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Following the War: Central Virginia's Early Battlefield Visitors - Part I

Updated: Feb 12


The battle-damaged "Sentry Box" and its kitchen on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg. (Library of Congress)

 

Following the War


In December 1883, twenty-one years after the Battle of Fredericksburg, George C. Smithe, formerly a corporal in the 35th New York Infantry, and then in his mid-forties, returned to the scene of that furious December 1862 battle. On the south end of the battlefield, standing along Bowling Green Road on one of the earthen hedgerows “that gave us such friendly shelter,” during the battle, Smithe “recalled the savage fight just at our right where our boys penetrated the recess in the hills known as the slaughter pen, while we waited the order to advance, which did not come.”

While contemplating the horrific sights of two decades earlier and then re-seeing the landscape, with “the scene growing more and more familiar and the incidents more and more fresh,” he heard the snap of firecrackers and then the boom of cannons as nearby Fredericksburg celebrated Christmas. In an instant, “The picture was complete, ’62 had come back, or rather had not gone, and if a puff of white smoke had appeared among the trees up there on the hill and the demoniac scream of a shell had passed by, I would hardly have been surprised,” Smithe explained. But, looking around there were no comrades now, other than those resting in peace in the nearby national cemetery.

George Smithe was just one of thousands of veterans and other visitors who experienced central Virginia’s battlefields in the years and near decades following the war. In this first history email, we will share some of their stories from visits to Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Mine Run. In a follow-up email, we will hear about visits to the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.


Thanks to preservation organizations like CVBT and the American Battlefield Trust, the Slaughter Pen Farm portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield looks much like George Smithe must have seen it in 1883. (Photograph by Tim Talbott)

 

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Introduction


The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust preserves area battlefield land partly to ensure that future generations of learners will have the opportunity to see these fields and forests in a state as closely resembling their appearance at the time of the Civil War as possible.

Regardless of whether visitors came to the area’s battlefields within a few years, or a few decades, after the fighting ended, they did not have to contend with most of the modern visual and auditory intrusions coming from the paved roads, utility lines, and automobiles that we benefit from—yet at times disdain—today. Those early battlefield sightseers got a truer firsthand look at the landscape than we will ever have. Their eyes observed the debris of battle still remaining on the fields and the damage to buildings and the environment, all evidence of the hard fighting that occurred. Their ears heard sounds and their noses smelled scents familiar to a much more rural way of life. They often talked to people who were there when these momentous events occurred and lived through the armies’ appearances and reappearances.

Fortunately, a number of those first battlefield visitors left vivid accounts of what they saw and felt. Being that their battlefield treks came so soon after the war, they certainly experienced things we never will, but learning about their visits can add significantly to our modern-day encounters with battlefields. In addition, it is particularly satisfying to know that CVBT and their donors had, and continue to have, a hand in preserving a number of the places these early battlefield visitors saw and mentioned in their accounts.

 

Fredericksburg


Battle damage is visible in this photograph of Willis Hill looking south. Writer John T. Trowbridge noted seeing similar sights in 1865. (Library of Congress)


One of the most prolific immediate post-war chroniclers of the war’s battlefields was writer John T. Trowbridge. In the summer of 1865 and again the following winter, Trowbridge made two visits to see the war’s battlefield sights and talk with people—both White and Black—about their Civil War experiences. After visiting Gettysburg, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, and Manassas, Trowbridge stopped at Fredericksburg.

While in town, Trowbridge visited Willis Hill, a portion of the battlefield that CVBT helped save back in 1996, and that sits adjacent to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Noting the damaged landscape, Trowbridge wrote, “There is a private cemetery on the crest, surrounded by a brick wall. Burnside’s artillery had not spared it. I looked over the wall, badly smashed in places, and saw overthrown monuments and broken tombstones. The heights all around were covered with weeds and scarred by Rebel intrenchments.”

"Frater" noted during his July 1865 visit that Mannsfield, the Arthur Bernard house, "before which we had lain [while in battle]" was "now in ruins." It accidentally burned in 1863. (Library of Congress)


In July 1865, “Frater,” a pennamed correspondent, who wrote for the Franklin Repository newspaper out of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, visited Fredericksburg. From some of his comments, he appears to have been a Federal soldier at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Coming north first by train from Richmond, but then switching to a stagecoach, Frater first saw the southern end of the battlefield, where he “drove over the very ground where the Penna. Reserves had made the grand charge” under Gen. George Meade’s direction. Also, clearly visible were “The elegant and massive mansions, before which we had lain . . . now in ruins. One of them, a fine stone building [Mannsfield] . . . has been burned.”

Frater’s stagecoach traveled on to the northern section of Fredericksburg. He wrote “It was greatly shattered by Burnside’s artillery. Many of the houses are demolished, and but few escaped serious damage. Two fine churches are badly broken, their very spires rent by frequent shells.” Crossing the Rappahannock, Frater also visited Chatham, the Phillips House ruins, and the White Oak Church area that contained “the village of log cabins we occupied during the winter of ’62-’63.” Frater marveled at nature’s ability to reclaim the land. “Bushes have sprung up where the tread of men and the track of wagons had bared the surface, and grass and high weeds had mantled the landscape, making it scarcely recognizable to one who had been accustomed to its naked face.”

