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"A Man Could Have Got Almost Anything He Wanted": Soldier Pickups on Central Virginia Battlefields, Part II

Updated: Jun 5

"Night, The Sacking of Fredericksburg & bivouac of Union troops."  

(Library of Congress) 

Sketch artist Arthur Lumley captured this Fredericksburg street scene on December 12,  1862.

 

Introduction

If you wish to read Part I, you may do so here.

 

Jedediah Hotchkiss, who served on Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s staff as a cartographer, noted in his diary about finding the body of fellow staff officer and tentmate Capt. James Keith Boswell, who was killed when Jackson was mortally wounded on May 2, 1863, at Chancellorsville. Hotchkiss jotted that Boswell’s “body had been riffled of hat, glass, pistol, daguerreotype, & c.” On May 19, Hotchkiss wrote his wife providing more particulars about finding his friend: “I did not get back to look for Boswell until noon the next day, in fact the enemy had possession of the place where he was killed until about the time—I found him looking perfectly natural, a smile on his face—I have no doubt he was instantly killed, for two bullets went through his memorandum book in his side pocket & then through his heart. I got an ambulance and took his body to a nice family grave-yard, Mr. Lacy's brother's [Ellwood] and there had a grave dug & wrapped his over coat closely around him, putting the cape over his head & buried him thus, in all the martial dress, lowering him to his resting place in a shelter tent I picked up on the field of battle, and then spreading it over him -- Mr. Lacy made a noble prayer & we finished our sad duty. . . .”

 

In these two brief accounts, Hotchkiss includes three references to battlefield pickups: He noted that someone removed several of Boswell’s personal items from his body; Hotchkiss explained he used a shelter tent that he “picked up on the field of battle” to ease Boswell into his grave; and although he did not specifically mention it at the time, apparently Hotchkiss kept Boswell’s bullet-pierced memorandum book as a keepsake. Today it resides in the American Civil War Museum in Richmond.

Capt. James Keith Boswell's bullet-torn memorandum book. (Public domain)


In this Part II post, we will continue our look at items that Civil War soldiers picked up on the battlefields of central Virginia and their motivations for doing so. In particular, this post will look at soldier battlefield acquisitions for relics and keepsakes, the organized army or government efforts to collect weapons and equipment for future use, and we will examine Fredericksburg as a location for soldiers to obtain items for their personal benefit, comfort, or to send home.

 

Relics and Keepsakes

Lt. Horatio David, Co. B, 16th Georgia Infantry. 

(Library of Congress)

After Capt. Simeon David was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness, one of his 14th Georgia Infantry comrades picked up the captain's hat and gave it to his brother, Lt. Horatio David, who in turn sent it home to Simeon's wife as a keepsake.   


Some of the things picked up on central Virginia’s battlefields filled needs, others held sentimental value and served as souvenirs and keepsakes. Lt. Horatio David, 16th Georgia Infantry, sent home the hat of his brother, Capt. Simeon David, who served in the 14th Georgia Infantry and was killed during the Battle of the Wilderness, to Simeon’s wife Fanny. One of Simeon’s comrades picked it up and gave it to Horatio. Likewise, Shepherd G. Pryor, 12th Georgia Infantry, wrote his wife Penelope soon after Fredericksburg sending items to remember him by and to hold on to for his own keepsakes: “I send you also a little gun, a Burnside Rifle, which is for my boys to remember me by if I never should go home, [and] a little axe that I got from the yanks at Fredericksburg. It is for Robert S. [son] dont let him have it untwill he gets large enough to keep from cutting off his fingers. I may send some clothes by Henry [an enslaved camp servant], my old uniform coat. You will please get the greese out of it and keep it to remember me [by] as the first military coat that I ever had. I will rop [rope or wrap] the gund in a small shoulder blanket that you will also keep." The emotional importance of these tangible items to the soldiers comes through in accounts like Pryor’s.

Something as seemingly insignificant as an envelope could serve as a forget-me-not for soldiers to send home.

(Library of Congress) 


Most soldiers seemed to fully realize that they were living in important times. They wanted to keep things that tied them to the events that they were experiencing. They also sent items home that they hoped would remind their loved ones about them and their sacrifices. Some of the things seem trivial, but soldiers probably would not have taken the time and effort to send or keep them if they were not of personal significance. For example, Pvt. George Fowle, 39th Massachusetts Infantry, wrote to his wife Mary while “On the Battle field [Spotsylvania]” on May 13, 1864. He penned, "I will send you an envelope that was taken out of a Johney's cartridge box."

