This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. Seehere for the introduction to the series.
A sea of houses and alleys covers the bloody path taken by seven Union divisions during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Nevertheless, a silent witness remains before the Sunken Road: the Innis House, one of two wartime properties owned by Martha Stephens is still standing today. It is not an impressive structure at first glance. The building stands at only one-and-a-half stories tall and consists of three rooms. The wall between the former parlor and the entryway, however, proudly bears its scars: more than 58 bullet holes. This bullet-riddled wall presents a clear message of the horrors of the Civil War while also revealing a layered narrative of a home and the civilians and soldiers who intersected around it.
Built between 1856 and 1861, the simple structure sat on the outskirts of the town of Fredericksburg, and its owner was just as much on the edge of society as the home. Martha Stephens was – and is – mysterious. She lived in the long-gone Stephens House next door. Intriguingly she owned the two houses under different names, which popular lore attributes to an attempt to avoid the loss of her entire property in a lawsuit (lawsuits being a relatively frequent occurrence for Stephens). Rumors swirled that she ran an illegal bar or brothel out of her home and that she took a formerly enslaved man as a lover later in life. Mrs. Stephens did not fit into the ideals of traditional Southern womanhood. Nevertheless, perhaps in an effort to warrant inclusion in this group, she claimed that she tended to wounded soldiers during the Battle of Fredericksburg, even though no Confederate soldiers remembered her presence.
The Innis House’s renters wisely vacated the premises before the fighting started. The home has no cellar and, as the structure would soon bear witness, would not offer sufficient protection from the hail of lead that crashed into it. Confederate sharpshooters occupied the upper half-story of the structure during the battle, leaving behind graffiti and drawing ample fire from frustrated Union soldiers. However, the bullet holes in the parlor wall appear at virtually every angle, including from behind, revealing that Confederate soldiers on Marye’s Heights and in the Sunken Road also fired into the home. Friendly fire into the Sunken Road, and thus the Innis House, presented a serious problem for Confederates throughout the battle – despite the assumption that the Confederate forces were perfectly protected behind the stone wall. The home’s walls – inside and out – were pretty well swiss cheese once the fighting stopped.
The Innis House continued in its pre-battle capacity as a private residence into the early 1970s, when the National Park Service acquired the property. After peeling back layers of wallpaper from the parlor wall, park personnel encountered far more bullet holes than they expected. Even today, the number of bullet holes (and one Minie ball that remains in a ceiling joist) elicits amazement and shock from visitors. Although the damage of war is an essential piece of the home’s story, the full picture is far richer, weaving together the lives and experiences of people both on the fringes and in the mainstream of the Civil War Era South. Just as to find more bullet holes, all one must do is peel back the layers to reveal them, the same is true for the stories the house can tell.
O’Reilly, Francis Augustin. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Pfanz, Donald C. War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Richmond, VA: Page One History Publications, 2003.
Nearly every visitor to Gettysburg can easily point to Pickett’s Charge as the bloodiest loss the Confederates suffered on the field during the three days of fighting here. However, few know that another Confederate assault during the battle rivaled the horrendous casualty rates of July 3. On the afternoon of July 1, Brigadier General Alfred Iverson ordered his North Carolina brigade forward against the Federal positions on Oak Ridge, essentially sending them to their slaughter.
I have had the distinct pleasure to work on a wayside detailing this assault over the course of this semester. When I received my project assignment, I knew of Iverson’s assault only in passing. Much of what I did know came in the context of the Federal soldiers who moved into position along Oak Ridge after the assault disintegrated. I quickly realized that what this attack lacked in terms of size (it was staged by only one brigade) it more than made up for regarding the sheer incompetence of its “commander” and the resulting slaughter.
