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.

What role should NPS historians play in the process of social change?

From John Hennessy

Here’s a profound question that anyone in the NPS has wrestled with, or should:

Should the National Park Service–through its programs and interpretation–facilitate public conversations that lead to social change, advocate directly for social change, or merely reflect those changes after they have taken place?

Here’s my take:  

In the end, the NPS always has and always will reflect the society it serves—or at least those  parts of society that have political voice. For long stretches, America behaved as though it had a single, universal history, whose virtues the NPS faithfully emphasized and promoted. As political power has dispersed throughout or society, so have the demand that both academic historians and public historians in the NPS (and elsewhere) recognize aspects of the American story long overlooked, or even purposely forgotten.  This is not political correctness. This is historical justice within a society built on the concept of equality and justice.

At the 2012 program “10,000 Lights to Freedom,” visitors carried and then shed stones symbolic of slavery.

The NPS today manages sites associated with gay rights, civil rights, the internment of Japanese, the Trail of Tears, and dozens of sites associated with what was once heroically labeled “westward expansion”—a period we today see as a complex mix of aspiration, suppression, relocation, and even genocide. The NPS didn’t lead the Civil Rights or Gay Rights movements.  But we reflect that they have happened. So it should be. And so it should be that our understanding of these sites and stories will evolve over time, as society evolves. History is dynamic.  

Maybe the question I originally posed is too simplistic. Try this instead: are public historians in the NPS (a government agency) observers and narrators of change, or do they have a role in the evolution of a dynamic society?   While I rather emphatically do not see my role or that of the NPS as the agent of social change (as someone asked, “whose change do we choose?”), I think public historians have an important role to play in the process of change, and it is this: 

Using the best scholarship available and thoughtful and dynamic presentation, we need to illuminate brightly the path that brought us to where we are, and then hope that our programs prompt listeners and readers use that information (and, perhaps, inspiration) thoughtfully as they engage in the ongoing quest to improve our nation.

Presidents in Fredericksburg: are there more?

From John Hennessy:

President McKinley in Fredericksburg in May 1900. He is in the carriage, his face toward the camera. Click to enlarge.

Years ago I did a program at the Fredericksburg Area Museum called Footfalls of the Presidents, an offshoot of their Footfalls of the Famous exhibit on notable visitors to Fredericksburg.  The program chronicled the visits of sitting, future, and former presidents to our area. Some visits were incredibly brief (the record for shortness stands at three minutes), others mundane, and some were emphatically important. At least two presidential trips to Fredericksburg involved real or threatened violence, including the first physical assault ever made on a sitting president (Andrew Jackson, though the assault took place during his travel to Fredericksburg).  One president (Monroe) lived in town for several years. Some stopped as a matter of convenience on their way through; others came for momentous reasons.

Judge and historian John T. Goolrick greets President Harding at the 1921 Marine Corps exercises on the Wilderness Battlefield. It was Goolrick, incidentally, who in 1924 would urge the removal of the slave block in downtown Fredericksburg, arguing that it had never been used to sell slaves.

By my count, 31 Presidents have visited the Fredericksburg region at some point in their lives–thirteen of them as sitting presidents.

The list as it stands today is below–given in order of their presidency, not necessarily in the order of their visits.

The question is, does anyone know of any more?

Here is the current list:

 

Washington       

Jefferson      

Madison      

Monroe     

Andrew Jackson    

Van Buren   

John Tyler (Tyler and Harrison visited together on their way to DC for the inauguration in 1841)

W.H. Harrison     

Polk

Taylor

Fillmore

Lincoln (May 23, 1862–see here for more)

Jefferson Davis (March 22, 1862, stayed at the Doswell house on Princess Anne Street)

Andrew Johnson (perhaps the shortest visit–he refused to come off the train)

Grant (never here as president, but in Spotsylvania extensively in 1864)    

Chester Arthur (married Ellen Herndon, whose extended family lived in Fredericksburg; she lived here for several years as a child)

Grover Cleveland (dedicated the Mary Washington monument in 1894)

McKinley (here for the meeting of the Society of the Army of the Potomac in 1900)

Teddy Roosevelt (whistle stop)

Taft (whistle stop)

Wilson (in Milford, Caroline County, and almost certainly in Fredericksburg)

Harding (attended military exercises at Ellwood in 1921)

Coolidge (dedicated the new National Military Park in 1928)

F.D. Roosevelt (twice, perhaps three times)

Eisenhower (speech at Mary Washington monument in 1954)

Bush41 (a memorable visit to Goolrick’s)

Clinton (campaign)

Bush43 (South Stafford)

Obama (campaign stop)

Donald Trump (campaign stop)

Biden (wedding at home on Indian Point)

What’s up with Civil War Roundtables?

From John Hennessy:

I have done some speaking on the Civil War Round Table circuit lately. The public reaction to all these things has gotten me thinking, and I offer up a few observations.