 

Pvt. George Washington Beidleman, 71st Pennsylvania, wrote an account about the Battle of Fredericksburg that he sent to a newspaper. Apparently, only the clipping survives, but in it he mentions a unique relic: "The bombardment of the city, during most of the day, was truly terrific, and the dense columns of smoke which ascended from two or three points plainly indicated that a conflagration was in progress, while some of our boys amused themselves in catching the charred and burning embers which came floating across to us through the still current of air, and preserving them as relics. I have part of a leaf [page] of a Greek Testament."

 

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Lt. Henry Ropes, who served in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, wrote from Falmouth on December 19, 1862, to his older brother John relating that "I have no time to write much, am writing a long letter to you. I send by him [white camp servant James] several books, your pipe and a cup, taken from Fredericksburg, which please give to Mary Ann from me.” In the long letter version to John the following day, Henry mentions the cup for Mary Ann again but includes, too, "Also a little drawing of 2 sirens. Please give it to Louisa. It is of no particular value but as a relic."

Corp. Daniel Chisholm's near miss during the Battle of the Wilderness left his forage cap heavily damaged. He kept it as a keepsake. 

(Courtesy of Heritage Auctions)


With other items, especially those that had a personal or comrade connection, it is easier to see why a soldier would want to keep things. For instance, the 64th New York Infantry’s Pvt. Warren B. Persons wrote home to his mother after Chancellorsville on May 11, 1863: “The ball which hit me I have sent home by Henry Merrill of the 23rd whose time is out. He will give it to you. It came through the dirt which I had thrown up in front of me and hit me squarely in the chest just below the collar bone and a little to the left of the chest bone. It struck with sufficient force to stagger me, but did no injury, thanks to my breastwork which I threw up the night before.” Similarly, about two weeks after the Battle of the Wilderness, 19-year-old Corp. Daniel Chisholm, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, wrote a letter to his father giving some details about his first experience in battle. In doing so Chisholm related a close call: “I had the front part of my Cap shot off by a Minie Ball, It knocked it off my head and made me feel a little strange about the top knot.” Thinking it might make a good souvenir, he noted, “I would like to send my Cap home if I could get the chance." Apparently, Chisholm did indeed either keep or send his forage cap home, as it later appeared in a cabinet card photograph with a descriptive label attached.

Bullets and pieces of shell, particularly those that either wounded or nearly missed soldiers often became souvenirs. 

(Library of Congress)


Irish Brigade soldier Pvt. William McCarter, who wrote his memoir detailing his participation and wounding at Fredericksburg explained that he kept the “sprig of green” that was given to soldiers in his brigade before going into the battle. He kept it many years after in a bottle. McCarter also attempted to keep the portion of the bullet that the doctor extracted from his wound, explaining that “The part of the ball that I put in my pocket for safekeeping I afterwards lost, it having probably rolled out due to my movements."

 

The Battle of Fredericksburg proved to be fruitful ground for relic-gathering soldiers. Lt. Ujanirtus Allen of the 21st Georgia Infantry (Hoke’s Brigade) shared a couple of examples in his letters home. Allen and his regiment battled along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad near Hamilton’s Crossing. He wrote home to his wife Susan a few days later describing the battle. In a follow-up letter, only part of which survives, Allen related the battle’s aftermath and explained that he happened upon the body of Federal Brig. Gen. Charles F. Jackson. Allen also explained that he encountered one of Gen. Jackson’s staff officers, who “was probably mortally wounded in the railroad.” Allen wrote that, “I paid him [staff officer] much attention. He gave me two of the finest blankets that I ever saw if I would go upon the field after them. I got them and placed them under him to keep him warm. He was sent back to our hospital and I do not suppose I will ever see them or him again. I spent much time that night in doing what I could in assisting their wounded, for which I received their thanks and blessings.” Lt. Allen also wrote honestly that, “I can shoot them as deliberately and eagerly as ever I did any game; but I can not pass a wounded man without doing what I can for him, if it is nothing more than a sympathising word or look. Is not thare a line, ‘Lord that mercy I to others show, that mercy show to me.’”

 

Lt. Allen excitedly described some of the battlefield loot he collected. "I captured a Sharp's rifle, spring triggers, shoots a thousand yards. I also got some rations among them a nice quantity of coffee. This was given to me by a wounded man who I gave water. I wish you were here to take a cup with me, or rather I was with you. Many of our men robbed the dead while at the railroad that night. I did not do this but assisted the wounded. However I robed a dead horse of a very fine bridle," Allen explained. In a December 19 letter, Allen again mentions the bridle: "It was (Federal) Brig. Gen. Jackson's bridle that I got. I could have got his saddle also but did not know that I could have taken care of it. I took his blankets and put them under a wounded Yankee. I have his ruber legins. If I had known these things were his I would have kept them as trophies. If I can take care of it I intend that my 'little girl' [wife] shall have his bridle. I know she will prize it very high because I fought for it.” Soldiers often viewed battlefield pickups as legitimately captured property because they had risked their lives. 