Alfred Iverson had the necessary pre-requisites to be a fine commander. He was born to the well-known lawmaker Alfred Iverson Sr. in 1829 in Georgia and studied at the Tuskegee Military Institute. At the age of 17, he fought in the Mexican-American War and then served in Kansas during the period known as Bleeding Kansas. At the outbreak of the American Civil, Iverson received command of the Twentieth North Carolina Infantry and led this regiment during the Peninsula Campaign with great distinction. He was promoted after Antietam to command of the brigade he led at Gettysburg. The relationship between Iverson and his men, however, was far from harmonious. In the aftermath of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Iverson and his officers quarreled over the former’s attempts to elevate a personal friend to fill his former regimental command. Unsurprisingly, therefore, rumors moved amongst the men that their commander received his command via political influence. This fact only found further evidence based on his conduct during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Iverson’s brigade was part of the division of General Robert E. Rodes, which also included the commands of Brigadier Generals Junius Daniels, George Doles, Stephen Ramseur, and Colonel Edward O’Neal. Iverson’s men led the column on its advance from the west of Gettysburg, arriving at Oak Hill in the early afternoon. A coordinated assault was planned involving the commands of Iverson, O’Neal, and Daniels, with the latter to function in a support role. Much to Iverson’s amazement, O’Neal’s men advanced early due to a breakdown in communications. Henry Baxter’s Federals repulsed this unsupported attack with relative ease before shifting their front to plug the gap between themselves and the Federals to their left. At around 2:30 pm, Iverson’s men formed into line of battle and stepped-off with parade ground precision. The Federals took position behind a stone wall in their front, keeping weapons and flags below the edge of the fence. The Confederates advanced without skirmishers screening their advance–thus, there was little to no warning of the Federals that lay in their front.
When the Tar Heels got within 50 yards, the Federals rose and opened fire, knocking massive holes into the Confederate ranks. The stunned ranks then attempted to return fire before falling back into a gully over which they had previously advanced. Within twenty minutes, white handkerchiefs appeared along the edge of the gully–the Confederates were surrendering. Over 900 of Iverson’s 1, 384 men had been killed, wounded, or captured. Meanwhile, Alfred Iverson remained comfortably in the rear, enraged at the supposed cowardice of his men. In recalling the disastrous assault, Iverson recalled “I saw white handkerchiefs raised, and my line of battle still lying down in position, I characterized the surrender as disgraceful; but when I found afterward that 500 of my men were left lying dead and wounded on a line as straight as a dress parade, I exonerated … the survivors.”
The aftermath was a horrific scene. The dead remained in neat, packed rows. Their boots remained in a straight line, as if they were standing in formation–the blood flowed like streams, staining the ground a crimson hue until the rains following the battle. Iverson’s sheer incompetence and disregard for his men was on full display in his conduct on July 1, 1863. The unwritten code of Southern honor held that the gentleman officer should lead his men by example; the soldiers were to courageously face their enemy and willingly sacrifice their lives for their country. Although many of the men in the assault ultimately surrendered, they fought until the situation became too desperate to warrant further resistance. Their commander, however, comfortably watched the slaughter unfold from the rear, divorced from the reality of the firestorm his men confronted. Unsurprisingly, his men never forgave him for his actions, essentially refusing to acknowledge him as their commander. Iverson was relieved of command on July 19 before being transferred to Georgia, much to the disgust of his former soldiers. They had hoped that he would be removed from any command in the Confederate army.
The casualties sustained by Iverson’s command are matched in scale by only one other brigade to take the field at Gettysburg: Richard Garnett’s Virginians. In considering this idea, it seemed strange to me that the latter is celebrated as a high-point of Southern heroism while the former is largely forgotten. Surely, some of this emerged from the early Lost Cause emphasis on Virginia and her soldiers. Iverson’s men being North Carolinians, their sacrifices were largely glossed over. Of course, the scale of Pickett’s Charge also dwarfs the maneuvers against the Union soldiers on Oak Ridge. Nevertheless, the sheer slaughter seems a more likely candidate. Just as my work last semester on the Virginia Memorial Wayside, historical memory played a key role in my perspective. In some respects, therefore, the surviving Tar Heels got their wish. The double-edged sword of memory largely placed Iverson on the periphery of Civil War history, though it also erased the brutality of the assault his men undertook on July 1. To most of us, therefore, Iverson’s assault truly is a slaughter forgotten.
