A Revealing New Variant of a Familiar Panorama

A slightly different angle reveals some buildings before unseen

The Huntington Library has a fabulous collection of materials related to the Civil War. Among their items, recently posted online, is this image.

You can find a hi-res, zoomable version of the photograph here. I suggest you open that image in a separate window as we take a deep dive into what the image reveals.

Those of you familiar with Mysteries and Conundrums may recognize this as similar to a panorama we took a look at years ago. The Huntington variant, above, is taken from north of the railroad bridge. While there are some unfortunate blurry spots within it, the image does reveal some buildings not otherwise visible, or not seen as clearly as in other of the many panoramas of Fredericksburg. Let’s take a look.

This photo offers us the clearest and closest wartime view of Shiloh Baptist Church (often referred to as the African Baptist Church) on Sophia Street. The congregation still resides on this site.

In this excerpt, Shiloh stands at right, a simple brick building that until 1854 served as the primary Baptist church in town for residents both white and Black. To the left of it, unfortunately blurred out, is the community ice house. This site (and others in this view) was excavated in preparation for the construction of Riverfront Park. Still farther to the left is the rest of the 700 block of Sophia Street. Note that fencing lines the riverfront at the water’s edge, suggesting that many of the residents maintained some livestock or animals on their lots. The jumble of primary residences, outhouses, fences, and outbuildings in the 700 block of Sophia is hard to decipher, but includes buildings that have become familiar by virtue of later photographs. All are now gone–indeed most have been gone for decades. Today, this area is the new Riverfront Park.

709 Sophia Street, visible at far left of the panorama.

709 Sophia Street

And this famous image of 725-727 Sophia, taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1927.

Looking upstream to the right of Shiloh Baptist, this photo reveals a number of buildings not clearly seen in others. Most obviously, at far right in the excerpt below, is the stone warehouse, which still stands at the end of the Chatham bridge.

Just left of the warehouse is a block of shambly buildings that reflect how many residents of Fredericksburg lived. They all look a bit saggy in this view, and it’s no surprise that none of the four buildings shown in the photo here survive.

If you look just above these buildings–look closely–you can see the burned-out shells of several buildings on the 1000 and 1100 block of Caroline Street. About half the buildings on these blocks were destroyed in the bombardment of December 11, 1862. Today, only two antebellum buildings survive on the river side of the 1000 block.

To the left of the low row of buildings next to the warehouse is the 800 block of Sophia. Most of these buildings stood in what is today the parking lot at the foot of George Street. Of these, only the “Silversmith Shop” at 816 Sophia survives; it’s slightly blurred in this photo, but distinguishable because its gable end faces the street. Just to the right of it are three substantial houses, among them Mills house. This was once the home of Retta Mills Merchant, a great-grandmother of present Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw. A veteran of the US army left a memoir of his time in this house in December 1862, and decades afterwards paid Mrs. Merchant a visit–later publishing a photo of the house. The “X” marks where a shell crashed into the house as the soldier slept.

Heading upstream from the stone warehouse…..

Scott’s (or Brown’s) Island looks a good deal more tidy than we know it to be. Indeed, after the war it would serve as a venue for a Confederate veterans reunion in 1884 and as an annual site of a carnival for many years afterward. As late as 1960, city officials pondered using the island for parking (a bad idea never adopted). To the right of that are a few of the abutments to the Chatham Bridge, burned by the Confederates in 1861, wiped out by a flood in 1862, and then burned again by the US army in August of that year, not to be rebuilt till after the war.

Above Scott’s Island loom the four large chimneys of the Union House, the town’s largest boarding house in 1860. It stood in front of what is today the library on Caroline Street–and indeed it served as the precursor to the Lafayette School that would eventually become the library.

At the extreme right of the excerpt is the woolen mill, which stood between Princess Anne and Caroline Streets, immediately adjacent to the Heritage Trail as it goes up the hill. Part of the wheel well of this is still evident.

The Woolen Mill in 1864.

Poke around the image yourself. You may spot some things I missed.

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