmishers exchanged fire, the Confederates having advanced theirs near 300 yards to the front of their main line. At some point, newspaper artist Alfred Waud witnessed, and sketched, advancing 9th Corps troops, engaging the Confederate pickets semi-concealed in a line of "dwarf pine".

The ground in front of the Spotsylvania Courthouse advance

A panoramic view toward Spotsylvania Courthouse, made from two photographs taken March 25, 2004.
The author was able to achieve this in the days before readily available drone photography, by the kind assistance of Spotsylvania Fire Company/Rescue Station 1, and the use of their truck, Tower 1. Company 1 is now located in the open foreground seen in this image, the historically important ground over which the 9th Corps advanced on May 9, 1864. The advance was witnessed and drawn by Harper's Weekly Special Artist, Alfred Waud, as seen in the next image and comparative ground-level photograph assembled, also by the author, in his early investigations of the site. Annotations are added in red to orient the location of buildings around the Courthouse. A prior blog post from April 2010 goes into further details on this point.

The ground's appearance on May 10 is described by Lieutenant Edwin Rufus Lewis in his reminiscences after the war. "...the men were getting into shape on the high slope facing a long depression beyond which was the gentle rise..." upon which was the entrenched Confederate position in advance of the Courthouse. Lewis was on detached duty from his regiment, the 21st Massachusetts, serving as Aid de Camp for General Stevenson. Waud's sketch makes note of action on May 9th, with "Rebels firing from the dwarf pine on the slope to the ct. house". Waud may have used a slight elevation to observe this action, perhaps from a tree. Another sketch by Waud exists, showing greater details of the structures around the Court House, undoubtedly observed with the aid of binoculars or a telescope. That drawing is shown below. Space considerations compelled Waud to draw the left side details of what he observed at the top of the page, then proceeding to the right hand structures on the bottom half. This was very likely drawn on May 9th as well. The Confederate entrenched position is indicated by the dashed line on the rising slope indicated on the top half.

The images were later cobbled together to create the wood engraving below, published in Harper's Weekly, on page 380 of their June 11, 1864 issue.

Major Charles J. Mills of the 56th Massachusetts, of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, described the arrival and disposition on May 9. "Gen. Wilcox's Headquarters were well in rear, and Gen. Stevenson was sent to take command in front, and the Division posted principally in reserve. Strong entrenchments were immediately begun, as the enemy have a very strong position in front. There was some skirmishing in front all the rest of the day, but nothing to speak of, and we had a quiet night."

The Morning of May 10, 1864

Stephen Weld affirms Stevenson's location on the "left of the road were three or four terraces, and he was lying down under one of them". Major Mills states that headquarters was "behind a bank where we were perfectly protected."
Stevenson was lying on a blanket spread out under the shade of a tree, smoking his pipe and looking relaxed. This was noticed by fellow officers who had ridden forward, remarking that they would enjoy switching places. That is where most retellings of the story are similar, with Stevenson being killed suddenly, at that moment, rather akin to the immediacy of General Sedgwick's death by sniper, nearly 24 hours previous, while laughing at his own joke. The most graphic, and in all likelihood, the most accurate accounting of Stevenson's death was penned by his Aid de Camp, Lieutenant Edwin Rufus Lewis, who immediately went to the stricken general's assistance. Lewis was in post-war years trained as a physician and a chemist at Harvard Medical College, graduating in 1867, thus I am trusting of his medical assertions. 
"We had breakfasted and had had coffee and the general was enjoying his pipe reclining on the ground and resting on his right elbow, his head and upper body up, when report came that some of our men being killed in action had been left uncared for. Stevenson began to give us an order for having proper care taken of the bodies. He removed his pipe and began speaking. I stood near listening to him. Stray bullets were coming over and whistling around, burying themselves in the ground. It was a part of our routine experience. One was heard coming that seemed to be VERY near. The general stopped in the middle of a sentence. I heard the bullet strike with a peculiar dull thud as if striking in a pumpkin. I stood waiting the completion of the order. But the general was silent. He had not moved. He was holding his pipe up in hand and looking me in the face. No movement of hand or eye betrayed him, but soon his hand began to drop and his head to droop. Lieut Jones, an aide standing near by, exclaimed "Good God! the general is struck." I sprang forward and put my hand under his head to support it and felt a gruesome damp liquid oozing out. The ball had entered back of the left ear. On searching we saw it pushing out below the right temple. It had passed through the brain but had stopped short of emerging. The general never knew what hit him. He was unconscious, of course, and soon a comative sleep developed. In an hour or so he died."
As to the location on the ground, a soldier in Company A of the 100th Pennsylvania, Joseph H. Templeton, is quoted as saying the Division Headquarters was near his company. The 100th probably held the left most section of the line that day, along with the 3rd Maryland and the 21st Massachusetts.  
At 9 AM, Brigadier General Willcox, commanding the Third Division, notified Burnside that Stevenson had been killed, "at his headquarters in front".