The Victorian world was one of ceremony and order, even in death. Deathways–the practices of a society regarding death and dying–in 19th century America focused on elaborate rituals that earned the country the grisly distinction of possessing a “culture of death.” The American Civil War presented a four-year window in which many of these traditions were radically challenged in both the North and the South, as loved ones died anonymous deaths far from the embrace of kin. Nevertheless, the warring populations attempted to maintain important traditions even as the horrors of war surrounded them, thus allowing the deathways of the antebellum years to survive even into the early days of the 20th century.
“The Good Death” and the ars moriendi (the art of death) are two common names for what was expected of a “proper” death during the Victorian Era, a concept that drew heavily on themes from Protestant Christianity. Ideally, the dying individual would be surrounded by loved ones in their final moments, speaking inspirational words and repenting of any sins that they might still harbor. When death finally came, it was to be faced fearlessly and calmly, once more inspiring all who were present with the promises of a reunion in heaven. From the point of death, the rituals of mourning began. Clocks were stopped at the time of death, blinds and shutters were drawn, and mirrors were turned to face the wall (or at the very least covered) to prevent the spirit of the departed from becoming trapped or dooming a user of the mirror to certain death. Black mourning dresses became the standard dress for women during this time, while men donned black suits or perhaps mourning armbands.
The women of the family often prepared the body for burial, though undertakers might be summoned by wealthier families. Viewings and vigils often preceded the funeral, with vigils lasting a full twenty-four hours. If a family had them, servants watched over the body during the night. Candles remained lit and flowers were often placed near the body in part to mask decay. The course of the funeral ultimately depended on how well-to-do the deceased individual was, as funerals “held with tasteful decorum were a sign of good breeding.” One example of such a funeral early in the war can be found in the July 22, 1861 issue of the Richmond Dispatch. Lieutenant Humphrey H. Miles had been killed in action four days earlier near Manassas Junction while leading soldiers of the First Virginia Infantry and was laid to rest on Saturday the twentieth in Hollywood Cemetery. The newspaper account describes the funeral procession “evinced the respect with which the deceased was regarded.” As a member of the Masons, he was buried with full Masonic honors, while his wife and children were left to “to mourn the sad fortune of war.”
As Lieutenant Humphrey’s death occurred so early in the war, his family was fortunate enough to receive his corpse for burial, though Northern and Southern families alike faced the terrifying reality that they would not know a loved ones’ final resting place or hear their final words as the war progressed. In some cases, doctors, nurses, chaplains, and other soldiers might record the final words of a dying soldier, sending it on to the family he left behind. These “proxy” relatives became essential middle-men in the wartime disruptions of accepted deathways, providing closure to families. Expected final words or knowledge of how death came became a grim luxury for countless Northerners and Southerners, who often brooded on the same question: did he die a “good” death? Heroic battlefield exploits confirmed for many that a soldier in question had died well, fully embodying the Victorian virtues of romantic masculinity. Nevertheless, loved ones’ thoughts often returned to fears of an anonymous death on the battlefield, where the likelihood of recording a soldier’s final words–nevermind providing a proper burial–was slim.