 

Gleaning the Battlefields for the Cause

"Unidentified infantry soldier in Union uniform in full marching order. . . ."

(Library of Congress) 

With soldiers carrying numerous pieces of equipment, it is easy to see how so much of it ended up scattered on area battlefields. 


As detailed in Part I, arms and equipment seemed scattered everywhere following battles. Scenes like that of the aftermath of Chancellorsville, and presented by “Dixie,” a special correspondent to the Atlanta Southern Confederacy newspaper, are common. “Never upon any battlefield have I seen so many muskets thrown down,” Dixie penned. Also writing after Chancellorsville, Lt. George D. Buswell, 33rd Virginia Infantry, wrote to his brother on May 8, 1863, that “We captured . . . 15 or 20 pieces of artillery a great many small arms, knapsacks, canteens, blankets, gum clothes, &c.” Pvt. Berry Kinney, 14th North Carolina Infantry, wrote on May 14, 1863, that “I am in better hopes of the army being support[ed] than I was[,] for it they have another such a fights as they had [at Chancellorsville] it will not take much to support the army. Them men back [home] always boasting of our men getting so many arms and they do get a lot and ours is killed from the breech of hundreds of those arms and they take a great many [of them] from the yankee.”

 

Naturally, the opportunity to acquire needed items improved when a soldier’s side held the battlefield after the fight. That also proved true for gathering arms and equipment that the army at large might make good future use of. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, Sgt. Edward Dewitt Patterson, an Ohio native fighting in the 9th Alabama Infantry, noted in his journal on December 15: “Last night I was put in command of fifty men to go down on the field and gather up arms.” After a battle, firearms were virtually everywhere. Soldiers who were killed obviously dropped theirs. But in addition, wounded soldiers often could not carry their guns off the field, prisoners surrendered their weapons, and fleeing men sometimes discarded their rifles to speed their flight.

Lt. Col. Briscoe Gerard Baldwin, Chief of Ordnance, Army of Northern Virginia

(Public domain)

Lt. Col. Baldwin's reports following the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville enumerate the amount of weaponry and military equipment that the Confederates collected from those battlefields.


Reports from Lt. Col. Briscoe G. Baldwin, Chief of Ordnance for the Army of Northern Virginia, detail the amount of firearms and equipment collected from the battlefields of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Many of these weapons were collected and sent to facilities in Richmond, Lynchburg, Danville, and Staunton, where they were cleaned, repaired, and then eventually reissued to soldiers. Josiah Gorgas, Chief of Ordnance for the Confederate States, estimated that by July 1, 1863, the Confederacy had 150,000 “arms received from the battlefields and put in good order” for their use.

 

For Fredericksburg, Baldwin enumerated several different types of small arms gathered up: Springfield rifles and muskets, Belgian rifles and muskets, Austrian rifles, improved and altered muskets, Mississippi rifles, and Enfield rifles; all in total 11,091 shoulder arms. In addition, they collected 255,000 rounds of ammunition in .54, .57, .58, and .69 caliber. Finally, also gathered up were 1,800 sets of infantry accoutrements (cartridge box, cap pouch, waist belt, bayonet and scabbard).

 

The haul from Chancellorsville proved even more impressive. Baldwin noted that 29,500 muskets and rifles were collected. He admitted that about 10,000 of those were “dropped by our men, leaving 19,500 captured.” Also included were 8,000 cartridge boxes, 4,000 cap pouches, 11,500 knapsacks, and 300,000 rounds of infantry ammunition. Brought off the battlefield, too, were 13 artillery pieces, nine caissons, three battery wagons, two forges, 1,500 rounds of artillery ammunition, and various harness, wheels, axles, and ammunition chests. Finally, Baldwin mentioned that “A large quantity of lead has been and is now being collected from the battle-fields.” These were probably dropped and fired bullets collected from the ground surface and from abandoned wooden ammunition boxes.

Pieces of equipment including a belt, tin cup, two cartridge boxes, and a canteen are strewn among boxes of rifle cartridges in this photograph taken at Petersburg. However, scenes like these were common on the battlefields of central Virginia, too.   

(Library of Congress).  