A couple years ago I made a short circuit through the Deep South, speaking at two Civil War Round Tables. They treated me exceedingly well, and I enjoyed myself. But (you knew that was coming) the experience made an impression on me for other reasons.  Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, conferences and invitations to speak at Civil War Roundtables were rampant. I think one year, before Return to Bull Run came out, I received something like 180 invitations to speak at various places.  And wherever I or one of the others who commonly rode the cannonball circuit went, the audiences were large and sometimes (though not always) enthusiastic . (At one appearance I made before the Northern New Jersey CWRT, 31 of 33 people in the room fell asleep during my talk, a record I surely can never approach again. I still give thanks to the two priests in the front row who managed to stay conscious throughout.)naturalist-sullivan-leads-natl-capital-parks-tour-1951

My latest foray into the deep south took me to two large Southern cities, both with long and deep traditions at it relates to Civil War Round Tables. At one, we had 31 people in the room when I spoke. At the other, 38.  Sixty-nine people from metropolitain areas with combined populations approaching 3,000,000.  Average age;  probably well over 60.  One kid, and few young people. Last month I spoke at another CWRT in a LARGE city. Twenty-five people.

We have long been aware of the flagging interest in CWRTs, but I confess this was a bit of a splash to me (I was told the audience for my talks were typical). Friends and colleagues confirm similar experiences across the country. While some CWRT’s continue to thrive, Clearly, the Civil War Round Table as we have known it–once the foundation for interest in and advocacy for Civil War history–is stumbling, suffering from lack of interest.  Is it because interest in the Civil War is flagging across the board?  At some sites (including ours hereabouts) attendance has dropped 30-40% since 1995 or so, though in recent years the numbers have stabilized, and indeed the last couple have risen.  Or is the Civil War Round Table format just not the medium people use to engage their interest in the war?  Or, as some have suggested to me, has the move to broaden interpretation of the Civil War–to address more than the traditional military story–turned off the traditionalists, the very people who are often most engaged with CWRTs?

These are questions honestly asked.

 

History, Citizenship, and a Better Nation

From John Hennessy:

Photo courtesy Jackie Suazo

Photo courtesy Jackie Suazo

Last weekend, I had the true honor of giving the keynote address at a naturalization ceremony at Chatham. I had never been to a naturalization ceremony before. Thirty-six people became citizens, and probably 150 came to watch.

I have been involved in thousands of  public programs in my career, but this ranked in the top five, easily.  Witnessing something that truly matters is always a powerful thing, and this mattered–to the people receiving their citizenship, and, truly, to the people looking on as well. The day included none of the strained, polite applause that characterizes graduations or award ceremonies. Instead, there was unadulterated joy–from the participants and those watching.

The invitation to speak prompted some thinking about the nexus between history, citizenship, and our ongoing pursuit of a better nation. Here is what I had to say.

From the first days of our nation, Americans have challenged America to be better.  It’s a noisy process, sometimes raucous, sometimes even ungraceful.  But the result is unmistakable: from its beginning, our nation has traveled an arc of change that has led us away from oppression and toward equality and justice. We have meandered to be sure, and sometimes we have taken steps backward.  But the general arc of change is undeniable:  by the efforts of every generation we have progressed, become a better nation–more just, more tolerant. 

Citizenship is an invitation to join in that process of change—to join the chorus of Americans challenging America to be better.  We challenge ourselves in a million ways, by acts and words.   A gesture on a street corner challenges others to be as kind. Putting our children on the school bus each morning challenges us to be as conscientious. We challenge America to improve by voting or volunteering or raking your neighbor’s leaves, by teaching tolerance and confronting intolerance. 

Joining this process of national improvement is perhaps the greatest of all the privileges of being an American citizen. 

As we sit here today, I ask you to think for a moment about the path to citizenship.  Continue reading

Revelation in details

Our friend Pat Sullivan, who maintains the excellent blog “Spotsylvania Memory,” has done a wonderful post on the unendingly interesting details of Phenie Tapp’s life. Phenie holds a prominent place in the history of the park–in the 1930s she narrated to park historian Ralph Happel her memories of the Battle of the Wilderness (she was four or five at the time). But mystery has surrounded her life, which, as Pat shows, turned out to be a whirlwind of drama, betrayal, and intrigue. As Pat’s work demonstrates, not all our local legends were the stuff of virtue.

Our thanks to Pat for a great piece of work.

Archeological Discoveries on Sophia Street

[From John Hennessy, with great thanks to Kerri Barile of Dovetail Cultural Resources Group for the dig photos.  Bear in mind that in this instance, I am just the reporter. ALL the hard work here was done by the Dovetail archaeologists.]