In the aftermath of battle, the sheer volume of the dead often overwhelmed the armies’ burial parties preparing to march again. At Gettysburg, for instance, some estimates placed the weight of human and animal corpses awaiting burial parties on July 4, 1863 at a staggering six million pounds. Although some “fortunate” cases saw comrades retrieve dead friends or family members for burial at home, far too many soldiers lacked this luxury. Common burials in the form of mass graves marked the battlefields. Even when individual burials were possible, the standard marker of a “decent” burial, the coffin, was a rarity. Shallow graves eroded by wind and rain often yielded their inhabitants to the air. Hogs who searched for the rotting corpses of fallen soldiers became a ghastly and frequent sight in the months after a battle. One Chaplain described the treatment of the dead as a process similar to how farmers “cover potatoes and roots to preserve them from the frost of winter; with this exception, however: the vegetables really get more tender care.” Soldiers and civilians alike were appalled by the conditions their heroes faced in death, ultimately sparking the movement that led to the creation of the first national cemeteries. This sense of unity in honoring the Union dead, however, reached its most powerful expression following Abraham Lincoln’s death on the morning of April 15, 1865. Returning wounded continued to fill Northern cemeteries as ministers across the Union sought to provide context to the shocking loss of the president, declaring him the “last casualty of the Civil War,” even as personal losses continued to mount. The victory of the Union cause coupled with the death of Lincoln created a powerful fusion of civic duty and Protestant Christian deathways.
During the uncertainty of war, countless loved ones at home turned to the traditions of death and mourning for a sense of closure. The comforting familiarity of these rituals fostered “a belief they could move through their despair.” Mourning attire also represented a sense of larger unity, with many Southern women seeing the black folds of mourning dresses representing the grim reality of Southern losses in the conflict. In the North, too, the toll of death was felt in countless households. The death toll of the war numbered greater the entire male populations of Alabama or Georgia or more than twice the entire population of Vermont at the time. The formerly-Protestant traditions of death and dying customs expanded into Catholic and even non-Christian households as loved ones and soldiers searched for closure with the loss of loved ones and brothers in arms. Lincoln’s death became the ultimate, national example of how the nation understood mourning customs, and indeed did much to formally cement these traditions as part of American culture at large for at least half a century after the war.
Bell, Caryn Cossé. “A Black Patriot and a White Priest: André Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans (review),” The Catholic Historical Review 88, no. 3 (2002): 618-620. Accessed January 25, 2018. https://muse.jhu.edu/.
Memory is a peculiar thing. To recall it is to remember, and there are two days dedicated to this activity in mid-November in Gettysburg. On November 18 and 19, reenactors and keynote speakers gather here to honor the sacrifices of millions of soldiers and sailors during the American Civil War. November 19 rings throughout the history of oration as the date of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, itself an exercise in remembrance. The recent Remembrance and Dedication Days have encouraged me to think of my work on the Virginia Monument Wayside Project in light of the celebrations. Just as much as the parades and memorial wreaths, the monument speaks to a complex, ever-evolving memory of one of the defining moments in American history.
On June 8, 1917, a crowd gathered in front of the veiled Virginia Monument. Politicians and ministers gave stirring speeches that celebrated the valor of Virginia’s soldiers, especially Robert E. Lee. The date was a crucial moment in reconciliationist memory of the war. For the majority of the previous fifty years, Union veterans and Northern politicians vehemently opposed nearly every attempt to commemorate the Confederacy at Gettysburg. As the ranks of veterans’ organizations thinned and new generations of Americans prepared to embark on ships bound for France, attitudes began to shift. The monument’s design followed a rocky road as well.
The Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the Confederacy, is notably absent from the monument. Instead, the gallant Virginia trooper along the monument’s base carries the Virginia State Flag. This feature is no accident. The War Department and the Battlefield Commissioners strongly encouraged the use of the State Flag and the committee formed by Virginia’s General Assembly complied. One suggested inscription containing the phrase,“They Fought for the Faith of Their Fathers” was rejected outright by the Commissioners. They wanted a politically neutral message in the monuments on the landscape. Regardless, the monument possessed, and continues to possess, a powerful message of the Southern – specifically Virginian – memory of the war.