An article in the July 25, 1864, issue of the Richmond Daily Dispatch indicates that during the early stages of the Overland Campaign, local civilians were salvaging war materials in exchange for government food. The article stated that “We noticed at the Central Depot on Saturday six [rail] cars loaded with arms, knapsacks, cartridge boxes, sabres, &c., together with a large lot of pig lead, the spoils of the battle-fields of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania. The balls are collected on the battle-field by the people living in the vicinity, brought to an established depot, and melted into pigs. In this way they are forwarded to the laboratory here. As lead is at this time in demand, it will be very acceptable. In this lot there is not less than 16,000 pounds; and about 8000 or 9000 stand of arms, which, with slight repairs, will be very serviceable. Lieut. Louis Zimmer, Assistant to Chief of Ordnance, has charge of that department. In return for lead and arms, he issues to the people corn meal and flour.”

 

A Town Turned Battlefield

Fredericksburg as viewed from Stafford County.

(Library of Congress)  


The Battle of Fredericksburg witnessed the first real street fighting of the Civil War. On December 11, 1862, Confederates under Brig. Gen. William Barksdale slowed the Federal Rappahannock River crossings by presenting a stubborn resistance along the banks and then through the town’s streets. The determined opposition they faced, and the destruction caused by the infantry fighting and artillery shelling from both sides, contributed to many Federal soldiers’ sense of finding justice in their pillaging.

 

In a December 14 letter, William Cross Hazelton, 8th Illinois Cavalry, wrote his wife Fannie explaining that "It cost many lives to gain a passage over the river, and when our soldiers did get there, mad with the excitement of battle, they made wretched work with the property of citizens. The finest furniture is thrown into the streets, where it is used by our soldiers with as much nonchalance as though it were our usual camp furniture. Enclosed is a piece of silk, which I took from a lady's bonnet which lay trampled in the street." The soldiers’ hardening process, as discussed in Part I, continued as exemplified by Pvt. Roland Bowen, 15th Massachusetts, who wrote to this mother about a week after the battle: “But we stole or distroyed everything in the City, great was the ransacking thereof. Mother you know but very little about War. One Reb was killed with a canon ball [and] three days after the Hogs were eating up the body and no one would take pains to drive them away. I was too busy stealing [in] the City, besides I knew the hogs wanted something to eat. (Such is War).”

"Our Soldiers in the Streets of Fredericksburg." Sketched by Alfred Waud.

(Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1863 issue)

Fredericksburg became a battlefield on December 11, 1862. Fluctuating Federal policy, the frustration from the stubborn Confederate defense, and the damage inflicted by fighting in the streets and from the artillery fire of both sides seemed to create a volatile mixture that resulted in additional destruction and looting in the town.  


Like they had done on more traditional battlefields before, and would do on others later, soldiers at Fredericksburg took time to pick up takeaways. Lt. Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts Infantry (The Harvard Regiment), wrote a letter to his brother John on December 20, 1862, describing the scenes of the city: “It was like what one reads about to see this sacked city. The men took what they pleased, but of course, could not carry much except small articles. Books were carried out by the armful, read a few minutes and thrown down. You would see splendid Copies of Byron or Milton or Scott, kicking about in the mud.” Books seemed especially prized. A soldier going by the pseudonym, “A—Color Guard,” from the 12th New York Infantry wrote to the New York Sunday Mercury, on December 22, 1862, and which appeared on December 28: “It was a pity to see the finest works of modern and ancient times committed to the flames. My whole booty consists of a copy of Longfellow’s poems, handsomely bound in cloth.”

 

John M. Young, 14th U.S. Infantry, sent his wife a Bible that he took from Fredericksburg as a keepsake. She inscribed it in part: "These few lines I will transcribe in this holy book as a slight token of respect toward the giver who is now far from us at the well noted place called Fredericksburg who with many others gallantly entered the town under the galling fire of the enemy's guns where he obtained this book, and brought it away with a number of other things as trophies of war.”

 

Along with books, tobacco was in high demand by the soldiers. “Tobacco was found in vast quantities & we now have goodly supply,” wrote 12th U.S. Infantry soldier Charles Bowen to his wife. Porter Farley of the 140th New York Infantry remembered, “The drummers and cooks of the regiment brought in great quantities of tobacco, which was to be had in inexhaustible quantities without money and without price in the deserted stores of the Fredericksburg merchants. A few days before in our camps north of the Rappahannock, it had been exceedingly scarce, but now it suddenly became a drug in the market. I remember seeing one poor fellow shot through and lying dead in a street, who had stored away several pounds of chewing plug inside his flannel shirt.” Maine soldier Alphonso Burpee wrote that “Every pocket was filled with tobacco or some trinket or other.”

"Halt of Wilcox's Troops in Caroline Street previous to going into battle."

