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At Ease: Where Did You Get That Ice in 1864?

Ice House Ruins at Spotsylvania


Ice houses? What are they and were they a thing during the Civil War era? Yes! Residences in Fredericksburg and around Spotsylvania County had ice houses, and today we're sharing about a couple of them preserved near or on Spotsylvania battlefield.


Artillery Crater...Or The Ice House?

A few months ago I sat at the Landram House site on Spotsylvania Battlefield, taking a hiking break. A family came through the area and as they followed the trail's turning, one of the children noticed the big pit in the ground. "Look, Mama, a cannon made that!" Mama didn't really say much, and it would've been awkwardly weird if I shouted at them or chased after them with the actual answer.

It's most likely the icehouse ruins! (And it's not the only one on preserved land around Spotsylvania Court House).

An icehouse? Was it like a walk-in freezer? Well, kind of, sort of...but no. An icehouse was used to store a "harvest" of ice from the winter or a shipment of purchased ice for the wealthy. While an icehouse could keep food chilled, they typically weren't used like freezers in the mid-19th Century. The ice would have been used to chill drinks, make ice cream, or temporarily "refrigerate" foods.

The ice business in the United States had boomed in the mid-19th Century with thousands of tons of ice cut, stored, shipped by railroad, and sold in different cities and communities across the country. The Landrams might have been purchasing ice, but more than likely they had some way of cutting or collecting during the Virginia winter. Primary sources from the era suggest that snowfall and freezes were more significant 160 years ago than they are now.

Here are a few hints when your standing at the edge of a "crater" and wondering if it could be icehouse ruins or something else:

1. Is the location near a home or settlement (or their ruins)?

2. Are there any signs of old brick or rock that might have lined the walls of the underground chamber?

3. Do we know where the house was located? This helps to confirm the hole in ground is not the house's basement or cellar.

4. Does it look particularly deep? Icehouse ruins seem to be deeper than most regular house cellars.

A diagram of an early icehouse in the Central Virginia area. (Central Rappahannock Library)


Ice & Civil War Medicine

Did you know that ice was a needed item in Civil War hospitals? Usually it didn't make it to the field hospitals, but in more established hospitals or hospital towns (like Fredericksburg), ice would shipped to that location. The ice would be used to cool the water and other drinks, and also to reduce swelling and inflammation around certain injuries.

A couple of examples...

Confederate cavalry commander General J.E.B. Stuart was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern during the Overland Campaign in 1864. Under medical care in Richmond, ice was placed on or around his abdominal injury to relieve some of the pain, and the general also ate ice chips at various times during his final hours.

Union officer William Francis Bartlett who fought at the Battle of The Wilderness had previously endured a bullet-broken wrist in another fight earlier in 1863. Doctors tasked medical attendants to keep ice around the wound, allowing it to melt and run over the injured limb to keep the swelling down. Ultimately, Bartlett kept his arm.

There is an excellent short article from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine with additional details about ice and medical use. Read it here...


Preserving an Icehouse Ruins

The ruins of an icehouse actually still exist on one of the land tracts that Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has preserved! Not far from the ruins of the Myer Home at Myer's Hill on Spotsylvania Battlefield is the icehouse pit. Some of the lining stones are still visible! Learn more about our preservation work at Myer's Hill here.


Parting Shot

The icehouse ruins at Myer's Hill Battlefield


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

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