"Many of the houses are demolished, and but few escaped serious damage," commented an 1865 visitor to Fredericksburg. (Library of Congress)


In the spring of 1868, Erie, Pennsylvania, resident Isaac Moorhead accompanied David B. McCreary, a former lieutenant colonel in the 145th Pennsylvania Infantry, to the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields. Moorhead’s companion, McCreary, had fought at both battles and served as interpreter.

During their travels, Moorhead and McCreary stopped at the millrace, brickyard, Marye’s Heights, and Willis Hill, all notable landmarks to McCreary. On Marye’s Heights, at Brompton, there was still visible evidence of the battle: “all over the house and grounds are marks of shot and shell. We reached the crest . . . occupied by the Washington Artillery under Col. Walton. What a position! No marvel the Confederates had it their own way. It was mere target practice for them,” Moorehead observed. They also visited the emerging National Cemetery, “hallowed as the resting place of thousands upon thousands,” and they observed the work of reinternments from the area’s battlefields as it went on. While at the National Cemetery, the men “raised the lids on some of the boxes and saw the skull, the bones, some tattered blue rags, socks, a mat of hair—nothing more.” Moorhead stated that, “Great care is taken in collecting these remains to preserve all the marks upon the boards at the heads of the fallen ones. . . .” The following day, the two visitors went to the southern end of the Fredericksburg battlefield, seeing where Gen. Meade “made a splendid fight,” and a present-day CVBT-preserved Pelham’s Corner, where Confederate Maj. John Pelham “immortalized himself with a single gun.”

Fredericksburg visitor Isaac Moorhead noted the battle damage to Brompton, still easily visible during his 1868 visit. (Library of Congress)

 

Chancellorsville

A correspondent going by the pen name “C,” who wrote for the Manchester, New Hampshire, Weekly Union, visited Chancellorsville in September 1867. Apparently still unmarked in any way at this time, C visited the site of Jackson’s wounding. “Of course every visitor to the battlefield seeks the spot,” he noted and described it as being “a few feet from the road, in some low, dense bushes.”

Even four years after the battle, “Haversacks, cartridge-boxes, old shoes, tin cans, and other paraphernalia of war are seen at every step,” noted C. Stopping at Rev. Melzi Chancellor’s house (aka Dowdall’s Tavern, a part of the battlefield CVBT recently helped save), which was Gen. O. O. Howard’s headquarters, he learned that Chancellor was not at home. However, C found the “family exceedingly courteous and obliging. They shared several stories about their Civil War experiences with him, leaving him empathizing with their ordeals.

One of the advantages of reading these visitors’ accounts is what one can learn from the many conversations that occurred during their travels and that they share. Most people that travelers encountered were forthcoming in giving their opinions to a stranger they probably assumed they would never see again.

Several post-war battlefield visitors mention stopping at Rev. Melzi Chancellor's home, also known as Dowdall's Tavern. (Library of Congress)


Trowbridge also visited Chancellorsville. To do so he hired what he thought was a buggy and driver, but what turned out to be a one-horse wagon with a broken-down beast of burden. His driver explained that he made money the previous winter selling battlefield clothing. He explained, “Some was flung away, and some, I suppose, was stripped from the dead. Any number of families jest lived on what they got from the Union armies in that way. They’d pick up what garments they could lay hands on, wash ‘em and sell em.” Like others, Trowbridge could not help but notice the battle damage and discarded military debris. “A growth of saplings edging the woods had been killed by musketry: they looked like thickets of bean poles. The ground everywhere, in the fields and in the woods, was strewn with rotting knapsacks and haversacks, battered canteens and tin cups, and fragments of clothing," he noted.

Trowbridge’s driver pointed out places with high weeds and holes dug in the ground. The driver explained the high weeds were where horses and men were buried. The holes are where bones had been dug up for the fertilizer factory that was in Fredericksburg. When Trowbridge asked if human bones were sent to the factory, the driver thought not, “unless by mistake. But people a’n’t always very particular about mistakes if thar’s money to be made by.”

The evidence of the furious fight continued to amaze Trowbridge: “The tree trunks pierced by balls, the boughs lopped off by shells, the strips of timber cut to pieces by artillery and musketry fire, showed how desperate the struggle had been,” he penned.

Early visitors often commented on how the bullets and shells had stripped the trees and broken limbs at Chancellorsville. (Library of Congress)


Moorhead and Lt. Col. McCreary visited Chancellorsville about three years after Trowbridge and a year after C. On the battlefield, they came to a row of earthworks where McCreary was captured as a prisoner of war. “The earthworks were still quite complete, although somewhat washed by rain. They lay directly across the road, and extended on either side into the deep woods.” Nearby, “Remains of uniforms, cartridge boxes, canteens, haversacks and some human bones lay in the trenches.” All around them, “Dead branches were hanging on all the trees, and all the [trunks] of them were scarred with shot and shell.”