Sketch by Arthur Lumley (Library of Congress)

This view, looking north up Caroline Street shows the destruction inflicted on the houses and Federal troops of Brig. Gen. Orlando Willcox's Ninth Corps lounging on furniture removed from them.  


However, for some soldiers, any carriable item was fair game. One soldier made off with a statue that stood almost three feet tall from the Douglas Hamilton Gordon home on Princess Anne Street and sold it to an officer. Another soldier noticed a comrade carrying around a stuffed alligator. Pvt. Burpee ran a list of things he saw being pilfered: “the street was filled with soldiers running to and fro, loaded with boards, beds and bedding and clothes of all descriptions, crockery ware and household furniture, tobacco, bee hives, flour, sugar, and every variety of goods from apothecary, dry goods, grocery, liquor, and jewelry, stoves.” Sgt. Bowen noted that the banks were fair game, too: “Well we burst the bank. & found lots of cashed drafts, checks & some Virginia money, one of the boys found about $300.00 in gold, I only found some $6.00 in Virginia money & so.” Despite significant dangers, the looting continued. Bowen explained that “Now all this time we were under fire, every little while a shell would burst near us, & many were wounded here but we were not to be frightened out of our spree, for we dont often have one.”

 

Confederates, too, noted the damage caused by Federal looting. Among them was Fredericksburg native Robert Taylor Knox, 30th Virginia Infantry. Taylor visited his family’s house after the Federals evacuated the city and wrote his mother that “They left not even a blanket counterpane sheet or anything not a towel, nor soap, nor cups of saucers but a few plates & some cooking utensils.” Knox noted that “Every body houses in the same fix.”

 

Conclusion

As the primary source evidence offered in both Part I & Part II of this topic shows, Civil War soldiers had a wide range of motivations for picking things up from the battlefields on which they fought. Some soldiers had immediate needs for food, clothing, and shelter, while others used things like paper and envelopes from the enemy to help maintain communication with those at home. Some gathered up castoff items to sell or trade, and yet others sought something to send home as a relic or a reminder of their service. Soldiers usually viewed taking things off of dead enemies in practical terms. More than one fighting man expressed the hardening process that occurred from being in their profession, and most believed that it was simply senseless to bury a foe if he had of something on him of value. Rather, they often viewed acquiring things from the battlefields as a reward for the dangers they faced and/or the successes that they contributed toward.

 

Examining these primary sources gives us a more complete picture of soldiers' diverse wartime experiences and helps us better appreciate their perspective of the terrible sights they saw and the ordeals they endured on central Virginia's battlefields. 

 

Sources, Suggested Reading, and Thanks


William A. Blair. “Barbarians at Fredericksburg’s Gate: The Impact of the Union Army on Civilians,” in The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock. Edited by Gary W. Gallagher. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995, (142-170).

 

John J. Hennessy. “The Looting and Bombardment of Fredericksburg: ‘Vile Spirits’ or War Transformed,” in Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America’s Civil War. Edited by Andrew S. Bledsoe and Andrew F. Lang. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018, (124-164).

 

Capt. Steven W. Knott (ret.). “Captured & Collected”: Confederate Reissued Firearms. Gettysburg, PA: The Horse Soldier, 2019.

 

A special thanks to Eric Mink from Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for referring Lt. Col. Briscoe G. Baldwin’s reports of ordnance supplies captured at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and published in the Official Records.

 

Thanks also to John Hennessy for sharing the Richmond Daily Dispatch civilian scavenging source via the ever-helpful “Mysteries and Conundrums” blog.

 

Additional thanks to Charles McDaniel for referring the “Captured and Collected” book.


 

Parting Shot

"Smithfield"

(Library of Congress)

Owned by Thomas Pratt during the Civil War, Smithfield was originally built in 1753. Rebuilt after a fire consumed it in 1819, Smithfield was the site of a field hospital during the Battle of Fredericksburg. It has been part of what is now the Fredericksburg Country Club for almost 100 years.


“My centre came right up against Mr. Pratt’s house [Smithfield] on the river which the enemy had sacked. I found a fine oil cloth, canteen, a McClellan saddle & bridle, besides numerous articles useful to a soldier.”


-Capt. Eugene Minor Blackford, 5th Alabama Infantry, excerpt from a December 17, 1862, letter to his father.

From: Sharpshooter: The Selected Letters and Papers of Eugene Minor Blackford, CSA, Vol. 1. Edited by Fred L. Ray. CFS Press, 2016.

 

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For additional past "CVBT History Wire" and informative articles, visit the blog section of the CVBT website.


 

Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House.

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