This week archaeologists are working in advance of the continued development of parkland between Sophia Street and the Rappahannock. As we have written before, Sophia Street below the Chatham Bridge has always been an eclectic, sometimes homely, mix of workplace and homeplace, with much change taking place over the decades. Still, its basic function as Fredericksburg’s all-purpose neighborhood remained intact for more than two centuries, until the demand for parking for downtown visitors prompted the transformation of riverside Sophia.  Steadily, residences have been removed or transformed. Nowadays, hardly anyone lives on this part of Sophia.

Many believed that the constant change along Sophia Street likely destroyed much evidence of the robust community that once thrived along the street. This week’s archaeological work, done by Dovetail Cultural Resources Group, has shown otherwise. The work has uncovered the foundations of four major antebellum buildings, one of them new to us.

This is a famous picture, taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1927. The buildings shown here stood just south of Shiloh Baptist Church (old site).

719 Sophia Street by Johnston

The work this week has revealed the building’s foundations vividly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Behind these buildings at what was 719 Sophia Street stood a large community ice house, built about 1832 and in use until the early 20th century.  The ice house shows up clearly in the great 1863 panorama of Fredericksburg.  It’s the low-roofed building next to the African Baptist Church.

fredericksburg panorama ice houseThe dovetail folks found the west foundation of the building–closest to Sophia Street. The ice house pit (to the left in this image) is filled with beautiful clean soil.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They also uncovered the foundation of a house we had never noticed before, though it’s visible in the great 1863 panorama.  This was a house that stood behind Absalom Rowe’s main residence.  While I did not get a photo of the foundation while it was exposed (the crew was able to take a quick look only before the trench was filled in), it was something of a revelation that the foundation remained.  The adjacent ground was built up considerably when the adjacent Masonic Lodge was built in 1921, and no one had much hope that the antebellum foundations would remain. But they do.  The building in question is the one immediately beyond Ab Rowe’s outhouse in the foreground.

fredericksburg panorama cropped on second Rowe House

The archaeological work on Sophia Street will continue through tomorrow, Saturday.  Stop by if you have the chance.

Here is the panorama from which the above images are taken.

Fredericksburg panorama not cropped

Letting history be complicated

From John Hennessy:

Chancellor house ruins smaller fileLast night I spoke on the experience of Fredericksburg’s civilians at St. George’s Episcopal Church, a historic and beautiful setting largely filled.  I ended  with a bit of a commentary on public history and the war.

At Fredericksburg, sacrifice, sadness, hurt, destruction, and death came in a fashion and in forms not seen before, affecting soldier and civilian alike, challenging the will of all. 

Many of you, perhaps, see the Civil War in a singular way.  A war for Union.  Or a War for Freedom.  A war for independence.  Resistance against aggression.  An effort to end oppression.  An effort to sustain oppression. 

Take your pick.  You are all right. 

Some of you see historical Yankees as vandals…invaders…   

You’d all be right again…. They sometimes were. 

But they were also ultimately agents of freedom….saviors of the Union of the United States. 

Southern soldiers and civilians were noble defenders of homes—courageous, devoted, beset by hardships. 

Many also owned slaves, and they waged war for a government committed to sustaining slavery.  They waged war in an attempt to dismantle the American Union. 

Some of you–with good reason–see the arrival of the Union army opposite Fredericksburg in 1862 as the darkest day in Fredericksburg’s history. 

The slave John Washington saw it as the greatest day of his life. 

Fact is, our history, our story tonight is all these things.  And that’s okay.  We needn’t succumb to our mania for defining people and events in a singular way, as good, bad, evil, or noble.  To do that requires us to assert the primacy of one story, one perspective over another.  To do that requires us to pretend history isn’t complicated. 

History is seen and understood differently by different people.

That fact doesn’t diminish our history—it enriches it.

Instead, I ask you to step back and look at these events, this place, as part of a great tide of history—a tide of many swirls and eddies, crosscurrents, and a good deal of flotsam—broken, discarded, ugly things we might wish were not there. 

But ultimately it is a tide that leads to our very doors. 

It teaches us and inspires us—the price paid, errors made, devotion demonstrated, and triumphs gained on our path to this place at this time as we continue to strive to shape this great nation. 

The Earthquake

From John Hennessy:

It certainly counts as one of the three or four strangest experiences of my life–the 45 seconds of confusion and even fear that accompanied the earthquake the other day. Many have rejoiced in being able to have checked something off their bucket list, and I confess I would be enthused about that too, except for the real damage the quake did. Indeed, the toll seems to be highest on historic buildings. In Culpeper, several buildings in the downtown were condemned. We had no such dramatics in Fredericksburg, but chimneys by the dozen tumbled, and not a few places had cracks and other bothersome problems.

You can find photos of the damage to the Fredericksburg Area Museum, in the old town hall, here.  And here too is video from Fredericksburglive.com of damage to the historic town hall and the building across the street, and the treatment undertaken on both.