During a brief stop, while they used the earthworks for a place to sit, McCreary, who fought as part of the Second Corps, related his Chancellorsville memories. Around them were numerous Confederate graves “marked with head and foot stakes, the pencil tracings obliterated and a tangle of second-growth covering them.” Moorhead “cut a hickory walking stick that had grown right out of the breast of some brave fellow. . . .”

On they wandered to the Chancellor House ruins. Moorhead apparently thought Chancellorsville was a bit of a misnomer, as he wrote, “There was no village here, nothing but this one house.” Standing on the front porch steps, Moorhead painted a picture with his words. “An open plain all about the house in every direction, then a dense, dark mass of jagged and stunted pines and scrub oaks as close together as it is possible for them to grow. . . .” Roads radiated around the house. They “faced a road leading to Catherine Furnace,” the Turnpike and Orange Plank Roads ran to Fredericksburg to the left, “to the right, and near Melzi Chancellor’s [Dowdall’s Tavern] (which is about a mile west,)” the roads split again. Before moving on, Moorhead picked up a round musket ball.

Like C, the visiting pair stopped at Melzi Chancellor’s house. Not home again, they talked with Mrs. Chancellor before viewing Wilderness Church, Jackson’s wounding site, and Catharine Furnace. In doing so, they wound up their sightseeing with a ride through Fairview, “the scene of the principle fighting” on May 3, 1863.

The approximate site of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's wounding was a popular attraction for early visitors to Chancellorsville. (Public domain)


Among the many latter-day battlefield visitors, veterans often wished to return to familiar places. In 1886, Corp. J. C. Riley, 1st Massachusetts Infantry, came back to Chancellorsville and “readily found the spot where I was captured. The two saplings between which I had twisted the barrel of my musket . . . had grown to be as large as my thigh. . .” A quick look around showed the ground “still strewn with such debris . . . belt plates, buttons and the other iron portions of a soldier’s kit, and under the fallen leaves I found more than fifty bullets in a search of less than ten minutes,” he noted.

Riley also visited the site of Jackson’s wounding, which was near one of the positions where his regiment fought. By the time of his visit, a crude monument had appeared. There, “in an angle of the two roads” stood “a bowlder about 4 ½ feet high; its other dimensions are about 2 ½ feet either way. It is a common quartz, brought there by a Fredericksburg gentleman.” Riley explained that locals told him it did not mark the exact location where Jackson received his wounds.

 

Mine Run

Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman wrote letters in the spring of 1866 describing some

of the scenes at Mine Run. (Public domain)


Almost a year after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman, Maj. Gen. George Meade’s aide-de-camp, revisited some of the Army of the Potomac’s old stomping grounds. To Lyman, who had been here before, “the country was full of interest to me.” Traveling from Washington D.C. to Culpeper by train and then switching to horseback to cross the Rapidan River at Somerville Ford, Lyman and his party made their way to Verdiersville. Continuing east, and traveling on “the Orange Pike, which ancient thoroughfare is even in worse order than when marched up it at Thanksgiving 1863,” they approached Mine Run.

Lyman and company came up behind the Confederate earthwork line at Mine Run. He wrote, “and a stout line it was with thick embankment and great traverses all reveted with large oak logs. . . .” Working on the logs, splitting them into fence rails, was a local man, a former soldier in James L. Kemper’s brigade, who apparently after a taste of fighting had asked and received a detail as an ambulance driver as his contribution to the Confederacy.

Moving on, Lyman rode over Mine Run and “up on the opposite slope until we came to our line, which amounted to nearly nothing.” Looking back on late November and early December of 1863, Lyman remembered “that awfully cold weather,” and now fully understood “what fit we would have got had we tried to charge [the Confederate defenses]!”

The next familiar site for Lyman was Robinson’s Tavern, where back in 1863, “we halted and built a big fire in the lower room, while the infantry were getting past” and into their positions. Up ahead were more memories as, “All this while, you comprehend, we were nearing the great field of the Wilderness which lies east of the Mine run region,” Lyman explained.

But for that story, and others, we will have to wait until Part II.

 

Sources and Suggested Reading


Isaac Moorhead. The Occasional Writings of Isaac Moorhead: With a Sketch of His Life. (Reprint) Forgotten Books, 2018.

John T. Trowbridge. The Desolate South, 1865-1866: A Picture of the Battlefields and of the Devastated Confederacy. Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1956.

A big special thank you to John Hennessy for kindly sharing a number of early battlefield visitor accounts from his personal files, which greatly enhanced this article.

 

Parting Shot

Early visitors who came to see the Fredericksburg battlefield often commented on the National Cemetery.

The work of interring soldiers there began in 1866.

(Harper's Weekly, October 26, 1867)


"The national cemetery laid out upon the brow of that hill is now a beautiful spot. The face is a succession of green terraces, and where the rebel batteries once stood are the long rows of headstones marking the resting places of our dead, who fell there, and at Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania."

"I found the graves of several members of the 35th, and one of a boyhood friend from Pitcher who fell in the 76th NY at Spotsylvania and whose resting place was before unknown to his friends."

George C. Smithe (formerly of the 35th New York Infantry), in the Cazenovia Republican, January 4, 1883.

 


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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