Position Abandoned May 11

Stevenson's breastworks of the morning of May 10th would be the first of two "abandoned" works encountered late in the day of May 12, when two Confederate brigades advanced northeast along the Fredericksburg Road, before encountering an effectively held third line along what is now NPS road, Burnside Drive, on the north side of Route 208, and Wild Turkey Road, entering the Plantation Forest Subdivision on the south side of Route 208. In 1864 there was a road on nearly the same footprint as Wild Turkey, referenced in local documents as the "Anderson Road", running southeast before branching, the northern most fork moving east to cross the Ni River below the Anderson Plantation on a plateau on the north side of the Ni. The southern fork swung to the south, downhill, then swung back southeast into the property of John Henry Myer and the landmark known as "Myer's" or "Bleak" Hill.


This aerial view is annotated to illustrate the three lines (vibrant blue) encountered by the "Cooke - Weisiger Advance" of May 12, along the Courthouse Road. 1 and 2 have been described as "abandoned" or lightly held by skirmishers, whereas 3 was strongly held and caused the Confederates to fall back.

Here is a detail of the area from the Michler map, showing the entrenched positions along the road.

Below is a focus on the location of the forward line, and position of General Stevenson's death. Based heavily on pedestrian surveys by myself, and line of site considerations, I have based my conclusions that a slightly elevated position at the center of the line, inside the "S" curve, would be the logical place of Stevenson's headquarters, "at the front", as it is referred to. Based on the stated nearness to the 100th Pennsylvania in line, I would suggest they occupied the eastern wing. Headquarters then, and the remnant of trench it sat behind, is sadly the location of a decades-old trash dumping ground, outlined in white, with an old dirt path marked through its center. By all appearances, the ditch of the trench may have been initially used as a ready-made dumping ground. Estimates of its use may be 50 years or more, considering the items visible when toured around 15 years ago. Modern (current, assumed) property lines are indicated in red. Further examination would prove beneficial, but it must be pointed out that this is all private property. The scene of the fighting in Waud's May 9 sketch is across Courthouse Commons Boulevard, across the ground now occupied by Spotsylvania Fire Company/Rescue Station 1, and the 1960s vintage pond seen to the southwest corner of the map. The Confederate skirmishers detailed in the Waud sketch would have been along what is now the driveway leading to the Confederate Cemetery.

In an ideal world, my suggestion to locate proposed interpretive markers for this ground would ideally be in the open field just north of the 1960s pond, on the Fire Station property, largely on the visual strength of the Waud sketch and comparative graphics that can be provided.

I will point out that interestingly, the troop movement map set produced by National Park Service researchers in 2000, usually referred to as the "O'Reilly maps", does not indicate the existence of this forward trench line. Similarly, the much older "Happel and Bearrs" map set from around 1950, shows the existence of the line only on the last two maps of the set, without further notes.


It is my belief, based on documents indicating Stevenson was sent, and took command, in the "front", whereas others were in the "rear", and the on-site, as it happened, visual strength of the Waud drawing of advancing Union soldiers across the ground, dated as the 9th of May 1864, this is the location of Stevenson's death on May 10. The site would be the ideal "military crest" from which to observe and engage the enemy, roughly 500 yards (skirmishers), and 800 yards (entrenched) to his front.

Copyright © 2004-2020 by John F. Cummings III