The romantic heroism of the soldiers on the Virginia Monument is evident, yet so too is a hint of anxious preparedness for an assault on the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge. Even before the monument’s creation, many individuals in both the North and South embraced the attitude that Pickett’s Division was a force comparable to Napoleon’s Old Guard. Robert E. Lee epitomized the Christian, agrarian values of the Old South. Absent, however, was the specter of slavery. Lee became the silent spokesperson for a lost way of life. This message is not explicitly written on the monument, though the speakers at the unveiling understood this point well. Governor Henry Carter Stuart of Virginia stated that Lee “represents and embodies all that Virginia and her sister Southern States can or need vouchsafe to the country and to the world as the supreme example of their convictions and principles.”
No doubt few visitors take the time to consider seriously the history of the layered memories associated with the Virginia Monument. The same, perhaps, can be said of the activities of Dedication and Remembrance Days. The November 19 festivities date only to 1938: the seventy-fifth anniversary of the National Cemetery’s dedication. Congress formalized the day eight years later. At a time when only a handful of Civil War veterans remained, the occasion presented an opportunity for Lincoln’s words to live on as those who carried their echoes passed away.
The messages of Union and liberty are still as apparent to modern audiences as they were to the crowds of 1863 and 1938, though the context has changed considerably. Initially a holiday that honored only Union veterans, Confederate sacrifices, too, are now part of the festivities. As debates about the display of Confederate imagery continue to swirl, the meaning of both Dedication and Remembrance Day and the Virginia Monument will continue to change, as well. Memory is shaped by these same currents, evolving with each subsequent generation until the amnesia of time obscures fact into fantasy. Memory is complex. For instance, memory makes some of the most gruesome events of history – the Civil War, for example – appear rosy and grand. The grim realities of slavery, and its role in the countless political debates before and during the Civil War, was one of the first casualties of this amnesia, as were the horrors of the battlefield. How else were the worlds of Gone with the Wind or The Blue and the Gray born? On other occasions, however, memory may summon the pains of the past, and encourage us to think critically about wounds that continue to plague us. Indeed, memory is a peculiar thing.
Nicholson, John P. John P. Nicholson to L.L. Lomax, February 7, 1912. Gettysburg National Military Park Archives.
Reardon, Carol. Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Stuart, Henry Carter. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917, By His Excellency Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.” Speech Given at the Dedication of the Virginia Monument, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.
Baltimore was a city of 215,000 inhabitants on the eve of the Civil War: 215,000 souls who would soon be torn by conflicting loyalties. One of these individuals, Cosmo Mackenzie, sat down on the evening of April 12, 1861, to write a letter to his brother, Collin. Despite the rainfall all day in Baltimore, Cosmo proclaimed “the war has opened at last and all is excitement here.” Throughout the city, Baltimoreans found themselves choosing between their identities as citizens of the Union and supporters of a Southern, slave-based society.
Not only Baltimore, but the entirety of Maryland found itself divided between Northern and Southern sympathies. George William Brown, the Mayor of Baltimore at the time stated that “Her [Maryland’s] loyalties were divided between the North and the South, with a decided preponderance on the Southern side.” But in which category did Cosmo belong? The fervently pro-Secessionist letterhead atop the paper seems to indicate the latter. The wording of the letter itself, however, may suggest otherwise. “I send you on this a sample of the ‘Secession Flag’ – you will see it looks a little like our Star Spangled Banner”. An ardent secessionist would not include the possessive “our” in mentioning the American flag. However, when one looks a little further into the letter, we see that Cosmo Mackenzie seemed angered by the fact that the bombardment of Fort Sumter happened at all. “Had Lincoln taken the advice of General Scott all this would have been prevented,” Mackenzie declares in reference to the advice offered that the installation be left to Confederate forces. Cosmo’s misgivings towards Lincoln were far from unique in Maryland: 2,294 out of 92,502 total votes – just shy of 2.5% — were cast for Lincoln in the state. Continue reading “A City Divided: Cosmo Mackenzie and Baltimore on the Eve of Civil War”